Three years had passed since the collision, and now Brother Henry spent a great deal of time behind the reflective glass of his window, watching the teenage boys who came in to play football at the sandy part of St. Matthew as early as 7 am and late in the evening at 5 o’clock. He liked to pretend the lanky boy who had small tattoos scattered over his arms was Obinze, his little brother, and whenever one of the other boys swept the ball clean off the boy’s legs and he staggered or fell, Brother Henry’s forehead would twitch and then he would slap his hands palm-down to the window post, struggling with his breathing and moving an inch forward as if to save the boy from falling, because, even if he wasn’t aware of it – as with most things since the collision – a part of him he could no longer connect with tried to reach back to the accident three years ago and save Obinze.
Sometimes, especially during mass, his mind lost direction of the Kenyan priest’s sermon and wandered back to the accident, how he remembered it might have happened – how he’d been in his car with Obinze, returning to Lagos from home which was a small town in Cross River after staying a week celebrating his ordination into the diaconate when they had to cross an intersection just after the Niger bridge. He wasn’t sure if the flatbed driver had sounded his horn and he’d been so caught up in his chat with Obinze about his ordination that nothing else mattered. He was proud of his ordination – it had taken him fifteen years to get there – so he never cancelled the possibility, neither did he the possibility of the driver being one of those new hands who felt being behind the wheels meant being behind a game pad playing Fast and Furious.
But he never thought he considered any of those when the flatbed exploded into his Mercedes and his whole world was lit by a veil of darkness and disbelief while his vehicle was shadowed in a curtain of coppery sparks. Brother Henry was never quite certain of any of these memories; those were the most frequent images that came to his mind each time he tried to remember what had happened because, as he had come to realize, when the Ambulance crew found him, tracked with cuts and splintered by dizziness, they took him into their van, leaving a large part of his memory behind, there at the Niger bridge. The doctor had said the memories would return gradually, so a few months after waking up from coma he gave up trying to remember if he still had parents and why they hadn’t yet contacted him or if Obinze had somehow survived the accident. He did remember, though, being thrust through a million pieces of windshield glass and connecting to the ground with his head, the air releasing a long, cold shriek.
Brother Henry could never have thought he’d gone too far thinking this when his mind would stagger and wander back to the priest standing piously at the altar, usually already closing the Mass. After Mass, he would walk quietly to his building, accompanied by a treasury of funny glances – mostly from children who probably wondered why the left top of his head no longer grew hair and why it was replaced by thick lines of scars that rode down to where his eyebrows once had been.
He never thought too much about the stares and glances, which was usually because most of the time, his mind would stagger yet again, losing direction, and he would forget what he was thinking about and move on. The short walk back from the cathedral usually meant him going back behind his window or on his recliner perusing the almost mangled pages of his Catholic bible.
The diocese had allotted him this small building, one among several others which outlined the inner parts of the parish. It was this building he remembered being taken into after his discharge from the hospital and ever since, he didn’t recall ever seeing the interior of any other building, except the cathedral, of course. He never went out and whenever he somehow managed to make it to the tall gates, there were always two heavyset men ready to show him the way back to his building, where he would then wait, with an anaemic patience, for the teenage boys and their ball which seemed to change colour every day. He usually wondered if he had any sort of deep liking for football before the accident – now, he would rather study the patterns on the brown ceiling and pretend they were some symbolic messages from God than sit in front of his small Akira TV to watch a group of grown-up men running after a ball – and occasionally he would stare at his dim reflection on the inner glass window as he waited for the boys and a deep sadness would rise above his thoughts and above the painful healing he had to endure. But the sadness usually wouldn’t quite make it to the part of himself that could really appreciate it.
He was also afraid to look himself in the mirror, to see his face, its hideousness. He once overheard the priest describing him to a parishioner who had been pushed to inquire about this partly abled, 250-pound, deacon who never spoke in the church. Hideous. That’s what the priest said, and he had kept the word until the flush-faced lady who served his meals came around.
There was a stunned silence before the lady, who seemed to have been told to always smile to him said, “Sorry. I’m not sure I got that.”
