While Mr. Osagie slept, his wife, Maria, lay in chains at the foot of the bed, where he’d kept her for three days now. She’d tried to wrest herself free on the first night, the chains grating and scarring her wrists as he snored away. On the second night, as the moon watched on, full-faced and unblinking, she pulled so hard she feared that by the time she got up she would have two palms on the floor, facing up in a haunting greeting as the rest of her arms dangled with blood.
But now she lay still. She’d learned in those days and the fifteen years leading up to them that when trying to appeal to her husband’s softheart didn’t work, she could lean on a reliable second plan. She only needed to keep being herself—not the dutiful wife or somebody’s mother, but her real self, stubbornly content—and soon, The Itch inside him would begin and he’d punish her for it. How dare you be so unaffected? Who are you? Not once, not twice, he’d called her a stone for remaining outwardly unbroken through their shared devastations.
When their third miscarriage happened, he took a hammer to their dining table, then the couch, then the wall, all the while screaming a guttural cry. That evening, it rained wood and foam and concrete. Still, she was the one who held him as his grief ebbed and drained, whispering “it is well, it is well.” Worse things had happened since then by his hand, and each time she kept the ache stored inside, looking blankly at him as he hurt her, which only made him itch harder.
Fed up as she was with him and everything, she knew plan B was her only chance at making him remove the chains himself. Really, Mr. Osagie could sleep through any possible pain his wife could conceive, no matter its heft or gravity, but the idea of her comfortable and still? That was what threw him sideways in fear. Husbands were like that sometimes. They only needed to remember the power vested in them by godknowswhat and soon, you’d be nothing. She’d stay like this then, she decided, until either he or God Themself said enough.
Long before all this, when he was still young and clueless, Mr. Osagie’s father woke him up to The Itch. “Very soon, you’ll start to feel something under your skin,” he’d said, sizing up his lean son as they sat on the veranda. Mr. Osagie’s father was a man of few words, but when he spoke, he spoke so heavy and so low you had to widen your hearing. “When it comes,” he said with his eyes on a tree, focused, as if he were reeling this wisdom in from somewhere far, “scratch it. It will feel strange the first few times, then it will not. The more you do it, the more yourself you’ll become; the more like your peers. Keep at it and you’ll be strong like me.” He turned to his son, whose eyes were curious. It was no small thing for a father—the largest presence in the house—to sit with his son and talk. It was a privilege, the boy knew. “Don’t you want to be strong like me?” his father asked. Osagie, who was shorter and weaker than most of his friends then, nodded eagerly: Yes sir, I want to be like you. “Then I’ve showed you the way,” his father said, closing the talk.
The first time Mr. Osagie scratched The Itch was after Sunday school when he pushed his crush—a girl called Mabel—to the ground for talking to another boy. His father was right, it did feel weird, like a seed of badness blooming. But the itch also deepened, bringing about a sickly sweetness as his friends gathered around him, cheering. (Have you seen the inside of a soursop? The feeling inside his stomach had a texture like that.) The teacher took the girl away as they jeered at her. Inside his body, the sensation breathed and stretched, prickling bittersweetly. He stood, trying to resist it, because back then, he wasn’t sure he liked that scratching The Itch sometimes hurt not just him but other people he cared about. He did like the praise, though; he liked that it made him feel like a small god. Mr. Osagie’s father was long dead and by now, decades removed from that day at church, he had a head turning gray and a conscience that had curdled. (You know what age can do.)
“What do you mean you don’t discipline your wife?” his friends often asked him. Most of them were so used to itching that when it came, they didn’t have to think twice before using their wives, daughters, and other lookalikes to scratch it back, until they found the sweet equilibrium that calmed their bodies down. “So how do you deal with her when she misbehaves?” they’d add, some of them twitching. “And how do you calm yourself?”
