THE SWALLOWING BLUE
By Divine Inyang (Nigeria)
The first rain of the year fell in the first week of March; what the people here call the black rain, washing along the filth of Akworo into ancient gutters that emptied into the Ijun, prying the dust off thirsty zinc roofs and dust-plated cars and trees gasping for water. Reverend Onsachi opened his eyes and peered at the deluge, then shut it forcefully with disdain. The windows of his apartment in the old St. John’s vicarage were framed in decrepit oakwood, blotched by age and termite banquets, and missed too many louvers. Covering the windows were exhausted wire gauzes, full of holes yawning wide and shameless, inviting mosquitoes and bugs and troublesome flies. The water that trickled and splashed into the room soaked the walls, seeped into fissures at the bottom where the bedbugs lived and formed a small puddle below the window that crept perilously close to where Onsachi piled his books.
With a sigh, he groped for a rag and flung it without looking, aiming for the puddle. The rag landed on the pot of beans which he, remembering with a grimace, had forgotten to warm before tumbling into bed in the small hours of the morning. Onsachi sat up. It wasn’t 7am yet. Akworo was still blue and asleep; her roosters were only just beginning to leave their abodes in the trees and only a few motorcyclists could be heard violating the twilight quiet.
He heard a creaking sound, and then a knock on his door and a child’s voice saying kpam-kpam. He staggered to his feet.
“Daddy Onsachi, goo morring,” Fewhe, the 6-year-old son of Samson, the church sexton, stood before him shirtless.
Onsachi grunted and asked what the matter was.
“One mummy want see you. She inside church.” Fewhe turned to go.
“Daddy Jonah is not around?”
“No, Big Daddy no back yet.”
Fewhe skipped away. Onsachi tried to remember what day of the week it was. Thursday, visitation day. Reverend Canon Jonah – or Big Daddy as the members called him – was the vicar of St. John’s and the one whom the members often met with for counseling. The night before, he’d left in the middle of their all-night prayer session and drove to the new parish at Kuwé to join them, leaving Onsachi to take care of things. It was novel territory for Reverend Onsachi; roaming the chancel alone, delivering his sermon without the superintending gaze of the Canon, the faces looking up at him from the pews, expectant and sleepy. He’d done pretty well, he thought. And his sermon, Perversions of the flesh, was fire. Sin, he recalled saying, was the body claiming supremacy over the spirit…
“…and you must NOTgive in, or the devil usurps your soul!” he’d roared, brandishing a holy fist…
…and one man, whom the reverend could’ve sworn didn’t know the meaning of usurp said Hmmm!! and another nodded a scrawny head ponderously, another belted we hear you! and a few women screamed Amen!! even though he hadn’t prayed for anything in particular.
As he looked about the room for a clean shirt, he observed the rain had ceased, the room had brightened a bit, hinting at imminent sunrise, and some of his books were wet already. But why was this woman coming so early anyway? Didn’t visitations usually start by 8am? Or 9am? He sighed, putting on a crimson t-shirt he’d worn only once before. He strode out, wishing he’d been charier with his perfume; he couldn’t even get one good spray out of his canister of Lux and feared he smelled like a wet dog.
The woman had a lovely round face, full of freckles, but her voice was reedy with an accent that was difficult to place. She was young and lean, too young and lean, Onsachi thought, to be a mummy. She called him Daddy Sachi and genuflected. Onsachi motioned towards the vestry and led the way. The fair woman, who introduced herself as Mrs. Somi, was one of the women who sometimes brought fruits to the reverend, and as she took a seat opposite him, he could’ve sworn he’d seen her face at the all-night session the previous day, praying rigorously at the back of the church.
“Were you at the all-night meeting yesterday?” Onsachi asked when she was settled.
“Yes,” Mrs. Somi said, smiling at the desk.
A boy walked into the room. In his wake, a storm of fragrance.
Reverend Onsachi, minister of God and newly-appointed curate of St. John’s church, did not want to say beautiful. He did not want to say the boy wore milk on his skin and carried grace in his hair and smiled like hope. But Onsachi, the man, and the heart that beat inside the man, insisted on adjectives that smelled of roses. It was Reverend Onsachi that replied when the boy greeted:
“Good morning, pastor,” with a soft voice, and took his seat in a very composed manner.
