Bolaji Has A Heart

Osahon Ize-Iyamu


When Bolaji’s husband died, people cast her aside as if she were dead. They stepped around her like she wasn’t there, and turned their heads, like she didn’t exist anymore without her man, that dead woman.

Did she kill him? was the first gossip she’d heard, after the funeral, when everyone cast wide-eyed glances at her while his ashes were put atop his gravestone, afraid of what she’d do next, when she was only grieving. It made a raging fire beneath her bones, like she wasn’t in her own skin, just shifting around inside their fears and imaginings. Surely, it couldn’t be her they were referring to? She’d bought from their markets, laughed with them during outings in the forests. How could this now be her story?

Like hot water cooling, she’d since eased into it, gotten used to walking alone to fetch water, to sitting down alone after the farm work was done, the whole day hiding in her thoughts, floating in the void where no one could hurt her.


It’s dark in here, her thoughts whispered, and she jolted, looking around. Day was beginning to fade. She’d done the farm work, weeded and watered and harvested and swept away sand. She cooked, and ate with ravenous hunger.

A knock on her door. Obioro, She’d expected one of her in-laws   They came looking for trouble, looking to complain, another reason she preferred they didn’t enter her home. Her home, not her dead husband’s home, as they called it. They tried to overshadow her, when their shadows were mice in sunlight.

Obioro tipped his hat then scowled, eying her empty food dishes.”Bolaji, I thought you were a damn fine woman, but we’ve noticed you’re not following custom.”

“Only now custom has meaning for you? Do I see you working the farm with me? No. I hear you all whispering: ‘Oh a good woman! Who’s gonna take her next? Who’s gonna pay her price? Look at the way her round—’ “

Obioro’s pointy ears reddened.but he raised his head “How about some food for your brother-in-law?”

She shrugged, brushing sand off her coat. These were the cold, strange periods, when sand flew in the eyes in waves, and people had to protect themselves while the sands did as they pleased. “No food for those who don’t work.”

She wanted to shut the door, like she was in control of the conversation.  She wanted to release all the burning rage inside her but that wouldn’t fit with people’s sense of proper custom.

Obioro removed his hat, rubbing the dark wet spot inside his cap; his sweat didn’t stop in cold or heat. “You’d do well to remind yourself there are things we brothers own, and many other families have gone about torturing their widows. Now,” Obioro laughed, “you’re not the first to have a dead husband. Live a little.” He leaned in against the door.

Bolaji kept a shoulder to the door against the pressure.. “I’ve never been that social.” She rubbed her palms together, watching the black sand, like gunpowder, fall from her fingers.

He pressed the door harder. “But you should have friends. You need them. Makes the pain ebb.”

He tried to grab her hands but she pulled them away.

“The hell are you two doing here?” a woman called.

Bolaji’s eyes widened, darting around to every house and hut. Nothing. Empty. Dark. A tumbleweed blew by. Then she saw a woman in the street, holding a stiffened slip of paper.

“They’re drawing lots tonight?” Bolaji gasped at her forgetfulness.

The woman placed a hand to her hips and raised an eyebrow in answer.

Bolaji rushed out of the house, twisting the key in the lock, and brushed past her brother-in-law, holding her coat close, her sandglasses firm against her nose.

“You’ll be sweeping the market square this week,” the woman laughed. Bolaji winced at the thought of how she’d fit it in between selling at the market and farming and the best part of her day — rest and thought, when she leaned back into that empty space free of frustration or sorrow.

“I think you should take my shift, too,” Obioro adjusted his collar. “I’m a busy man. I have a family to feed. What do you got? No child, spirit–“

She stopped.

What? What did he say? What?

Barren woman, empty woman.

Something slammed inside her. She wanted to slap him, she wanted him as broken as his words, and yet the rage stayed unfinished within her raised hand.

