Today is the day the new wife arrives. I had long known they were going to take a second to me. Old and barren as I am, it was only a matter of time. As I circle the square hole that looks down into the main courtyard, I note their shoes at the doorway to the main room: Shigoram’s heavy army-issue boots, black and shiny in the yellow noon sun. Amah’s large misshapen slippers, stretched out by her girth, and a new pair, small and delicate, stitched with pink flowers and almost new. I reach the heavy front door of polished cedar and begin to descend the stone steps that wind through the dark tunnel to the main house.
At the doorway of the main room, I slip off my battered grey slippers and enter. It is dark and cool inside, a welcome relief from the heat. I feel the sweat between my breasts and thighs begin to dry. The room is only large enough for six or seven, though we rarely have so many visitors at a time. The stone floor is strewn with several colourful rugs, but the carpet that dominates the raised dais at the end of the room was part of my dowry. It is a magnificent thing of red wool covered with intricate Hespian designs picked in gold thread. The leather cushions were also mine and still have the crest of my father’s house stitched upon them. They were a rare gift Amah had once admitted to me, in the days when she had more than curses and orders for me. The walls are decorated with porcelain plates, glazed vases of blue and red, and rich tapestries. Someone has lit sticks of incense and the sweet, spicy smell of myrrh envelopes the space.
Amah and Shigoram are facing the doorway. Amah has leaned her bulk into the pile of cushions, her legs stretched out before her. She has taken off her veil and her grey hair has been scraped back into a bun. Her face is turned towards me but for once her heavy-lidded eyes, which conceal a sharp gaze, are not trained on me. As usual, Shigoram sits straight-backed and uncomfortable, his legs tucked beneath him as if this is not his house. He too has eyes only for the woman in front of him.
As I hang my headscarf and veil on the hook by the entrance, I note the new bride. She is performing a tea ceremony for them, pouring the tea from one pot to another to cool it. I cannot see her face, but I note her back and shoulders. Her dark hair hangs down to her waist in a thousand intricate braids each topped by a tiny coloured glass bead. Her shoulders are as pale as milk and her hips flare wide from a slim waist – what my mother used to call a water jug figure, designed to bear. Her feet, which peek out from under her ample bottom are small and pink.
She finishes the ceremony just as I come to kneel beside her. I help her pass out the tiny cups of fragrant mint tea. Amah takes the cup I offer with a small, triumphant sneer. Perhaps she expects me to be upset that she has married her son a new wife? Ten years in her house and she still does not know me.
“Galim Che,” Amah calls to me. She has not used my blood name in a long time. “Greet our new wife. This is Gomoa; I trust you will treat her as your sister and daughter.”
I turn to the girl, expecting the look of controlled fear one usually sees in young brides. Her face is broad and flat with high cheekbones and large almond-shaped eyes; her small bow lips are curved into a broad grin. She bows formally, head touching the tips of her fingers. I return the bow.
I had vowed not to hate her, this child who had come to take my place, but I did not realise that I would come to love her as I did.
That night, I wake with a start. I sit up on the straw-stuffed pallet and look around. The room is pitch black, still and cold. Faint moonlight peeps in from under the door. Even through the thick stone walls I can hear Amah snoring softly in the room next to mine. I am the only one in the room, yet I could have sworn I had felt someone tug at my leg. Shivering, I ball myself up into a foetal position and burrow deeper under my wool quilt.
I fall immediately into the dream, as if it has been waiting for me.
