The room smelt like buttocks, unwashed buttocks. I stepped in further, holding my breath and the tray. Papa lay facing the wall, humming, but he turned when I uncovered the food. Phiim, phiim, he sniffed like the always-hungry men in adverts for cooking spices and I wondered if it smelt like unwashed buttocks to him too. Laughing, he swung his feet to the floor, washed his hands and broke his fast. Huge balls of fufu coated with ofe onugbu rapidly slid down his throat with pluup sounds and in less than five minutes, the plates were empty.
“Uju, biko tell your mother to give me extra. Nni a asoka, the food is so delicious. He swiped the soup plate with a finger which he licked before dropping it on the tray.
“Ooo,” I replied, retrieving the tray. Outside, in the corridor I exhaled. Mama was happy to serve Papa another helping but I did not want to go in there again. I called out to Chima, my younger brother. I wanted him to serve Papa this time so he could tell me if the room smelt as bad as I thought it did.
“Why are you calling him?” Mama asked as she ladled soup into the plate I held out to her.
“Nothing.” I could not tell Mama the reason because she would twist my ears till they hurt for mentioning it. I was sure though that this awful smell was the reason Papa moved into the guestroom yesterday.
Four days ago, my father smelt like himself, sunlight (the washing-soap we used at home) and sweat. Everything changed when we returned from the Overnight-Miracle Power Crusade, a night vigil that Pastor Kwe had been talking about for the past month. He had invited a powerful man of God from Ibadan and did not want any of his congregation to miss out on the blessings, so Mama made sure we were ready when the appointed time came. That vigil had been packed with people, praises, prayers and prophecies. Almost everyone who came left with a prophecy. The guest pastor had called some people for private consultation and my parents were among the chosen.
It was almost nine o’clock the next morning when we finally drove away from the church compound, our prophecy sealed in parental silence. Daddy glanced straight ahead as he drove while Mama bent her head and sniffled. Glad that it was a Saturday with an excuse to sleep instead of doing chores, Chima and I rushed off to the bedroom when we got home. I don’t think my parents slept because when I woke up to ease myself, I heard them arguing.
“For goodness sake, Nne, stop it! See why I don’t believe in all these pastors?” My father asked, picking the remote off the table.
“But you will not say that the other things he said were not true o. Did Mpa Polly not tell you that he will deal with you after that village election? Did you not fall sick and almost die in my hands?” Mama countered, hands on her waist. I could tell from the shakiness of her voice that she had been crying.
“You worry yourself too much, Nne. No one person has the right to take my life because I serve the living God.” Like a choirmaster’s baton, the remote rose and fell in the air alongside his words. “Therefore, I can go where I want and nothing, absolutely nothing, will happen.” Papa’s voice was deep, calm and full of authority. The voice he used in the classroom.
“See o, God has given some people eyes to see and tell us that he did not give. Only one week, Jerome. Is it that your own house is pursuing you? If anything happens to you, is me and your children that will suffer o. Hehn, hehn,” Mama drew on an earlobe as she spoke, emphasizing her points.
I shuffled from foot to foot, wondering what the Pastor had told them in that room.
“Ngwanu, at least you will do the fasting and prayer, right? Mama asked as she stood up and retied the wrapper round her chest.
“Mmmh” Papa grunted and changed the station. When Mama turned towards the door and saw me, she motioned me to go away.
In the afternoon when Papa left for the village, I finally asked Mama about our prophecy and she told me after many sighs. The visiting pastor had told Papa to remain indoors, locked in with a six-to-six dry fast and prayer session for seven days to thwart the spirit of death he had seen hovering around him. Papa wanted none of that, especially not when his father was sick in the village and calling for him. After telling me, Mama asked me to call Chima who had gone out to play so we could all pray. We had prayed for almost one hour when a knock on the door cut it short to Chima’s relief. He had dozed off so many times and only my kicks under the table had kept him awake just in time to say the Amens when required. The knock came again, this time urgent and followed by Papa’s voice. We flew off the table, prayer forgotten and ran to the door.
“Motor gi kwanu? Where is your car?” Mama asked after Papa drank the water I had rushed to get.
“Hmm.” Mama sighed and folded her arms over her chest, waiting.
He handed the cup back to me but I took it and stood near the door to hear what followed. Twice, the car had stopped in traffic and every time he found boys to push it till the engine came to life. Bent on travelling, he thought nothing of it in spite of what he knew. When the engine acted funny for the third time, he rolled the car to the nearest mechanic who laughed after examining the car, saying that maybe God did not want him to travel. Hearing that, Papa said, made him rethink his decision to travel despite the Pastor’s warning.
“Oho! If I talk you will not hear, thank God for that vulcanizer o,” Mama said, lifting her hand ceiling-wards.
That night we prayed and praised God till even I, could not keep the sleep away and was sent to join Chima in the bedroom. The next day when we went for Sunday service without Papa, Mama saw Pastor Kwe and returned with some bottles of anointed oil mixed with things I did not know.
