In the land of Abe, atheism was both a crime and an act of madness. No particular punishment existed, however, because no one had ever committed a crime of that scale. No one had ever been mad enough to say that God does not exist. But that was exactly what Patrick, the son of a respected chief, said, in the presence of the entire community.
He was worthy of death. And the community had gathered to decide his fate. His father, Akan, had disowned him long before the matter found its way into the ears of the elders. When the statement first struck his own ears, he thought he was dreaming; and when Patrick said it again, he concluded that his son had simply gone mad.
“Patrick!” Akan had said, alarmed, “Come here…come,” he added and tapped the air, staring at his son with concern. Perhaps, this is not really Patrick, he thought. Did he really say that?
Patrick would not get an inch closer; he was wise enough to stay aloof. He stood mulishly at the front door, one leg in the sitting room, the other outside. His bulky frame clouded out a great deal of the mellow evening rays that had flooded the room moments before. A week back, Akan had written to his son, asking him entreatingly to return home for Christmas. He had written at the latter part of the letter:
You know that you and your sister have been my only source of joy since your mother left this world last year. I know your school is on break. Why not come home? The city is not a place to stay during this season. Please, come home.
But he was beginning to regret that decision; perhaps, he should have let him remain in the city. For, from the moment Patrick stepped into the house, it appeared he had returned to disturb the peace of the house, to increase Akan’s sorrows.
The madness started as innocent tales about some great books he was privileged to have read in the university, a subject no one was actually interested in. Then, he went on to make defamatory statements about a certain church he attended while in the city, calling the priest, “a funny ignorant man.” At that point, Akan became concerned, but he made no response. The greatest blow, he should have known, was on the way. And he could not withstand its force. What on earth could have caused his only son to say such things against God—the very creator of all things? What audacity!
“Did you hear me, Patrick? Get into this room this very minute,” the man went on, his voice twice as loud as before, but Patrick remained as he was. “Did I hear you say that God does not exist?”
Patrick did not say yes or no, instead, he continued blabbing: “I don’t know why this is making everyone crazy. Don’t I have the right to believe whatever I want to believe…don’t I have the right to say what I believe?”
Akan was not listening to that part. He was concerned only with one thing: If it was really Patrick, or perhaps someone else, who had made the statement about God.
“You said what? Which God?”
“I don’t know what you mean by which God? What I know is that God does not exist.”
The rebellious tone with which he gave the answer, like the statement itself, was unbearable. It must have been a dream, a nightmare perhaps. And Akan longed to wake up from it.
Patrick had stopped believing in God ten years before he had the courage to tell his father. He had nursed this belief since childhood, but he was careful not to let anyone know. In those days, he still went to church, still listened to long homilies, hunched disinterestedly in his seat. Everything, from the frantic singing of the choir to the warlike bouts of prayers, was either ridiculous in his eyes or downright annoying. And he often left the church more annoyed than amused. As for this new belief of his, he kept it away from his parent like some esoteric revelation. But in school, there were no secrets. He went about telling his friends, with some air of superiority, how he, and he alone, did not believe in God. Only few paid attention; his principal once called him a “mad little boy,” and threatened to report the matter to his father if the “nonsense” persisted.
His mathematics teacher, Mr. Adams, did not call him mad boy; he called him something more confounding—Nietzsche. Patrick did not take offense, even though he had no idea what the name meant. He could not tell if this Nietzsche was an animal, a place, or perhaps another name for mad people. He just bore it and loved it, for it came from Adams, his favorite teacher.
Patrick engraved the name on the back of his notebooks. Given the opportunity, he would have changed his name to Nietzsche. The spelling was, as expected, an ordeal initially. He kept missing or misplacing letters, no matter how many times his teacher corrected him: at one point, “s” came after “z” and at other times, the “t” in the name was nowhere to be found. Poor soul! But he loved the fun, anywhere.
Weeks after Patrick had gladly taken up the name, telling everyone about it, as he did about his atheism, Mr. Adams came to him with a baffling question: “Do you think you can really be like Nietzsche? Can you drink from his cup or bear the touch of his spirit upon you?”
Patrick nodded dumbly. Being just fourteen, he could not make sense of this seemingly religious question. Mr. Adams could be uncanny sometimes. There was an ever-present air of mystery around him. This question was not less mysterious, but, even so, it revealed to Patrick that Nietzsche was a human being. And at that point, his obsession with the name peaked.
One day, his father asked him what Nietzsche meant, having seen it on nearly all his books. He replied with a giggle that his teacher gave him the name.
“And you don’t know what it means?”