I am lying on my back, naked. The lamp at the foot of the bed casts a soft golden glow and I can feel its faint warmth at the soles of my feet. Shigoram kneels above me, hands on either side of my head, naked as well. His long wavy hair is unbound and falls about his shoulders. His face has the same look I remember from our wedding night: Hungry and apprehensive. I reach up and stroke his beard, something I have never done in life, feeling the coarse hair underneath my hands. He closes his eyes as if savouring my touch. I run my hands along his body, skimming the soft down on his chest and stomach until I grasp his penis. He dips his head down to kiss my neck and a jolt runs through me. His kisses fall soft across my throat and down, down until he reaches my breasts. He takes my right nipple in his mouth, sucking and teasing with his wet tongue until the pleasure is too much to bear. As I reach down to bury my hands in his hair, I take a moment to note that this body is not my own. My own breasts have never been so small, so pert. But then he is sliding himself into me and I part, wet and yielding to allow him entrance. He is filling me, his breath a warm moan against my ear. Together, we move in rhythm; I thrusting up to meet him, him plunging down into me…
I awake trembling with pleasure, my sex slick. It has been many years since Shigoram called me to his bed. I had forgotten what desire felt like and in forgetting I was able to endure. I fear this spark now ignited will grow to a conflagration. A true wife would turn away; gird herself for the sake of the family. But I am weak and it has been so long… Blinking back tears of shame, I shove my hand down between my legs and, knowing the dream still waits for me, I will myself to fall asleep again.
The next day I am awake before dawn, as is my custom. I begin my chores by sweeping the fallen leaves under the ancient olive trees at each corner the round courtyard with a broom of soft straw bound to a short handle. The sound echoes against the rock walls and I imagine that it floats up out of the depression and into the desert above. The house was once home to ten families, generations of Shigoram’s people who occupied each of the rooms. Now it is only us. Though it allows us many rooms for storage and gives each of us our own bedroom, I often find it lonely.
As I sweep past the door to Shigoram’s room, I pause to listen. They already consummated the marriage at the wedding ceremony at her father’s home – which I was not invited to – but I am sure he must have called his new bride to him last night. Imagining them together, I am taken back to my dream and my heart begins to race, a rhythmic pounding matched in my temples and between my legs.
The door to the room opens suddenly and I almost stumble into Shigoram’s arms. He closes the door swiftly, but not before I catch a glimpse of her, naked and sated, lying on her stomach with one leg dangling off the bed. He is wearing his faded purple morning robe cinched at the waist with a fraying belt. His dark hooded eyes are red and puffy from fatigue but he has taken the time to brush his dark hair back and braid it into its long queue.
“Good morning, husband,” I greet him. I bow quickly to hide my embarrassment. He nods at me, but he does not answer. Shigoram has never been a man of many words at the best of times but since his deployment to the front lines, he has had even less to say. He hurries to the toilet and bath rooms on the other side of the courtyard. I watch his long legs flash from beneath the robe as he moves, all golden skin and taut muscle. My sex clenches. I redouble my sweeping.
By the time I return with the extra firewood, the new bride, Gomoa, is with Amah in the kitchen. I can hear Amah’s voice as I drop the bundle of wood by the kitchen door. She is showing Gomoa how to prepare Shigoram’s breakfast the way he likes it. He has only been given leave from the army for a moon – and only so long because he was getting married. He will be returning to the battlefield this afternoon and Amah is determined that her only son be well-fed before then. It does not matter that I know all his tastes and preferences, my time has passed and it is the new bride’s turn to care for him.
I am fetching water from the well in the centre of the courtyard when the new bride passes by with a covered tray carrying Shigoram’s breakfast. Dressed in a loose blouse of blue and white stripes with a full matching skirt knotted under her breasts, her hair is uncovered and she is lovely in the dappled morning light. She greets me cheerfully and I see that she is not much older than I was when I married – fourteen at the most. Slipping her feet out of her tiny slippers, she pushes in the door with one hand and disappears into Shigoram’s room.
She does not emerge until it is time for Shigoram to leave us once again.
Standing at the door to the main entrance we bid him goodbye. Amah is tearful as she performs the prayers for his safe journey and return. This time, it is the new bride, Gomoa, who holds the small gold tray with the sacred flame burning in its tiny brass brazier. As she paints his forehead with ash and red ochre, chanting softly, my mind goes to the last night Shigoram and I shared together.
