Fiction

February 18, 2015 Fiction

ibomengongsters

 

By

Echezonachukwu Nduka

 

A Dream in August

 

 

The weather was not ambivalent. August rains poured down like revenge so bitter, yet sweet. In the second week of the month, it rained so often that one would think God had changed his mind about not destroying the world with rain. Gutters were soon filled with runoffs that quickly navigated into tarred roads and caused more havoc for motorists and cyclists. Amidst the rainfall, thunderclaps left the sky with fury and the sounds, as loud as they were—couldn’t completely halt the rowdiness in the streets and markets. Aside from fruit hawkers, sausage sellers, and airtime sellers who often stayed in make-shift batchers that were soon homeward bound, store owners were not in a hurry to close their shops. As far as their clients were still able to find their way to the stores under their umbrellas, closing their shops was out of place. Even when there seemed to be no sign of having too many clients as a result of the weather, there was no quitting. Some of them, men in their sixties, would sit in twos and threes talking politics: how central bank governors had done nothing remarkable but change and reprint naira notes as if it contributed to the economy or value of the note itself; how Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu was such an intelligent but rebellious and power-drunk soldier by attempting a coup that failed woefully; how Buhari had dealt with people and had them flogged for indiscipline; how Babangida squandered oil money and killed Dele Giwa; how Obasanjo had diverted Nigeria’s fortune to his farm in Otta; how he knew quite well that Yar’Adua was battling with his health as a state governor, yet imposed him on their party as presidential candidate; how their brothers in the north were so foolish to have remained there even when markets, churches, and houses were burnt down to ashes before their very eyes. Sometimes, they would disagree and argue very loudly until it ended in bets that provided them several cartons of beer to end the day. In Okofia, traders and market women were known for a degree of doggedness that often translated to desperation and ambitiousness. Even at night when stores were closed in all nearby towns and villages, people who were in urgent need knew where to go for emergency purchases: Okofia.

On Thursday of that same second week when Benjamin returned from his short holiday, there was no rain. The evening was calm like a cemetery. Blank. Numb. Dead. That night, his mood was unsteady. One minute, he was lively. The next, he would recoil into himself as a tortoise would, and not even respond to jokes poked at him. He sat at the dining table while Adaku, his only sister sat in the main living room, watching Super Story and commenting intermittently. Before his brief visit to Ikenna, his mother’s younger brother who traded tires and Mercedes Benz spare parts in Warri, he had never exuded such moody tendency to the extent of staying all alone and not wanting to watch his favorite soap opera. His mother, Ifeyinwa, had just finished cooking a meal of pounded yam and peppery egusi soup garnished with lots of dry fish and beef; a special meal with which to welcome him. He was missed. No doubt. Benjamin was not just her only son, but could pass for her boyfriend and husband put together. Obijiofor, her husband, had died of asthma on the eve of New Year that also became a new millennium. He had a striking semblance with Benjamin. In his days, his friends often teased him of cheating his wife in the game and vomiting Benjamin wholly. Being a man of wit, he would respond that his wife underestimated him in the game so he decided to show her that he was the master.

“I scored her 10-0!” he would boast and they would all laugh it off, while guarding their glasses of beer and the bottles carefully. He loved beer. There was never a time he lacked beer in his house. He counted them and knew when they were likely to finish. He downed the bottles at least once every night. It was like a prescribed medication.  Once, at about 9:30pm, he had asked Benjamin to rush to one of the stores and buy him just one carton of Star Beer. Benjamin respectfully declined, explaining that it was already late and all the store owners would have closed.

“Eh! Na Okofia anyi a? Oburo eziokwu. Nwokem nee ego jee buteem mmanya ebe a! In this our Okofia? It is not true. My friend, take this money and go get me the drinks here!

Benjamin sulked and still went. He had no choice. His father must drink at least one bottle before going to bed. Obijiofor never missed going out with his inhaler in his pocket. He had about three of them. On the 31st December 1999, they all returned from the crusade that had lasted for seven days. There were lots of prophecies. The world was coming to an end. People would die in millions. Judgment will take place. Worse still, Bishop Afoego had prophesied that so many people would go to hell. Heaven would not contain everybody. Hell was wide enough with its lake of fire that could swallow the whole world and still have enormous space. Too many people donated money to motherless babies’ homes as instructed and paid extra tithes. On that last day of the crusade, the bishop cast out demons and spoke in tongues more than he had ever done. He warned that their end of year tithes, whether increased or not, was not a bribe to God, but that all his members would make heaven if they obeyed God and increased their tithes.

