They’re there, somewhere out there.
She knew this, was firmly convinced. Otherwise she’d just vehemently cussed Mommy out for nothing.
“Don’t talk about my kids!” she said, and Mommy left her alone. Alone to pace the courtyard of their Lagos home, hands on her hips as she looked to the sky and wondered where they could be. She did a quick sum, counting on her fingers – the first would have been four and the second three.
She is deluded.
Sometimes she cooperates tentatively with sanity, like coming up for air after struggling in the deep end of delirium’s turbulent waters. Lucidity buzzing through her body and electrifying the air around her, she’d manage to cook an omelette, even going as far as leaving the courtyard to buy agege bread — the necessary complement to the eggs. Sometimes she’d abruptly leave whatever she was doing to go upstairs to the second floor of the house, to the room no one uses save to dump suitcases and empty travelling bags. The mop is in her left hand, a bottle of bleach in her right, a bucketful of water at her feet.
“This place needs a clean. It is too dusty in here, it is too filthy in here,” she thought.
Her skin crawled with invisible no-see-ums, and the only way to fight back the tears welling up in her throat, eyes, and ears was to c-l-e-a-n thoroughly. She gently hummed Tori Amos’s ‘The Beekeeper’ as, with a whirling dervish of energy, she mopped what could be mopped and even that which couldn’t.
“Cleanliness is close to godliness,” she intoned, working out her salvation with fear and Handy Andy.
Her eyes opened to see her mother hovering nearby, smiling faintly. On her right is a nightstand with a silver tray bearing a carton of Lucozade and a tumbler. Nightstand – she was in Mommy and Daddy’s bed. She had not slept for fifty-six consecutive hours and they were understandably freaked out. They’d called a personal, discreet doctor friend of theirs to the house, and he’d injected her with who-knows-what. There seemed to be no physical cause to her illness. No fever, no cough, no weakness of limb. In fact, she had an abundance of energy and cried excessively. Eager to let as few people as possible know what was happening to the daughter of the Right Honorable Mr So-and-So, Mommy and Daddy took her to a faith healer outside of the city.
“I don’t want to stay here,” she said, as they tried to assure her that it was for her own good. They’re at the Church of Seraphim and Cherubim in a village forty-five minutes northeast of Lagos. Having carried her bags as far as the veranda of the pastor’s house, Mommy and Daddy get in the car and drive off, waving goodbye with fake cheer – whether for her sake or theirs, who knows?
Seraphim is an Aladura church — “those who pray” in Yoruba — and was her home away from home for five exceedingly strange days. Their Bible has five extra books in it, the apocryphal ones – the ‘naughty’ books that were not approved for inclusion by many of Christendom’s forefathers. The church advocates spiritual incubation — abe aabo — a form of communal living with a timetable of tediously regular fasting and prayer. Congregants with diverse infirmities are encouraged to sleep on the church floor to get help in meeting their essential needs, and testimonies are shared in corporate meetings. Sunday services are long, overwrought affairs with much singing, dancing, intoning and storytelling. All of which takes place in a muggy, humid heat. Wycliffe would have strongly disapproved: he had a puritanical dislike of loud singing and intoning in church. In his heyday, some 700-odd years ago, he was an influential muckraker, a veritable thorn in the side of the Catholic Church. Wycliffe regarded the worship of images and the adoration of relics as forms of idolatry.
It was breakfast time at Seraphim and her first meal was ogi, an ordinarily delicious, slightly sour dish, eaten with lashings of sugar and condensed milk. But this ogi was different. Laced with the Nigerian equivalent of Ex-Lax, it was meant to induce vomiting. For the healing process to begin, purging had to take place then prayers were done.
She felt like a spectacle that morning, eating slowly on the veranda of the pastor’s house. Seated on an unevenly-legged chair, two metres away from the church, she barfed periodically into a tin cup that was considerately placed at her feet by one of the pastor’s many children.
Known as ‘Daddy’ to most church members, the pastor was a rotund hulk of man, with a full head of hair any middle-aged male would covet. Portly and enigmatic, he positioned himself some metres behind her, hailing passers-by while keeping an eye on her progress with the ogi.
