Father Flavius stood in front of his congregation. This bright Sunday morning, with the songs of the birds in the ears, and the sweet scent of the flowers in the nostrils, and love in the heart, he felt important, and he piped in his dusky voice: “Out of repentance flows forgiveness… Love hurts, but it is in the pain we know love… Love me if I hurt you; love again if I hurt again… Brothers and sisters, this is our true walk with Christ”.
He is a sage, this father. For 30 years, he has shepherded the Lord’s flock with patience and dedication. Now and then, he struck the cane on the ignorant and those going astray. He did not strike with a heavy hand but a graceful one with no harm intended.
Today being the feast of St. Valentines, he was filled with a peculiar sense of humility. He knew many would kill for a position such as his, but the Almighty has chosen him to let his words flow through to this stiff-necked people. He couldn’t hammer more on his favorite theme of love and forgiveness.
“Let no root of bitterness spring forth from within.” He piped on.
His large eyes placed side by side of his aquiline nose, shone bright on his old, tired face. In his green cassock, he was indeed a shepherd of God without blemish, without fault. His eyes briefly swept over the congregation. He made them rest for a while on a gentleman in the third row. “Open up; whatever you have inside you, open up. He who covers his sins isn’t wise. He shall be overtaken by his folly”.
The gentleman on whom the steady gaze of the father rested was John Adu, Chief Financial Officer of Joined Hands Cooperation and a zealous member of the parish. On his left sat a lithe lady, Esi Mansa, his wife of 8 years. He smiled wryly at no one in particular. It was the week before, and he had gone for his confessions. That evening, as he sat in the confession box of Father Flavius, all his strength deserted him. His voice sounded hollow. Was it worth it? Yet with things threatening to blow over, it would be folly not to make peace with his maker.
“Bless me Father I have sinned”. He rambled in a dusky voice which betrayed his unease as he made the sign of the cross.
He cleared his throat and began thinking of the events that led to this moment, this reckoning. When was it? Three months ago? No. Five months? Yes, it was five months ago. Men are liable to forget until the crippling effects later. Where was he? In his office? No, he wasn’t in the office. It was along the corridor to his office. Yes. With a cup of hot coffee in hand. And Andy, that loafer, was just rambling on with one of his never-ending jokes. Miss, this is the city not your village. He did say. The others burst out with laughter, doubling over. He stood aloof, detached from the crowd. Then he looked up and saw her. An accidental glance with no malice aforethought. Well, no one doubted it. There was stunned silence as she approached.
“Hello, I’m Joanne, and I’m here for my service.” She’d said nervously and produced a piece of paper from her bag to show her credentials. Whom should she report to?
The others had referred her to Adu. Well, they could go to his office to fill out the necessary forms. She wore a purple velvet blouse with her tiny breasts jutting out like a pair of cones. He’d wondered why the breasts stood out like that, and wondered how they would feel in his hands. He opened the door and offered her a seat. By stars! What right has she to have such tall shapely legs? And her eyes which sat retreatingly deep on either side of her thin nose were grey and large. They shone as she deliberately settled them on him. This made him lose his composure.
“The forms?” She asked innocently.
And the hair which was black and wavy fell on her shoulders. God! Such shiny hair.
“The forms, can I fill them out here or I can take them home with me?” She asked again.
And the voice seemed to come from somewhere deep within her.
“Sure. You can fill them out at home. He said at last and added quickly, one of the receptionists is on maternity leave so that will be a good place for you to start since you studied…”
“Great. That is very great.”
“When was the last confession?” Father Flavius asked in a palavering voice.
After work, he had found her alone behind her desk at the reception.
He sauntered over to her.
Where did she live? Ahodwo. Great. He lived in New Market, just beyond the river on the same stretch. Well, then they could share a ride together in his car.
“It is hot in here. Don’t you think?” She asked him while unbuttoning that purple velvet blouse. She’d looked up shyly at him. Then he knew he wasn’t innocent. There was a warning in his head, of angels whispering to him to steer clear ahead. They drove in silence until they got to the place where the river cut the city into two. She looked out of the window at the empty benches along the bank.