He saw her intent and grabbed her hand so that one movement would snap a finger. “We had that talk about respect. Remember?” He pressed down and she ground her teeth. “Say you remember so I’m sure you’ve learnt.”

Bolaji closed her eyes tight. She took a cool breath. Her body was stirring, hitting with each heartbeat, that calm anger. She let it flow. “Go ahead”

He stared at her, faltered, black skin paling.

“Go ahead” she said again, voice level, eyes still shut as a smile crept onto her face. “Because I know your mother didn’t wait eighteen years to have you and your brothers without hearing that song, ‘barren woman, empty woman.’ I know she sat me down and spoke with so much anger at how they treated her, how she suffered, and one word of this to her, whatever spirit or hand in me you’re trying to break, she’ll crack you twice as hard, and I’ll join her.”

She opened her eyes, let him see her eyes.

Obioro let go, using his hat to almost cover his face. “I’ll do my shift.” He glanced at her eyes again,. “And yours. This once.”



People were lost in daily gossip and conversation about bets from last night’s Masquerade dance. Her town was a melting pot; cultures twining and turning and bringing out hybrid flavours.

“Kind of you to join us,” Afang, the census taker, remarked. His eyebrows were burnt off so any witticisms or sarcastic undertones were hard to decipher.

Obioro distanced himself from Bolaji. “How much did I miss?”

“Constable did opening statements,” Afang said as he moved through the crowds. “And he wanted to do the lots today, so I let him. I need a break.”

“You do a fine job,” Obioro flashed his teeth.

Bolaji rolled her eyes.

“Your watch doesn’t do a fine job keeping you on time,” the census taker raised a burnt-off brow.

“You can’t put a clock on family matters.”

“And this community is not your family?” Afang almost spat.

Obioro faltered.

Bolaji chuckled and they both stared at her in irritation.

“Now, last I checked, we didn’t come here for no party!” Constable Edu boomed gruffly. Everyone snapped up, like a sudden prickle against their skin. Voices died down as sand rose up, dancing around the square. The sun drowned in quicksand and the world turned blue, as if to mourn its disappearance.

Timing was key.

“Tell ’em, Edu!” Mansima, one of the market sellers, shouted. Bolaji remembered the woman’s laugh during visits when their husbands would have long talks. .Now Mansima turned narrowed eyes at her.  Things, people she’d loved, had withered away. Bolaji paused. She forced a smile, eyes twinkling. “Remember that time at my house you offered to go get the pepper, but you made a mistake and brought ashes?”

Mansima stared at her, unsmiling. “Remember that time your husband died?”

Bolaji closed her eyes. She didn’t take a breath. Her body froze. Then they opened. Unraveled, fire within.

Bad woman, senseless woman, hard wo–

“Afang, collect their lots!” Constable Edu held up strips of hardened paper then stared at the latecomers.

“I thought I had a break,” Afang muttered, moving through the late attendees bringing out strips from their pockets. “Not here to be your damn assistant.” Afang handed him the last strips.

“I’ll throw a name, it will be true,” the constable said, like he was chanting a wish, then whipped out one strip. “Nonso. First day.”

There were groans, and sighs of relief.

“Now, now,” Afang told them, raising his hands. “We don’t make the call.”

Only one person turned off the lights. This was the way of it.   People liked the lights; they said this kept the witches away, if only for a few hours. People liked lighting them, the fire close to their eyes, but didn’t want the job of turning them off, scurrying home in darkness. So the night job was drawn and tallied. Turning off the lights came with the fear of all things unseen in the dark and the loneliness of the task. Tales were told about Masquerades and pacts with demons and their forest babies that needed meals each week. Stories of evil forests and monstrous marauders and spearrangs that had a little too much fun spinning up people’s insides. You heard things that shook you and made you spin. And there were all the people that took their turn and came back different, never came back at all, died in strange ways. Like the man who came back with seven scars that slowly ate him whole over the course of days.

“Bolaji. Third day.”