In response, Mr. Osagie always shrugged. He had never hit Maria before, no. He’d promised her this on their second date almost two decades ago as they sat on the floor in his dusty face-me-I-face-you apartment. “I will never hit a woman. My father used to beat my mother senseless . . . and I could never. I’ll never. I’m sorry it ever happened to you.” She saw the truth rise in his face like a warm sincere dawn, and she believed him, because back there in that room, something about the way the light fell between them made his love feel like yes, like amen. And of course, young as she was then, she hadn’t been taught that there are far worse ways to be cruel, far more damaging ways to hurt a person without leaving a single mark to prove your guilt.
So far, he still hadn’t eaten those words. Physical wounds were off-brand for him. Instead, he dealt in invisible violences—those ghostlike kinds that dashed around the house and lingered, swimming in and out of furniture and walls so long, so well that it was impossible to pin them down. He knew what his actions stole from her, but he didn’t mind watching her lose it. Try as she might to upset him enough for him to Do Something that would make everything else believable, he wouldn’t hit her, though she wished he would for fucking once. She needed marks. For this kind of thing, most people worked by sight not by faith, because the world was twisted that way. They had it way worse, they’d say. She could never imagine what was happening in their own homes. Didn’t she have a mother? A sister? Friends? Couldn’t she compare? Men needed strong women with strong spines, not wusses who ran back home at the slightest discomfort. Bla bla bla. She learned their lines by heart.
As life would have it, Mrs. Osagie had since grown another skin, a stubborn rind that was impossible to cut through. She wore it everywhere, stubbornly, knowing that it could only be peeled with patience and softness. And she was safe, because Mr. Osagie didn’t have much of either to give. Recently, noticing the way she’d become (disobedient, defensive, obsessed with those stupid secret meetings she’d started attending), Mr. Osagie knew in his heart of hearts that if he were that kind of man, he’d have beaten the living daylight out of her by now, sending sparks flying above her body as it folded to the ground in a permanent darkness. He didn’t need to look far; he could name friends who would have made sure by now that she had no eyes to see, no ears to hear, no teeth even, and everything that was human in her would be gone.
But he wasn’t that, he reminded himself. He was Mr. G Osagie, who kissed his wife as he locked her in chains he’d carefully selected, specifically with her in mind; he was Mr. Osagie who sang her a song from her childhood as he taped her mouth. He was one of the good ones.
Everything he did was only because he didn’t want whatever was taking the rest of the women to take her too. He didn’t want to lose her or their daughter, Julie, who he’d also tied up before locking her in their largest cupboard. All this was only to protect them because he loved them so much he’d do anything to keep them together as one happy family, especially now that times were darkening and God—whichever one was in charge now—was clearly going mad.
After Theresa disappeared, the entire village turned upside down. Mrs. Osagie and four other women were on their way back from the neighboring village when they saw her charging toward them. “This world is finished,” she’d said, baring her rotting teeth and laughing. “And now they’ve also finished me.”
The women looked at each other, confused. Theresa hadn’t spoken in the four years since she “lost it” and took to the road one random morning. Three times, they’d tried to take her to the nearby psychiatric hospital, but each time, she was only gone for a week before she resurfaced again. Nobody knew how she escaped, but she seemed hell-bent on staying in the village and being seen as she went further insane, so what else could they do? They allowed her to stay. What was it to them anyway? People pledged to do their share of the Lord’s work: donating food and drink in turns. Together, they’d even built her a shack at the mouth of the village where she could go to dress, use the bathroom, and sleep. Sometimes, Theresa didn’t come out for days. Other times she roamed the streets through the night or slept outside her own door. It’d been like that so long that they didn’t even bother greeting her anymore (who knew if she could still hear people in this world?). So listening to her with her voice still intact jarred them. Had she been able to talk all this time? Had she been pretending?
As she stood in front of them, one of the women, Uki, noticed that Theresa’s wrapper had been ripped down the middle. “Theresa, did somebody beat you?” she asked, with a slow condescension. “What happened?” But Theresa just stared on blankly.
“Your husbands are monsters,” she said, finally. “These men are monsters. You think they won’t do it to you too, abi? But they will.”
