This piece was submitted by Chinelo Okparanta as part of the 2014 PEN World Voices Online Anthology.

Chinelo Okparanta’s events: African Writers Panel hosted by Eddie Mandhry and What’s Your Muse? 

There are six of us. We are gathered in the cemetery where the tombstones rise low. We are loafing and loitering; we are chattering among ourselves. We are lions and lionesses, and the cemetery is our den.

At first it is raining, so we watch the deep dents of the concrete slabs fill with rain. When the rain dies down, we simply trace the yellow weeds with our eyes.

Yesterday we did not gather by the tombstones for long. The crowd of people came, singing, moaning loudly, all dressed in gray and black. The men lifted their shovels and held them above the earth. They dug a shallow hole and lowered the coffin into the hole. We watched from our hiding places among the orange and mango trees. We whispered at the slightness of the box: a simple wooden rectangle, its lid flapping gently, appearing not to have been sealed.

“Will make it easy for us,” Bunmi said.

“Better than easy,” Ayo replied.

Today, we have settled down on the new grave, the way we always do. M-A-R-T-A, the tombstone reads, and though we have not the slightest idea who Marta might have been, we have commenced the telling of her story.

In Chika’s version, Marta is a woman who goes to America to attend university but ends up cleaning the toilets and scrubbing the floors of old white people in places called nursing homes. Because that’s what happens to all Nigerians who go abroad, Chika tells us. Haven’t you heard? And of course, we all have.

“That’s not how it goes!” Bunmi scolds.

“If that’s not the way it goes, then how does it go?” Chika asks.

“Marta doesn’t go to America!” Bunmi responds, as if Marta were a close friend of hers.

“Of course she goes to America,” Sola says. “Everybody and their mother eventually goes to America!”

“No,” Bunmi says indignantly. “Not Marta. Marta doesn’t go to America. You have to start from the beginning and tell it the correct way.”

“Well, you tell it then,” Chika says.

Not far from where we sit, swaying by the grove of orange and mango trees, is a makeshift swing: two thick ropes connected to a flat wooden board. I imagine swinging now. The sun still hangs bright in the sky, but I imagine that it has already gone down, that we have finished with our work, that the fireflies are roaming and I am chasing them with my eyes.

Bunmi smiles. She clears her throat and begins the story again. “Story, story?” she says.

“Story,” everyone responds.

“Once upon a time?”

 “Time, time.”

“There was once a young girl named Marta who was the most beautiful across the seven rivers.”

“Did she live in the river like Mami Wata?” Tobechukwu asks, laughing at his own joke. As if he doesn’t make this same joke every time Bunmi mentions “across the seven rivers.”

Ayo turns to Tobechukwu and gives him a high five. We girls sigh loudly, roll our eyes at the boys.

“Okay, okay,” Tobechukwu says finally. He adjusts his oversized baseball hat. “We’re sorry. Please continue,” he says.

Bunmi begins again: “In the village somewhere between Igbo and Yorubaland lived a beautiful young girl, the most beautiful across the seven rivers. Her name was


“What does Marta even mean?” Sola asks, fidgeting absentmindedly with her dangling gold earrings.

“You see?” Chika says. “That’s exactly why she should go to America! Her name is Marta! It’s the kind of name that people in America have.”

There’s nothing especially American about the name, I want to say. And I want to say that people in Nigeria have that name too, but before I open my mouth to say it, Bunmi speaks. “Doesn’t matter what Marta means. All you need to know is that it’s her name. No America involved.”

“Okay. Go on,” Chika says.

“Marta was so beautiful that men from over fifty villages gathered day and night to ask her hand in marriage,” Bunmi continues.

“What I’d like to know is if Marta was Yoruba or Igbo,” Ayo says.

“What does it matter to you?” Chika asks. “Maybe her mother was Igbo and her father Yoruba. That happens all the time these days.”

“Like if you and Ayo decided to get married,” Tobechukwu says, winking at Ayo.

Ayo blows Chika a kiss in the air.

Tufiakwa!” Chika exclaims. “That’s the last thing I will ever do!” she says, though we all know that she does like Ayo.

“Okay, okay,” Ayo replies. “No be big problem!” He speaks in mockserious pidgin, with an artificial raspiness, as if he were suddenly a man.

“You turn down my love for you, no be big problem at all!”