Everyone looked at her, like how they watched her at the funeral. Her heart stopped pumping for a moment. The constable’s voice melted into the background. She could manage it. She had to manage it. There was no option. Just turn off some lights. They couldn’t be left on all night. That was the tradition. It had been that way forever.

“Okay,” she said to her spirits. “Okay.”

It was all right because it was lots, because no one made the call, because it would help her fit back in to the life of the town. Either that, or they were hoping that the night would bless them and rid them of her.



In three days…

She placed it in the order of things, scheduled it, and got back to work. Her scythe cleared another portion of field as she sang, the weeds swinging away to the wind with a promise to come back. And when they reappeared once more, she would root them out again.

In her darkest days, Bolaji had allowed the farm to grow reckless and wild, but she was back now.

Barren woman, empty woman, hollowed woman, drained woman.

She refused to sell the farm, and the men saved face by saying she wouldn’t be able to handle it, so she wanted to show them how well these crops would thrive.   Her husband’s brothers would come in when the work was done to chop the food. And she had to give them some battles to win so they didn’t look like utter fools and invite people to put “the widow” in her place. Like Afang, who gave his sister-in-law a proper dressing after her husband died on a night when the lights were still on. He made a red dress for her out of the cuts he gave, a suit of many colours painted flesh and blood, slicing the skin nice and thin to cover her body in scars that matted up and wrinkled to scarred messes. Granted, they took him to the constable, but he got off because he counts good and after all that’s just how men grieve. Pity him, poor man lost a brother. Woman only lost a husband; she’ll get another.

Dirty woman, cursed woman, witched woman, childless woman.

Bolaji toiled in the hot sun. Her hand gripped the sickle firmly, so no one would tell her she wasn’t doing it right. She dropped it and mixed sweat with the ground as she applied manure and searched for pests. She sprayed her husband’s concoction to keep the insects away and put up the Masquerade she’d stitched to scare the birds away, reminding herself to spread rumors that her Masquerade danced in the night and knocked at the houses of children who came to steal her yams, placing charms on them. Just like that, there would be another story to be superstitious about, adding to the problem,but working to her benefit.

Naughty woman, harlot woman, sloppy woman, no woman.

She clutched her stomach, stabbed a hand into it like she was plucking herself out.

Her eyes wide, she took a breath. Long and deep, hard and soft, ragged and smooth.

The words were not new, and she had a shield against these things.


It ate at her, tore at her, screamed right in her ear. And every once in a while, she flinched. And her wall came down.

It chewed at her insides, pulling out stumps of tissues and muscles, belly engorged on the pink fat inside her, bones rattling in their shells. She fell into the trap. Time slowed itself down, told her of the hours to be spent washing clothes and cleaning plates and serving tickets and sweeping sand and weaving mats for the market, but she couldn’t get up, she felt heavy, full.

When time gave up on her, and when the sun stretched down and out and away, she still stood there, watching as the world went purple then dark.

Weighted, Bolaji went home.



The days passed by faster than she expected, and soon it was time. She told herself it was going to be no dramatic thing; she was going to get it over with and carry on, but it was the first thought she had on waking.

Her eyelids struggled to open, and part of her felt dead. She tasted bees in her mouth. Sweat rolled down her body. Her throat burned, and her heart fluttered.

Falls away.

Dies away.

Screams away.

Never stays.

Eventually, she had to lift herself up, dust herself off, fix herself up; do it anyway.

Bolaji had a soul; barely living, but not dead yet.



Obioro knocked on her door in the pattern she recognized.

She groaned, rubbing her temples. Her vision was blurry, but behind Obioro she could see a raven perched on a house across the road.

He tipped his hat then stared. “Damn, you’re sick? And that’s not the only omen I’ve seen today…”

“Omen?” She shifted her weight, bones screaming with each movement.

