Ezenwanyi is worried. Her fears return; Igwemma might not get married like the other girls. She feels guilty, she spends many nights feeling so. It may be my fault, she mutters to herself as she lies awake on the bamboo bed, listening to night noises. Igwemma’s snores are part of the night noises. She doesn’t know if she will tell her, she doesn’t want to. But she can’t keep it from her mind; the guilt of deceiving everybody in the village, even her husband Anayo. He had died believing a lie, the lie that the beautiful Igwemma was his daughter.
She had been a young girl then, beautiful too, but not too beautiful, not half as beautiful as Igwemma. But she was tall and shapely; that was the much beauty everyone knew until Igwemma came into their world with those eyelashes, that glowing skin, those cat’s steps, the red lips, long, slender fingers and a voice that had such tune that only a hunter who ventures into the forests could confess to have heard some rare bird sing so.
Ezenwanyi had gone with her mother to the famous Ahiaukwu market. She had carried the basket of smoked fish her mother sold and they had gone to their own shed in the market and displayed their wares upon plantain leaves spread on the hard beaten clay floor of the shed. People came to buy fish, just a few, but some others just came, haggled for prices and then walked away. These ones, Ezenwanyi’s mother would abuse as they casually walked away shamelessly.
One customer walked up to them. He was a man, very handsome and tall. He looked like he was rich, maybe one of those men in the ivory or palm business. He said he wanted to buy fish. He asked for the prices. Ezenwanyi’s mother told him. He buys plenty and pays.
“You have a beautiful daughter” he tells Ezenwanyi’s mother.
She laughs, “She is betrothed”
He smiles and she bids him farewell.
“Why will a young man be buying smoked fish in the market? Doesn’t he have a wife or a mother?” Ezenwanyi asked her mother
“My daughter, I don’t know. Strange things do happen”
“Maybe he is not married and his mother might not be in the house” Ezenwanyi offered
“I don’t know, it is none of my business. He has gone away, let us hope to sell as much so we can buy enough foodstuffs for the week”
But Ezenwanyi could still see the man. He hadn’t gone. He ass seated on a bench in the stall where a woman sold ‘odudu’ and ‘agidi’. He had a leaf in his hand, on it is a generous serving of the food. He was eating, but very slowly. He was looking at her. Very closely. She looked away. She looked to his direction again. He was still looking at her. Very closely. She wass shy, but she liked it that he was looking at her. She liked his looks, his face, the way his arms stood out, hanging in the air at his sides. He looked like a warrior, but a gentle one. An important one and a rich one too. He was nothing like Anayo.
She doesn’t like Anayo. He is not handsome. He is shy, shorter and stutters badly whenever they met briefly on the way to the stream. Many times she wished she were as lucky as Nnenna who was betrothed to the handsome Amanze or Nwanyieke or even Adanna. They had better men they boasted of and really meant it, but not her. She would boast of Anayo to her friends when they gathered to gossip or when they went in a group to get firewood for their mothers. She would tell stories of all the beautiful things he said to her when they met, but in her heart she knew she was only making them up so she would feel as lucky as her friends felt.
“Nne,’ her mother called her. She snapped off her reverie
“We have sold some reasonable amount. Take this money, go into the market and get the foodstuffs. You know what and what we need”
“Shouldn’t we have waited for some time longer when we have out all the fish?” she ased, pretending not to appear too eager to leave. Her mother hadn’t seen the strange customer eyeing her from the distance, but she didn’t want her become suspicious of anything all the same.
“By then other customers would have selected the choicest items”
“Okay” she took the money from her mother
“You will take it home. I will sell some more and then join you in the house hopefully before the sun stands over that ‘ukwa’ tree.”
“Don’t let them cheat you o, especially that tricky woman who sells ‘ogbono’”
“No they won’t. I will haggle well”
She took one of the baskets, the one her mother had brought with her to the market.
“I wish she isn’t the only one who sells ‘ogbono’ at this time when it is out of season” she heard her mother say as she walks away.
She walked towards the stalls where women sold foodstuffs. She looked back now and then. The strange customer was nowhere to be seen. She felt embarrassed at the disappointment in not seeing the man following after her.
He is just a stranger, she consoles herself. But it was just a condolence, it sounded hollow. She knew she was her own worst adviser, moreso in this instance. She rounded the corner where girls and women plaited their hair. She would have stopped to see what beautiful hair patterns they were making, but she didn’t want to get her mother angry in idling away time. She continued up the line of stalls, she wanted to first buy ‘ukpor’. She looked behind and felt the disappointment again; the strange customer wasn’t anywhere to be found.