“All the poison must leave your body so the prayer will be effective, ehn?” he explained. Tasting the bile in her mouth, she sat long enough in that rickety chair to notice the sun shining on the wall of the building right opposite the church – it was emblazoned with faded posters screeching support for Obasanjo.
The puking was followed by a flurry of formal introductions. ‘Daddy’ presented his family to her – wife, two eldest sons, an eldest daughter, some middle children, and several tiny ones. The tiny ones were touchingly solicitous of her wellbeing. Helping her settle in later that evening was the eldest daughter, who also gently but firmly explained how she ought to spend her time there. She was not expected to lift a finger, which meant no cooking, and definitely no cleaning. Only fasting and praying was allowed.
Someone’s tapping her lightly on the shoulder. She can’t believe she fell asleep.
“Get up. We have to go somewhere,” said ‘Daddy.’ He takes her on a tour of the church’s property, including a cemetery where he points out various headstones. Who these dead people were and why she should know them are beyond her realm of comprehension. She was itching to get back to the house so she could continue to master the finer details of the Levitical laws. “If he brings a lamb as his sin offering, he shall bring a female without blemish,” Leviticus 4 was heavy on her mind.
There was no time for sin though as ‘Daddy’ took her to his eldest sons, and not the living room as she’d hoped. They were at the back of the house, doing something to a generator, fixing it, she supposed.
“Have you watched ‘Spartacus’?” they asked, sniggering. They’d swapped out the English ‘p’ with a Yoruba one; it was pretty funny. As they continued to work on the gen their jokes got increasingly lewd and she had to walk away. One of the sons followed her to the living room, and just as she was about to be reunited with her moleskin journal, he grabbed it.
“Look what she wrote here!” he started to read aloud, “‘All I feel is pain, pain, pain.’ Hah!” He made a worried face at her. There were others in the living room who looked equally concerned. She was sent to her ‘room,’ without her journal, and told to stay there till daybreak.
The room door was ajar. At night, once all the lights were off and goodnights were said, she could see ‘Daddy’ standing at the front of the house, slaying spirits with a wooden sword. He did the same every morning too.
Someone’s singing softly. She’s fallen asleep again.
The singer is an incredibly beautiful woman with vertical tribal marks on her cheeks and long, long threaded hair. She has come to Seraphim for incubation, along with another woman whose expertly applied false eyelashes are truly startling in this environment.
There’s to be a special service today, which the women are getting dressed for. ‘Daddy’ was away on business, so the eldest sons and eldest daughter were in charge. No more than forty people fit inside the small church next to the house, but their singing can be heard kilometres away.
The sons take it upon themselves to begin praying for her. She played along, relishing the thought that these Nadab and Abihu wannabes were dead set on countering her madness with prayers and incense. She fell to her knees, writhed on the smooth concrete ground, and gave some Nollywood-worthy yelps whenever the incense-bearer touched her. It was quite an impressive display. “Then said, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips,…” Isaiah 6 was heavy on her mind as the sons tried to rub hot charcoal across her mouth.
She’s floating on balmy seas. The sun is not too strong, nor too weak. The water is just right. She opens her eyes. She’s still under abe aabo.
Somewhere in the middle of the day, she gets her period and because it was a blessed sign of returning health, the event was met with much celebration. She was allowed to have a Fanta! After an eighty-hour diet of tubers and fresh spring water this was a veritable feast.
Towards dusk, wanting to dispose of her sanitary pads, she set out for the compost heap located at the end of the dirt road. The heap gave off a faint glow, as from embers still burning, under the first few layers of garbage. The pastor’s eldest daughter followed her, imploring her to come back. “You’re not allowed to leave the house,” the eldest daughter said, “here, let me do that for you,” trying to take the plastic bag of dried menstrual blood from her hands. She disagreed, insisted on throwing it away herself. Some of the other church members started trickling out of the house, including the beautiful woman with the long, threaded hair and her be-lashed companion, to remind her, in multiple voices, that part of the healing process involved not leaving the church compound at all.
“These people want to keep me from my children,” she thought, “I will not let it happen.”
To their cacophony of exhortations, she responded, while pointing at the glowing heap: “If you people don’t leave me alone, I will enter this fire!”
