“Mulumba” was first published in The Threepenny Review’s Spring 2016 issue 145. They don’t seem to be planning to make it public so I have. I wrote it in November 2014, a tribute to my Block Rosary Crusade-heavy childhood, years spent in chapels in Christ the King Cathedral, Aba (featured photo). It is special to me because it marked the evolution of my prose, and because I wrote the first draft in one sitting, in four hours. There’s a link to a review of it on my home page. (Also, I haven’t read it since 2015.)
How cold December in Aba was last year, how fiercely its dust swirled, coating everything in pale-brown that morning when our eyes first met. They called him Bro Mulumba; everybody at our Block Rosary Centre called him Bro Mulumba for some reason I didn’t know, but his real name was Chigaemezu and that was what I came to call him, Bro Chigaemezu. I remember it was a Sunday because it was in our parish premises and I was with Mama, and the harmattan breeze was making the branches of the short palm tree in Saint Ann’s garden bend and rise, bend and rise, like a hand waving bye-bye with too many green fingers. I remember that the cloudy sky was an expanse of pale rocks, like many-many faded-white pillows placed side by side, as though by angels preparing to sleep. I remember, too, what he wore, their church warden uniform of white shirt on navy blue trousers, where he stood, at the top of the staircase, beside the big palm-frond-woven n standing over the door. Each time I saw him, I always let my eyes linger on him, on his long face, his tall frame of skin the color of wet loamy soil. The way he always stood hands akimbo like a soldier, the way he never smiled, the way he always looked straight ahead, as if deliberately, at only grown-up people, as if small children on the ground like us didn’t matter: it all frightened me, fired my curiosity. My friends Emeka and Augustine said he was one of those grown-ups who used to like children, small-small boys and girls like us, but children just didn’t like him, and after trying everything to make them like him, he stopped buying them biscuits and started standing at the church door with a cane, waiting for late-comers, making them kneel down under the sun, flogging the boys on their buttocks, the girls on their palms, piam-piam-piam, three-three each. But then Emeka and Augustine could lie very well, which is why, when they tell me anything, I put it aside to think about later, to consider whether I should believe it.
I remember that day, also, because Saint Ann’s garden was full, because everybody had been entering the church from there since the other entrance crumbled and fell on that little girl two Sundays ago. It had happened during Mass, during homily. The little girl had been sitting on her daddy’s lap, beside Mama and me, but got down and began playing, nearing and nearing the wide door arch, and suddenly, as if something had nudged the looping row of stone, it clattered down. She lay under the blocks, kicking, not making any noise, just kicking, until people rushed over and lifted them, Father Somto running down from the altar. But she had become still, they would later say, her face bloody, calm like a martyr’s, portions of her white dress soaked red, two fingers squashed. The way it happens in films after a bombing. Everybody in the church was shouting. Her daddy carried her in his arms and ran out, two others following, and after Mass, Father Somto, his voice shaking, said, “Let everyone in this church pray for this child Chiamaka Okoro.” And I knew she had survived. Now Mama held my hand tight as we climbed the stairs. She was saying, “Gashike, fast,” pulling my hand, her head tie so tall I was sure it would block somebody’s view of the altar. It was then that Bro Chigaemezu turned and looked straight at me, right into my eyes, so that I became afraid he had seen my mind. I looked away immediately, into the church full of different colors of people’s clothes, their children all clad in sweaters.
But it was one month after Christmas—a Thursday afternoon that was very hot, and I had gone inside the church because the pews were usually cool when you lay on them—that Bro Chigaemezu first spoke to me. I had bowed in front of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and was just standing and looking inside when someone put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You should join us to learn how to serve Mass.” I turned. It was Bro Chigaemezu, bending over me. Although I sometimes imagined myself a Mass Server, pretending when alone to swing the sweet-smelling frankincense, I had never wanted to become one. Although Our Lord Jesus Christ was my friend and I loved Him very much, I didn’t want to be so close to Him in the Host, to ever carry the silver plate containing Him, to hold it out to prevent bits of Him falling from people’s lips onto the green marble floor of the altar so clear I could see myself on it. Every time I came close to the altar I felt something recoiling in my stomach, beating in my heart. I was afraid and I didn’t know why. He was still standing there and I was still staring at his face, at his pimples so yellow at the tips like shiny beads, at his small mouth, his eyes that looked like someone pushed them apart, until I said no. “I don’t want to be a Mass Server,” I said. But it was not because I didn’t want to; it was because Mama would not let me. When I joined Holy Childhood Association, she came to the Centre and told our president, Bro Okey, that I was already in too many church groups—Block Rosary, Legion of Mary, Sacred Heart, Precious Blood, and now Holy Childhood—and would no longer have time for all those books I usually read, which she liked seeing me read because it meant I was learning things children my age don’t know. She had refused when I wanted to join the Boy Scouts, afraid they might flog me too much in the name of training. “I understand that church is important,” she had told Bro Okey, “but, biko, you should understand that the most important thing is worshipping God in ways we can. That is why there are all these groups, so that different people can do different things instead of tearing themselves to pieces in all of them.” Bro Okey stood there looking at the ground and nodding. Bro Okey was a quiet person, and maybe because he was quiet and had listened attentively like it was his own mother talking—because he hadn’t argued and told Mama what Saint Paul said about it, like Sister Njideka would have done—Mama allowed me to continue both Block Rosary and Holy Childhood.