She had forgotten all about him by the time she got to the stall where the slender woman sold ‘ogbono’. She had reserved her energy for the haggling she was prepared for, and such a tactical fight over a compromise it had been with the both of them reluctant to shift grounds. But in the end, it had been the woman giving up grudgingly and Ezenwanyi had to be alert that the woman didn’t perform a sleight of the hand as she measured her purchase into a fold of plantain leaves singed over fire to make it leathery.
The sun was almost high in the sky when she bought everything she needed. Her mother had earlier told her to take the purchased to the house, else she would have gone stall. She walked through the throng of people in the busy market, dodging and ducking careless limbs and unwatchful bodies, to protect the basket of foodstuffs on her head.
She thought of taking the shortcut through the communal farmlands, but then she reasoned it was at times like this when the sun shone brightly that bushes and grasses crawled with snakes and other reptiles come out to bask in the warm, radiant glory. But then she dreaded the scorch of the sun upon her neck and arms if she took the major road devoid of shades.
It was the path through the farmlands she took, but she was watchful for anything that rustled the undergrowth and she watched the ground before her. The leaves rustled. It was a slight breeze, sweeping through the farmlands, making cassava leaves wave farewell and rustling the vegetation on big trees. It was a cool breeze, it blew on her and soothed the heat of the sun. Just a few distance, and she would emerge on the village square and then take the footpath beside the giant ‘ikoro’ to their house.
She heard footsteps or was it another wind? She turned and saw him. she had forgotten all about him, but now she saw him, walking a few meters behind her. Her heart leapt. It was fear she felt at first, she made to hurried her steps to create some distance more, and he increased his strides. She felt ashamed to break into a run and so she hurried on, knowing that he was quickly gaining grounds on her as she furtively tried to increase the distance. The fear had subsided, she was starting to feel something like the beginning of a thrill. She was enjoying the chase. It made her feel precious. Wanted. Like a woman. A beautiful woman.
He came up behind her and gripped her arm gently. Very gently. It was the arm that held the basket secured on her head. She hadn’t felt such a touch before. Those palms were too soft for a man that looked so much like a man. She wished it were those arms that touched such places Anayo had touched on one moonlit night a few market weeks ago, for then she would have prayed the gods to halt the moon forever on its hurried journey across the starry skies.
“You never struck me as one who would run away at the approach of your customer” he said.
Oh, what voice, she said in her head. Hard, very masculine, soothed like shea butter on a spent body besides a log fire and yet like gun powder, it blew a woman’s heart to pieces and made her limbs quiver.
“I was not running” she defended, trying a lot to put up a confident demeanour. She turned around, facing him. Even though she was regarded to be tall, the man was all shoulders above her. She had never seen a man as tall in all her life. He truly wasn’t from these parts, for such attributes wouldn’t have gone unnoticed in the village or its environs. He must be one of those traders in precious commodities.
“You are wondering who I am?” she stated. He still held her hand, but it was the wrist this time. She politely shook free, because, his palm against her skin wasn’t making her think right and as much as she was suspicious of strangers, she surprisingly didn’t want to offend this particular one.
“My name is Obumkere. I am a traveler, I wrestle to pay for food along the way. I came to your market to buy python skin, it is very precious where I am headed to”
“Do you cook on your journey?”
The man Obumkere laughed. A sweet laughter it was and it reverberated through Ezenwanyi’s eardrums long after he had stopped laughing. It sounded like the laughter of a romantic god.
“Is it because of the fish I bought in the market?”
“I thought you were going home to make soup”
“I bought those fish just to talk to you”
Ezenwanyi hadn’t been expecting such blunt approach and now it hit her squarely, she couldn’t hide her shyness anymore. She turned away to hide the big smile mutinously spreading across her face. She picked the leaves of a weed growing close to the path.
“I followed you all through the market. You move real quickly in a crowd and you are a thrifty buyer.”
A small laughed escaped her throat. It was only a small laugh; she held the rest down her throat.
“Your mother said you are betrothed”
She nodded in the affirmative. He saw the nod even though her face was turned away.
“He must truly be a lucky man”
“Are you betrothed too” she found herself asking.
“Who will betroth a wanderer?” he asked jokingly
“You have a home?” she asked, raising her face a fraction to look him in the face.
“Yes, but I’m very far away from it”
The silence was tensed. She thought she could hear her heart beat against the rustle of leaves in the still, hot air. The sun was already high above the sky, but her mother was the last thing on Ezenwanyi’s mind.
