On the driest days of Harmattan, the sky rains sand. On such days, the wives collectively battle against the storm, stuffing rags into cracks of doorways and leaking thatched roofs. When it is time to draw well water, from a distance the wives appear like specters, their lips, noses, and eyes tightly bound. Their voices ululate through the chopped current, unobscured by the binding; the wives sing, “I have not seen sky in seven days, oh.”
The wives are returning, water jars roughly balanced on their heads, when they see it crouched as if nursing from its own breast. Dust has left a veneer finish over the curled body. Knots along the spine break through the back of its cloth wrapper like studs on a belt. It stinks of death and so the wives argue over how to dispose of it before the stink of misfortune leaves the body and rises up the path to their homes, into their well, into the ground that grows their food, and into their open wombs.
When a fine swirl of dust gasps into the air, they realize that it is alive. They wash away the dust, unstop the sand from the ears and nose, and turn it to its side allowing a deluge of sludge to slide from lips into a pan before they realize that the body belongs to a woman. When they ask her name, she says she is Nwunye. The Wife.
As the husbands are away fighting War, no man can claim her. The wives do not want her blood on their hands, so they put their heads together and decide to keep her until she can be claimed. Each morning, they toss a coin to determine who will do Nwunye’s cooking, who will do Nwunye’s bathing, ahead of her own chores. The victim, usually one of the junior wives, assaults Nwunye with burnt fish, neglecting to remove the bones from its tender flesh, and they scald her in boiling water unmitigated by the cool well water.
In this way, the wives regard Nwunye until the day one of the wives pulls back the matted snakes of dreaded hair only to reveal two shiny, studded diamond earrings. The largest wife accuses Nwunye of theft, opening her hand and striking Nwunye across the fleshiest part of her face. The striking hand aches so terribly that this wife begs the others not to do as she has done. From then on, each wife prepares her greatest soup and oils Nwunye’s callused skin with perfumed lotions. Swollen as if with child, Nwunye grows. She becomes stronger, yet needier. Even the fiercest Harmattan wind cannot sate her hunger, and so the wives in turn wrap themselves in cloth and disappear into sepia sand and fog in search of snails, ube, corn, and bitter leaf.
One night, the winds are fiercest, hurling clods of broken sod, tearing holes into the compound walls, and disappearing the flat blue skyline into dusk. Still, Nwunye is impatient for her bath and so the largest wife, whose guilt is remembered from the ache in her palm, descends into the night. When this wife does not return, Nwunye stands over pots and pans in the kitchen until she has brewed a rich stew that when cooled, becomes a thick paste, which she forms into squares. And when Nwunye sleeps, hungry for its scent, the wives pilfer the paste, slathering it on their faces, their arms, their legs. Furrows, lines, and pockmarks in their scarred faces melt away and they are alarmed by their sudden, strange beauty.
Released from the earth’s depth like the yolk of an egg, the sun breaks along the horizon. Winds die and sweat mists earthenware jars and tin pots. The compound walls have crumpled, the crops are scattered about the fields. With the morning, Nwunye rises and walks away never to return. Men suddenly old return, their maimed limbs sinewy and dry like tree limbs, their skin sun-blackened and ashened with salty sweat. They return to a compound full of girls, young girls with rare opal eyes. The husbands and wives eye one another and the men wonder about the peculiarity of so many small girls with no mother in sight. The girls marvel at the sight of the fallapart men who have lost their way and the girls determine that they should leave the men to their own stink. In an act of grace, however, they offer the men water from their well. The men oblige and then reorient themselves to a path that forever leads them back to this compound and these curious motherless girls.