The cock crowed again, and to some it might have seemed a tad impatient – as if warning that this was the last time it would sound its summons. A few of the compounds were already stirring to life, getting ready for yet another monotonous day in the village. As kerosene lanterns were lit, the shadows faded and the menacing shapes of the night melted into the walls.

A figure loomed over Amaka as she slept. The woman watched as the girl’s body rose ever so slightly before exhaling. She yanked at her bedsheet and shook Amaka awake. Amaka’s eyes slowly opened. She let out a yawn as she glanced around in confusion.

‘You’re still sleeping?’ her aunt shouted. ‘Come on, get up!’

Amaka’s gaze rested on her aunt as the older woman turned and marched out of the room.

‘Lazy girl.’

Amaka knew that Aunt Onyeka would go back to bed until sunrise. When she finally woke up, she would rouse her spoiled son Chimdi and prepare him for school. After rolling up her mat and bedsheet, Ameka stepped outside the modest bungalow. She swept the compound with a raffia broom while the final remnants of the night gave way to the dawn. Then it was time to fetch water from the well.

As she sullenly trudged along the muddy footpath, her thoughts were interrupted by shouts.

‘Amaka! Amaka!’

She turned and saw her classmate Mercy rushing towards her. Mercy was also carrying a large bucket. Amaka squealed at the sight of her best friend, and they chatted eagerly as they made their way to the well together. Every so often, they would pause their chatter to respectfully greet passing elders from the village. After filling them with water, they heaved the buckets onto their heads and retraced their steps back to their homes.

‘Promotion exams are starting in a few weeks’ time and I don’t even know where to start,’ Mercy sighed. They used to sit next to each other in class, and they would revise together at lunchtime – particularly if it was exam season. ‘I wish you were still in school. You explained things so much better than that Mr Francis.’

‘Mr Francis?’ Amaka snorted, remembering her former maths teacher. Although she missed school, she was glad to be away from him. She remembered the number of times she would be deep in study during his lesson only to gaze up and catch him staring at her.

‘Do you think you’ll ever come back?’ Mercy asked. 

‘You’re talking as if you don’t already know,’ Amaka chuckled bitterly. ‘That witch won’t spend a single kobo on anything besides herself and Chimdi.’

Amaka’s father had died just five months ago, and her education ended as suddenly as the strange illness that had rapidly engulfed his body and killed him. Her paternal uncles, both businessmen in Kaduna, had swept into the village to make arrangements for his burial. Their next concern was their late brother’s property. His farm was sold to the highest bidder and a caretaker was assigned to the house after his valuables had been cleared.

With the title deed to his house and compound safely transferred, Amaka’s uncles left – but not before foisting her onto her reluctant aunt, promising to send money for her education. Weeks passed and Amaka heard nothing from them. The deadline to pay her school fees came and went. Finally, after being kicked out of school, Amaka mustered up the courage to ask her aunt about the promised funds.

‘If they had sent anything, don’t you think I would have told you?’ the woman snapped. That was the last time anything was mentioned about her education. Her chores at home increased. At first she was asked only to fetch water, but quickly her aunt forced her to cook, clean and look after the home when she and her son were away. As the days went on, Amaka’s dream of attending university faded like the print on her aunt’s dresses.

Amaka waved her friend goodbye. Her aunt Onyeka was waiting for her at the entrance to the compound, arms akimbo. ‘You left the yam boiling in that water!’ she shouted. ‘Did I tell you that I wanted to eat pottage? Stupid girl. Are you capable of understanding simple instructions?’

Ignoring Chimdi, who stood grinning behind his mother, Amaka shuffled past her aunt and emptied the bucket into a huge plastic container.  She went to the kitchen and began pounding onions, tomatoes and pepper, mixing it with palm oil and crayfish. The aroma from the sauce rode lightly on the morning air but she ignored the moisture it coaxed from her tongue. As usual, once she finished preparing this meal, she would eat yesterday’s leftovers.