“Bad dreams. Woke up to a murder of ravens. And the scarecrows aren’t dancing for your health, those fore-bringers of death. Figure you’re not a witch though ‘cos you’ve got death on the way. I regret not taking my brother’s property. Now you’ll die and we’ll have to burn the house down. You make things hard, Bolaji.”

She scrunched up her face. “You think so, in-law? So, I should just fetch my noose?”

He glared at her. “You think you can be smart with me.  No way now you’re getting buried with my brother, unless…” he rubbed his hands. “You’ve been so difficult about choosing another of us –“

“I choose no one. Women can be alone you know.”

“Ain’t a good thing to test a man’s patience. Just because my brother didn’t give you a scratch. That dark skin of yours could use a lash or two. ‘Cos of you there’s no trace of him left behind so we’re not even family anymore. Why are you here? Who are you fighting for?”

For a minute her heart stopped. Silence, rising with the winds, taking up sand with it, falling with the winds. She breathed with the motion.

“If you die, Bolaji, make it easy for yourself and don’t struggle, because your battle is long over.”



It was only the early hours of the evening and she was already hearing owls and dead children calling out to her. Her husband’s face, reaching for her from the grave, his ashes forming flesh again, touching her.

Falls away.

Dies away.

Screams away.

 Never stays.

Time dragged, chipping away at the day then taking a breath.  Holding a breath.  When it exhaled, with the world transformed in its darkness, the oil lights came on.  The lights made the place shine as people hurried to their houses.

With a sigh, Bolaji opened her door, closed it behind her, and waited.

She would be the last one outside, but it was good to feel the cool night breeze while the night fell deeper into sleep. Her father turned off lights one time, and her heart was up waiting for him. But he did come back, whistling, in fact, like it was just another day’s work.

Who taught them to fear the night? Who taught them this darkness was evil, sinister, a hand trying to bind them? Why did the fear persist? She stood, shoulders high and back tense, eyes alert. She had been alone for so long, it didn’t faze her that the crowds of people thinned with each passing moment.

And when everyone was shut in for the night, when it was pitch black with a full moon that didn’t have a pregnant belly, she chanted and moved past the fires, fanning out flames, ending the day.

Full woman, good woman, precious woman, blessed woman.


Full woman, good woman, precious woman, blessed woman.


Full woman, good woman, precious woman, blessed woman.

Gracious woman, glorious woman, hearty woman, strong woman.

Fine woman, best woman, first woman, all woman.

You are loved.

You are loved.

You are loved.

There was a laugh in the darkness. “I knew you’d gone mad, Bolaji, but this is a whole new low,” a voice whispered. She turned to see Obioro, standing with folded arms. She tucked the song under the folds of her skin.

“What are you doing here?”

“I started thinking ‘what if you die and people decide our family is cursed?’”

“Thought I wasn’t family.”

“Not to me, but to them you are.”

“Your mother send you out here?”

He shrugged.

They proceeded under the guise of never ending time, night revealing nothing. The air stood still, and the temperature dropped, leaving them in shivers. Every now and then, a night bird broke out in song.

Something shuffled in the darkness. Messy steps and movements, like a bull moving toward them. She looked back, body burning with chills. Obioro brought out his pistol, making it dance in the air.

“Drop it,” the thing commanded.

They turned to see Afang, holding his dressing knife, eyes wide, hands shaking. Surrounded by Masquerades, faces full of light and shining, full of breaths of air, no costume about it. Nothing human underneath or in the gaze. Pale woven skin in abstract forms, body parts in all directions, but hands holding the census taker, embracing him, leading him.

The night revealing itself.

“Hell,” Obioro dropped his gun and stiffened.

“F-f-f-fool,” Afang pointed at Obioro. “We drew lots for this. Only one person to come.”

“Buuuut…” Obioro’s eyes followed the Masquerades. “It’s just…”

“Lots.” Bolaji brought the words down. Decisions not made by man, but by fate, or something else. Like Masquerades. Keepers of the night. Superstition kept in check. Lots.