“Will you come to the Centre tonight?” Bro Chigaemezu asked.
“Try and see me when we dismiss, inugo?”
I nodded again. As he walked away down the passage between the long brown pews, I looked at his clothes: his faded-red polo slightly torn at his right armpit; his big trousers that looked like he had been put inside them, legs flailing, like a small person was inside crying to be let out; his slippers that were torn at the tails of both soles. Bro Chigaemezu was poor. Almost all of us at Block Rosary were not rich, but Bro Chigaemezu’s poverty was touching. It was shouting. It screamed out whenever he passed, whenever he was looked at; it made some people laugh at him behind his back. After Block Rosary that night, he walked over to me and said, “I didn’t think you would wait.”
We walked down the bending street lined on both sides by one-story buildings whose white balcony ceilings were torn in parts, hanging down, revealing their brown insides, like dirty tongues in clean mouths. He began telling me how to be a good Christian, how not to fall away—stories of people who had started following God from when they were children and because of it became big people in life. “God never fails,” he said. I believed him. I knew. God never failed. When he stopped in front of a corn-seller, a girl in low-cut hair with big wheels as earrings, he said, “Do you know why I like you?”
I shook my head, surprised. I did not know that he liked me. I mean, I had not thought of whether telling me things meant he liked me. The only thing I knew was that he used to like children.
“Because you’re always quiet,” he said.
I looked at the ground. I did not always talk because I did not always know what to say. Yet although I preferred to just listen and listen, I did not think myself quiet. Maybe because there was always a lot of noise inside my head, a lot of talking. Because I thought too much about everything, about myself or Mama or school or God or other people. He gave me two roast corns wrapped in newspapers and said, “Try and come to our Mass Servers’ meeting tomorrow in the Sacristy by four. You don’t have to join us.”
That was how I entered the Sacristy for the first time, the small chapel of red bulbs under the church, beneath the high staircase of the altar—how I began going there daily to see him. In the evenings, we would walk around the parish compound, past the gardens of Saints Peter & Paul and Saint Ann, towards the black statues of Saints Michael and Gabriel with wings curved upwards, like broad flat horns praying skywards. Or we would just go to the other side and sit on one of the stone seats facing the fenced burial ground in which grass grew all around white concrete graves of dead reverend fathers. It was there, one such breezy evening, under one of the small trees bending over the seats, casting dim shadows on the short cemetery wall and railing, that he asked me what I wanted to be. Three leaves were falling, swaying in the air in such slow motion that I wished I had a camera to capture them. There were fallen dry leaves all over the seats and on the concrete ground, and on the grass that had bent from frequent trampling and now looked like permed green hair. One of the leaves settled on my right foot.
The day our form teacher asked us in class to say what we wanted to be, one by one, I had told her that I didn’t know what I would become, that only God knew, and she told the class to clap for me, that it was a very wise answer. But thinking about it now, even though I still believed everything would be decided by God, I told Bro Chigaemezu that I would be a doctor. I knew I could not prevent illnesses but at least I could prevent people from suffering so much. He nodded, picked a pebble, tossed it, again, and said, “Achorom ichi Father. I will like to be a priest.”
On the ground, a group of ants was surrounding a spider, attacking it. Spider was fighting back, running around, but there were too many ants and it finally turned right and turned left and stayed still and they climbed all over it. I wondered if it expected someone to save it. Was I supposed to understand how it felt to be hunted, to be food and not know what to do? I imagined its whitish eggs nestled in some cobweb somewhere, spherical, safe, thinking their mother would come back.