What happened next was a jumble. Vivid, unfocused images. The pastor came out of nowhere to punch her squarely in the face; her limbs being held apart by several hands; ‘Daddy’ using a sharp object to carve something into the flesh of her upper left bicep.
Darkness. She woke up alone on ‘her’ bed, wrists and ankles bound, right eye throbbing from where she’d been sucker punched. “It’s because he’s fat, that’s why he got away with it,” she hissed under her breath, thanking God for the cool darkness. The door opens and the pastor comes in, ostensibly to check up on her. “Are you feeling better?” he asked. “It’s for your own good, ehn,” he said, untying the rope around her ankles and wrists.
Believing the soma therapy to have had its full effect, she was granted permission to eat in the living room where the pastor’s immediate family does all their living, chatting, and eating in front of the telly, just like everyone else. A plate of goat meat vegetable stew is placed before her. By the fourth mouthful, she’s had to remove fine shards of glass from her tongue three times. She voices her concerns about the stew’s contents.
“You will not eat glass in Jesus’ name,” the pastor said, watching her closely from his armchair to make sure she finished eating.
Day five arrives and she’s at the back of the house, in the open-air space behind the makeshift kitchen. Between the toilets and the cooking area, she was fashioning stakes from pieces of wood lying aimlessly on the ground. She was Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Thwack! Thwack! Shiggi-shiggi-shiggi!
Thwack! went the plank as she smashed it against the side of the concrete wall, then shiggi-shiggi-shiggi as she sharpened it in the groove between the grey concrete bricks. She had a heightened sense that the eternal war between Good and Evil was just a touch away, the souls of her kids dependent on her efficacy as Slayer.
Mid-thwack, ‘Daddy’ came up behind her and asked, fairly mildly, “why are you damaging my property like this? C’mon, get ready! We’re doing prayer for you today.”
For the prayer to work her long hair had to be shaved clean off.
“It is better this way. The anointing oil cannot penetrate your scalp with this hairstyle in the way,” the pastor explained.
She sobbed as one of his sons expertly moved the clippers across her cornrows. The setting sun cared not one whit what was happening to her and mocked her tears with its obscene brilliance.
Once her head was ready her body followed suit. Clad in a white, flowing garment (a change from the royal blue she ordinarily preferred) that did her long, pinched face no favours, an acolyte led her to the ablution area to start the ceremonial bath.
‘Daddy’ followed closely and stood by – all but smacking his lips as she stood naked and quivering, not knowing what would happen next.
Something unspeakable, unseemly, and she wanted no part of it. She knew this in her head, but her mouth refused to cooperate.
Except to say, “Please leave. If you don’t, I won’t do the bath.”
Long Face pursed her lips, her whole countenance even, at this insubordination. She looked even more po-faced as she passed her a bar of handmade soap and a handmade sponge at strict intervals.
Once the bath was over, she was given a white garment of her own, a silvery affair of faux-satin material with a matching hat.
Long Face led the way to the church building where the aisle was decked out with several ominous-looking red and black candles. They told her to lie on the floor in a position where the candles would effectively fence her in. The smell of incense wafted, hung, then lingered in the air as another acolyte waved a thurible full of the stuff around to fend off evil powers.
Seven church elders formed a semi-circle around her with the pastor standing over her head. All proceeded to chant and wave palm fronds over her prostrate form while the pastor prayed. The vision of the smoke and swaying elders was intoxicating. Feeling this was more than a simple prayer, she kept her eyes tightly shut for fear she’d see very real demons.
An eternity later, droplets of water were sprinkled lightly on her face, a pair of arms pulled her, not ungently, to her feet.
She was swiftly ushered into my mother’s waiting arms.
Tope Adebola started an MA in Media Studies at Rhodes University, South Africa in 2015, and has been writing her thesis since 2017. She’s loved the oeuvre of Sir Terry Pratchett from the tender age of 9 yet has only managed to read 19 of the 40 Discworld books. She is fluent in English and Dutch and can conduct (extremely) small talk in Yoruba and French. She has always loved words and languages and so was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon Linguistics during her undergrad. Three weeks into the three- year course she declared to all and sundry that Ling was the love of her life.
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