“How do we fix this?” Obioro asked.

The Masquerades smiled and looked at the lights.

The lamps responded, fading and glowing, fading and glowing, fading and glowing. then flaring on fully to life.

They let go of Afang, released him from their grasp. Bolaji’s body wished to run, wished to flee, but she stood held in place under the gaze and shadows of them, like they weren’t done with her.

The Masquerades stood, then took a step back. And forward. And back. Again. And again, until she realized they were making a pattern.

“Hell,” she said.



Their bodies spun as they began to dance, the lights playing out a strange music. Their legs spread out then fell again while they moved around the three of them, dancing, locking them within this space.

Making a big circle like Bolaji’s mother’s cooking pot.

She looked at the two men, their bodies lost to fear. And they contorted, flesh screaming, pulling apart then coming back the way a rubber band snaps, like their ghosts wanted to depart. They let out blood in their screams as eyeballs shook in their sockets, rupturing and losing fluid then coming back. Veins expanded then burst, spitting out themselves. Skin rolled up and out then scarred itself down, in the process of destroying and mending, destroying and mending; all things a pattern. All the while, the Masquerades went on dancing, smiling, loving, embracing.

And Bolaji?

Bolaji had a heart, the bones of it, the flesh of it, pumping blood as it fell from her chest. Bolaji had lungs, increasing with pressure that didn’t allow her to breathe. Bolaji had skin, skin that remained intact as she let out her anguish while her insides suffered, churned, her body acids eating her whole.

And she was tired of being out of control, so she fought, searching for a strength in her body. The Masquerades gave her a pitying look as they moved; they knew her story, they had been watching all this time — and when she felt a little strength, a little free, less locked in position though still reeling in pain, she clutched a Masquerade and clawed her hand through its raffia skin, squeezing, screaming, and pulling it apart. The Masquerades made her body lock again, no pity left now, but the damage was done, and the one she’d ripped open fell into the bushes, hiding itself away with inhuman cries. The sharp night music grew louder and she stood again, ready for her torment, feeling relief for the bit of control she’d finally taken.

Did they expect her to give up without a struggle? To owe obedience? To feel indebted? She was done with that.

And at that moment the circle broke for her, only her, the Masquerades bunching to the side, and in relief she fell to her knees, then got back up, her shadow increasing as she stood tall and gave the Masquerades one last blazingt look. Then she ran, not afraid of this night or what came of it. And if the men survived, or if she only came back alive, there would be another story of the night to keep fears alive. And maybe she would tell it, make it her own, her tale.

Her heart was racing, but she was alive, fully formed and whole.   And safe.

Whole woman, living woman, lucky woman, brave woman.







“Bolaji Has a Heart”,   ©  Osahon Ize-Iyamu
Osahon Ize-Iyamu writes speculative fiction novels and shorter fiction. He lives in Nigeria. He is a graduate of the 2017 Alpha Writers Workshop, and you can find his fiction in The Dark. You can also find him online @osahon4545.



“Star-Filled” and “Masquerade Dance”  ©  Fran Eisemann
Stock used:
Stock Model 33” by Mo Nabbach, UK
star fields and Milky Way courtesy NASA

“Masquerade Dance”:
thankfully he has no brain”  by  Casey L. Jones, U.S.
“sjy 2” by Jade Macalla U.S.
scarecrow 1”  &  “scarecrow 2”  by  Vickie McCarty, U.S.
scarecrow” by Mr. Burn, Germany
scarecrow 12” & “scarecrow 8”  by Nicole, U.S.
scarecrow 01″   by  Coral E. McBride, Australia
sweet music“,  “creepy creepy“, ‘the victor”“stop“,  “music is life“, &  “model 45”  by  Alagbu Leo Uchenna, Nigeria
mask”  by juliox
fireworks_stock 40” by Leni, Germany
creepy trees stock” by Elina, U.S.

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