“Have you been called?” I asked, imagining a foggy vision in which Our Lord Jesus Christ, in His holy glory full of rainbows, would walk towards a sleeping Bro Chigaemezu and declare in a thunderous voice: Thou Chigaemezu shalt becometh my priest and leadeth souls back to me! It was the most important thing for people wanting to be reverend fathers, being called. A bird landed on a tiny flower on one of the graves, landed with force, wings flapping, bits of green feather whirling about, and picked up something in its beak and flew away towards the tallest flower tree. I told him what I thought. At first, I thought I was the one laughing. Then I looked up and he was the one laughing. He was looking at me and he was laughing. I had never seen him laugh or smile before. I didn’t know why he was laughing but I joined him. And then, just then in that moment, as if something unusual had fallen out of the sky like that bird, I realized why my friends didn’t like him. His frowns pushed them away as much as his biscuits were meant to draw them nearer.
“It came in a dream,” he said, and then he told me his dream from years ago, in which he saw himself holding the Host, eyes closed. “The priest I asked said it was a personal call,” he said, and I heard in his voice his belief. Even though I understood what he meant, I still let my mind drift and wondered if there were people who received public calls. The more we stayed together, the more the days seemed to race past as if in a hurry and, with me immersed in his presence, in his talking and my listening, time leaked so profusely that I kept forgetting to ask him certain things that bothered me.
Some evenings, we’d watch little boys play football behind the church, kicking and running after the deflated dirty ball. We’d talk and talk, I licking the ice cream he had bought me. It was April, the season for mangoes, and we’d watch the ripening fruits, the pinkish spots on their green skins, knowing they would all disappear before fully turning reddish-yellow, but not before turning the ground below into a decaying floor of fruit and flies. One day, after Benediction, when I saw him standing at the main entrance, I ran and hugged him, pressed my head into his stomach. When he raised my head, smiling, I saw things I could not describe in his eyes, things I could not reach out to. They were like one huge transparent shield from behind which someone spoke to you, understood and made you understand, yet remained behind his shield, only letting you see him, feel him, but not touch him, grasp him. Later Augustine looked at me, eyebrows raised, and asked why Bro Chigaemezu was suddenly smiling at everybody. I looked away, continued laughing. Yet something had happened that I didn’t fully understand, that made Bro Chigaemezu smile now, seem at ease. He looked like someone who had been freed, and sometimes he looked surprised, too surprised that he had been freed. The more I felt pulled to him, the more I felt pushed out of my old self, slowly, into a world so still, so stunned by its own existence.
Three Sundays ago, we stood at the security post at the main gate where new obituary posters were pasted every week behind the cracked glass. Light from the evening sun splattered on the glass, a disfigured rainbow, like money spent extravagantly, like a woman screaming in a quiet chapel. We stood looking. There was a fair-complexioned woman with a pointed nose and slender face, like a Fulani or maybe those beautiful beggars who resemble women and children in Biblical films. Above her was PAINFUL EXIT and beside her, enclosed in a red circle, was the number 46. The frail old man in traditional wear next to her had GLORIOUS TRANSITION because he was ninety-five years old.
“Lee, look,” Bro Chigaemezu pointed at the poster in front of him. It was a boy, black-and-white, beside 23 YEARS OLD. Like a photo taken in 1960. “Just died on Thursday.” The poster said: QUIETLY CALLED TO THE BOSOM OF THE LORD AFTER A FATAL ACCIDENT.
“Okwa i mana, you know it was a car accident that killed my parents in 2001.”
I stared at Bro Chigaemezu. I didn’t know his parents were dead, that they had died in a car accident. He had never mentioned them so I assumed they were just there. 2001 was only last year, yet he named the year like it was many years ago, the way people today would say that somebody died in 1990 or 1980. “Sorry,” I said, not knowing what else to say. He didn’t reply, didn’t even nod to show he heard. We continued looking at the posters until I held his hand. It was hard. I wanted to know him more, deeper, how his life had been when he was still small like me. I gathered courage.
“Brother, how old are you?”
He continued looking at the posters. Then he tightened my hand in his and said, “It’s getting late. Let me take you home.”
Last Friday, the sky open, small rain flying out, scattering like tiny insects dispersed by the breeze, as if the rain was confused and didn’t know whether it wanted to fall or not. Closing my eyes, I imagined the sky was like this, but it is only cloudless, pure white, the sun a drop of bright blurriness. It was hot. We sat on the burial ground seats, near a bird fight on one of the graves: three brown birds tearing at each other’s beaks, trying to get at something crawling on the grave, a worm maybe. Behind us, out of the long garage attached to the fence, cars poked out like the small noses of people who don’t like minding their own business. Beside the garage, a small boy was standing in front of the statue of Saint Dominic Savio, wearing red knickers that looked like school uniform shorts, and an indigo polo (the truth is that I don’t know what indigo looks like, I just like calling that color indigo because it looks like all those shiny clothes that Indians wear in films). The boy was the same height as me, maybe the same age, too. I think he was admiring the statue. At Block Rosary, Bro Okey always reminded us how we could be like Dominic Savio, the boy-saint. I thought now about the picture of Saint Mulumba that I’d seen on a brochure once, his eyes bold, solemn, his skin the color of groundnuts. I was going to ask Bro Chigaemezu why they called him Mulumba, if he thought he looked like Saint Mulumba, when he said, “I’ve finally found someone to pay my seminary school fees.”
