by Anthony Nonso Dim
Mosquitoes in St. Mathew’s parish Amukoko are disrespectful, unruly and uncouth. However, in some way I do think of them as unfazed. Like the missionary that I aspire to be, they are willing to die for their cause, and I can’t slap myself enough in this mission house. Each night I crave for a speedy break of day. I work in this church with Father Benny, a 72 year old Irish priest who is unfazed too. His pink face is now severing into beetroot since he came to Nigeria from Ireland.
So here he is after morning mass on Tuesday sitting on a bench under a mango tree in front of the parish office, body lousy with golden hair, rosy cheeks, poignant with cologne, bulging tired eyes after celebrating a vigil mass the previous night for members of the Charismatic group, he has no choice. I fling a good morning as I walk past him. With a half-smile he asks me whether the insecticide works, I say yes, even though the mosquitos still found a way of nursing ambition and fulfilling their dreams despite the poisoned air.
Fumbling in my pocket for keys at the entrance I notice a large lump of saliva at the door step. Perhaps it was that angst-filled Warri woman who bounded into the office yesterday protesting she wanted to change her child’s baptismal name from Juliana to Uchubiyojo. As a seminarian who tries to feign perseverance, I politely told her that Uchubiyojo was neither a saint nor a gift of the Holy Spirit, and we argued back and forth, so she left with a furious snarl, hesitated at the door to drop this saliva, in memory of her. I swallow my anger, the way Father Benny likes it.
“Oh yeah, I’m coming” Father Benny is saying to a caller on phone, he hangs up. Someone is dying, he tells me he’s leaving for Anointing of the Sick as he starts to rise, so anyone who wishes to see him in office would have to wait until he is back. I nod a yes to him. And as his old corolla eases out of the cool of the churchyard, I think of other places and objects upon which those tyres will screech today: the chunks of road outside eaten by erosion, the unapologetic ditches, arrested house rats flung from windows to the road, looking guilty as charged as they wait for their final death sentence by tyre screech.
For a moment as I unlock the doors I wonder what drives Father Benny. I think perhaps it is the awareness that many churches in Ireland have been emptied of believers, turned into pubs, bars, basilicas have become art galleries. There is now a rise in the number of people with no religion in Ireland. And here he is in Lagos Nigeria, in a booming church where every weekday is half a Sunday, the church swarms with believers, and he is a custodian of these souls who believe that God’s small universe…the church, will remain impeccable as they imagined it from childhood. I expect him to be grateful, to be propped by this turnout.
So I take my seat at the reception in the parish office. Elizabeth, the jolly fat parish secretary in her mid-thirties walks into the office while my eyes are half-shut in a short morning prayer. We exchange greetings, she sits adjacent me. We gossip about a Jesuit priest who has been kidnapped, we do gossip whenever Father Benny is not around, then after we exhaust topics she minds her own business of typing church bulletin for next Sunday.
I like this gorgeous space because even here, outside Holy Mass, that Catholic Solitude still exists: The musty scent of books plus Lysol hang thick in the air. A large frame of the sagacious tearful smile of Pope John Paul 11 waving to a cheerful mammoth crowd with his grey hair flinching in the wind like Olympic torch whilst leaning on his crosier, the Cardinal Archbishop of Lagos in his full regalia is wearing a fatherly smile. But my attention barely rests on these as I always have to read my way through bans of marriage on my table, write announcements for Sunday masses, and attend to each person who walks in. Today I am telling each visitor that Father Benny will be back soon, gesturing them to take their seats as they wait.
It is now half past ten and there are four people who want to meet Father Benny and he is not back. Perhaps he has received other pastoral calls again, a man who is not entitled to having missed calls, no freedom to own a schedule book of his own. He has been doing this for thirty years, without a wife or a child, just to reserve every ounce of his time and attention for God’s people.
At half past twelve a lady walks into the office in flapping oversize dusty slippers, her skin as dark as a moonless midnight, her head like a sucked-until-small lollypop is completely shaved, her silky scarf unveils it slowly as it unwraps and separates from her head and slowly slips down to her shoulder, hangs across her breasts, drops on the floor, she steps on it as she approaches my table. Now I fear she is unhinged, her eye-catching eyes are glistening with a desire to cry. She leans on my table, my chair squeals an inch backward. I invite her to sit, she refuses, insists on standing, quiet, now keeping faraway looks. A nervous tic resumes in me.
“Hello?” I say
“We want to see Father Benny” she says, her voice is like a pitched chorus of two girls speaking through metallic throats. I ask why she wants to see him, she says she is not alone, then I notice another young lady, a mediocre version of herself – very black and sweating, standing outside the church office, and I am scanning and matching the two of them to see whether they are twins. The one outside is looking bitter; stretching to yank at leaves as if scolding them for blossoming on the wrong tree. “How can I help you sister?” I say again, feigning fearlessness.
“Madam speak up! The seminarian is talking to you” Elizabeth dives into the conversation, evenly, turning from her computer towards us with a coy frown on her forehead while arranging a sheaf of marriage papers in her hands.
