In the beginning, his mother’s voice in prayers and loud praises will hatch the mornings, find its way to Theo’s bedroom and strangle sleep out of him. She prays in a way you’d think the roof of the house would collapse on you. He finds her importunate and melodramatic prayers unnecessary. Can’t one just pray without all these theatrics?
He has always been indifferent about religion and church and God. When he was nine–nine is a terrifying age. He remembers nothing before he was nine–His Sunday School teacher, a man, mean as Mondays, who always wears an old baggy suit, will scare them with stories of hell and fallen angels that would end up giving him horrible dreams of monstrous creatures.
At twenty one, he stopped going to church except for weddings and funerals. He doesn’t care enough to be an atheist, but that is what he practices. He could call himself agnostic, it sounds more tolerant and less dogmatic. I am an adult now, mama. I know what I want, and religion is not part of it. He will tell his mother whenever she pleads with him to come to church with her.
This morning in April, his mother’s voice, shrill but steady, calls his name asking ‘her God’ to deliver and protect him. He can tell she is pacing the living room, and clapping her hands as she prays. He imagines her shaking her head too. But that is eight months before her slender body dressed in a soft satin-like funeral gown that looks like a smart pyjamas lies in a brown coffin at Petra Christian Assembly.
He sits where his eyes can catch glimpses of his mother’s body in the open coffin. Even though her face is bloated from the deprivation of oxygen, she still has the featly prettiness of living things. Her nose and ears are stuffed with cotton wools, and her hair that has greyed to the colour of wet ash not from age, but stress and uninteresting life, is resting like a bouquet of wilted flowers on her small head. Theo’s heart feels wounded as if pressed forcefully to a thousand needles.
He notices a strange man sitting with three other men in a place where important people should sit. The man is looking at him. His stare is too direct and intent. He is not merely resting his eyes on the rest of the people, he is looking at him.
The flock of humans here are mostly strangers to him. Their faces are pleated with the dreadfulness that Death weaves on the living. Death has its silent way of bringing people together. Death is a Unifier.
A young woman that does not look like someone one should see in a church– or so he thinks, stands on the stage. She is wearing a charcoal-coloured short chiffon gown that will expose her thighs if she dares to sit, and a figure that would make Thomas Aquinas almost forget his vows.
Her skin is the colour of fresh honey, harvested at dawn and her hair with no scarf is braided in large separate tufts falling to the centre of her back. She sings ‘how great is our God’ as the piano plays. Theo does not sing along, instead, he lets his mind wander like a fugitive in a lone country. Outside, the wind blows on the church roof and commands the trees to sway and hug each other as if in fervent prayer. Outside, the world is dying and everything with it.
Except, Theo’s Tecno phone playing Lil Wayne’s Black and Yellow while he washes his bicycle. The only memory of his father left with him is this old rickety bicycle that he rarely uses but cares for like an artefact of generational relevance. His father left home when he was four years old and never returned, and was never found dead or alive. This made Theo’s mother use prayer and whatever keeps her mind busy to mask the damage that his mysterious disappearance had caused in her life.
She calls his name to come inside and eat his food before it gets cold. Her call makes him realise how hungry he has been. He trots to the room and slams the door behind him.
Mother’s lifeless body is still lying in the cheap claustrophobic coffin. She can’t hear the choir chanting hymns and singing songs, their voices rising and falling like tidal waves. She can’t hear the thin wails of the bereaved wafting through the place. She can’t see his face that accumulates with reams of questions unasked, gathering like rough pebbles and constricted in his throat.
Instead she sees his face beaded with scanty sweats and his thin muscular body bagged in a faded Man United jersey smelling of salt that remains when water evaporates. Walking hungrily to the kitchen, he swats the fly that is hovering sluggishly like a pregnant woman around him–dead.
Dead, like mother is now. Killed by cervical cancer. Killed!
The stare of the strange man is almost unblinking, fiercely focused on Theo. He stares back at him, and yet he does not waver, his eyes remaining firm, until Theo looks away. A tall fat man with the face of a person whose life is a blur of comforts, standing begins to speak:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”,
His mother consoles herself with verses like this that seemed to relief her from the throes of pain. He is barely looking at the talking man. His mind is roaming. This time, he thinks of elephants mysteriously dropping next to watering holes somewhere. He thinks of starry skies on cold nights. He remembers the story his secondary school friend, Hassy, told him of insects flying through the rain, missing every drop, never getting wet. He imagines the place as an open field with swarm of insects while it is raining.
He imagines them accurately missing every drop and enjoying the moment as the defeated pebbles drop on dense grasses and parch soils. He thinks of his mother’s body rotting. Hungry termites devouring it with great relish reducing her to mere bones and then bones deteriorating like ashen wood into the earth.
“…and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn”,
the sudden inflation in the man’s voice cuts Theo’s imaginations halfway.
“To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness”.
He is full of the glossy self-regard of men who would shrug off importance with ‘All glory be to God’ in a way that only emphasizes their own importance.
But Theo is not mourning the dead fly on their living room floor; his stomach is moaning for want of beans that is gleaming red with palm oil and filling the air with the smell of crayfish, packed with vegetable leaves and traces of sweet potato. He eats greedily, gulping every spoon until his mother, who has been watching him says:
“Don’t eat with such a greed, Theophilus”.
The sweet smell is replaced by the stench of their neighbour’s poultry that has its own will, and will patiently wait for the arrival of food before it trails its way, cautiously, to their apartment.
…that God has chosen to separate us from your father does not mean our lives will continue to be miserable, his mother says, looking at the ceiling as though God is shyly hiding inside it and waiting for someone to call his name and ask him to come and have a plate of beans, then tell him to please solve their problems after he has eaten.
His dead mother, housed momentarily with the living in this reliquary, does not call God but wears a dead face that can’t open its mouth to speak. She had lived in a tremulous world of bad news and cancerous growths.
The man that has been looking at him now sitting in a relaxed way, having his eyes still glued on him like it were a dismembered part of his body that needed rejoining with the other separate parts.
He keeps his hands on the sill of his window watching the sun slink down the horizon. His bed is badly arranged, with many clothes scattered on them. His reading table carries note books and textbooks in preparation for his forthcoming University Entrance Examination. Behind the door is an empty basket carying dirty clothes.
A sharp painful wail pierces through his closed door making him flinch. He dashes to the living room and sees his mother wriggling in pain but tries to hide it with a motherly it-is-well face when she sees him. He lifts her to sit upright on their cheap three-sitter couch and uses his hand as support, but she wriggles the more and points to the door. He rushes outside, calls their neighbour and she is taken to a hospital.
This time, it is not Theophilus who lifts her up but four unsmiling men in black, dressed in something that looks like a suit. He watches as they move what remains of his mother behind. The world is silent in his head. His eyes are the banks of a roaring river not able to hold water.
There is a tap on his shoulder, he turns and he is face to face with the strange man that has been looking at him. The man’s eyes are liquid like jelly. They lock eyes for several seconds.
“Son!” His lips quivering.
Theo’s voice twists into several knots that hurts when he tries to speak. Then he mutters:
Bible References in the story and where they can be found:
“To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness”- Isaiah 61:3
..and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn”,- Isaiah 61:2
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”,- Matthew 5:4
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