Even then, I could sense that they had come prepared for war.
I could see them through the glass panes on the door. I could hear their chatter. They did not seem to notice that I had been standing on the other side of the door for almost a full minute. I wanted to leave them standing outside and go back upstairs to sleep. Maybe they would melt into pools of brown mud if they stayed long enough in the sun. Iya Martha's buttocks were so big that, if melted, they would have taken up all the space on the concrete steps that led up to our doorway.
Iya Martha was one of my four mothers; she had been my father's oldest wife. The man who came with her was Baba Lola, Akin's uncle. They both hunched their backs against the sun and wore determined frowns that made their faces repulsive. Yet, as soon as I opened the door, their conversation stopped and they broke into smiles. I could guess the first words that would come out of the woman's mouth. I knew it would be some lavish show of a bond that had never existed between us.
"Yejide, my precious daughter!" Iya Martha grinned, cupping my cheeks with moist and fleshy hands.
I grinned back and knelt to greet them. "Welcome, welcome. God must have woken up thinking of me today-o. That is why you are all here," I said, bending in a semi-kneel again after they had come in and were seated in the sitting room.
"Where is your husband? Do we meet him at home?" Baba Lola asked, looking around the room as though I had stashed Akin under a chair.
"Yes, sir, he is upstairs. I'll go and call him after I serve your drinks. What should I prepare for food? Pounded yam?"
The man glanced at my stepmother as though, while rehearsing for the drama that was about to unfold, he had not read this part of their script.
Iya Martha shook her head from side to side. "We cannot eat. Get your husband. We have important things to discuss with the two of you."
I smiled, left the sitting-room area and headed for the staircase. I thought I knew what "important things" they had come to discuss. A number of my in-laws had been in our home previously to discuss the same issue. A discussion consisted of them talking and me listening while on my knees. At those times, Akin pretended to listen and jot notes while writing his to-do list for the next day. No one in the series of delegations could read or write and they were all in awe of those who could. They were impressed that Akin wrote down their words. And sometimes, if he stopped writing, the person speaking at the time would complain that Akin was disrespecting him or her by not noting anything down. My husband often planned his entire week during such visits, while I got terrible cramps in my legs.
The visits irritated Akin and he wanted to tell his relatives to mind their own business, but I would not allow it. The long discussions did give me leg cramps, but at least they made me feel I was part of his family. Until that afternoon, no one in my family had paid me that kind of visit since I'd got married.
As I went up the stairs, I knew that Iya Martha's presence meant some new point was about to be made. I did not need their advice. My home was fine without the important things they had to say. I did not want to hear Baba Lola's hoarse voice being forced out in between coughs or see another flash of Iya Martha's teeth.
I believed I had heard it all already anyway and I was sure my husband would feel the same way. I was surprised to find Akin awake. He worked six days a week and slept through most Sundays. But he was pacing the floor when I entered our room.
I was armed with smiles for my lips, an appropriate sheen of tears for my eyes and sniffles for my nose.
"You knew they would come today?" I searched his face for the familiar mix of horror and irritation that it wore any time a special delegation came visiting.
"They are here?" He stood still and clasped his hands behind his head. No horror, no irritation. The room began to feel stuffy.
"You knew they were coming? You didn't tell me?"
"Let's just go downstairs." He walked out of the room.
"Akin, what is going on? What is happening?" I called after him.
I sat down on the bed, held my head in my hands and tried to breathe. I stayed that way until I heard Akin's voice calling me. I went to join him in the sitting room downstairs. I wore a smile, not a big one that showed teeth, just a small lift at the corners of my mouth. The kind that said, Eventhoughyouoldpeopleknownothingaboutmymarriage,Iamdelighted,no,ecstatic,tohearalltheimportantthingsyouhavetosayaboutit.Afterall,Iamagoodwife.
I did not notice her at first, even though she was perched on the edge of Iya Martha's chair. She was fair, pale yellow like the inside of an unripe mango. Her thin lips were covered with blood-red lipstick.
I leaned towards my husband. His body felt stiff and he did not put his arms around me and pull me close. I tried to figure out where the yellow woman had come from, wondering for a wild minute if Iya Martha had kept her hidden under her wrapper when she came in.
"Our wife, our people say that when a man has a possession and it becomes two he does not become angry, right?" Baba Lola said.
I nodded and smiled.
"Well, our wife, this is your new wife. It is one child that calls another one into this world. Who knows, the king in heaven may answer your prayers because of this wife. Once she gets pregnant and has a child, we are sure you will have one too," Baba Lola said.
Iya Martha nodded her agreement. "Yejide, my daughter, we have thought about and slept on this issue many times, your husband's people and me. And your other mothers."