“Heaven is our home!” The bishop would shout.

“Amen!!!”

Benjamin was confused. On their way home, he had asked whether the donations made to those in the motherless babies’ homes would make any sense since the world would end the next day and everybody was going to die. There was no response. He was more confused about the bishop’s message about God asking for an increment in tithes and offerings since everyone would die the next day. The more he pondered, the more confused he became. They all had freshened up and hurried back to the church for the cross-over service and his father forgot his inhaler. No one remembered the inhaler. Perhaps, it wasn’t important in the scheme of things. That night, even people who had never been to any church filled all the churches in Okofia, waiting for heaven to come down.

It did.

And it took only Obijiofor.

During the service, his crisis started and they frantically searched his pockets for his inhaler. By the time Benjamin who was sent home ran back with the inhaler, his father was gone. In the church. Alone. Everyone else saw the New Year. The new millennium. “He is already in heaven”, too many congregants said amidst wails and consolations.

Surprisingly, the tempting meal of pounded yam and peppery egusi soup did not entice Benjamin. His mother had placed the food for him on the dining table and joined Adaku in the living room. He stared at the food for too long that the food not only became cold, but seemed to have metamorphosed into an art work; a painting to be critiqued and scored as a prerequisite for the artist’s admission into a professional league of sorts. First, it was Adaku who noticed that he wasn’t eating and signaled their mother who had backed him to concentrate on the soap opera which was getting more dramatic as the episodes unfolded.

“Benji, O gini? What is it? Don’t you like the food?”

“I like the food, mama. Don’t bother. I’ll be fine.”

He ate slowly, making faces as he swallowed the cold meal that had possibly lost its taste to the coldness that wrapped it like a cloth, covering the nudity of the pounded yam in all its whiteness and purity.

That night, for a reason he did not know, he was reluctant to go to his room. He slept in his favorite couch in the living room and started dreaming.

It was Olili Mmuo, a biennial festival that lasted for two weeks. Each day, masquerades of different sizes would emerge and dance around the village, markets, beer parlors and every possible place where people gathered. Masquerades were known to be spirits too. It was their feast. They would dance and people would spray them some money. The spirits needed money too. They would go back to wherever they came from and survive on what they had earned until the next two years. Since it was a biennial event, the masquerades were mostly desperate and even flogged those who refused to give them money. No masquerade was ready to risk not making enough money as they could die of starvation if they ran out of cash before the next festival: a second death, that is.

Benjamin and about eleven other youths were hiding in a familiar bush near the Nsirime stream. The bushes had become wild and thick. He feared that wild animals could live there as some village hunters still hunted better games from the same bush to earn a living. It had been several years since they stopped going to the stream to fetch. There were several bore holes in the village now and few people bought tanks and water from water tankers. He wondered if the stream had dried up or still there since not too many people went there. Even the footpaths to the stream had been covered long ago. He simply could not understand how he found himself there. For the fact that Ikenna, his mother’s younger brother was there, he was not too perturbed. Nobody would harm him. Not too long, Ikedi appeared with a huge black mask and a bag containing some jute materials that looked like a masquerade costume and some gongs for their masquerade music. Ever since Ikedi arrived, he became uncomfortable. How could such a person be allowed to be in their midst? It was Ikedi who, during his father’s obsequies, had fought with his uncles over condolence monies donated by mourners. It was Ikedi who, when nobody was around, raped his young cousin and the whole village became in disarray for nearly one month. Market women refused to shut up their mouths. School teachers gossiped, gossiped, and gossiped until the meaning of the word got lost in its practice. All the pastors in the village turned the topic of their sermons to the dangers of incest and made many prophesies against those who would dream of practicing such. It didn’t stop at that. Even Ikonne the village chief priest of Omaliko requested for goats, cows, and several items with which to cleanse their family and the land. Ikedi’s name became synonymous with taboo. Sacrilege. Abomination. Ikedi brought out weed that he had prepared to smoke earlier, but kept. He lit it, smoked and passed it round. Ikenna smoked. Benjamin smoked too. Soon, everyone’s spirit was lifted for their purpose.