The five women each felt a matching seedling of unease inside, which they ignored, because how much of what Theresa was saying could they trust? If her mind truly left her for all that time, surely it wasn’t above lying to her now that she’d returned. Perhaps, some of the women thought, she also wasn’t above staging her distress? It must be boring to be mad alone. It was getting late anyway, and they were all already rushing home to cook their husbands dinner. So, they made their apologies and then began scurrying home.
They hadn’t walked for a minute before the sky cracked hard and it started to pour. The women picked up pace quickly, holding hands as they crossed memorized potholes and the watery mirrors that formed where rain gathered. But there had been a specific fatigue in Theresa’s face that stirred an insidious feeling in them. They knew it well. It was close to the bone and an always-horror.
Maria wondered what they would do if Theresa decided today was the day she’d trail them until she couldn’t anymore. Something had clearly happened to break a four-year-old silence open, and it worried Maria to not know. Theresa’s sentences had been tired, yes, but Maria could not deny that they were clear, and that in all her imaginations of how a real mad person—as in someone whose head is in a separate reality—would sound, Theresa’s voice and clarity of speech would never have made it there.
“What do you think she meant?” she asked as they got further down the road, all of them soaked now.
“Mrs. Osagie! Let’s go, please! It’s late,” they responded. “That woman is not well.”
Maria turned around again and that’s when she saw it: Theresa in the sky, speeding backwards in a gust of wind, waving as she was carried away. Maria tried to call out to her friends, but the rain only got heavier, the thunder even angrier—so she ran home and decided to wait for morning. When she eventually told them, though, few of them believed her, and of the ones who did, not one cared enough to raise any kind of alarm. Or at least that’s what they told themselves, so that they could sleep through the night.
“Just wait,” Uki said. “She’ll come back. She always does.”
Forty-five more women disappeared within the next week alone. While the village slept, night spread like an amorphous apparition, collecting them. The next morning, those women were no longer in their beds—which made them unavailable for everything, including bathing their children and readying their husbands for work, which in turn meant chaos. Their relatives broke out in cries. Their husbands wilted. The women who remained gravitated toward each other, forming whispercircles boiling with ideas of where their friends, lovers, sisters, mothers, and daughters could have gone.
The men held meetings in their living rooms over cold beer, debating how exactly they could stop whatever wicked spirit was claiming their wives. Some suggested a lock-in and sundown curfew for every woman and child, while others, like Mr. Edosa, suggested reporting to dibias, pastors, and whoever else had muscle in other realms. As evidence, they’d point to how much they’d lost, how unruly their houses and children had become, and all the ways their bodies were falling apart. The men agreed on the first plan and set the curfew.
When they set out during the day, the men locked their doors once, twice, thrice over to make sure their wives and children were secure, not to be seen or see outside, except on Sundays, which were the day of mercy. They did the shopping required, fetched water for the house, and brought food home for their wives to do the needful. In their husbands’ absences, the women slept heavily, attempting to squash years of accumulated fatigue. (But how much catching up can you do in a few hours, to quell lifetimes worth of tired?)
One day, Maria Osagie was washing clothes outside when Theresa appeared to her. “I know you’re sorry, so I forgive you,” she said. “And I can teach you how to go too. If you want.” Mrs. Osagie blinked twice and pled mercy. Theresa stood unperturbed and calmly slid out her left eye, before reaching for a small bead from its socket. “Look,” she said, stretching out her hand. A dark pearl rested there, blackly wet. “You have one too. I’ve always known. I can show you how to find yours and remove it. It’s not even painful. And then you’ll be free. Don’t you want to be free?”
By now, Maria’s fear was barking loudly in her, so she carried the basin she was washing with and poured both the water and the clothes in Theresa’s direction. By the time she looked again, Theresa was gone.
That night, Theresa appeared to Maria’s daughter, Julie, as she was washing her face in the sink. “When they lift the curfew,” Theresa said, “you’ll find that some of your friends have gone. Young girls like you. Gone forever.” Julie lifted her wet face, soap still in her eyes, and screamed at Theresa in the mirror. Stay still, Julie told herself, don’t turn around. Unlike her mother, she was used to seeing strange things she never discussed; she knew these visions as a side effect of using magic to keep a life.