The birds had stopped fighting and started staring at us, as though listening, as though surprised like me. “Are you going to seminary?”
He looked at me, amused. “Funny boy. Didn’t I tell you I want to be a priest?”
I wanted to say, “But you didn’t say seminary,” but instead I said, “Is it Father Somto?” I imagined it was Father Somto. He is a good person. Bro Chigaemezu turned to look at the gates where the security men were shouting at a man in a blue Mercedes. The man looked startled, confused, his wife beside him frowning, like she wanted to shout back but was still calculating the risks.
“The Bishop,” Bro Chigaemezu said. “I met him.”
I had seen the bishop once in the cathedral. He was fat and dark and was smiling and we all ran to greet him that day, holding out our rosaries and scapulars and pens and books and every other thing we wanted him to bless, and he placed his hands on all our heads and blessed us, too.
I did not say anything else and he did not say anything else. I didn’t tell him that at home Mama and Uncle Ezeji were shouting because my school fees had been increased and Mama refused to put me in a government school and Uncle Ezeji said, “Since you left your husband I’ve taken care of your son like my own child!” I didn’t tell him that was why I came there at this time, to find somewhere quiet to think about everything. My head was on his lap. The sun had fully melted into the sky, which was changing color quickly, getting bluer and darker. Like God was slowly covering the world with His mosquito net. There was a zigzag line across the sky. I closed my eyes again, different colors swimming inside. I heard the rain, like the sound of boots running towards us from the gates. I felt it, terse drops striking me in different places, like tiny arrows. He held my hand as we ran up the stairs into the church. We were laughing, his voice ringing through the dark church. At home now my friends would be out in the rain running around, voices ringing, yelling, screaming, chanting that the rain should fall just enough to fill their buckets and basins outside, that it should stop after that so that all the roads in Aba would not be spoilt, turned into canals of muddy-black water that people have to wade through, because if it happened, as it always did, Government may not care.
At first, the scream from outside was not very loud. Then it came again, rising above the thudding water, dangling into the church. We kept quiet to hear it. We came out to look and Bro Chigaemezu shouted, “Jesus Christ!” and began running down towards Saint Dominic Savio, where the boy admiring the statue was lying on the ground, pulling away from a big dog. The dog began to bark loudly, annoyed that the boy had drawn attention, and tore away one of the boy’s white canvas shoes. The boy was crying, the rain was falling hard, and the security men were running towards them, one tall and slim with an umbrella, the other, with a big belly, blowing his whistle, shouting, “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey!” The boy was trying to stand, to run. Then Bro Chigaemezu hit the dog with a stick and it ran off. The security man with a whistle was saying, “Thank you, thank you” to Bro Chigaemezu, the other one asking, “Is he wounded?”
The rain had suddenly stopped. The boy sat on the ground, drenched, wiping his face with his wet polo. Bro Chigaemezu carried him, saying, “I’m taking him to the clinic.” The boy’s eyes were red, his hands clasped tightly around Bro Chigaemezu’s neck. The tall security man was staring at me, finger wagging at me. “Umuaka a, you children don’t hear. You’re always running around here.”
“My friend, kwusi that rubbish—so you didn’t know you should have chained that dog?” the one with a big belly said, then looked at me. “Is he your brother?” I thought of saying no, of saying yes, but before I could open my mouth he was already walking away, saying to the other one, “Both of them come here almost every day.”
Today, I remember everything. I do because I’m standing before Mama and she is telling Uncle Ezeji that I will stop attending Block Rosary because a boy from our Centre had been found in the parish, behind the government secondary school, hanging from the mango tree there. “They call him Mulumba,” she says. “Why would somebody do that?” In my head, noise is rising, like horses galloping, knocking hooves against my skull. Even though there is no other Mulumba I know, I manage to open my mouth to ask, “Is it Bro Chigaemezu?” But I do not hear my voice. I only know I have spoken because Mummy stops to look at me. “I used to go to the mango tree with him,” I say again. It is now that Uncle Ezeji turns, staring at me. “Bia,” he says finally. Come. But he is the one that comes. He carries me back to his seat, presses my head into his chest, into his smell of talcum powder.