Amaka had an inkling that jealousy motivated Onyeka. She wasn’t far off the mark. Her sister Chinyere, Amaka’s mother, had married first. When Onyeka had first laid eyes on Ikenna, Amaka’s father, her body burned for him. Ignoring her, he took a liking to Chinyere. Onyeka thought her chance had finally arrived when Chinyere died days after giving birth to Amaka, and she had made every effort to worm her way into the widower’s heart. She once snuck into his quarters and boldly offered herself, but to no avail.

Soon after, Onyeka had left to learn dressmaking in the capital. She returned seven years later with a swollen belly and a bogus ring. She claimed to have been happily married in the city before the father of her unborn child passed away, yet most suspected that she had probably had a fling with a man who later abandoned her. Undaunted, Onyeka had stuck to her story of being a widow. She bore her son under her father’s roof and remained there after his death, sewing for a living.

 

***

That afternoon, when Amaka returned from washing clothes at the well, she was surprised to see a silver Mercedes parked outside her aunt’s compound. She had no idea that her aunt knew anyone so wealthy. Fuelled by curiosity, she went through the main room on the pretext of retrieving something. As she greeted the visitor, she noticed the bottles of wine he’d brought along as gifts.

After their evening meal, Onyeka called Amaka to her bedroom. ‘The man you saw today is Mr Ogbonna, a very rich businessman from Lagos,’ she told her.

Amaka smothered a yawn as she listened to her aunt. It was late, and today had been particularly hot, so she was keen to get to sleep early.

‘He saw you at Christmas, but because your father had just died, he decided to wait a few months. He wants to marry you.’

Amaka looked at her aunt with horror. ‘I am not ready for that!’

‘You’re almost seventeen,’ her aunt retorted calmly. ‘You are the same age at which your mother got married.’

‘But... I want to go to school.’

‘Mr Ogbonna wants that too. He says he will pay your way through school until you graduate. In fact, he has enough money to even send you to study abroad.’ There was a tinge of envy in her voice, which was lost on Amaka.

‘No…’ Amaka shook her head vehemently. ‘I can’t. He is too old.’ She remembered Mr Ogbonna’s receding hairline, his bulbous nose and his large belly as he sprawled on her aunt’s old sofa.

‘Shut up!’ her aunt hissed. ‘I didn’t ask for your opinion. You don’t want to marry him? No problem. But whatever you decide, just know that you must leave my house. I don’t have enough money to support three people.’

 

***

As she lay on her mat, bitter tears coursed down Amaka’s cheeks. Was she to be sold to a man old enough to be her father? And a sale it would be, because she’d glimpsed avarice in her aunt’s eyes. Onyeka was shrewd and would collect the bride price.

Amaka wanted to experience what she read about in foreign novels: falling in love with someone young and dashing who would do everything in his power to give her the world… Whatever that meant. She knew her aunt would have hooted with laughter had she dared mention it. Even her father, though he’d encouraged her reading, had called the love stories ‘unrealistic’.

Amaka wiped her face as she lay on her back and stared at the dark ceiling. What choices did she have? She had no money and no real skills. Would life with Mr Ogbonna, her new suitor, be better than her current life with Aunt Onyeka? She thought about her aunt’s promise that she may study abroad in exchange for being Ogbonna’s wife. She tried to imagine herself in a foreign university. Yet she shivered at the thought of that old man’s hands on her. Was she prepared to pay the sacrifice that came with being a wife, in exchange for this?

Something her father used to say came to mind: ‘Life is like the bitter leaf. If you want the good out of it, you must also be prepared for the bad.’ Closing her eyes, she prayed for sleep.

 

***

Amaka’s face split into a huge smile on seeing Mercy. Her braids were pulled up into a bun and her eyes were dark from the eyeliner she had applied. A colorful Ankara dress hugged her petite frame. She looked even prettier than Amaka remembered.

‘You’re on time!’ Amaka clasped her hands gleefully. Maybe it was a New Year’s resolution her friend was keeping, because she didn’t remember her being punctual for anything before.

‘I was too eager,’ she replied as she leaned in for a hug. ‘My God, Amaka. You’re living in paradise!’

 With a resigned sigh, Amaka stepped aside to let Mercy walk through the mansion’s mahogany doors and into the living room. Her friend touched the dark surface of the plasma TV and went through the stack of DVDs. In a flash, she was caressing the glass-topped table at the centre of the room, which was decorated with artificial roses. She looked at Amaka with admiration. ‘Eziokwu, this is the life!’