“If you want to go too, your own is here,” Theresa said, pointing to the back of her own ear. “I won’t touch you, but I can see it from where I’m standing. If you’re scared, then go to Mama Erhun’s house. I’m rushing somewhere else.” Julie stayed stiff, blinking fast, waiting for Theresa to fizzle. “Don’t tell anybody I saw you,” Theresa added. “But when you go, try to take your mother too.” And then she disappeared.
Julie’s heart was pounding. This could be a way out, she thought. This could be a way.
It was only a matter of weeks before The Itch made the new structure unbearable. Unaware of the skills required to smoothly manage the details of their own lives, some husbands sent their wives back to work. The women poured back into the streets in tens, and soon the markets filled up again. The Union of Market Women noticed that sixteen women and girls had disappeared in that span, although now their names were hardly said aloud. Julie learned their names. She was sick of resurrecting herself, sick of the acting, sick of the whole stage and production. One week, two, and only speculations. Inside, their husbands were thinning, breaking out in hives, looking more sickly. And the women, of course, continued to talk.
“Why doesn’t he answer when we ask about his wife?”
“Look how much smaller they’re all becoming.”
“What do you think is happening?”
“What if these men start dying?”
“Are we safe?”
“Do you think where our friends are going is better than here?”
During work hours—still the only time the women were allowed out of home—the women snuck away to each other’s houses in groups. The next thirty women disappeared from Mama Erhun’s house. She’d hosted them there to talk about what she’d seen in a newspaper, a headline stating that women all over the world who had heavy stories were, by some collective magic or the other, finding both the voice and courage to say what happened out loud. Not just that, she stressed, but each time these women gathered to say the truth, unfailingly, a roiling power entered the room and immediately took them elsewhere. Gently, too; decidedly—like a sovereign evacuation. Mama Erhun wanted to know: had anyone else heard or seen it happen?
Most women shook their heads no, though, of course, at least some of them were lying. Theresa had come to Mama Erhun too, and she’d believed as quickly as Mary believed that angel. Still, Mama Erhun understood their fear and worked to put them at ease. She told them it’d happened in other countries, and not just that, but it was happening now in other states and cities in the country too—Ibadan, Calabar, Kano, Lagos, Adamawa, Kaduna, Uyo, Port Harcourt, etc.
When she asked how they found her, some admitted that a woman—unwashed and unruly—had appeared to them and led them to her. She was frightening, they said, in that she seemed to fear nothing. “We should have known when they stopped us from watching the news,” Mama Erhun said after a sigh. “I think she came back because there is no other way we would have known. But we know now. And whatever happens here, we will protect each other. We are for each other.”
The women watched on, some eager and others reticent.
“All I’m trying to say,” Mama Erhun explained, “is that there’s another world already and we can go there. Where we’re going, those who hurt us will not be allowed to come.” She wasn’t wrong. It was a knowing carved into time: repurposed shame—donated by women out of their own bodies, in their own time—was the most powerful foundational ingredient for freedom-making. It was the necessary raw material for any new world to form.
Days before the rage and the chains, Maria’s lover, Ese, confessed to Maria that she been at Mama Erhun’s house that evening, but that she hadn’t meant to end up there, she only went in out of curiosity. Maria knew Ese was lying about the second part, but then so was she. Who wanted to admit to seeing a gone woman with directions, a ghost?
A cold breeze swept in from Ese’s window as she explained that after Mama Erhun managed to make them feel safe, women began to recount their own stories one by one, rewinding themselves into old gaps. She said that each woman had the room’s full attention as she spoke; that they all linked arms around the speaker and watched as she faded in both color and size until she was safely Gone, then they closed the space she’d occupied, making the circle smaller and tighter.
“There’s no way to explain how it felt. Honestly. You had to have been there.”
Did it hurt? Maria wanted to know. No, Ese said. They looked like they were facing true release, like they were being absorbed by a warm, promising light.
Maria cocked her eyebrow, which was barely an eyebrow, since she was in the habit of shaving it all off and lining it with black pencil. “Then what did you do?”
“I got up and left.”