“Good morning, welcome, my son.” My son. Onsachi hated whenever he had to say that. My son. He reckoned he wasn’t much older than the boy; his humble thirty-two couldn’t be too far from the boy who looked in his mid-twenties and had a chin filled with spiky beards.
“Ehm, Daddy, we have come to see you this morning.”
Reverend Onsachi nodded and grunted appropriately and shifted in his seat. Onsachi tried not to look at the beautiful boy and his pinkish lips.
“My son, err, has a problem.”
“A problem?” The reverend asked.
The woman looked at her son, a face that said go on! The boy sat upright, sank back into his seat, then sat upright again, all the while fumbling with the buttons of his shirt. He looked flustered. He stared at the desk, at the ground, at space, at the desk again. He raised his eyes and for a second, boy and reverend stared at each other, then boy averted his eyes. Reverend Onsachi remained steadfast, my son, what is the problem? he said out loud, as though Onsachi, the man, did not know, and the heart beating inside the man, was not melting into honey. And as the silence raged, the honey became restless, and yearning. Reverend Onsachi stamped his foot on the ground to quell the energies, like a judge stamping a gavel to maintain order in a rowdy courtroom. The boy thought the reverend was growing impatient, so he licked his lips and drew a deep breath.
The first time Onsachi talked about his own problem, he was much younger than the flustered boy. But he neither had pink lips nor a full chin of beards; his lips were perennially black, and he didn’t bathe in perfumes. He was a simple young man who wore flannel trousers, who spoke very calmly and found purpose in the immaculate church of God. That institution of lofty repute, replete with the wisdom of age, and the scars from the persecution of the saints, and the miracle of absolution, and the stride over water and the calming of tempests with words, all patchworking to create the ultimate truth. I am the way, the truth and the life. And Onsachi believed it, profoundly.
When his father, his last living parent, fell to the diabetes he’d carried since childhood, a man called Agada, his father’s closest friend, had taken Onsachi under his wing. When the man asked, what do you want to become? Onsachi had only one answer. What greater life can one live than the life in service to the ultimate truth? They signed him up at St. Kizito Seminary, which was all the way at Agnes, three or four miles away. They lived in Orò at the time, in one of those low-cost tenements built for the civil servants near the end of the colonial era, none of which had undergone any significant refurbishment since then and wore exasperated sighs on their faces.
Now, Agnes was a large, throbbing city, full of noise and distractions. Every now and then, a marquee was set up by one company or the other, and dancers with dreadlocks and Jheri-curls attracted little crowds with their exuberant hops and gambadoes. The roads were long and full of potholes, yet okada riders tore through them with impunity. Someone was always calling to someone in a loud voice. Someone was always replying. You heard the hiss of a vulcanizer’s air compressor hose as it was pried out of a valve and long rickety buses with shabbily dressed conductors yelling the names of places and places. Traffic was always congesting. A car was always honking. Another vehicle was always replying with its own honk. A keke driver was always turning too sharply, and swearing at one person or the other. Women sold roasted yams and bole over iron grills, their little ones by their sides fanning embers lodged in rudimentary charcoal stoves with sheets of zinc. Pedestrians flooded the streets like they thirsted for sunlight. What Onsachi loved most about Agnes was the potential for invisibility. You turned into the bubbling street near Agenda Bar or the avenue at Masala where trees lined the pavements, or you circled the mighty roundabout at IBB or rode the orange minibuses all the way down to Airport road, and you felt you were pleasantly alone, with your thoughts, your secrets.
Sometimes, he perambulated the city with Jephthah, his school father, the one to whom he first told his problem.
Jephthah was a wonderful soul. But the way he recoiled.
“You must tell Chaplain!”
“No!” Onsachi said, panic-stricken. “They’ll expel me!”
Jephthah looked at him with bulging, uncomprehending eyes, like he was choking. He swallowed hard. Onsachi thought he might faint.
“Are you okay?” Onsachi asked.
“What do you mean if I’m okay? Of course I’m not okay. You are a homo!”
Jephthah stalked off.