Amaka couldn’t help but smile at her friend’s excitement. She could imagine how the room looked to untrained eyes. No doubt she had worn a similarly stupefied expression when she first arrived in Enugu almost three years ago. Had it really been that long?

Of course, some of what Mercy admired now was Amaka’s doing. For all his wealth, her husband, Kanayo, had no taste. Since he spent most of his time in Lagos, Amaka occupied herself with redecorating the mansion’s interior.

‘Why didn’t you mention all of this?’ Mercy asked as she peered around the house. ‘We’ve been writing each other letters since you left the village. I had no idea you were living this kind of lifestyle.’

Amaka was silent for a while as she reflected. She could not say that she was happily married, yet she was sure the tradeoff was worth it. Sensing her friend’s reluctance, Mercy quickly changed topic. ‘You never mention school in your letters anymore.’

‘You didn’t ask.’ Amaka’s face brightened up as she thought of her finals. ‘I just finished writing JAMB and I am waiting for my results.’

Mercy’s brow furrowed in confusion. ‘You were easily smarter than me in school, and I’m already going into my second year. I thought sending you to school was the first thing your husband said he would do. What happened?’

‘You know how these things are,’ Amaka said, even though she was positive her friend didn’t. ‘Moving to a new place and adjusting…’

She let her words trail off.

Mercy didn’t pursue it. Instead, she gently touched her best friend’s arm and asked, ‘Are the rumours true?’

Amaka knew where this was headed. ‘Depends on what you heard.’

Mercy paused, weighing her words carefully. ‘I have heard that your husband… married you as a second wife?’

Amaka was surprised by how blasé she had grown about this. It had been three years since Kanayo had married her as a teenager, and she had accepted this as her reality. He wasn’t single as she had initially assumed. The shock of that had long since faded, but not the humiliation. Nor the feeling of being stored in a box. A grand, spacious box, but a box nonetheless.

‘Yes… it’s true. Wife Number One has four girls so far. “Our” husband needs someone to give him a son, so…’ Amaka shrugged her shoulders.

Mercy nodded her head slowly. ‘Men,’ she said finally. ‘And in three years…nothing?’

The pity in her solemn gaze made Amaka want to smack her. Amaka remembered her first night in Enugu. The bride price had been paid and she was officially ‘Mrs Ogbonna’. She was afraid. She struggled to maintain her pleasant demeanor as she sat in the passenger seat of his Mercedes, but her heart sank as she realised he was taking her further and further away from all that was familiar.

By the time they arrived at his sprawling residence, it was dark.

She remembered following him upstairs to the master bedroom, her heart pounding in anticipation of the inevitable.

She watched him slowly unbutton his shirt and unzip his trousers.  She had been unable to unzip her dress, her hands were shaking so badly. He eased her out of it, and as she lay back, she felt his large belly against her slim frame. He wasn’t unkind, but there was little romance. His hands felt alien as they roughly grabbed her breasts. When he eventually forced his way into her, she thought she was being ripped apart. Her cry of pain was drowned out by his groans as he thrust faster and faster. As tears rolled from her eyes, he climaxed and collapsed onto her, exhausted.

She had silently prayed that she would conceive if that meant not having to endure this often.

Mercy gently shook Amaka, snapping her out of her thoughts.

‘Sorry?’ Amaka said.

‘Don’t worry,’ Mercy replied, looking at her friend with concern. ‘Is there something to eat?’

‘Of course!’

Amaka rushed to the kitchen and returned with a bowl of white rice, chicken stew and dodo.

‘I cooked this for you. I knew you would be hungry. You were always gobbling up your food during lunch at school – that I remember!’

Mercy chuckled as she watched her friend set down the food. ‘At least your husband looks after you.’

Amaka smiled brightly. ‘I can’t complain, honestly.’

‘How often does he come down from Lagos?’

‘Every few weeks – when he’s not busy with business or family.’

As Mercy began serving herself, there was a faint knock on the front door. Amaka went to answer it.

