Torera stepped out of the lace dress Jaiye bought for her last birthday. She dropped it on the pile of dirty clothes pushed into a corner of the opulent bedroom. According to Aunty Pelebe, the outfits she had worn since the day Jaiye left her had to be bonfire kindling.
Her left foot grazed the corner of the inflatable mattress on the bedroom floor as she headed to the bathroom. She couldn’t make herself sleep on their king-size bed.
After a long cold shower, Torera sprawled on the mattress and dug her cell phone out of her purse. She had ten missed calls from her best friend, Khadija. Torera called her back.
“How did everything go?” Khadija asked.
Torera closed her eyes. For the rest of her life, she would always remember the sound made by the clumps of dirt as she scattered them on Jaiye’s golden casket. “It is done.”
“Pele. I’m sorry for not being there,” Khadija said.
It would have been selfish of her to ask an eight-month pregnant woman to travel down from another country. “I understand.”
“After your in-laws leave, please, come for a visit,” Khadija said. “I miss you.”
The thought of spending time on the remote palm oil plantation in Côte d’Ivoire had a massive appeal. “I can’t visit now. I told my work people I would be coming back in two weeks.”
“Ha. Isn’t that too soon? You don’t want your in-laws on your case.”
“My hair was cut short at their request. And I’ll wear dark clothing for a year. What more could they possibly want from me?”
“Has anyone asked you if Jaiye left a will?”
“I’m surprised,” Khadija said.
Torera knew why. When Khadija’s brother-in-law died in a car accident, Khadija’s sister was steps away from her husband’s uncovered grave when his relatives demanded copies of the will.
Her Jaiye didn’t leave a will. Neither did he have life insurance. Jaiye was one of those people who believed in the irrational fear that if one just talks about death, it swoops into the room with a raised scythe.
“My in-laws are not hungry people,” Torera said. “They won’t fight me for our property.”
Khadija didn’t sound convinced. “Okay o.”
“When the baby arrives, I’ll come for a visit.”
“Yes. I need to go. Aunty Pelebe wants to feed me.”
“I like how that woman thinks,” Khadija said.
Aunty Pelebe was the oldest woman in Jaiye’s family. Conversations with Jaiye’s favourite aunty usually left Torera feeling like she had just inhaled a large bowl of hot and spicy pepper soup. It was warmth and comfort. There were times when Aunty Pelebe was a bit too much to handle. Like extra cayenne pepper, she went straight to the head. “Me too.”
Bowls of succulent amala and triple-protein efo riro sat on the dining table. Aunty Pelebe watched as Torera forced the food down with mouthfuls of water.
“You didn’t eat your chicken,” Aunty Pelebe said when Torera moved the bowls away. To please Aunty Pelebe, she picked up the stewed drumstick and took two dainty bites.
She still got a dissatisfied look. “You can do better,” Aunty Pelebe said.
Torera grimaced. “My stomach is full.”
“Jiggle it and make some space.”
“Please, let me rest for now. I’ll eat something else later.”
Aunty Pelebe pushed back her chair. “O ya, wash your hands, and follow me. The other women are waiting. There is an important matter we need to discuss.”
Torera’s eyes stayed glued to the back of Aunty Pelebe’s head as they walked to the main sitting room. Were they going to ask her about a will?
The sitting room was full of somber faces. While the other women returned Torera’s greetings in muted tones, her in-law, Sister B ignored them. Torera faced her. “Sister B, good afternoon.”
Sister B’s flinty eyes raked over her. “What can be good about the day you buried your husband?” she asked.
Aunty Pelebe gave Torera’s shoulder a calming squeeze before addressing her niece. “Bodunde, you want Torera to wish you a bad afternoon?”
“She did not have to shout in my face,” Sister B said.
Aunty Pelebe faced her. “Torera, listen. In our village, women are not allowed to sleep on the day they bury their husbands. When the husband’s spirit visits, it is an abomination for him to find his wife asleep.”
“I don’t think my staying up is necessary,” Torera said. “Jaiye…left us three weeks ago.”
Aunty Pelebe frowned. “You don’t want to honour your husband?”
“Are widowers expected to stay up for their late wives?” Torera asked.
Sister B kissed her teeth. “We make a small demand of you, and you start asking foolish questions.”
“I’m not allowed to speak?” Torera asked.
“Your silence is preferred.”
Aunty Pelebe narrowed her eyes. “Bodunde, my presence means nothing?”