Maria sat up in bed, letting her wrapper fall softly against her stomach. “So you didn’t tell your own story?”
Ese frowned. “If I did, would I be here? I told them I didn’t have any story and that I was uncomfortable, so I had to leave.” Then she added, “I was thinking about you.”
Maria glossed over that. “And they allowed you to go?”
“Of course. It’s not a cult naw . . . If you want to leave, you can leave. But most of them said they would rather go wherever the rest are.”
“So why did you run?” Maria asked. She felt herself becoming afraid.
“I don’t know,” Ese said. Then, again, “I was thinking about you.”
“What does it mean when you say that?” Maria asked, undoing herself from her lover’s grip.
Ese flinched, irritated. “I . . . See, I don’t want to talk about this again.”
“I’m sorry,” Maria started. “I’m just confused about everything going on . . .”
Then, “Wait. What if this is a new God?” Ese turned to her, wide-eyed.
It felt that way. There were many Holy Books and they came in volumes, each focusing on a different God and their priorities. The last one they had was a He who unlooked violences, who pretended not to understand what anyone but men were going through. People died because of it. Many. And of course. Whether one would survive or not in a world depended on the strength of their god. Another was written to have slept through a whole century because She was that tired after creating everything. It would have been chaos if She hadn’t also removed the whole free-will thing. In the world that choice created, people moved like robots. But Ese had showed Maria a small Holy Book once about a God who, fed up with adults and their perennial carelessness, overthrew the God before Them, raptured all children under eighteen, and then closed all wombs for a decade just to prove a point about children being people and not props. They’d laughed about how they couldn’t imagine that, but kept on reading. The Book told them that the same God had, at a different point, way before they were born, relocated more at-risk adults at the time—the Boths and Neithers and In-betweens who colored outside gender lines—because the world could not hold them as they deserved; because the world unsaw them violently, insisting they were insulting approximations of a God whose face they themselves had never seen. This God was a genderbender too, a multiple spirit, an Above and Beyond. The Book described this God as the Almightiest of all, the God who is taller than life itself, who is the same incalculable size as love, a God whose eye no one can reach, who exists on the outskirts of writing, a God who de-roofs language.
“Imagine that God in this world?” Ese has teased. “Things would actually be fair.”
Maria had told her: “If that God was in charge, then this world wouldn’t be this world. It would run on different rules.”
They’d let it go then, but was it happening again? Was the world seeing a new hand in the same lifetime; an old world giving way for Something Else? What chaos had to have happened in Heaven? Because enough, someone seemed to be saying again now. And who could do that but a huge God who could see all the others, the othered, and had a heart for them? Who would make such a choice but a God who was love with no buts, no doors, no locks or fences, nobody left outside? If that was what was really happening—a hostile takeover of an inert god’s shift—then this God was long overdue.
According to Ese, Mama Erhun planned to host these meetings every week at her place. She told them they could invite anyone they wanted to. Each session would start with music, some food, and palmwine. Did Maria want to come, just to see?
“No,” Maria said, unblinking. “I don’t.”
“Why? I think it could be good if—”
Maria lay on her side. “I know you want to go back to the meeting and that’s okay,” she told Ese. “But will you also go wherever they’re going?” She heard the weight in her own voice, she felt its pointed edge. But what else was she meant to say? She couldn’t force Ese to stay.
Ese looked on at her. Sensing the secret hope under Maria’s tone, she wondered if lying was a good idea—especially to someone who already knew where her mind was. Ese’s daughter, Peace, had been raptured just a month ago from a sleepover at her friend’s house. That friend’s mother looked Ese in the eye the next day, her own eyes raw with both fear and fatigue, swearing up and down that she didn’t know who or what took their children. All the doors were locked, she said, the windows too. The woman clung to Ese’s wrapper as she explained. “My own child is gone too,” she cried. “They also took my own.” With Peace gone, frankly, Ese had little left to stay for but Maria, who still had her own family intact. Ese weighed telling Maria this but decided it might sound like blame. “I was just trying to say that I think it’s worth seeing for yourself at least once,” she said, finally. “And if I go again, I’ll want you there. I don’t have to, though.”