Brother Henry took a sip of his hot tea. “What does it mean to be hideous?”
The lady’s mouth had been forming words, but then, she flattened her eyes and smiled in that methodical way. “You know, I once asked my teacher that at school and you know what she said?” She said sweetly, setting the last tray down at the plush walnut table in front of him. “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” And with that she looped around and left faster than she’d come.
He’d walked as quickly as he could carry himself to the window, wondering what had made her leave in a hurry. But he hadn’t seen her anywhere near and he’d returned to his recliner, sipping his tea and remembering nothing of why he’d gone to his window, until days later.
His memory was like the football the boys played, easily punctured and all over the place, except when stationary, no longer useful for that moment. Even for a long time after the accident, he still felt like one of those robots he’d seen blown apart in movies, with their structure scattered everywhere; all still blinking, still functional, but yet disconnected. Sometimes, his nose would itch and he would forget which part of him was supposed to scratch it.
One Sunday afternoon, after the church service, Brother Henry felt a heavy pressure on his bladder and walked towards the church’s restroom when he saw a fair-skinned lady coming the opposite way, her gaze sunken into the front screen of her phone. He was immediately fascinated by this lady who would rather look at something else than his hideousness, and he stared at her a long time until she vanished inside the comfort of a blue Mercedes car, and he immediately tore his gaze away, struggling to find his pace, to restrain himself from going three years back in time again.
After he exited the men’s restroom, he found a clean pew chair outside and sat there, not sure how well he could walk if he continued. He didn’t see the priest coming, didn’t hear the ‘Jesus I Trust In Yous’, until the priest’s white robe flowed across the seat onto his lap. The priest was sitting beside him, wearing a smile of forced understanding, as if he was wondering why he was here – a talent Brother Henry hadn’t lost in the accident: wondering.
Brother Henry often wondered why he had forgotten to latch his seat belt that afternoon and Obinze hadn’t. Putting on the seat belt was supposed to save lives, but in his case, leaving it where it was had saved his life. He’d seen pictures of the car after the accident, crushed to the size of a motorcycle. Without the seat belt, he’d been thrust through the windshield, out of the car. So he often wondered: why had God let it happen that way? Why was he still here?
“Jesus.” The priest spoke again.
“I trust in You.” Brother Henry replied.
“I see you’re doing better.”
Brother Henry only nodded.
There was a long silence before the priest spoke again. “I just . . . just wanted to be sure you know you’re only just months away from your priesthood.”
He nodded yes.
“And you know that as the priests of God, we’re not allowed to marry?”
He looked at the priest and for the first time felt a swish of reluctance. “Yes.”
“I saw the way you were looking at that lady, so I wanted to be sure . . . you still . . . you know … are aware.” The priest said the words carefully, not wanting to hurt the deacon’s memory. Then he stood up to leave.
Brother Henry sat still, his mind losing track and snapping back to where it had been. The priest hadn’t taken three steps when a thought occurred to him. “Father.”
The priest turned, not looking very happy. “Yes?”
Brother Henry stood then, dwarfing the priest. He scratched the back of his neck, looking behind the priest, at nothing in particular. “I believe Saint Cephas to be the first pope?”
It took a moment before the priest realized who Saint Cephas was, that he was Saint Peter. “Yes?”
“And he was the foundation of the church?”
There was a long, reluctant sigh. “Yes?”
“Why do we go against the way things were done? I mean, I know tradition is boring, right? But why do we create a new tradition when it screws a whole lot of people?”
The priest’s brows shot up and a new curtain of curiosity lowered in his gaze. “I’m not sure if I understand you, Henry.”
Brother Henry was used to not being understood, so he continued, in a priestly tone. “Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?”
The priest’s eyes suddenly flattened, recognizing Paul’s word to the Corinthians, then he bent his head and smiled in a way Brother Henry thought a priest shouldn’t smile. He walked closer and placed a hand on Brother Henry’s shoulder. “You see, Henry, it’s not something you choose. It’s something you’re chosen for.”