Sister B mumbled her words. “Aunty, I’m sorry. I know you like Torera. But, if she refuses to keep a vigil for my brother, she’s leaving his house today.”
Torera sat up. “That would not be happening. This is my house too.”
“Aha. The good wife mask falls off.” Sister B turned to their audience. “All these years, I’ve been saying Torera has a bad spirit. No one listened. Animals sense these things. It was why that big cow ran away.”
Torera snorted. It was true she broke tradition by stepping outside the house before Jaiye’s burial. She needed fresh air. “Sister B, you can’t be serious.”
“I wish my brother had listened when I told him nothing good would come from a relationship with a woman picked up from the roadside.”
Torera’s head swung back. “What?”
Sister B glared at her. “It is time someone is brave enough to say the truth. Your two left feet brought us no good.”
Torera pulled away from Aunty Pelebe’s grasp. “Since you’re a lover of the truth, you should ask your son what happened to the cow,” she said.
Sister B jumped to her feet. “What did you say?”
Torera drawled her words. “Your precious son, Alaba, stole the cow.”
The woman rose to her tiptoes. “Bombastic liar!”
“Torera, are you sure?” Aunty Pelebe asked.
A technology geek, Jaiye, installed a surveillance system for their home. While reviewing the security camera footage, Torera saw Alaba walk the cow out of their compound. To avoid family drama, she kept the truth to herself. If they wanted to believe that, somehow, she had jinxed the cow and made it jump over a six-foot-high fence, who was she to stand in the way of their delusion?
“Yes, Ma,” she said.
Aunty Pelebe snapped her fingers. “Someone, get me Alaba.”
The troubled man-child shuffled his way into the sitting room. His dear mother ran to his side. “Oko mi, tell them that you had nothing to do with the cow,” Sister B begged.
Eyes bright with the desperate gleam of a cornered rat, Alaba licked his lips. “Which cow?” he asked.
“The cow your uncle’s friends brought. Torera said you stole it.”
“Cow,” Alaba repeated as if he had just heard the word for the first time.
His mother nudged him with her shoulder. “Don’t be afraid of Torera. You are a man. Tell the truth with your chest.”
Aunty Pelebe’s voice cracked like a koboko. “Alaba, did you take the cow?”
“I…I only took it for a walk,” Alaba mumbled.
Sister B’s hands flew to her head. “Torera has killed me.”
Torera snickered. What did she have to do with the mess?
Aunty Pelebe blinked. “Alaba, you took a cow for a walk?”
Alaba glanced at his mother. “Yes, Ma.”
“So, what happened to the cow?” Aunty Pelebe asked.
“Em, when…when we were coming back from the walk, the rope I was using to pull the cow broke, and the cow galloped away.”
There was a collective gasp in the room.
“So, you have added thievery to your lying?” Aunty Pelebe asked.
Alaba’s lips curled into a pout. “What would she have done with a whole cow?”
Torera crossed her legs. The man-child had a point. After several kidnappings, Jaiye’s Old Boys’ Association started a monthly saving scheme for ransom payments. Rather than ask Torera what to do with Jaiye’s installments, they bought the cow.
Aunty Pelebe shook her head. “Paga. Bodunde, when we were telling you to let us help you train this child, you said no. You see yourself?”
Sister B wailed. “She bewitched my son. Torera bewitched my son.”
Aunty Pelebe turned towards her. “My dear, go and rest until our vigil. Once they gather their things, these shameless ones will escort themselves to the bus-stop.”
Because grief had not dissolved all her home training, Torera nodded her agreement.
Torera fell asleep without taking her sleep medication. It was dark outside when she opened her eyes. Attracted by the reddish tint of the full moon, she walked over to the large window, pulled aside the sheer curtains, and stared into the compound. The Flamboya tree right outside the house was blooming. Its vibrant red flowers popped against the night sky. Torera sighed. How Jaiye loved the tree.
He loved her too. On their fifth wedding anniversary, Jaiye surprised her with a romantic breakfast on the beach. It didn’t matter that unchecked coastal erosion had turned the beach into a thin strip of sand, that a group of white garment church members further down were conducting what looked like an exorcism in voices loud enough to wake the twice dead. In a land of scarce resources, one created one’s illusions. Torera’s eyes filled with tears. She and Jaiye deserved more years.
Torera was still staring at the sky when someone knocked on the bedroom door. “Who is it?”
“It is time,” Aunty Pelebe said.