Maria kissed Ese’s forehead, shoulder, nose, mouth. They didn’t have much time. They rarely did. Only when Mr. Osagie traveled or she lied to him about yet another night vigil. This time it was the latter, but day would soon break and she’d have to leave Ese’s bed again. “Well,” Maria said, “I wouldn’t have any story to share if I go anyway. And besides, I’d rather lay here and listen to you.”
Ese leaned against Maria and began to cry, exhaustion scattering her words as they came. “I—I’m sorry,” she said, forcing her words through sobs. “I’m just . . . I’m just tired.”
Maria had never heard her sound like that before. She knew what this meant. “No no no, it’s okay,” she said. “It’s okay. Me, I’m the one who should be sorry. I should have been paying more attention. Let me hold you, my love. Let me hold you. You know nothing matters more to me than you being okay. Nothing matters more than how you feel.”
It was true. Bar the everlasting obstacle that was her marriage, Maria had done everything to show Ese that she mattered. Ese softened against her body and they talked frankly with the lights off, pulling walls down around them. “I can tell you anything?” Ese said. Maria assured her: of course. It had always been so. So Ese leaned into her ear and said, “I didn’t remember until I entered that room that I had a story too. Now I can’t forget.” Maria listened as Ese went on to tell her a secret the texture of crumbling concrete. By the time she was done talking, Maria felt her chest part in two. The air changed, and soon, she could feel the exact energy Ese said she felt in Mama Erhun’s house as the women spoke: a kind of sticky heaviness.
She wanted to cry, to scream, to punch something, to let the already-dizzying rage spin her head all the way around as many times as it would take to snap the whole thing off. Everything Ese said made her want to find and kill the him who unheard her refusal regardless of how many times she voiced it. It also made her angry for herself, angry for her sister, her mother, her daughter, for everyone she knew who’d been left with phantom flesh and a ghost of an identity in the aftermath, all because of someone else’s deaf desire. She knew too, what it meant to be robbed of a body—all the women she knew whispered about it. She knew what it meant to fear a man.
Maria felt Ese grow heavier in her arms, as heavy as if she’d been remade of stone; then in the space of a few seconds, lighter and lighter, like she was only filled with only air. “Sorry,” Ese said again, her voice threadbare.
Maria was crying too. She knew begging would be selfish, she knew. But god, she couldn’t do this, she couldn’t. “Ese, please listen to me. Please.” Maria begged. “I can’t lose you. Tell God or whoever is doing this you want to stop. Please.” But Ese only sighed again, her breath frailer than before.
She knew this would happen. Ese had told her that this was how she’d like to go: in Maria’s arms, right there, not at any of those gatherings. But now, she could feel the world getting smaller and more pointless as Ese floated out. No matter how close Maria tried to hold her, she only deflated more quickly, until she was just the memory of a hug against Maria’s chest. Ese breathed her last in exasperation, a final apology she had no power against.
Losing Ese shattered all of Maria’s marbles; sent them clattering into corners. She became snappy, abrasive, and careless. Sometimes she screamed at the neighbor to shut their bratty children up. She stayed in bed all day. She couldn’t get out, she wouldn’t eat, she lost so much weight her clavicles shrieked out from behind her skin like frightened things. She sat up at night as Mr. Osagie slept, writing down names of the women they’d lost and where they were last seen, who they were last with, connecting dots. It was all this strangeness that made it clear to Mr. Osagie that something was off and whatever it was was making his wife sick in the heart.
This is how it starts, Mr. Osagie thought to himself one night, fake-snoring as his wife worked through a whirlwind of newspaper clippings and lists. He decided then and there to buy the right chains the next day while out.
On the fourth day of Maria Osagie being held by the wrists, her husband’s friends visited. After a few minutes, they pinched their noses and asked what that smell was. “What,” they asked, laughed uproariously, “are you keeping a corpse in this house?”
“Not that,” Mr. Osagie said, boastfully. “But close.”