I had come to him unbidden that night. It was his first deployment and he had been gone nearly a year; I had no patience to wait for his summons. I had spent the day before preparing myself – I had gone all the way to my cousin in Aqor town to have my body plucked of all hair and my tresses coiffed high and held in place with ivory combs and pins. I had spent the last of my dowry gold on costly bath oils and perfumes. That night, when the last of the candles had been blown out, I crept into his room. Naked, I slid into his bed. I should have known the night was not with me when he first recoiled at my touch. But I was blind with desire and I pressed on. He lay on his back staring up at the blank stone ceiling, silently enduring my caresses. But no matter what I did, where I kissed, what I stroked or sucked or nuzzled, he did not stir. Finally, in a quiet voice he had asked me to leave. Burning with shame, I slipped on my robe and crept out of the room.
Only then did I allow myself to cry.
The mumbling has stopped and I jolt out of my reverie in time to see the new bride, Gomoa, bowing to Shigoram. I catch the ghost of a smile on his face as he inclines his head in return. He catches sight of me as he turns away and his thick black brows knot in confusion. He starts towards me, then thinks better of it. In the end, he makes do with a nod. Then he turns and walks off towards the road where a neighbour waits in an ox-drawn cart to take him to the city.
Amah begins to wail as soon as he is out of sight and it is Gomoa who comforts her. She looks at me over the old woman’s head and gives me a wry smile. I do my best to return it. I imagine Shigoram kissing those full rosebud lips and I wonder what she tastes like.
I have to find a way to get her alone, but it is impossible. After Shigoram leaves, Gomoa becomes Amah’s pet – as I had been when I first came to the house. She insists on taking the girl everywhere with her. Gomoa accompanies her to the market where she is widely introduced; she acts as Amah’s escort to weddings and is shown off at visits with neighbours. During the day, Amah continues to give her cooking lessons and in the evenings she has Gomoa massage her feet and trim her toenails. I remember how much I had hated this task, but the new bride does it without complaint, joking as she rubs fragrant eucalyptus oil between Amah’s gnarled toes.
In the end, it is she who comes to me.
They had gone out to visit relatives and I had found myself between chores. I pulled out one of my books – I had brought a whole library with me when I married – and settled beneath one of the olive trees to read. I was so engrossed that I did not hear them return.
“Woman!” Amah’s voice was like a whip. “I see you have nothing better to do than idle away with dry paper. If you wish to keep occupied, then give me a grandchild. Otherwise, find something more useful to do with those empty hands of yours.”
But her words lack the sting they once had. She has a new bride now, and the hope of grandchildren blooms in her once more.
I slip the book under my cushion and I rise to relieve her of the goods she has brought from the market. I catch Gomoa’s eye, still fixed on the book’s hiding place.
“Do you know how to read?” I ask her.
“A little,” she says shyly.
“Would you like to learn more? I can teach you.”
“Really?” Gomoa asks breathlessly. Her face lights up with joy.
“Come to my room this night, after Amah sleeps,” I tell her.
She is so happy that she insists on carrying my bags as well as her own. For the rest of the day her steps are lighter and that evening, as she massages Amah’s feet, her laughter is sweet.
She comes to my room after dark, knocking softly on my door. She is dressed like me, in a long tunic with bell sleeves and a low scoop neck. To keep out the cold, she is wrapped in an old quilt – the one thing she could afford to bring from her father’s house. I let her in and allow her to take in my room.
My father had made sure I came to my husband’s house with everything I would ever need for my comfort. Once, thick rugs of the finest make piled my floor from one end of the room to another, now I have a single strip of knitted wool carpet that runs from the foot of my dais to the door. My walls, which were once lined with colourful brocades and silks, boast colourful straw mats instead. Gone also are the brass and copper trays I had once hung above the cloths. And the two cedar boxes against either wall, which once contained the best of my elaborate robes and gold jewellery, are empty. They were sold item by item during those dark times when Shigoram’s army stipend did not arrive in time.
All I have left are my books. It is difficult to build shelves on curved walls, but I managed it. The whole back wall above the raised dais of my bed is filled with books – volumes on history, medicine, folklore and religion. I even have a number of long poems like the Song of Muster and a romance about the doomed lovers Aki and Melota.