St. Kizito’s Seminary had never felt smaller. Onsachi remembered when he first walked through the gated entrance, the pieta of Mary and her suffering Son, the long gallery that led into the administrative building, like a wooden dock leading to an ocean of possibilities, the Rector’s voice rugged and stentorian, the holy sisters in their demure wimples, with the sky bold and extravagant, he felt so much room as to be a capable container for infinity. Now, it shriveled and dimmed.
That night when he prayed, he said Lord? Teach me how not to be an abomination unto you. His eyes hurt and his tears flowed ceaselessly, like waterfalls, with all the vehemence and all the chaos. But already he was an abomination unto Jephthah; Jephthah who’d walked up to him one day as he stood on the stands of St. Joseph’s mini-stadium and told him you have a nice face, I bet you’re a good boy, you’ll be my school son. Jephthah who taught him the flaw in the fence, just behind the earthen pond at the back of the derelict chapel, and gave him money to buy bole and Coke, and taught him the shades of Agnes, how to negotiate the overactive pulse of the city, Jephthah who’d shown him so much beauty.
“Uhmm, pastor?” The beautiful boy said and his mother’s brows tightened.
Onsachi could tell the boy wasn’t used to churches. The way he said pastor without the attendant weight, holding it lightly and almost flirtatiously on his tongue. Reverend Onsachi almost took offense: he was not a pastor. Here wasn’t some banal sprout of modern-day religious whimsicality. Here was the Anglican Church, ancient and wise. He was a priest, and his habit was full of symbols, his prayerbook full of memory and testimony. Onsachi, the man, bit his lips and waited.
“Remember yesterday, uhm, when you were preaching about perversions of the flesh?”
The reverend nodded. The boy breathed heavily.
“Talk naaa,” his mother urged, “you’re just wasting time unnecessarily.” She turned to Reverend Onsachi, “Pastor, my son is –”
“– I…I think I have unnatural urges,” the boy cut in, wresting control of his story. He looked at the reverend blankly, and then looked away. Onsachi thought he saw a hint of tears in the boy’s eyes. “…and uhmm… I want God to help me.”
That was difficult for the boy to say. Onsachi could hear it in his voice; the strain, the protest, the slight tremble at the final syllable.
“Daddy,” Mrs. Somi began, breaking instantly into a sob. “Please help my son. He keeps hanging out with boys. All these boys, eh? Different kinds of boys.” She dabbed a kerchief in her eyes. “What are you doing with all these boys, I ask him? He cannot answer. Eh? Then rumours start flying everywhere. They say Soji is a homo. They say men use to touch Soji. Heu! And I’m wondering, who did I offend? Who is doing this to me? To my only son?”
Onsachi, the man, looked at her maudlin eyes and wanted to curse them so those tears never stopped flowing. But Reverend Onsachi felt her pain and looked her over with eyes solemn with pity and righteous understanding.
“Soji, right?” the Reverend began.
The boy nodded.
Onsachi, the man, wanted to say I know what you’re going through, boy. I know, deeper than I can tell you. But instead he drew close a large Amplified Bible and flipped it open, running his hands through its many pages dog-eared with age, through various sections underlined with red ink, little notes at the corners made in green, page numbers circled in yellow. He was looking for something. And yet, he was looking for nothing. He sighed deeply and said:
“We’re going to pray. We’re going to cast it at the feet of the Lord.”
They arose. Reverend Onsachi spoke softly in tongues, a babble that sputtered out of the abundance of his heart; but what filled the heart was not rampant spirit, but all kinds of contradictory energies. The Reverend tried to assert itself, he spat: you will be set loose!! with a confidence Onsachi, the man, did not share.
“I will place you on a fast. How else will you defeat the tyranny of the flesh?” Reverend Onsachi looked bitter.
The boy nodded gravely. Then he lifted his eyes, and for a moment, it wasn’t Reverend Onsachi he saw, but Onsachi, the man. And the man, Soji saw, was full of honey, turbulent honey, agitating back and forth. Then it was the reverend again, with hard, righteous eyes, full of stern salvation. Then they were closing their eyes in prayer. Onsachi, the man, felt a shiver run through his own body as his hand came in contact with Soji’s. But Reverend Onsachi was roaring with fervor, a loose your grip, you demon! and Onsachi was scared; scared he, himself, was the demon that needed to be undone.