Patrick lied that he did not. Of course, he knew it was someone’s name. He had even gone ahead to make further research, and discovered that Frederick Nietzsche was a 19th century German philosopher who did not believe in God.
“Whatever it means, I don’t like it,” his father replied with a scowl. His dark face shone with sweat; he had just walked a good number of kilometers from the church to the house.
“Okay,” Patrick replied, just to be free from his father’s overbearing presence.
“Okay is not enough,” the man said sternly. “I don’t want to hear that name from your mouth again. Make sure you clean it from your books.”
“Wipe it off! Do it anyhow.”
He knew his father was serious about the matter; and he was not ready to be pummeled with fists and sticks, as usual.
Patrick’s obsession with Nietzsche came back to life in the university. There in the university, far away from home, he was free to explore life his own way. Every day had something new to offer him regarding Frederick Nietzsche. His findings were in bits.
One day, he discovered one of Nietzsche’s popular dictums, “God is dead.” For some minutes, he sat still, transfixed by the words. The notion was scary in some ways, like expecting the grand upholder, the mythical Atlas, of the universe to suddenly fall and perish. But did he believe in this grand upholder of the universe? At that point, he seemed somewhere in the middle. Saying that God does not exist was one thing; declaring his death was something else, something horrible, both to the believer and to the unbeliever. Patrick would need some days to fully assimilate this aspect of Nietzsche, and when he finally did, he went wild with his beliefs.
Soon, the name “Patrick” faded, and only “Nietzsche” loomed. Even lecturers, ignorantly, addressed him as Nietzsche. One of them had once remarked that only a foolish father would name his child, “Nietzsche.” To which the class roared in a peal of laughter, leaving the lecturer confounded.
Patrick devoured everything associated with Nietzsche. At some point, he thought of changing his name to Zarathustra, the protagonist of one of Nietzsche’s philosophical novels. But it was just a passing thought. “Nietzsche” had already been registered in his psyche and in the circle of his friends.
People always had something scornful to say about his atheism, but no one challenged his obsession with Nietzsche, for only few knew about the philosopher. His name was not like that of Aristotle or Plato or Buddha which was now and then in the mouths of common folks. Nietzsche was rare in mouths; he was special; and to Patrick, he was like a god. People’s contempt for his atheism didn’t bother him. But contempt for Nietzsche was a different matter entirely.
One day, Atim, a big-eyed, thin colleague of his came into the class to confront him. She held a book and flaunted it for Patrick to see the title: The Case Against Atheism. She wanted him to know that she too had been reading “big books.” But that meant nothing to Patrick.
“What is your problem?” Patrick asked, piqued at the interruption her presence had caused; for he was bent over his desk, piecing together an essay on German philosophy when the sassy girl came in and stood before him, hands fisted on her waist.
“So you don’t believe in God. You really don’t believe in God. You believe in Nietzsche,” she said in a tiny, shaky voice.
“Meaning what?” The overwhelming stench of her hair cream was already making him nauseous.
“Nietzsche was an idiot, you know…He said that God is dead, didn’t he? He said that in 1882…o yes, 1882. But what happened in 1900, do you know?” Patrick could not recall anything in particular, or he didn’t care to give it a thought. “Well,” the girl went on, more brazen than before, “He died, Nietzsche died in 1900. In 1882 he said ‘God is dead’ but in 1900 God said ‘Nietzsche is dead.’ Can’t you see who really died in the end?” Those who stood by and paid sly attention to the showdown burst into laughter. Atim went on, “Do you also know that your Nietzsche went mad later in his life?”
“Yes, that is true,” someone chimed in. “He spent his life in an asylum, naked like a beast.” This, too, was received with taunting laughter.
At that point, Patrick almost exploded in a rage. He stood up, fumed briefly, and left the class to give vent to his mounting anger. They had drawn him to a point of apoplexy. But, somehow, their taunt served a good purpose. From that point onward, he wrote essays and spawned nearly mystical theories to convince himself and others that Nietzsche was still alive in some hidden dimensions, that he was immortal, and that what people saw as insanity in the latter days of the thinker’s life was actually an act of Nietzsche’s making. This was just Patrick’s way of anesthetizing himself against the stark humanness of a man he adored and, to an extent, worshipped.
He had no idea how he lost control, to the point of voicing his beliefs at home. But he had said it, anyway, and his father had heard him. The time was ripe for him to show everyone his true colour, he thought. He would not go back on his words, no matter how hard his father tried to get him “back to his senses.”
“Daddy, with due respect, I think people like you are the ones who need to go back to their senses.” The words just slipped out of his mouth, as though without his consent.