He took them to where Mrs. Osagie lay and they watched her, impressed, kicking and hitting her as they pleased. The sight of this made Mr. Osagie uncomfortable, but not enough to say a thing. Instead, he unchained his wife and pushed through the corridor before letting her out the back of the house.
“Shower,” he said, avoiding her eyes as he returned to his friends.
“I would have asked her to serve us drinks as usual,” one of them said as Mr. Osagie resurfaced. “But in that state?” He shrugged. “God forbid.”
The Itch spread into Mr. Osagie’s underarms and began traveling down his back, but he made a note not to scratch it. He sat back in his favorite armchair as the worst of them, a childhood friend of his called Friday, told them what he would’ve done by now if Maria was his wife and dared behave all strange like that. The rest replied by laughing, interjecting, and scratching themselves occasionally. Friday’s words were so dark and steely that he had to grit his teeth in between sentences to itch manically. Mr. Osagie watched as his friend winced. Friday sat inside his body with a kind of disgusted pride they could all see, but they knew, too, that he’d rather die than stop now. What else was there to do, peel his skin off in front of everyone? He didn’t even stop smiling. Watching him, Mr. Osagie released his hands from the fists he was hiding them in. He drank what was left of his water, then scratched and scratched while running his mouth, like he was trying to catch up on what he’d missed.
Fifty minutes slithered by and Maria still hadn’t returned, so Mr. Osagie went out to look for her. He checked outside, then in the closet where he’d kept their daughter. Both places were empty. He rushed back inside and went looking for the piece of paper he’d hidden from her. This is all their fault, he thought to himself about his friends as he searched. This is all their fault. If they didn’t come, this wouldn’t have happened. He wasn’t wrong. The Itch was contagious that way.
On the list, Maria had written a list of ten names under the heading The Keepers, with an asterisk by Mama Erhun’s name. This was the paper Maria had tried to eat when he caught her with it—it had to be important. Mr. Osagie showed the list to his friends and told them he suspected those to be the women who were hosting the secret meetings. To put an end to this madness, they needed to find the owners of those houses and put the fear of men back in them. They needed to remind the women that even as they were experiencing these emotional and physical . . . darknesses with the losses, they were still men, and so still in charge. “We need to hurry,” Mr. Osagie said again. “Please.” His whole desperation was showing.
Fifty men gathered outside the markets and dragged the few women they found there by force, screaming threats and asking them to lead to the addresses. They’d agreed that they would start off civil and that if plan A didn’t work, they were free to escalate things as they saw fit, because desperate measures called for it. Some men had already begun to beat them with sticks, so the women agreed to lead the way, praying for no harm. Mr. Osagie followed the team heading to Mama Erhun’s house. He didn’t know why. His heart just told him so.
Inside the house, Mrs. Osagie held her collection of secret stories against her chest, trying to be okay with finally letting them go. She focused her heart on what was ahead, on her reason, as her daughter looked on at her for reassurance. They’d both decided they didn’t want to be a part of a world that allowed these stories to be true in the first place, and Maria knew she’d rather be wherever Ese was anyway. She tried to rehearse the best possible way to present her story, but it all tasted bad at every angle. Should she say, “When I turned six . . .” or “When I was twelve . . .” or “On our fifth and eighth and ninth anniversary, my husband . . .” First? Which one?
It was then, just as she was imagining the response to her confession—the whole room frozen at attention, loving arms around her as her organs fizzled and her body faded at the edges like a poorly kept drawing—that they heard the loud knock.
Mama Erhun opened the door to screaming men. Maria could hear her husband’s voice from the door asking for her, his friends’ voices a chorus behind him. “Yes, yes!” they chanted. “Now! Now!” She reached for her daughter’s hand and squeezed as Mama Erhun told them they couldn’t enter. Mr. Osagie yelled at Mama Erhun, threatening to attack her if she didn’t release his wife and daughter.
“Do they want to be with you?” Mama Erhun asked, a nonchalance flexing in her voice. “Have you asked yourself that? Ehn?” Her drabness clawed at his collarbone. She might as well have slapped him then.