Every day followed the same routine. Mama woke us by six in the morning and we joined them for prayers after which we prepared and left for school. When we returned, we took our baths before eating lunch. If Papa was reading his bible in the parlour, we ate in the kitchen to prevent distractions. A fast was unsuccessful if a person focused on the thought of food rather than praying and we wanted Papa’s fast to be successful. At night we prayed with them till sleep overcame us. I had never imagined that my father could die and this prophecy, even though it had been put into prayer, was worrying, most especially for Mama. I caught her several times gazing into space with her hand on her chin, breaking into sighs. Her prayers were usually tear-filled as she rained down the Holy Ghost fire on whoever had a hand in the trial we were facing.
Our neighbours noticed that Papa’s car had not returned to the compound and soon they began to ask about Papa. Was he well? Was it not his voice they heard praying at night, why did he not come out during the day? Had he travelled? We kept telling them everything was okay but in their faces we saw the doubts until we invited few of them inside to confirm our words. Papa did not eat or drink water from the moment he woke up till six-thirty every evening when I would serve him dinner. Perhaps if that was only the case, he would not have moved to the guestroom on the fourth day.
On that Sunday when Pastor had given Mama the Anointed oil, he had instructed her that Papa was not to bath for the duration of the fast. Instead he was to apply the oil thrice daily all over his body. Papa had complained, asking if God forbade personal hygiene and Mama had told him to stop complaining over every little thing. After all hadn’t Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness, did they tell him that there was water to bath with in the wilderness? Papa had surrendered, hands in the air and they had laughed over it. But on the third day, Mama was not laughing anymore. When Papa passed, we noticed because the smell of rotting fish lingered in the air till the fans dispelled it. Mama had taken to spending more time in the kitchen than in their room since she could not say anything. Every once in a while, Chima would say the house was smelling mess-mess and giggle. Mama and I would exchange glances and look away. On the fourth day when Papa moved into the guestroom, Mama breathed easily and we followed our routine.
On the seventh and last day, we woke up happy. We could not wait for six-thirty when Papa would break his final fast. We sang and prayed with more vigour, Mama spoke in tongues and even Chima did not sleep so much. When it was time, Mama sent me to ask Papa if he would prefer a bath or meal first. He wanted a meal. He would need hot water to wash away the stink and dirt of the past seven days. I could set the water to boil while he ate, he said. I skipped out of the room to relay the message to Mama. Minutes later when I went in to clear the plates, he was whistling a jolly tune as he washed his hands.
“Hapuya,” he said when I bent to clear the plates. “I will take it to the kitchen myself so I can thank the cook specially.”
“Papa, your water is ready o, it will soon cold,” I said quickly in an attempt to make him realize how urgently he needed a bath.
“Don’t worry my dear, the water can wait for me to thank my wife,” he said, carrying the tray out of the room while I trailed behind.
“Nwanyioma!” he shouted when he saw Mama in the kitchen. “Isi gbuuuoooom… Thank you.”
Mama giggled and I could tell that the compliment made her happy. She rinsed her hands quickly, dried them on her wrapper and came towards Papa, all smiles. “Thank God.”
Just then Chima bounded in, all sweaty and rushed to the bucket of drinking water.
“Puuahh! Ezii! Pig!” Mama screamed at him. “Com’on, go and wash your hands before dipping them into our drinking water.” Chima, startled by her shout, stood there staring, cup in hand.
“Chima, bia, bia, don’t mind your mother, inugo?” Papa opened his arms and my brother ran into them. “What are you two looking at like lucozade? Ngwa, come here osiso,” he said and Mama and I flew into his arms, laughing. In that moment, wrapped in his arms, the air smelt of love.
When we disengaged moments later, Mama cupped her palm over his ear and said in a not so whispery voice, “Nna, go and bathe, i na eshizi tututu, you smell awful.”
Papa swatted her head. “Don’t worry when I am through bathing, I will twist that your sharp mouth,” he said, smiling as he walked away.
“Biawa, m n’eche gi. Come, I am waiting for you,” Mama said and turned to pour water over Chima’s hands while I cleared the bones from Papa’s plate into the dustbin.
Twenty minutes later, I was in my bedroom when I heard Mama stop in front of the bathroom and ask, “Nna, i n’amu nwa ebe anuwa? Are you giving birth here?” I listened for Papa’s reply like I am sure Mama did before knocking. I picked up my earpiece as the bathroom door squeaked open, reminding me that I was yet to pour oil on its hinges like Papa had instructed earlier in the day. I was detangling the twists in the earpiece when Mama’s scream pushed me off the bed and out into the corridor.
“Mama what is it?” I asked, standing by the slightly open door.
She screamed again but a sob choked her and I pushed open the door, heart beating loudly in my ears. I saw Papa lying across the bathtub, eyes closed, but it was the blood smeared on the marbled wall that made me scream.
“Go and call somebody!” Mama screamed at me as she quickly untied her wrapper and threw it over him.
In that moment when I turned and ran out screaming at the top of my lungs, I realized that the bathroom smelt worse than unwashed buttocks. It smelt like death.