Ikedi placed the black mask in the middle of the triangular shape they had formed. He reached for the bag containing the jute materials and started to unpack while he slowly and carefully looked in the eyes of everyone there as if he didn’t see them before then and when his weed was passed round for their sinful communion. On sighting Benjamin, he shouted:

Bia enyi! Kedu ife ino ebe a eme? Imago mmonwu?  Hey friend! What are you doing here? Have you been initiated into the masquerade cult?

“First, I am not your friend. Second…”

Shataaap!”

“Please, please…” Ikenna intervened. “He will join us now”.

Benjamin stared at Ikenna in utter surprise with confusion written in his eyes and his forehead like a Greek essay given to a primitive German scholar to read and summarize. He was lost. He was made to remove his clothes save his boxer shots and lie flat, facing the ground. About seven of them, including Ikenna produced their handkerchiefs and his hands and feet were tied. His mouth was tied too. Afterwards, they gave him a brief beating that left a mark on his left elbow which bled for some minutes and stopped. He swore an oath of secrecy and became one with them. He was freed while Ikenna left and got back quickly with some shrubs with which he used to stop the bleeding.

Benjamin still could not understand why he should be beaten so as to join their masquerade cult. It was weird. He participated in their preparation but was not dressed in the masquerade costume. Only seven of them wore the masquerades and Ikedi, because he was tall and huge, wore the biggest one and they used the mask he brought to cover his face. As scary as he looked, no one in the village would ever know that that it was Ikedi the misfit. They left the bush and made their way to the village square, dancing and chanting some refrain to their ogene music, chasing young girls around, and flogging some people who insisted on not giving them money. Soon, some fingers started pointing at Benjamin. He was odd in the group. He had a reputation for being very close to the church and even belonged to several fellowships and even the choir. The Bishop would definitely be heartbroken and disappointed if he ever saw him with the masquerade group or get any information that he was among them. Before the Olili Mmuo, he had preached vehemently against the festival, calling it idolatrous and devilishly instituted for the expansion of Satan’s kingdom. Children of God must not participate in such an idolatrous feast.

Those whose fingers pointed at him also told the Bishop.

After their display on the third day of the festival, Benjamin got home in the evening, had his bath and sat in the verandah, fixing his gaze on the mango tree in their compound when his girlfriend, Chioma, opened the gate and walked in gracefully. His face beamed with smiles as they both crashed in a tight hug.

“Chi, your perfume is killing. I feel like eating you right now.”

“Hmmm, Mr. Eater!” They laughed.

Chioma was in the habit of visiting unannounced. Even at some unexpected moments, she would gently open the gate and walk in, asking anyone she saw if Benjamin was in. At first, when she started it, Benjamin had protested, insisting that it was not a good practice. Unfortunately, it was bad argument on his part. He had earlier told her that he doesn’t believe in courtesies and protocols; that he was spontaneous. Chioma’s memory had never failed in such circumstance. She was quick to remind Benjamin what he said about courtesies and that ended the argument. As if that was not enough, she accused Benjamin of having something to hide from her if he insisted on being told before any visit. To prove a point that meant much to him, he allowed her to visit unannounced.

Because they attended the same church, they had met after the church service when new choir members were been introduced to the choir. Chioma was already in the choir, but Benjamin was one of the new members. There were more girls in the choir. The choir terribly lacked tenors and basses and were in need of male voices to balance their performances. Following the Bishop’s plea for new male members during his sermon, Benjamin was one of the few boys who waited after the service to offer themselves as new choristers. From that day, Chioma kept an eye on Benjamin and exuded some gestures that suggested her interest in Benjamin, but he seemed to be interested in another choir girl who in turn, was not interested in him in anyway. Her name was Obianuju. When Benjamin’s advances failed, he succumbed to Chioma’s romantic advances. She missed him when he traveled to Warri for a short holiday. Even in his absence, she still visited and spent few minutes with Adaku whom she had befriended by all means so as to maintain her relationship with Benjamin. Those visits seemed to make a vivid statement that she does not only visit because of Benjamin—which was false. Adaku knew too. Chioma was a bit disturbed by rumors from some of their colleagues that Benjamin was seen with masquerades and singing their ogene fetish music, she knew quite well that their Bishop must have heard it too and might act soon.