“And is not marrying a part of this calling?”
The priest sighed. “Not marrying is tradition. When you accepted your calling, you accepted everything that came with it, Henry.”
Brother Henry was confused. He felt sorry for the priest. “I don’t remember accepting my calling, Father, but I believe that we should have free will and wear that free will like we own it, you know, obey God with all our heart but not stand in the way of others while at it.”
The priest smiled, like he’d heard that a lot before and Brother Henry wasn’t sure why he felt that the priest wasn’t ready to listen to what he had to say. “You see, Henry, Christianity is like pollination, cross pollination…the gospel, the pollen; you, the stigma. You can’t control how it comes to you, but when it spreads to you, it does something different than with the other person…” The priest trailed off. Brother Henry thought the priest saw a new angle, or saw a pointless reasoning. “You’ll soon understand, Henry, the burden of the journey of us priests.” The priest said, finally turning to leave.
Brother Henry remembered the accident and wondered if that was part of the burden some priests had to face, if Obinze had died because he hadn’t aspired to be a priest. Before the priest went too far, he called out, “But aren’t we Christians all priests?”
But the priest neither looked back nor offered any indication that he’d heard that.
The following Sunday, Brother Henry was to take the homily. Father Likoko Zikoko, the Kenyan priest, had rung his phone on Wednesday to let him know he would, for an unexplained reason, give the sermon on Sunday.
After the female lector had read out the Bible passage, he intoned in the best priestly voice he could summon, “Thank you.” He scanned the congregation, looking for a face that wasn’t on him. He’d seen the priest preach, checked the congregation when he preached. There were always faces thrown everywhere but the altar; always those who seemed unnecessarily uninterested. But today, there seemed to be none. All eyes were on him.
“Hello, everyone,” he began. “Welcome.” He studied the bulletin laid on the lectern before him and pushed it aside. “You see, the devil is very tricky, one of the wisest things I’ve ever seen. He enjoys playing with our minds – mind games, that’s why he’s the devil, you know.”
All eyes were still on him, although a lot were rather funny-looking. He saw this as a good indication to go on.
“When you hear news about a guy who helped this stranger, gave him a lift, and the next thing, his headless corpse is found in some dirty bush, or a guy comes knocking at your door, needing to charge up his phone ‘cos there’s an address he has to get to which is on the dead phone and you allow him to charge, but when he’s leaving he leaves with both the poor phone he brought and your plush phone you were charging, you begin to get really skeptical about helping people. When you meet a real person in need, you remember these and withhold your help. When a poor boy really needs a lift, you shut your door and drive away.” He paused, balancing his breathing. “It’s the game of the devil. He wants you to be scared. Scared of dying, scared of helping people. He doesn’t want you to accept the new definition Jesus gave life and death. He doesn’t want you to understand that death is not a destination, but another journey.”
The congregation was still as an unlit candle, the ceiling fans suddenly noisy.
“You see, when Jesus told this parable where this powerful ruler shared talents to his three servants – five to the first, two to the second, and one to the third – it was because of this. I believe you all know what they all did with the talents?”
“Yes,” was what he heard from the congregation.
“Good. God has given each one of us a talent. If, like the last servant, you do not use yours for one fear or another, you’re being ungrateful for a gift and that’s never the right thing to do. So remember, if you try to save your life, you will lose it, but if you lose your life for His sake, you will definitely find it. Have you been saving your lives at the expense of using your talents?”
After the mass, two children approached Brother Henry outside the cathedral. The older one looked ten.
“Good afternoon, Father.” The older one said.
“No, not Father. Brother Henry.” He said, laughing. “How’re you?”
“Fine. My brother here said that you had an accident, that that’s why your face is like this.” The smaller one replied.
He talked too fast and Brother Henry struggled to catch the words. “Yes, yes.”
“He said that that’s why you’re not afraid of death, because God let you have the accident to teach you a lesson.”
Brother Henry frowned. “That’s harsh.”
“That’s what my mother said.” The older one said in defense. “She said maybe God wanted to teach you something about life. She called it an attitude adjustment.”