Chika laughs. The rest of us do too.

After a moment, Tobechukwu squints, and he wrinkles his nose, as if he can see or smell a new question in the air. “What I want to know is how old was Marta when these men were coming,” he says.

“Old enough to be married,” Chika responds.

“Marta was sixteen years old,” Bunmi says. “Only a few years older than us.” It is true. We are mostly eleven and twelve. Only Bunmi is thirteen.

“People don’t get married that early,” Ayo says.

“How would you even know?” Bunmi asks. “Maybe mostly they don’t, but sometimes I bet you they do.”

“All right, all right,” Tobechukwu says.

“Go on. Hurry up and continue.” And Bunmi does.

“Every evening, just before sunset, a hundred men would line up outside Marta’s family’s compound: men dressed in their traditional garments—agbadas and sokotos, Igbo chiefs in their gold isiagus—all of them offering Marta’s father a herd of cows and a portion of land for her hand in marriage. Marta would start at one end of the line, and as she walked up to the other end of the line, she would eliminate men.”

“She didn’t like any of them?” Chika asks.

“She didn’t like any of them,” Bunmi says.

“Did she have to get married?” Sola asks.

“All girls have to get married,” Bunmi says.

“Why?” Chika asks.

“Tradition,” Bunmi responds, like a verdict. Like something she has heard somewhere, in school or from grown-up talks.

“Tradition can’t be the reason why girls have to get married,” I start to say, because, for one thing, I’ve heard the grown-ups myself. And the only thing I’ve heard them say about tradition is that tradition is fading away. For another thing, my mama is always saying that these days girls should marry only if they are able to find themselves really good men like my papa. Which basically means that girls don’t even have to marry.

But Bunmi ignores the little that I have said, so I don’t say the rest.

“Every day, for months, Marta eliminates all her suitors,” Bunmi says. “And the next day, more men line up. Of course, they are eliminated like all the rest. Then one day, Marta’s father forces her to choose a husband.”

“Who does she choose?” Tobechukwu asks.

“She was just about to say,” Sola says.

“Marta chooses the most handsome of the men,” Bunmi says, “who is also the man that presents her father with the largest portion of land and the greatest number of cows. And before you can even blink your eyes, they plan a huge wedding.” She opens her arms wide to show the size of the wedding. “And abracadabra,” she snaps her fingers. “Abracadabra: Marta is suddenly a married woman!”

“Then they all lived happily ever after,” Ayo says.

“No, silly,” Bunmi says. “If they all live happily ever after, then why is Marta dead?!”

“I forgot about that part,” Ayo says, all wide-eyed, feigning surprise. “So what happens to her then?” He is a little less wide-eyed now.

“The day after her marriage she packs her things to go to her husband’s home. That’s the way it is, you know, the wife always moves into the husband’s home,” Bunmi says. “So they are on this journey to get to the husband’s home. That’s when all the strange things begin to happen. You see, Marta’s journey to her husband’s village is a long one. They set off on foot, on a thirteen-day journey. On day number one, they leave. Everything is wonderful and just as to be expected. On day number two, they make a stop during which her husband runs into the bushes. When her husband returns from the bushes, Marta notices that her husband’s voice is not as tender as it had been before he went in. It is coarser, as if he is angry now. But still he acts the same husbandly way toward her—holds her hand, for example—and so she ignores the change. ‘Is everything okay?’ she asks. He nods his head, saying that everything is just fine.”

“And then what?” Sola asks.

“I was getting there,” Bunmi says. She clears her throat again and continues:

“A couple of days go by where nothing really changes. Then, on day number five, her husband runs into the bushes again. When he comes back, she notices that there are patches on his head where his hair used to be. ‘Is everything okay?’ Marta asks again. And again, he nods, saying that things are just fine. More days go by.”

“And then what?” I ask. All around me Sola and Chika and Ayo and Tobechukwu are now serious and listening. I can tell that they also want to know.

“On day number eight, Marta’s husband runs into the bushes,” Bunmi says. “This time, when he returns, there is nothing where his ears used to be.”

“Oh Lord!” says Chika.

“Disgusting!” Tobechukwu mutters.

Sola and Ayo and I shudder.

Bunmi cocks her head and raises a brow, which tells us that she is satisfied by the effect of her storytelling. We have responded in the desired way, and she approves.