The men behind Mr. Osagie didn’t even wait; they were scratching his body on his behalf, fanning the flames of his insanity. “Hit her!” they yelled. “Hit her!” Mama Erhun shut the door and locked it behind her, facing the room full of terrified women.
“Stay calm,” she said, including herself. “Are they not just men? God is with us.”
The entire herd of men outside seemed to flip at the same time, some screeching as others climbed nearby trees, pouring kerosene on the house. The women they’d dragged from the market scattered in separate corners, running. Inside the women were shaking. Maria kissed her daughter’s forehead and made her a promise: never again.
“They’re going to burn this place down now,” Mama Erhun said. “But we’re going to leave here the way we’ve always wanted to. On our own terms.”
The fire tongued down the roof of the house and heaved. Mama Erhun began saying words as the women wailed. “You’re free. We’re free now. We can go. We can go. Just trust.” Soon, the air was crammed with names and crying voices. Mama Erhun’s heart pounded in her chest as it occurred to her to fear what would happen if no answer came. But the first woman, pregnant and sobbing, faded first. Then more followed. The men, now more confused and desperate than ever, quieted down. Mr. Osagie broke the door in half, catching the last of his wife and daughter, who were now wisps of themselves.
“You know I’ll never hurt you guys,” he said, sobbing to the emptying room. “You know,” he said again, staring around as if their full forms might still be there, invisible but neatly tucked into the floor or walls or ceiling. “Just stop this thing and let us walk away. Just come out. I did all this so you can come out and be okay. Just come out.” The fire growled, tearing through the windows and eating the walls hungrily, like it could live the rest of its life on a diet of just glass and concrete. Mr. Osagie and his friends ran back out, watching the house from afar as it crumpled to the ground in ashes. All the women were really gone. They were really alone. They pretended, with all their combined might, that there was no reason to cry.
For days, Mr. Osagie couldn’t shake the strong dread he felt, so he fed his neck to a noose at midnight. A neighbor who came by to check on him the next morning found him on all fours, rope-end tied to his bedstand, eyes protruding, body straying far. There was vomit on the floor, which he’d choked on trying to ask for a quick death. Hours had passed since then, though, and even now he still wasn’t dead. He knew this was no accident.
He cried as his friend neighbor helped him up, washed his body. He’d never been touched that gently by a man before, he realized. Never.
Later that week, the men gathered to beat a chief, because Mudi, a prostitute, had disappeared after a night with him, and they were getting fed up. They threw a tire over his neck and attempted to burn him; not because they cared for her but because he had dared to shorten their ration. But he only flailed his way out of the fire’s starvation. Weeks passed and he still felt the biting sensation all over his body, unmistakably, though there was no actual proof of kerosene meeting match meeting skin. A few men who’d gotten into knife fights after that could each feel a screaming pain at the woundsites, though no actual wound was visible. They, too, understood.
They’d made this world intentionally in their image, hadn’t they, but now that they’d been left to face it alone, it felt too much like hell. How hadn’t they noticed? They thought this and thought it well, but because they couldn’t remember the way toward tenderness, the more frustrated they got, the more manically they scratched their itches, which of course now meant consequences.
Ota and Owie were the last two women that remained. They’d lived together for forty years with no children, only speaking to each other in a secret language; the men believed them to be witches. On one of their usual evening strolls, the men who were also out on the streets cleared way for them. The women walked hand in hand as a young man began yelling curses. “This is all your fault! This is all your fault, you bloody demons!” He then cursed up at God, who now seemed to look the other way instead of answering back by fire.
The women continued on their way, making him invisible as he tried to charge at them. (What else was there to lose? This was not even their world anymore.) The man was immediately caught in an ambush by the others, who—itching intolerably now—moved enraged toward him. “Leave them! Leave them!” they yelled at him. “Can’t you see they’re all we have left?”
With their limbs tangled in the fight, the sky began to bruise into a dark blue-purple, the color of a ripely divine rage. Ota and Owie watched on and sighed as they began fading and fizzing, hand in hand. The men didn’t notice as blue-purple matured into a deeper darkness that spread over the village, like the sun had suddenly slipped and fallen away with a most crucial half of the sky.