“Benji, what’s happening? I hear you now follow masquerades”.

“Yes, I do. Is something wrong with that?”

“God forbid bad thing! Too many things are wrong with that.”

“Look, my dear. God does not forbid bad thing. In this world, even in the church, there are too many bad things going on already and God hasn’t forbidden them. I have told you, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, let us say I like the ogene music and the whole cultural display.”

“You call that cultural display?”

“Yes, that’s what it is.”

Chioma stared at him, speechless. He had changed. He was no longer the soft-spoken and well-mannered Benjamin she fell for. Shortly before his travel, she had noticed a certain sort of nonconformity about him that bothered her to some extent. She had joined Tongues of Fire, one of the fellowships in their church where they were taught to speak in tongues as those filled with the heavenly spirit. Some of them were even promised to learn how to prophesy if they allowed the spirit to fill them wholly. After her first encounter in the fellowship, she had excitedly invited Benjamin to join, but he declined, arguing that people shouldn’t be taught to speak in tongues, that it should happen spontaneously.

After a minute of starring into Benjamin’s eyes, as if to find some clue about his actions, she turned and left.

On Sunday, after the church service, the Bishop sent Nicholas, his PA to invite Benjamin to his office. As soon as Benjamin received his message, he knew the time had come. He had waited for this time for too long. He couldn’t wait to give the Bishop a piece of his mind. Before then, he was a bit worried that the Bishop might not want to take up his case.

Benjamin knocked and was asked to come in. He went in, locked the door behind him, said a word of greeting, and was offered a sit directly opposite his bishop. No one else was in the office. The ambiance was perfect for them. Bishop Afoego started his usual preachments about how their bodies were the temple of God; how indulging in idol worship or any sort could expel God’s spirit; how he was disappointed that a chorister like him could do such a sinful act; how he had always prepared all his church members for heaven. As Benjamin listened, anger built up inside him. He simply could not understand what gave his Bishop the moral right to call him privately and talk about his own sins. After all, all of them were sinners. There was no righteous person. Even he, the Bishop committed his own sins in private and still pretended to be an umpire for the heavenly race. If not for anything, since it was not made public for the sake of his image and the church, he knew quite well that he, the Bishop, flirted with Obianuju and got her pregnant. To worsen the situation, he gave the poor girl only one thousand naira to get rid of the pregnancy and not mention it to anyone. Because Obianuju was his crush and he had stalked her, he knew, but kept it to himself and still acted like nothing happened. He had often wondered what would have happened if Obianuju died in the process. He couldn’t even give her enough money to take care of herself. Benjamin had thought within himself that such level of wickedness would be despised by even Satan himself.

While Bishop Afoego went on with his preachments, Benjamin interrupted him.

“Excuse me, my lord.”

“Yes?”

“What about God’s servants who are adulterers?”

The Bishop was silent.

“What about God’s servants who sponsor abortions?”

He folded his arms and gave Benjamin a stern look.

“My lord, I’ll not be surprised if you’re shocked. I am sure your wife does not know about all these. But not to worry, I am not a blackmailer. Stay on your path, and let me stay on mine. That way, we will be happy on our way to heaven.”

Benjamin stood up and left.

“Benji!” Adaku called as she made her way into the living room. He tapped him gently and Benjamin woke up, stretched his body and rubbed his eyes. He reached for his mobile phone to check the time. It was 6:45am. He yawned.

“Chioma is here to see you.”

“At this time?”

“Yes. She is waiting outside.”

Benjamin stood up, gave her a repulsive look, took his shoes, and staggered to his room.

 

 

 

 

Echezonachukwu Nduka xvii

Echezonachukwu Nduka

Echezonachukwu Nduka is a Nigerian poet and short story writer. His literary works have been published in reputable literary journals and anthologies. He is the Founder & Director at Apotheosis Art House.

Echezonachukwu is currently a postgraduate music scholar in Kingston University London, UK.

He tweets @nduka_echenduka

2 Comments

  1. Uba February 28, at 18:16

    Captivating, I perfectly related to story and the sequence was enticing. kept me on till the last word.Good one brother..

    Reply

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