“You are going home I guess”
“You mind if I walk some distance with you?”
She bent her head to hide her face again. She was too shy to tell him that at that moment, she would follow him across rivers and hills if only he asked her to. He took her silence for consent. It was as though he had read her mind. He held her hand as they walked side-by-side, but they did not go to her house, at least not then.
A smaller footpath veered off the main one to the right. It wound and curled like a carelessly dumped bundle of twines and then cut through a grove of bamboo growing in a close cluster. Grey bamboo leaves formed a deep soft bed on the floor around.
It was to this grove that Ezenwanyi followed the stranger. He lay atop her on the bed of leaves that rustled with their writhing bodies as he thrust into her. She bit her lips to stop from screaming the obscenities that came to her head with the pleasure this stranger was giving her. Anayo had deflowered her, but it had been too hurried that she had wept for days, mourning the loss of her virginity. With this stranger, she knew she would fell no remorse, what she was sure to feel was an end to whatever she had remaining for Anayo.
Many days came and she expected to set eyes on the stranger. He never came. He had disappeared just as he had appeared. Mysteriously. He looked out for him every time and everywhere. When she went to the market, she would wish to see him and then she would take the footpath through the farmlands, hoping to that he would stalk her as he had done. She desperately wanted to see him, so they could visit the grove again, so she could confess to him that she cared nothing for her betroth anymore. She wanted to tell him that she was pregnant for him and that she would die if he didn’t make her his wife. She would be a wife to a wanderer, a handsome wanderer. She wished to go to the ends of the earth with him, sleep with him on the road, cheer him on as he wrestled down others for their food and help him haggle for prices for python skin. She would do the same for lion’s skin, alligator’s, leopard’s, deer’s, anything. All she needed was to have him for herself at any price. Just any. None was too steep to pay.
He didn’t come.
And so she had to do something before the pregnancy showed.
To only one.
And they did something.
She visited Anayo’s hut one night. she hated that he quaked with excited fear at seeing her courageously sneak into his hut.
“Did anybody see you come in?” he asked, his eyes popping with fear.
“Are you sure my father didn’t see you?”
“I was careful”
“It is too risky. My father will skin me alive if he gets to know I brought a …”
“Shh.” She hushed him, “You might just let them know, the way you panic”
He calmed down a bit. He wanted to suggest sneaking her back away from his hut, but she stripped naked in the hut and he froze. He froze, except for the small lump in his neck which bopped up and down as though he was perpetually swallowing a lump of akpu.
It was she who guided him onto his back on the bed because he was too shocked. He hadn’t had the privilege of a long night between his erect penis and a naked maiden in the safety of a lone hut. But when she had him on the bed, he seemed to snap to life. He pounded and thrust and shoved, giving off a suppressed moan until the wee hours of the moaning when only hunters ventured out on their way to check on their traps. He lay spent on the bamboo bed and so didn’t know when Ezenwanyi snuck out, looking left and right before scrambling across the compound to the main entrance. Nobody had seen her leave the compound except for a silent owl high up in a pear tree from across the entrance to the compound.
Two market weeks passed afterwards.
Anayo, stricken with remorse, confessed to his parents that his betroth, Ezenwanyi was pregnant with child.
The marriage rites were performed hurriedly.
Anayo’s father gave him his own share of the family farmlands, a hundred and twenty yam seedlings, two male goats and four females, and two ewes. One of the sheep nursed two lambs and they were young rams.
Members of his age-grade built him two mud huts; his obi, the big hut you will see when you entered the fairly large compound and one for his new wife to sleep. some of them made the thatch from palm fronds for the roof, others got mud from a quarry. They talked and jested as they worked. They build a shed for kitchen, another for his livestock and they build a fence with around the huts with freshly cut palm fronds, those heavy parts that have thorns about their edges. They held them place with twines. It had taken them five days to complete the task. All those five days, Aanayo’s mother cooked gave them breakfast and lunch and they thanked her while they ate happily. Anayo’s father brought a keg of fresh wine every afternoon and some of the young men worked happily as their heads swooned lightly. That was their payment for their hard work and they were glad that they had done it. it surely would get to everybody to host his age grade when the time came for them to own their own houses.
Anayo was now a married man. He never was to learn of the treachery against him. Only two people laughed at his back while he boasted that he had sired the most beautiful creature on earth. Ezenwanyi and her mother scorned the naïve fellow in their hearts until he died mysteriously in his sleep.
No child has come after Igwemma. No pregnancies even. It looks as though Igwemma has come through and thrown away the keys to her womb into the Imo River.