It was hot in the Chaplain’s office. The longish, narrow room was one of the least spectacular in the seminary. The walls retained the severe brown from a lifetime ago of painting and were hung with calendars and almanacs, faces and faces oozing boredom, just like the reams of books that overran the shelves in the corner. Not enough light made way into the office, so it was perpetually dim and dank. The air was stale and the Chaplain blew himself with a hand-crafted raffia fan with a wooden handle.
On his way to the office, Onsachi had seen Jephthah descending the stoop of the refectory. Jephthah saw him too, kept his face deadpan, and Onsachi swallowed his tongue.
“Have you prayed about it?” The Chaplain asked.
Onsachi nodded tremulously.
The Chaplain shifted on his seat. He yawned. Onsachi felt a yawn stirring in his own chest. He tried to stifle it. Prayers were about to begin. The Chaplain, seated across from him, placed a big right hand over Onsachi’s head but his left hand did not stop fanning.
“Everlasting father, king of glory…” the Chaplain’s prayers always started that way. In the dormitory with the boys, all you had to do if you wanted to do an impression of the Chaplain was say everlasting father, king of glory and all the boys would fall into frenzied laughter. The prayer carried tamely, except for the occasional outbursts of loose your grip, you demon that came out of nowhere and startled Onsachi so that he opened his eyes in fear and then hurriedly shut them again.
After the prayers, the Chaplain put Onsachi on a fast. First seven days. Then fourteen. This is how we break the hold of the body on the spirit. The next fasting bout lasted three weeks; three weeks of no food from sunup to sundown and compulsory prayer meetings with the prayer warriors in the chapel. Once every week, he met with the Chaplain to report his progress and every time, the man promised that God would fix him, God never forgets his own. One time, Onsachi dreamed a formless dream, filled with all sorts of impossible things, none of which Onsachi could really remember when he awoke. But the clear voice of his mother sounded awake with him, in his dorm room. In the dream, she’d looked him in the eye and said my boy, you cannot fix something that is not broken. Onsachi woke up in tears.
At the end of 21 days, he went to the Chaplain not knowing what he was going to report. Had God done it? Had God undone it? When he entered the Chaplain’s office, he found Mrs. Edina, the Chaplain’s wife at his desk, laughing to a comedy skit on her phone. The Chaplain squatted at one corner, flipping through pages of photocopied documents. He and his wife lifted their faces to look at Onsachi, a gaunt specter of a boy, walking in awkwardly, and Mrs. Edina asked if he was the one, and the Chaplain nodded. She burst out laughing, and then asked him how they were all sure any of this was a real problem, had they tested him with a girl and the thing did not rise? The Chaplain sighed painfully and asked her to give them some space. The Chaplain’s voice, when he finally spoke to Onsachi, was dim, like his office, and just as narrow and conspiratorial.
“Do you — do you still… errhhm… have the problem?”
Onsachi was surprised; the Chaplain sounded unsure, careful. Onsachi thought deeply before he responded. Yes, he still had the problem. Yes, his mind said to Mrs. Edina, he’d tried with girls before, and one day, he’d joined some of the boys to watch blue film in the security guard’s small phone and he felt no worthy stirring. Yes, he was still in love with his school father, “still!” the admission shocked even him, yes, even as he fasted and his body broke, his spirit refused to bend. So he nodded in the affirmative and the Chaplain breathed down, then hatred flashed in his eyes and he lashed out.
“You didn’t take the prayers seriously…!” Saliva frothed at his mouth.
“But sir, I did.”
“Shut up your mouth! In fact, what do I care, were you not the one that decided to be a gay?”
“But I didn’t decide -“
“Shut up your dirty mouth there!” the Chaplain hissed. If he’d been outside on the lawn, the Chaplain might have spat a full mouth of spit in disgust. “It’s because of the blackness in your heart. You are full of bitterness and… impurity.”
He scratched his head when be realized Onsachi was crying. He turned this way and that, nonplussed. What to do, what to do? his restless hands drummed on the padded tabletop. He began to hum an aimless tune.
“You don’t love God,” he said finally, this time his voice subdued, “you would have kept his commandment.” The Chaplain picked a piece of paper and scribbled bible readings. But… but I love God, Onsachi was murmuring in his heart. I really do, he said again in his heart. Then it spewed out loud, through his tears.