“My daddy used to bring me here every Saturday when I was a little girl. He was a painter. I used to frolic in the water while he sat there painting those beautiful pictures on his canvas.”
“Why do you use was?”
“He’s no more. He died when I was 12.” Her voice was shaky like one on the verge of tears.
He had stopped the car. It was about 8pm, and the full moon was out. It cast a silvery spell on the river and on him too. Man, his heart thumped in his chest. Take the key from the ignition. Insects racketed in the grass. Open the door. The river swept on raucously. Step out. An owl hooted in the woods. Walk hand in hand to the bench. Sit for a while. Had her shoes removed as they sat. Drip. Drip. Had her feet in the water. Played with the water as she used to do all those years ago. Looked up at him with large watery eyes. A subtle look.
“I live alone now. Ma is in the hospital.”
“Kidney problem. Don’t think she has much time now.”
Head on his shoulder. Sweet scent of lotion in his nostrils. Hardness in his groin and funny feeling in his abdomen.
“I’m all alone now like the last leaf on the tree waiting to fall.” She said softly.
“Don’t say that. You are not alone.”
Sobbing somewhere in her throat. Hands tightened around her slender shoulder.
“Thanks.” She said girlishly.
Head touched head. Lips hit lips. He held his breath. Wondered how different it would be from his wife. That was the only time he thought of her. Such a wonderful night with a full moon. A good omen. A breeze from across the river which made her shiver. She’d suggest they go back to the car. Knew what she wanted in the car. No! He insisted. Dew on the grass. Rustle of leaves. And he pinned her down on the bench. Afterwards, they sat and talked. Between that first time and the last time he saw her when she left abruptly, they’d meet ten times, sometimes in discreet places far away from prying eyes. Other times, he grew bold and reckless, and had it with her in her kiosk in the ghetto. Those were the times he felt so close to the earth. The stench and the dirt aroused a peculiar feeling in him. He has never been comfortable with his wife and her philosophy of social class. How many times has she admonished him on how to behave, on what to wear, where to dine and the people to mingle with? And all these for what? A place at the top as defined by Mansa and her father.
But, with Joanne, it was different. She made him forget about artificial boundaries drawn by men. It was in walking the dusty ghetto lanes, whispering nothings to each other in the kiosks at night, and eating garri and beans mixed with red oil, that he was at his happiest self.
Then one night, the fires came. Then Joanne was no more. This has been his loss ever since.
“When was the last confession?” Father Flavius asked again.
“Last 2 years.”
“Speak clearly son.”
“Last 2 years.”
“Uh! Sins of a lifetime. What is it son?”
“I cheated on my wife.”
There was silence. John Adu thought the priest hadn’t heard.
“I cheated on my wife.” He said. It was half-confession, half-apology.
“I heard you the first time son. The sins of the flesh. This has been the bane of man since creation.”
John felt a tightening in his stomach which rose to his throat. There was perspiration in his armpit and palms. He sat restless as if something was lurking after his soul.
Father Flavius asked after what seemed like eternity, “What happened? Were you led into it or you went at your own volition?”
“I was led into it. I went on my own volition. Which is which?”
Father Flavius realized that his question had been vague.
“She was service personnel at my office. It was just a look…oh! God why didn’t I look away…or why didn’t I stay at home?” He whimpered.
“Easy! It is good that you have come to the savior. There is no condemnation; only forgiveness and love. He bids us welcome with a fattened cow after we have wandered in the mire with the devil. He cleans us and pours oil into our self-inflicted wounds and clothes us in white apparel. Child, there is no sin the blood of the lamb can’t atone for.”
“Thank you, father. You are so kind.”
“I give you the penitential Psalms and the Holy Rosary 10 times before you go to bed for the next 7 days then come back.”
“What about the wife?”
“Come back after seven days. Forgive yourself first.”
“What about the wife?”
“You tell her after the seven days.”
“Won’t that break my marriage?”
Your marriage? Where was your marriage when you settled your lustful eyes on that serpent? Where was your marriage when you laid on her? For once in a long time, Father Flavius lost his composure and wanted to stretch across the box and grab John Adu by the collar and hurl him out. Father Flavius didn’t feel important. Instead he said soothingly,
“No, she won’t.”