“What did you just say?” His father lurched towards him, his eyes loaded with terror and, in some degrees, hate. The hate was plausible, but the fear was not. At what was he scared? Was he afraid of losing his only son? If so, he was wasting time. He had lost him long ago.
At this point, a little crowd began to cluster in the house. Two of Patrick’s uncles walked in, and stood by to watch the wonder. Patrick’s younger sister, Uduak, was all teary, begging her father to “leave bro Patrick alone.” Some neighbours popped out vague faces through their windows. Two scrawny children, on their way to the stream, also paused to watch. Their presence altogether served as some kind of boost to Patrick.
“You can’t tell me what to believe. No one can tell me what to believe,” he yelled, careful to keep a good distance between him and his father. “You believe in God, I don’t. So, what’s all the fuss about?”
His father, stricken, warned that if Patrick did not recant his beliefs right there, he would disown him. And Patrick replied that he did not care.
“Patrick! Are you mad? Did you hear what your father just said?” one of his uncles asked.
“I did,” Patrick grumbled. “He can disown me. I don’t care.” Indeed, he did not care. If he could bear taunts and reproaches in school for the sake of Nietzsche, he could bear being disowned for the same cause. If this would be his cross for following the philosopher, then he was ready to carry it. After all, Nietzsche had once said, “whatever does not kill you makes you stronger.”
And stronger he was when he heard that he was summoned by the elders of Abe, for his rebellion against his father, and against God. He would have cringed, knowing what fate awaited him, but he stood his ground, professing his beliefs without any reservation. His belief about God being dead sent the crowd into a spasm of howling and murmuring that lingered for a long time. Did he really say that? Did he mean it? Yes he did, with all his heart.
The village head was unevenly quiet all the while, and when he attempted to speak, he stuttered and fell back to silence. He toppled his head to the ground, leaving only his grey-specked head for the eye; then, he lifted his face with redoubled vigour. “My son, we are not here to punish you. We are here to ask you to give up this kind of belief.”
Patrick shook his head. They seemed to have thought that giving up one’s convictions was a light matter. “There is no God. There are no ancestors, no spirits whatsoever. That’s what I believe, sir. I’m not afraid of your punishment.”
“You’d better be,” one of the elders threw in. “You have desecrated our land and must be hanged.”
“Yes,” hundreds of voices chorused in provocation. Patrick just stood and watched. He was stripped of his clothes, and left with a pair of navy-blue shorts he had worn the previous day.
“That is true, very true,” This came from the chief priest, from whose mouth judgment would be passed. He sat on a raffia mat, dejected, legs spread apart, surrounded by palm fronds, cowries, skulls, snail shells, and whatnots. He, like the village head, had been unusually silent since Patrick stepped into their midst an hour before. “He deserves to be hanged or stoned…but it’s not in out place to decide.” He made a loud grunt. “But this matter baffles me. How could anyone say something like this?”
“I wonder,” one of elders said. He turned to Patrick. “Young man, look at these trees, look at those birds over there. Where would you say these came from…a child’s anus?”
“They came here by chance. They evolved.”
“This boy is mad,” someone said.
The village head turned to the priest and asked, all of a sudden, “What are the gods saying?”
“The boy is under a spell,” the priest said, “he is not in his right mind. And we can’t pass judgment on a madman.”
“Is that what the gods are saying?”
“The gods don’t need to say that. His insanity is clear already, isn’t it?” the priest replied. “The gods are silent about this matter. Perhaps, the god of the Christians has something to say; I don’t know. I ask that he should go home, let his parent cure him of his madness.”
“Which home?” Patrick’s father bawled, rising to his feet. “That boy is not nearing my house.”
The crowd murmured, after which the village head said, “Is this boy really out of his mind?” His voice tore through the murmur.
“How many sane people say the kind of things he is saying?” the priest asked. Patrick wanted to defend his sanity but saw no point in doing so. They were free to believe whatever they wished to believe. What ruffled him was why they were so bent on denying him his own liberty to hold on to his own beliefs.
“So what should we do?” the village head asked with a tinge of desperation.
“Let him go home.”
The villagers roared in displeasure, hurling curses at the priest. How could he have asked a man as vile as Patrick to just “go home”? That, to them, might have been the most stupid judgment to have come out of the priest’s mouth. In just moments, some people left their seats and edged towards the priest who strained his voice in vain to defend himself. Some stones began to fly in his direction, and more would have come had the old man not scurried for safety in a nearby hut. The village head and his guards tried to still the angered crowd, but their efforts only made things worse. And as the bedlam went on, Patrick looked about and sneaked away from the square. He kept walking, step after step, even though unsure of his destination.
Beautiful story, Ralph. Keep the good work.