“We are both evil spirits, the two both of us” I feel suspended in the air from legs to buttocks as she gestures to the girl outside “me and her” my brain is still rebooting, it is praying a fast Hail Mary
“We fly at night” my heart flies, the office’s solitude varnishes as it shimmers out of focus, Pope John Paul’s smile seems to melt away, one of the visitors on the waiting list is trembling. I hear the marriage papers drop against the table from Elizabeth’s hands
“We come do deliverance”.
After a hard swallow, long silence, and my eyes are starting to see clearly again, I tell her Father Benny is not around. I beg her to join her friend outside while they wait for him, the way Father Benny likes it. She remains there, looking sternly at me, her lips widen in a huge smile like she’s about to eat a favorite food. My heart hurdles again, again and again.
“Brother Anthony I want to piss” Elizabeth says with a fast shivering voice, sprinting from her chair. She leaves without the key to the toilet.
“Oh. Yes. The keys” she avoids my face as she hastens back to collect the key bunch from my hand and scurries to the toilet, she had jumped over her seat which had fallen to the floor.
“Is…is that your sister?” I ask her, my voice sounding distant from me. Perhaps my nervousness is more intense because I am glancing at her shoulders and imagining wings growing from them, she dodging electric poles, defying the laws of gravity in the company of her sister, two dark shiny heads and owl eyes.
“Oh yes” she says in earnest “it’s good when sisters don’t just walk together but also fly together” I tap a foot on the floor to be sure of the floor’s support, I am close to numb while she smirks, pinches the side of her laps, leaves her scarf there on the floor and moves out of the office in the slow elegance of an overfed cat. I feel a purge of relief as she exits the office. Outside, she hardens her face as if in preparation to begin a hard work, and joins her sister in the tearing of leafs. So the sound of yanking and tearing of leaves increases. I won’t tell them to stop – it is not for me to decide how many leaves a mango tree can boast of. But three days ago I had scolded a little altar boy for cutting leaves from the same tree, I worried that he would leave the floor littered with leaves. Now it doesn’t feel wrong, let them tear on, I shall sweep when they are gone. It doesn’t take anything to sweep.
Mr. Simeon Okafor, the hegemonic church compound manager is a restless soul who has a touch of stubbornness about him. I don’t like how he orders people around or walks into my room without knocking just because he’s the compound manager. He is slim and slouchy, the flatness of his buttocks emphasize how much he refuses to sit, perhaps his buttocks have evolved into this flat shape that needs no sitting. His trouser wears him. Typical of him, he stops at the tree and watches the ladies tearing the leaves with utter seriousness. One branch is already bald, Mr. Simeon’s mouth drops. I think he is thinking of something witty to spit out
“Wetin? Look at you these gaals” he snaps furiously at them that saliva drizzles from his mouth, his face flushes with worry mixed with anger “Do you know how much we pay the gardeners to trim this?” he adjusts his trouser, looks from under his glasses. They ignore him like he is a mere fresh air that human beings need do nothing about. I’m afraid for Mr. Simeon for the first time.
“Hello gaals. Ahn-ahan, you have no respect? Listeen silly gaals” he intently crushes pieces of leaves on the ground with his feet and makes to touch one of them, the one who had come into the office
“Don’t try it” she quips “you are playing with fa-yah”. Mr. Simeon takes a step backward, takes off his glasses, blinks intermittently in disbelief
“I am a former secretary in the river Niger where we hold general meetings” her voice is still like a chorus of two girls. I notice Mr. Simeon’s right ear jinx once, this must be really serious. So I dip my hand into my pocket and caress my rosary beads as one more Hail Mary recites itself in my brain. An aspiring priest cannot afford to express fear in the presence of church members, I don’t pull the rosary out, I just tap it as if to say “stay with me”.
“And she” she gestures to her sister “Is the present treasurer. She keeps babies for sacrifice” pause “we really do love small babies”
“I like sucking from their skull. What about you?” the other one chimes in, facing Mr. Simeon
“I like their heels. Really cool dear, cool. It is how they taste” she says with tears in her voice “I love baby heels” wipes her eyes, then turns back to the tree and focuses on the leaf tearing. Why did she cry? I am confused.
“This man has one new baby abi?” the other one says. And it is true, Mr. Simeon’s baby was baptized by Father Benny only two weeks ago.
“His baby is very fresh. I hear she is red” her sister concurs with two slow nods, licks her lips with her tongue, then bursts two ripe pimples from the side of her face with one scratch, they weep in sequence. The other one doesn’t wait for the pus to crawl down, she stretches a finger to her sister, robs off the whitish-yellow liquid and puts her finger into her mouth. “Very tasty” she says, nodding in approval.
“Je..ieinz” his tiny set of teeth and thin lips are trembling “J-zus” he lets out a shout, I start to feel my head full of water, my brain swims in my skull, my vision blurs once more. A waiting visitor in a Christian Mothers’ uniform who was asleep suddenly comes wide awake, wipes the ends of her mouth with her wrapper and pries her eyes with both hands
“Where is Anthony? Where is the seminarian?” Did Mr. Simeon just call my name? Something props me to rise from my seat and rush to the toilet at the backdoor
“But I have not finished, Brother” the secretary says “the thing has not come out”; she is plain useless in this situation. I return to my seat.