“Marta becomes terrified. ‘Is everything okay?’ she asks again. But this time there is no answer.”

“Of course there is no answer,” Sola says. “He has no ears to even hear the question!” All of us fall into laughter.

“She should run away from him,” Tobechukwu says finally.

“She doesn’t know where she is by now, silly,” Bunmi says. “Anyway, it turns out that her husband keeps going into the bushes to return all the body parts that he borrowed before he went to Marta’s village. You see, none of his body parts were his own. Not even his voice. And now Marta looks around her and cannot recognize her surroundings. Her only choice is to follow him and hope that someone in his village will save her from him. Meanwhile, things get worse. On day number eleven, her husband loses his arms and his legs and begins to crawl on the earth like a tortoise. Marta cannot look at him anymore. She starts to cry, but she has no choice but to continue following what remains of the man. On day number thirteen, they arrive at her husband’s village. And what does she find?”

“She finds that everyone in the village is just like him,” Sola says.

“Exactly,” Bunmi says. “But more than that, Marta sees that she has been brought back by her husband not to be a wife, but to be food for the village. The butcher knives are all ready to welcome her at her arrival, and so are the cauldrons.”

“But how do they even wield the knives if they have no arms?” Chika asks.

“Never mind that,” Bunmi says. “You just have to believe me when I say it. Besides, it’s just how the story goes.”

“They cooked her and ate her?” Ayo asks. He is staring, bewildered, at the tombstone.

“No,” Bunmi says.

“You see,” Chika interjects. “This has to be America. That’s where this kind of nonsense happens. People losing body parts and changing and becoming something other than themselves.”

“People don’t lose body parts in America,” I say. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“Plastic surgery,” Ayo says. “They lose body parts that way. Maybe Chika means plastic surgery.”

“No,” Chika says. “I mean something more serious than that. Like the professor. Remember the story of the professor?”

“What professor?” Sola asks.

“What do you mean what professor?” Tobechukwu says. “She’s talking about the man who went to America and became a professor, but not just a professor. A wicked professor. It’s almost the same thing as Marta. A man marries a woman, takes her on a journey to America, and when he gets her there, he starts to change, becomes wicked and starts beating up his wife.”

“Only one day she packs her things and leaves,” Chika continues. “But then he calls her, asking her to meet him and talk. When she shows up, he pulls out a gun, just pulls it out right there, and shoots her to death! And afterward he shoots himself to death too. Mama and Papa were talking about it when it happened. There was also another one. But this other one, he only shot his wife. He didn’t bother to shoot himself.”

“I heard about it,” Ayo says.

“Men are always going to America and killing their wives,” Chika says.

“It’s like something snaps in their brains in America,” Ayo says. “Igbo men, anyway.”

“Hold on, hold on,” Tobechukwu says. “Just what do you mean by ‘Igbo men, anyway’?”

“Well, have you heard of any Yorubas or Hausas killing their wives in America?”

Tobechukwu starts to answer, but he does not come up with any Yorubas or Hausa examples.

“Ehn-heh,” Ayo says. “You see? I’m right. It’s like the Igbo men go there, and after cleaning toilets and mopping floors of the white people, after answering, ‘Yes, sah,’ or ‘Yes, ma’am’ to the white people over and over and over again, all those years, something snaps in their heads, and they are no longer themselves, and they take it out on their wives. I’m sure the professor has to clean toilets and mop floors and act like a slave to some white person before he was finally able to become a professor. I’m sure all of that was the reason he became no longer himself.”

“Maybe it’s just the food in America,” Tobechukwu says thoughtfully. “Maybe it could happen to anyone. All that sugar maybe messes with the brain. And then before you know it—”

“Or maybe it’s all the snow,” Chika says.

“Or maybe it’s in the air,” Sola says.

“But it’s always the Igbos,” Ayo responds.

“Then maybe it’s Biafra,” I say. This time it is I who repeats what I’ve heard the grown-ups say.

“Biafra?” Bunmi asks.

“What’s Biafra?” inquires Chika.

“The war,” I say, even though I don’t know very much about it. I say it anyway, because I’ve heard my mama and papa talk about it. Because I have heard them say how the Igbos suffered the most.  “Maybe it’s because of all the suffering that Igbo men went through in Biafra.”

They all stare silently at me. “All of those are just silly excuses,” Tobechukwu says finally. “Never mind if it’s always the Igbos. Doesn’t matter. Just let’s get on with the story.”