“But I love God, sir.” He sniffled and shook.
The Chaplain gave him a look of bones.
The second and third rains of the year were much milder, but the fourth was full of tumult. Petrichor announced the coming of the deluge, transmitted in agitative wind; trees bending so low you feared they would snap in two, aluminum roofing sheets crackling and sheets of dust washing through the atmosphere. The people say it’s at this time of the year the Ijun River vomits the bodies it swallows. They say bloated bodies appear mysteriously on her shorelines, all food that had turned in the belly of the water that it now threw up with an immensity of smell.
The mosquito grew louder and bolder. A couple of boys in the youth fellowship had passed by the reverend’s room one day and, dismayed at the state of the window, offered to repair it themselves. They came with nails and new gauze, took off their shirts, and gossiped through the fix. The women brought more fruits and Onsachi preached more often in the church, and more fancy words flowed into public St. John’s consciousness; people now said may the Lord galvanize your spirit like it was nothing. Onsachi’s room remained a haggard mess, but with February’s heat spells now forgotten and the mosquitoes kept, thankfully, at bay, he dreamed less horrific dreams and wore his surplice and stole with a little more flourish.
Soji still came to see him from time to time. Their meetings, the Reverend made sure, were brief and curt. He asked has God done it for you? and the beautiful boy sighed, and the Reverend grinned in faith don’t let the forces of darkness convince you God is not in control. He still is. Soji nodded perfunctorily, like an Agama lizard. Sometimes, the Reverend wasn’t powerful enough to shrug off Soji and his storm of fragrance, and Onsachi, the man, succeeded in prolonging the meetings ever so slightly. He broached conversation; where are you people really from? Oh, Small Town! I’ve been there before, a small retreat we had back in theology school. Nice place, nice place; you people produce a lot of palm oil, I’ve never seen so many drums of boiling kernels in my life. Oh, and horse? hordes? — what’s that? Oh, whores– Soji’d let out a devious little laughter. Reverend Onsachi hated how Onsachi’s heart beat so fast.
But Soji, oh Soji, and his weird laugh that was a concoction of pure amusement; always, his lips melted into a glorious smile first, his composure vaporizing for an instant as he clapped his hands and gyrated on his seat, just as the sound erupted from his belly, then in the aftermath, a soft wheezing sound trembling with juvenile delight followed, then as his composure returned, only a grin remained on the bright yellow face.
“…do you suppose” he said cutting in one time after a bout of Amens, “that Mary, in heaven of course, knows her name is used to refer to gay men these days?”
The sheer satire of his tone and gesture, infuriating, and endearing. Onsachi swallowed. Reverend Onsachi rebuked.
That devious laugh spouted out again.
The other time, after a conversation about the bible and the Lord Jesus Christ, through which the beautiful boy seemed bored as hell, Soji suddenly had a jerk of insight. He tapped the reverend quickly, severely.
“Wait, wait… do you think,” he said, his face serious, “that Jesus had a…” he lowered his voice and looked around, “…a Christ complex?”
Onsachi suppressed wild laughter. Reverend Onsachi shook his head frustratedly. See now, Reverend Onsachi disliked the boy, resented him even. Was Soji not the thingification of the purulent self? The self he kept under lock and key, and subdued with centuries of prayers and faith in the miracle of transformation. The self that was Onsachi, weak and culpable, and desperately falling in love. And Soji, much too smart for his own good, was catching on.
And so Soji began to miss appointments, one day, then three. When he did come in, he didn’t bother to explain himself. He sat for a while and listened absent-mindedly then said he had to rush. Onsachi, the man, hated to see him go; it took all the strength he had for him to stop himself from calling the beautiful boy when he stayed away too long. But Reverend Onsachi feigned apathy. Thus the day came when Soji didn’t close his eyes at the reverend’s call for prayer, didn’t bow his head, only stared on obstinately.
“What’s the matter?” asked Reverend Onsachi.
“This isn’t working,” the beautiful boy said sternly.
“What prayers?” Reverend Onsachi asked him, incensed. Onsachi’s heart beat in fear.
“These bullshit prayers!” the boy said. Onsachi’s jaw dropped. But the Reverend was rising to his feet in rage.
“Y-young man, you better watch the way you talk in the house of God.”