“Everything has happened today, just today” the woman in a Christian Mothers’ uniform whispers to the man near her, but the bandage around her neck won’t let her turn to him “I thought it was a dream. I didn’t realize this is happening in my presence here and now”.
“May God take power from the devil” the man says in Igbo, snaps fingers into space. Outside the office Mr. Simeon has disappeared and they are still tearing leaves, the floor is littered, the tree sways left and right.
Soon Mr. Simeon arrives with two men: a police man and a church security guard, and everything is starting to feel more tensed, the secretary is still in the toilet, the entrance is littered with green like a bouquet is being prepared for visiting goats. The four of them on the visitors list who were mumbling prayers, are now mumbling complaints about the girls “police, they are demonic fellows” “God forbid” “Let them do something”. Perhaps they cannot go home because the witches have blocked the entrance. The fat police man shouts “khaaa!” at them, they stand still. Another fresh air has blown, so what? Fresh air is natural.
“You girls are really stupid” he charges, holds out his gun, Mr. Simeon takes cover behind him, although his hands are still folded as if he’s still in charge of things. The security man who is a Muslim, is quietly reciting “la ila ila la” as they keep tearing. Finally Father Benny’s Corolla comes into sight. The car halts with a loud squeal of break, he climbs out in haste almost running to the police man.
“What’s the problem han? A gun? In my church?” the police man puts down his gun and Mr. Simeon erupts with reports about the girls, relief seeps through my nerves. But they are now cracking stems, one of them bends and grabs a handful of torn leafs, throws into her mouth and starts munching, she suddenly embodies the firmness of a goat chewing the cud.
“Hello ladies” Father Benny says softly. They both stop the tearing at once. I hear the toilet’s door behind creak open, Elizabeth takes her seat near me, I am disappointed in her…coward!
“It is you that we come and see” one of them says. Elizabeth springs up “they both say they are demon possessed” she says aloud. “They are witches”, “They fly” two of the visitors say at once, then silent after their sentences stumbled into each other.
“Follow me into the office” Father Benny says “Or did any of you come before these ladies?” he says to the visitors
“No – o let them go first, it is fine” they chorus, shook their heads.
“Me I want to go home. I don’t want to see Father again. I will figure out how to take care of my marriage issues. Father is busy” one of them says
“Oh! Because the entrance is now cleared” the Christian Mother says
“I want see wetin go happen” another one says. I can now focus on reading the bans of marriage file. “I am sorry” the secretary says “I thought you wanted to piss. The toilet is now open”. My heart tightens in fury as I withdraw the words I wish to throw at her “when you go back to that toilet, make sure you never come out anymore”.
I continue reading. Four pages later, I see the ladies walk out of the office, both of them now approaching the secretary and I. “I want to shit” the secretary whispers in a scrambling rush to leave “I need the keys” she says with furious command, hands open in my front. But she has not returned the keys to me, perhaps she doesn’t remember she still has them.
“But it is my turn now” I say. She tells me she is a woman, that I don’t understand how women’s body work, looking desperate like a thief about to be caught; her cheeks shook with determination, her eyes shone “give me my key”. But the ladies have reached our table already, all eyes in the office on us. I hear Elizabeth mutter something that sounds like her mother’s maiden name. She last muttered it when robbers came to the parish on the first week I arrived, and after the robbers made away with the money, I asked her for the meaning of what she said – there must be something salvific about Chuchukruku. I think of my Mother’s maiden name too, but Nnamabia doesn’t sound salvific, so I start muttering a praise worship to myself. Otherwise, the office is death silent.
“Father say make we book another appointment” one of them says, I fix my gaze on her pinched nose.
“Do not be afraid” Father Benny appears behind them with a smile “This is a psychological case. I have called one of the sisters at the hospital who is a psychiatrist. Demons don’t come looking for deliverance Anthony.” Suddenly a car with the words Medical Missionaries of Mary parks outside and an unveiled Reverend Sister with untidy grey hair climbs out of it. As the girls move out of the office to meet the Reverend Sister, Father Benny apologizes to the visitors for inconvenience; they forgive him very fast with rigorous nods except the Christian Mother whose neck is bandaged.
It is now evening, there are no more visitors in the office and Elizabeth has gone home. The early evening mosquitoes are starting to do rehearsal’s for night’s work. Father Benny invites me into his office; his face is the reddest it has ever been.
“That experience this morning must have troubled you han. Thank you for making them wait”
“Thank you for coming back” I say, feeling shy.
“Could you have dealt with it if I had not come back?”
“Hmm, Father. Many are called, few are chosen, others are conscripted” his face goes red pink in a stifled laugh, and I join him, he laughs like a baby. He laughs all the louder and holds his round stomach so that he looks like an Irish comic strip.