I choose the romance for its easy language. It is also beautifully illustrated, which I know she will appreciate. She sits on the edge of the dais, the book in her hands. Though the lantern hangs just above us, she has to bring the volume up to her face to read. I sit behind her, towering over her small frame, to read over her shoulder. We go through her letters. Someone had taught her the basics, but she has had little practice. So I have her read aloud, sounding out the words as she goes along.
“‘Is it in the-thy poh-wer to make me ree-al?’” She reads slowly. Her voice is sweet and musical.
Straddled behind her, I slip a hand down the front of her tunic. Her voice falters.
“Keep reading,” I whisper gently. She starts up again, her voice quavering with uncertainty. I correct her when she stumbles over the longer words.
Her breasts are just as I dreamed them: small and smooth and pert with large rough nipples. I run a thumb across them and feel them harden against my touch. I press my face into her hair, breathing in the clean, fresh smell of her. I cup her left breast and heft it, lightly twirling a thumb and forefinger over the nipple.
She gasps and almost drops the book.
“Continue,” I whisper. She tries to keep reading, but her voice is a low moan as I run my lips over the delicate skin of her neck sucking in small nips. She leans into me and I take the opportunity to hike up her tunic, pulling it up to her thighs, and slip a hand in between her legs.
I find her warm and moist. I part the folds of her and slide a finger against the hard nub there. She shudders and lets out a soft choking sound. Then, I am plunging my fingers into the soft flesh – deeper and deeper – my hand now slick with her wetness. Her breaths grow shallow, become hard pants, and she is sucking at the air as if she cannot draw in enough. Until finally, I feel her quiver, her sex twitching between my fingers, and she lets out a final breath like a long low moan.
I take my hand away and I allow her to stand. She flings the book aside and gathers up her quilt. She is gone almost before I realise it.
Alone, I examine my hand. It is still wet. I put it into my mouth and suck. She tastes like salt, like tears.
Gomoa avoids me after that. Her greetings are perfunctory and there are no more secret smiles between us. Amah notes the change but she believes there is another cause. Her hopes are confirmed when, at month’s end, there is no sign of Gomoa’s moon blood. But it is still another month before Amah pulls me aside.
She is reasonable, almost kind, when she asks me to leave the house. She explains that her sister will be coming to help with the chores while Gomoa’s belly grows and there will be nowhere for me stay. She shows me the letter Shigoram sent after she had sent word to him of Gomoa’s baby. In it, he grants me an honourable divorce; it leaves me without shame and free to marry again – if I can manage it. At four and twenty years old, I am far past my prime.
The day I leave, there is no sign of Gomoa. My cousins from Aqor come to help me move my belongings; I will be living with them until I can either find a trade or a husband. My own possessions fit in a single chest, the rest are books.
Still, I make sure to leave Gomoa the romance. I know she will appreciate it.
I am a writer, editor, journalist and dog person living in Abuja, Nigeria. I am a graduate of the 2014 Clarion West Writers Workshop which I attended as the recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Scholarship. My writing has appeared in several places, including the Kalahari Review, Saraba Magazine, Sentinel Nigeria Magazine, Jungle Jim Magazine and the anthologies AfroSF: African Science Fiction by African Writers and Mothership: Tales of Afrofuturism and Beyond. I run a consultancy providing writing, research and editing services to individuals and organisations. For more of my work, check out my now-defunct blog: Chinelo.onwualu.blogspot.com or follow me on twitter via @chineloonwualu.
This story came out of a dream I had – as many of my stories do. I sought to explore the question of what monsters are made of. Do they come out of desires which are not allowed to be acknowledged or fulfilled? Or are we born with them? I believe that we all have monsters inside us – we see them in the dark spaces between dream and sleep – but only when we decide to turn from the light do we make them real.
“Green Mile Tunnel”, photographed in Ukraine’s “Tunnel of Love” in Rivne, Ukraine by serhei, is used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.