Outside stood a tall man wearing a fitted shirt and smart trousers. ‘Amaka,’ he said, his hazel eyes lighting up. His trimmed goatee framed his sculpted face, and as he reached out to her, she shot him a warning look.

‘Dubem.’ Amaka stood back to let him in. He glanced around and saw Mercy. She smiled at him.

‘Dubem…’ Amaka hesitated. ‘This is my friend, Mercy. Mercy, this is one of my in-laws.’

‘Nice to meet you,’ Dubem said, nodding at her friend.

 ‘Nice to meet you too. Come and join us, we’re just having something to eat,’ Mercy said.

‘Um… no, thank you. Maybe later.’ Dubem sought Amaka’s gaze. ‘I was just passing by to… drop something off with Amaka. I errr… have to get to the Federal Secretariat before they close.’

Mercy watched as he passed a small parcel to Amaka before quickly leaving.

‘He’s your in-law?’ Mercy asked, arching her eyebrows.

‘Yes,’ said Amaka, settling herself beside her friend. ‘He is my husband’s second cousin.’

‘And you’re this friendly?’

Amaka shrugged, meeting her friend’s eyes. ‘Well, he was the one who took me in for some maths lessons when I was preparing for my exams. He’s a wizard with numbers, and he works as an accountant.’

‘He’s fine. Does he live in Enugu?’

‘No… he works in Port Harcourt.’

‘Is he single, though? I didn’t see a ring.’

Amaka’s smiled. ‘Not every man wears a ring these days.’ Not her husband, for one. ‘But yes, he is single.’

‘So, what are friends for?’ Mercy nudged her playfully. ‘I don’t mind marrying into your family. Then you and I can be in-laws!’

‘I’m sure you have more than enough guys at school keeping you busy,’ Amaka giggled. ‘Besides, there’s a girl he’s mentioned a few times.’

Mercy’s face fell. ‘Is he serious about her?’

‘Sounds like it.’

Amaka could understand Mercy’s instant infatuation. She remembered when, some months after their marriage, Kanayo had come home with Dubem. She had gone to the market, and when she returned she found them already there. She had barely acknowledged the young man at first. She was so nervous that her husband had arrived home before she had made dinner and was afraid he would get angry.

‘We ate something at one of the restaurants,’ Kanayo said offhandedly with his brusque Igbo accent. Legs stretched in front of him, he was tapping away at his phone as he added, ‘Dubem, this is my wife.’

Noticing the younger man for the first time, she caught the surprise in his eyes as he stared at her. She suddenly wished she wasn’t so sweaty from the afternoon heat and that she had worn something more flattering than her plain skirt and blouse. ‘Welcome,’ she curtsied.

Still feeling flustered, she had escaped into the kitchen where she stared into space for a while, willing her system to return to normal. She began cooking as the two men continued speaking in the living room.

When she had later reminded her husband about his promise to pay for her schooling, he signed her up to start an online diploma. She was able to ease back into studying most of the topics, but she struggled with maths. Uncomfortable at the prospect of his wife being tutored by a stranger, Kanayo suggested that Dubem help her. After all, he was good with numbers. So Amaka and Dubem began their private lessons together.

 

***

Nighttime set in; Mercy kicked off her sandals and stretched her legs on the sofa. She yawned as they watched the large TV in silence, tired after spending the day laughing and catching up. Amaka felt a tinge of sadness, remembering that her friend would leave the following afternoon. ‘I wish you hadn’t booked your bus ticket to go home so soon,’ she sighed.

Mercy smiled as she turned to look at her friend. Her eyes were red, and Amaka could tell that she would soon go to bed. ‘I have my finals soon – I can’t afford to take too much time off from revision. I will come back and stay with you for longer next time.’

Mercy slowly stood and stretched. ‘Follow me,’ Amaka beckoned. ‘We have a really nice guest room upstairs.’

After saying goodnight, Amaka headed to the room she shared with Kanayo and had a quick bath before putting on a satin slip. She lay on her bed and stared at the ceiling, unable to sleep. As silence enveloped the house, Amaka grew anxious.

But after what felt like eternity, she heard the familiar faint knock downstairs.