“How do you know?”
This time Father Flavius was beside himself with rage. He wanted to shout. She won’t go because she is a woman. She won’t go because men have taken the woman for granted; besides she cherishes the marriage vow. It has been a curse on the woman ever since the serpent beguiled her. Always chasing after that thing which will eventually destroy her. That is why she won’t go away. He wanted to say this aloud to John Adu.
Father Flavius brought down the curtains that separated the booth from the confessor’s bench to indicate the end of the conversation…
And the rosary did John recite. The beads were black and large and slippery too. I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only son… He wasn’t one to fool around like some of his colleagues at the office who visited places only meant for the ears, and wasted their cash on lottery machines. He had always laughed at those foolish colleagues whose destinies were determined by strumpets and dices. He thought he was above it all.
The beads were entwined around his hands. Sin entwined in the heart. Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name… Oh! Man, you weakened beast who art thou? He had found himself asking ever since. It is better to be broken by God than by man. God wounds and binds. His oil on the wound is of love and mercy.
And he read the Psalms too… Have mercy upon me, Oh God, according to thy loving kindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
And he’d pray some more…Glory be to the father, to the son, and to the Holy Spirit.
And the merciful God revived his spirit.
“Shall we rise and share the grace?” Father Flavius was saying.
“Darling”, Esi Mansa said irritably and shook the shoulder of her husband. She felt embarrassed.
“Everybody has been up for the past five minutes. What’s wrong with you?”
John Adu looked around with regret and mimed an apology.
“What is it?”
“What is the problem?”
“Ah. Nothing. I’m fine.” John sighed.
Father Flavius was saying, “May the Lord show his face upon you. May his favor shine on you. May you trample on the head of any serpent today and forever. Go in peace. Amen.”
With that, mass was over. Outside the church, the May sun shone itself bright, like a majestic King in his splendor. His rays came directly and hit in the face so hard that one had to shield one’s eyes with the hand in order to see clearly. John Adu was in no mood to talk to his fellow brethren so he quickly walked over to his car and sat in the passenger’s seat. His wife on the other hand went over to a couple, exchanged pleasantries quickly and joined her husband.
“I have a headache so you drive.”
“I knew you aren’t well”.
She expertly eased the car out of the parking lot and sped towards home. John sat meditatively and looked at the tree-lined street. He thought about the follies of man which make him no better than the animals. He also thought of the times in the Sunday school when they had laughed at the follies of men like Samson and David. And he has said that day that he couldn’t be like any of them. Yet here he was. The best of man is man indeed. They did not talk much on the way home.
As soon as they got to the house, John slumped into the nearest seat.
“Will aspirins do?”
“No. Forgiveness will do.”
Esi Mansa was surprised. “What did you say?”
“I need forgiveness. I have sinned against God and you. I can’t keep this anymore. The words came hurriedly out. He sobbed.
Esi sat down on the nearest stool. “What did you do?” She asked in a hushed voice, afraid that the answer would be a fatal blow. And a fatal blow it was.
“I was with a woman, a devil. I cheated on you. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” The words tumbled out of his mouth as if that would lessen the impact of the pain on Esi Mansa. His eyes were cast on the floor as he looked for redemption. He dared not look up.
After what seemed like a long time, she asked, “Who is she?”
“She was an intern at the office. Believe me, she is no more. This will be the last time.”
The long wait again. Then she said, “Men will always be men. You see an intern; a little girl, and you can’t keep your trousers zipped up. Ha!” She spat in disgust, indignant.
“I know.” She said in a hard voice.
“What?” John looked up sharply in alarm and saw the indignation in her eyes.
“I know you cheated on me with that brazen hussy.”
“How? And you did nothing about it?”
“Who told you I did nothing about it? I did what any sensible woman who has been scorned would do.”
“And what is that?”
“Well since this is a time of confessions, let me also confess.”