There is another silence before Bunmi continues: “Well, just before they are about to snatch her and butcher her, Marta sees a giant bird above her. She sings up to the bird, sings so beautifully that the bird stops and listens. She carries on singing, telling it the story of her journey by way of her song. The bird listens, and eventually it descends down from the sky and carries her all the way back to her own village. And then she lives happily ever after.”

“With no husband?” Sola asks.

“With no husband,” Bunmi says.

The sky has swallowed up the sun by this time, but there are still slivers of light. It is now that we begin to dig, because it is dark enough that we are concealed, but light enough that we can see. We know that there is only the earth to overcome, and we know that the coffin is not really six feet deep. “Six feet under” is what the grown-ups like to say, but we have been doing this for a long time. We know that the grave is always shallower than that. Shallow enough that we do not even have to climb in. Shallow enough that we can always get the job done in a matter of minutes.

We clear and we clear and we clear the earth with our hands. The earth is strong-smelling and cold in our palms, and Tobechukwu makes the joke that he always makes: How would we like to be disturbed if we were earthworms or weeds? Ehn? Ehn? How would you like that?

When we have cleared all the earth away, we catch our breaths.

“Almost done,” Sola says.

“Good thing, because I’m hungry. Must be past suppertime by now,” Ayo says. It is only getting to be suppertime, not yet past, but this is what Ayo likes to say around this time, and as usual, I imagine a plate of garri and soup, or a bowl of jollof rice.

Bunmi knocks on the coffin to announce our arrival. Knock, knock! Who’s there?

“Marta!” Ayo responds, in a girlish voice. We all burst out in laughter.

When we have opened the lid, we do not pause to take her in with our eyes. We bow our heads and hold our breaths as if we are in church, about to confess our sins. And just as quickly as our heads are bowed, we spring into action, our fingers going where they always go: ears, neck, wrists, and pockets.

The earrings are gold, or at least we imagine that they are. The necklace, as well. Marta’s skirt pockets are empty but it is always worth a look because sometimes we have found naira bills or dollar bills or even euros.

“This time, the necklace is mine,” Chika whispers loudly, because, of course, she is keeping track. We are all keeping track. Last time, there was a watch, and it went to Ayo, and the time before that, a necklace that went to Bunmi. Sola has been waiting for her own necklace for some time now, something to match the earrings she got awhile back, the earrings that she is wearing now. And I have been waiting for earrings of my own.

I snatch them. Everyone knows that they are mine. “Maybe they are made in America?” I ask.

“Maybe,” Ayo says, and the rest of us agree. The last time, a man had been buried with a baseball cap—Ayo’s baseball cap now. We’d all read the tag together. Made in America, it said.

“Better we don’t go to America and become something other than ourselves,” Chika says. “Better this way, when America comes to us.”

There is not much else to take from Marta other than the jewelry, and so we replace the lid. We shift the earth, heaping it hastily so that it is once more covering the wood of the coffin. We stand and we stretch, and we dust ourselves off with our hands.

Now we are running out of the cemetery, onto the road leading down to our row of houses. First, Ayo and Bunmi will leave us, because their house is the first one we reach where the road turns. Next will be Tobechukwu and Chika, and then Sola and, finally, me. We are running, and now we reach Ayo and Bunmi’s gate. We catch a glimpse of their mother, a shadow of a woman, but we recognize her shape and we recognize her voice, a sound like the voices of our own mothers—scolding—asking, Why are you coming back so late? Where have you been all this time? Tomorrow is a school day, hurry up and eat so you can get ready for bed. We hear the voice of the shadow woman even though we have now raced past.

Now we are at Tobechukwu and Chika’s gate, and then I am waving goodbye to Sola at her gate. In the distance I can see my own gate, and I can see the gravel of the driveway shimmering on the ground near our car.

In the coming days our mamas and papas will see the items that we have pillaged. They will ask about them, and we will tell them the truth: gifts from the dead. They will shake their heads at us. “What nonsense!” they will say, but they will leave it at that. We will continue to gather at the cemetery, to pillage the graves, to run from the cemetery to our gates, then into our homes. Our laughter will ring out brightly in the night like fireflies illuminating the dark.

This story first appeared in Tin House: Winter Reading (Issue #58, Winter 2013).