Hours of half-hearted singing and clapping led to the scream bubbling in Torera’s throat. Aunty Pelebe’s ‘let every head bow, every eye close’ statement was Torera’s cue to escape from the sweltering room. She tiptoed around Aunty Pelebe’s tapping feet and headed for the door.
Out on the corridor, Torera considered her hideout options. She could leave the house and walk over to the empty boys’ quarters or go to the larger storage room. She chose the latter.
The storage room was on the other side of the building. It was where they kept the new office products Jaiye and her big brother distributed across the country. It was at her big brother’s home that she first met Jaiye. Quiet, principled, funny Jaiye. As his long-time business partner, her brother vouched for Jaiye’s character and good intentions when their parents opposed Torera’s decision to marry a widower almost twice her age.
Through the window high up on the wall, Torera spied the blue-black sky. Dawn could not break fast enough. She sat on a boxed commercial printer and rested her back against the wall. It was only a matter of time before they found her.
Torera stood when a chilly breeze blew through the room. The hairs on the back of her neck stood when dazzling blue light followed. What was going on?
Her mouth opened when the blue light spun and turned into a human hologram. The facial features were familiar. “Jaiye?”
His smile was beautiful. “Onitemi.”
The soft words wrapped around Torera. “You came.”
“Once I realized that they were not going to let you sleep, I had to work on a special exeat.”
“Exeat? From whom?” Torera asked.
She frowned. “Are you talking about God?”
The blue light around Jaiye glowed. “I can’t share company secrets.”
“I’m your wife.”
“It’s a change of realm policy,” Jaiye said.
Torera rolled her eyes. “Thanks for the reminder.”
“I miss you so much,” she said.
“Thank you for giving me five and a half years of peace.”
Her heart ached. “Can I touch you?”
Jaiye nodded. Torera’s pulse raced as she walked towards him. She stepped into the blue light and touched Jaiye’s arm. It felt like sandpaper.
That horrible day, after eating his lunch, Jaiye took a nap. He died in his sleep. “Did you suffer?” she asked.
The knowledge gave her some comfort. “I keep waiting for you to walk into the house.”
“Know that if it were up to me, I wouldn’t have left you when I did,” Jaiye said.
Her hands clenched into fists. “Perhaps management would send you back?”
“Torera, it doesn’t work that way. Before I forget, the generator needs servicing. Your car too.”
They were the last things on her mind. “Okay.”
“And the clothes I took to the dry cleaners are still there,” Jaiye said.
“That vagabond Banji owes me a lot of money. The IOUs are in my blue ledger.”
Something clutched at Torera’s throat.
“Please, marry again,” Jaiye said. “I don’t want you to be lonely.”
Jaiye was a forever kind of love. “No.”
“Still stubborn I see.”
Torera scoffed. How quickly was she meant to change? “I don’t like what I hate.”
The light around Jaiye dimmed. “I have to go,” he said.
There were many things she still had to say to him. “Are you coming back for another visit?”
Jaiye shook his head. “Take good care of yourself. For me.”
“I will. Rest.”
Torera was still staring at the space where Jaiye stood when Aunty Pelebe opened the storage room door. “Torera! I have been looking for you,” she said.
She turned around. “Aunty, he came.”
Aunty Pelebe hurried to her side. “Who?”
Aunty Pelebe looked worried as she reached out and placed her palm against Torera’s clammy forehead. “Are you sure?”
“We spoke. I touched his arm.”
Aunty Pelebe shuddered. “Torera, the dead have nothing to do with the living.”
“But, you told me I had to keep a vigil. That Jaiye would come.”
“I only repeated what I was told by those who came before me,” Aunty Pelebe said as she averted her eyes. “My dear, we have to do things the way we’ve always done them so that life remains the way it has been.”
Torera stepped away from her. “I need to go and pack my bags.”
Aunty Pelebe frowned. “Where are you going?”
One week away would make a world of difference. “Côte d’Ivoire.”
Yejide Kilanko was born in Ibadan, Nigeria, and currently lives in Ontario, Canada, where she practices as a therapist in children’s mental health. Kilanko’s debut novel, Daughters Who Walk This Path, a 2012 Canadian national bestseller, was longlisted for the inaugural Etisalat Prize and the 2016 Nigeria Literature Prize. Her work includes a novella, Chasing Butterflies (2015), and a children’s picture book, There Is An Elephant In My Wardrobe (2019). Her short fiction is in the anthology, New Orleans Review 2017: The African Literary Hustle. Her second picture book, Juba and The Fireball, is forthcoming in late 2020.