She spoke of those months he was far removed from her; being there and not being there. This strange aloofness where did it come from? She’d ask many times alone. And the answer smacked her right on the face. So, she went sniffing around. And what did she find? Her man fooling around with a little college girl. Well, she’d never lost a battle, and she didn’t intend to lose this one. And with the stakes being high, with John on the verge of being made a partner through her dad, she’d be the biggest fool that ever walked mother earth not to put up a fight. Man, this sewer rat of a girl. She would teach her not to sniff around people’s husbands.
At first, it was all talk before it turned into an obsession. She schemed on exacting her revenge. A fist fight would be appropriate. No. These rats could wound and maim. She’d lose. What about a pistol? A clean strike at her while she slept. No. that too would be cowardly, killing someone in cold blood. One must be given a chance. What about hiring a killer? She discarded that one too. These junkies could not be trusted. A slip, and she’d be done for. What could she do? That little thing must be taught a lesson, never to reap where she had never planted. Yes. She would raze her kiosk to the ground. She shouted triumphantly. Vengeance is mine.
She took a gallon of petrol from the garage that night. She felt bloodthirsty as she drove to the ghetto. She was not doing it for herself, but for all married women aggrieved worldwide whose conjugal beds were being threatened by these upstarts. She reasoned.
The ghetto was a long serpentine line of wooden kiosks with corrugated roofs. She couldn’t stand the stench. As luck would have it, those wretched of the earth were snoring away their troubles in the kiosks. A dog howled. Away with you creature. She imagined her husband, deserting their bed of roses and descending into these gutters with this low life. Men! They can never be satisfied. She spat on the floor. She poured petrol all over the front door. Ghetto Girl. Doing to you what you deserve. She struck the match and threw it on the ground. She quickly fled the scene towards her car.
The following day, it was all over the news. TWO DEAD AS SHANTY TOWN RAZED TO THE GROUND IN ACCIDENTAL FIRE.
Her only regret was the death of the other one.
“I did it for us.”
Mansa looked tenderly into her husband’s face, and her heart mellowed towards him. She remembered all those times they used to walk hand in hand in the park. The times they’d lie on the grass with the sweet scent of flowers and the songs of birds in the air. And they’d dream of children. She wanted two – a boy and a girl, whoever comes first. He, in turn, wanted four for he was the only one of his parents.
Why? Would he use her for breeding? And there’d be bickering between them which ended in a strangled cry in her throat.
“You know I love you. These confessions, these secrets will be our chord of three strengths which binds us together.”
He looked down at her. “What did you do to her? Tell me now. He advanced menacingly towards her. An acidic fury was brewing beneath in his stomach trying to explode through him.
“Tell me now or I will kick it out of you.”
Suddenly she changed into her raging self. “You dare not raise a finger at me or that will be your end; the house, the car, your job… Everything will go away… Have you thought of how you got the job in the first place? Or it was Mother Theresah who sent it to you?… You’d think a low-order accountant as you would work in such a company. My dad put in a word for you. He didn’t approve of you. How right he was all along. Yet to make me happy for I was in love, he consented and told them to give you a place. They couldn’t refuse. They’d be foolish to. After all this, my thank you note was in a form of cheating with no other than a girl from the gutters who wasn’t fit to lick the ground I thread upon.”
He suddenly stopped midway and sat still like one who has taken a bullet to his stomach. Gradually, the pieces began to form limb by limb in his mind. They said it was electrical fault, and she being deep asleep, couldn’t escape.
After what seemed like eternity, he managed to say above whisper.
“…No… No… You set her ablaze. You devil! Oh why? She was so innocent. Oh why?” And he began to cry – a loud wail for a man.
“What did you do?”
“You dare to know?” She seemed to derive pleasure from the pain she was giving him. She’d never seen a man shed such ugly tears like that. “She had in eight weeks what for the past eight years I have tried in vain for. She was eating for two. It was just a clot of blood. I couldn’t live with it. That clot mustn’t become human.”
“Oh my God…Oh Holy Mary… Joseph…Jesus.” He swore and looked down on her. He didn’t see his delicate Mansa, but a cold, calculating murderer. Then he leapt towards her. It was a leap of death he took. No scream pierced the air.
Later, when the officer read to him his rights beside the strangled body, he just nodded his head like an obedient child.
Image: Henryk Krzyżanowski from Pixabay