I shut my eyes. I was about to wake up from the trance. When I opened my eyes, the mango-yellow woman was still there, a little blurry but still there. I was dazed.
I had expected them to talk about my childlessness. I was armed with millions of smiles. Apologetic smiles, pity-me smiles, I-look-unto-God smiles—name all the fake smiles needed to get through an afternoon with a group of people who claim to want the best for you while poking at your open sore with a stick—and I had them ready. I was ready to listen to them tell me I must do something about my situation. I expected to hear about a new pastor I could visit; a new mountain where I could go to pray; or an old herbalist in a remote village or town whom I could consult. I was armed with smiles for my lips, an appropriate sheen of tears for my eyes and sniffles for my nose. I was prepared to lock up my hairdressing salon throughout the coming week and go in search of a miracle with my mother-in-law in tow. What I was not expecting was another smiling woman in the room, a yellow woman with a blood-red mouth who grinned like a new bride.
I wished my mother-in-law were there. She was the only woman I had ever called Moomi.I visited her more often than her son did. She had watched while my fresh perm was washed off into a flowing river by a priest whose theory was that I had been cursed by my mother before she died, minutes after giving birth to me. Moomi was there with me when I sat on a prayer mat for three days, chanting words that I didn't understand over and over until I fainted on the third day, cutting short what should have been a seven-day fast and vigil.
While I recovered in a ward at Wesley Guild Hospital, she held my hand and asked me to pray for strength. A good mother's life is hard, she said, a woman can be a bad wife but she must not be a bad mother. Moomi told me that before asking God to give me a child, I must ask for the grace to be able to suffer for that child. She said I wasn't ready to be a mother yet if I was fainting after three days of fasting.
Iyale—first wife. It was a verdict that marked me as not woman enough for my husband.
I realised then that she had not fainted on the third day because she had probably gone on that kind of fast several times to appease God on behalf of her children. In that moment, the lines etched around Moomi's eyes and mouth became sinister, they began to mean more to me than signs of old age. I was torn. I wanted to be this thing that I never had. I wanted to be a mother, to have my eyes shine with secret joys and wisdom like Moomi's. Yet all her talk about suffering was terrifying.
"Her age is not even close to yours," Iya Martha leaned forward in her seat. "Because they appreciate you, Yejide, your husband's people know your value. They told me that they recognise that you are a good wife in your husband's house."
Baba Lola cleared his throat. "Yejide, I as a person, I want to praise you. I want to appreciate your efforts to make sure that our son leaves a child behind when he dies. This is why we know that you will not take this new wife like a rival. Her name is Funmilayo and we know, we trust, that you will take her as your younger sister."
"Your friend," Iya Martha said. "Your daughter," Baba Lola said.
Iya Martha tapped Funmi on the back. "Oya,you go and greet your iyale."
I shuddered when Iya Martha referred to me as Funmi's iyale.The word crackled in my ears, iyale—firstwife. It was a verdict that marked me as not woman enough for my husband.
Funmi came to sit beside me on the couch.
Baba Lola shook his head. "Funmi, kneel down. Twenty years after the train has started its journey, it will always meet the land ahead of it. Yejide is ahead of you in every way in this house."
Funmi knelt down, placed her hands on my knees and smiled.
My hands itched to slap the smile off her face.
I turned to look Akin in the eyes, hoping that somehow he was not part of the ambush. His gaze held mine in a silent plea. My already-stiff smile slipped. Rage closed its flaming hands around my heart. There was a pounding in my head, right between my eyes.
"Akin, you knew this?" I spoke in English, shutting out the two elders who spoke only Yoruba.
Akin said nothing; he scratched the bridge of his nose with a forefinger.
I looked around the room for something to focus on. The white lace curtains with blue trimmings, the grey couch, the matching rug that had a coffee stain that I had been trying to remove for over a year. The stain was too far off-centre to be covered by the table, too far from the edge to be concealed by the armchairs. Funmi wore a beige dress, the same shade as the coffee stain, the same shade as the blouse that I wore. Her hands were just below my knees, wrapped around my bare legs. I could not look past her hands, past the long billowy sleeves of her dress. I could not look at her face.
"Yejide, pull her close."
I was not sure who had just spoken. My head was hot, heating up, close to boiling point. Anyone could have said those words— Iya Martha, Baba Lola, God. I did not care.
I turned to my husband again. "Akin, you knew about this? You knew and could not tell me. You knew? You bloody bastard. After everything! You wretched bastard!"
Akin caught my hand before it landed on his cheek.
Excerpted from Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo Copyright © 2017 by Ayobami Adebayo. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.