“Or what?” Soji screwed his eyes. The Reverend plunked himself back down on his seat.
“Jesus Christ…” he muttered through his teeth.
“But what exactly will He do — declare me an abomination?” Soji gave a wicked laughter. “Well I’m sorry to break it to you, but he did that already.”
Reverend Onsachi, chest rising with fumes, lips trembling with rage, rose to his feet and thundered:
“Young man! You watch your tongue or I will curse you and God will honor it! Are you mad?”
“Abegiii — ” Soji’s dismissed, turning his head to one side. Then he met the reverend’s glower full on, and then turned away as though conceding the battle of eyes, although you got the feeling he didn’t think there was anything worth fighting for in the first place. He rose, adjusting the cuffs of his button-up shirt.
“I’m leaving,” he said, his voice level. I’ll be travelling to Eko tomorrow. I just came to tell you.”
As he walked away, Onsachi wept inside. But the Reverend called vindictively.
“Who’s going to help with your problem now?”
“No,” came the icy reply. “It is you who has the problem.”
“It is you who has the problem?” the rector asked, in the warm office. The air conditioner was broken, but a two-bladed fan in the corner shot vigorous air, ruffling the papers and billowing the powder blue curtain. The rector smelled of expensive perfumes and lotions. The crop of grey hair on his jaw looked rich, like the silvery embroidery on his garment. When he spoke, he bent so he could peer above his glasses at the listener, inclining his pebble-smooth scalp that glistened with oils.
Onsachi nodded. Never before had he had cause to appear in this glorious office.
“When the Chaplain reported to me, I thought it’d be someone else. I didn’t think it’d be you.”
Onsachi didn’t know what to say. He’d done so well in one bible recital that the rector had given him a prize of N1000, one note, crisp and smelling like wealth; it meant everything to him at the time. Of course the rector could not have known he was rewarding a gay. What could he say? So he said nothing. Nothing also when the rector rose and shut the door. Nothing when he put his massive hands around his shoulders and spoke too softly, his words drawling. Nothing when he slid his hands down and squeezed his little breasts, and asked do you love me? Nothing, nothing but shock when he said I’ll treat you better, I’ll love you right, like Christ loved us. Nothing too when the man tried to take off his shirt, do you know how to suck dick? Nothing but shock and recoil. Nothing at first when the rector began to clutch his heart and groan and wheeze and crumble to the ground. Those first few seconds, he watched, unseeing. Then he snapped out of it!
He’s having a cardiac arrest!
Then Onsachi screamed and help came. But it didn’t save the rector.
Weeks later, Jephthah asked if he’d been cured. He said yes, with a bitter smile. Jephthah gave him money to buy bole and then added some more so he’d get extra sauce, two bottles of chilled plastic Coke and Schweppes from Enty’s. But nothing had any taste.
No sun in a cloudless sky, no butterflies fluttering in color, a few songbirds, two squirrels trailing each other on a fence, blue twilight, Fewhe operating the pump of the water tank, Daddy Onoja sound asleep, he and his wife had come home again in the small hours, the night before – another all-night revival, nothing but quiet in the world, in the soft dew that fed the yams in the fields, nothing but clarity, as Onsachi sat, on a high stool and stared at the gate.
Then it croaked open and Soji walked in. He’d gotten himself a smart crew cut, wore a midnight black jacket and a hefty schoolbag over his shoulders. They went into the vestry, where it all started.
“I got your text,” Soji said.
Onsachi nodded. Reverend Onsachi wanted to scream. Onsachi said: “I’m really sorry, Soji. I just felt like I needed to tell you.” Inside, Reverend Onsachi was still screaming.
“But I always knew, pastor.”
Soji smiled. “Yes, pastor.”
“Call me Onsachi.”
“Really?” Soji looked deep into his eyes, set down the bag and stood to his feet. The air in the room turned to frost. The beautiful boy edged closer. And Onsachi waited, in fatal anticipation. And their lips neared, like matchstick to matchbox, like torch to oil. And their eyes were shut, out of lights, out of judgment.
Until Reverend Onsachi wrest control, and turned away the face at the final instant.
Soji pulled back slowly, hung his bag, wiped the tear from his eyes, and disappeared into the blue of the morning.