Brother Henry’s frown deepened. “Your mother must be a really educated woman.”
“Sure. She also said . . .”
“See, kids, I’ve to really get somewhere now. Later.” Brother Henry lied.
“Shebi you’ll come back?”
“Of course.” He said, in a way only Santa Clause could.
On Wednesday, he received another phone call from the priest. He was sitting in his recliner, sipping the tea Christina – or was it Christabel – had just served him.
“Good evening, Henry. Hope good? I want to let you know that the church has met and come to the conclusion that you need more time to recuperate, maybe a year, and maybe by then you can follow sermons, and you know, be in your best shape.”
“Are you pushing me away?” Brother Henry was confused.
“No. No. Of course not.”
“Okay.” Brother Henry said. He didn’t understand why he suddenly needed to be in his best shape. “But . . .”
“Brother Henry, I’m just letting you know about the church’s decision. Your father should be there anytime soon.”
But the line was already dead.
Fifteen minutes later, there was a knock on his door. It was Christina – or Christabel.
“There’s this man I met outside. He said he wanted to see you. He called your name.” She said hurriedly.
“My father?” He asked.
The lady shrugged and gestured for a reply.
“I want to see him, too.” Brother Henry said glumly and as she turned to leave, asked, “What’s that your name again?”
“Oh,” he said. “Thanks.”
The man that came in after Jessica left was shorter, blanched and grey-haired – nothing like he expected. He stood up and was about to offer the man a stool he’d pulled out from under the table when the man moved quickly and hugged him.
“Madukwe M.” The man said, pulling himself back as if to search for something on Brother Henry’s face, his eyes a liquid circle. “Madukwe M.”
“Are you my father?”
“Yes, my son. Your papa. I’ve missed you.” The man said, sobbing.
Brother Henry felt like the ground could not hold him for much longer. He gently pulled away from the man’s embrace to sit on his recliner. “Missed me? Where’s Obinze?”
“With your mama.” His father said, his face mean and straight again. “Your mother joined him a little time after we returned from checking on you in the hospital the third time, that was before the church said that we spend a lot on transport from Cross River down here, that they will make sure you’re fine. She left us, too, you see.”
Brother Henry’s thoughts ran against one another in his head, charting images that refused to form. Here he was wondering if he had parents when they had been with him the first months of his recuperation.
“The priest called me on Monday. He said your memories are still unstable and that they believe the serenity of the village will help your memory faster.”
“They’re sending me away.”
“No, my son. They want to help you get your memory back. Your send-forth ceremony is on Sunday.”
“Whose idea was this?”
“The doctor and the church.”
Brother Henry kept silent, staring absently into his tea. He was not used to sudden changes and hearing all of these made him a bit scared, but he also felt a tiny excitement knowing he was right here talking with his father. “I guess that’s the way God wants it,” he said with a faraway smile. “So, what did mama look like?”
His father pulled the stool, and as he sat, both men bathed in the setting evening sun that leaked from the window into the room, he told him what his mother looked like. And so much more.
The next evening, after his father had gone to see the priest, Brother Henry, for some reason, remembered his CD player. He had used it a lot during the first few months after his discharge from the hospital. In fact, the doctor had recommended it. At a point, he’d wanted to see more of the outside and had totally abandoned the player as soon as he found a gait.
Now, he blew dust off the cover and pushed the power button. There was a CD already in it and he waited to see what it would play.
The music began with a mystical sound and somehow he recognized it before he got to his window. The teenage boys were just coming in. The lanky boy wasn’t with them today, and something immediately snapped inside him. He thought about God and His ways and concluded that there had to be a reason why the lanky boy wasn’t with them today. A mystical reason, like maybe something bad would happen today and God wanted to save the lanky boy.
So, as he stood by the window, enshrouded in the evening light and awash by Enya’s May It Be, he watched the boys play, half-expecting a plane to crash onto the field or a boy to suddenly slump and half-expecting, since he couldn’t understand God, to at least one day make sense of the world, or of living at all.