Every evening, your father tore a page off the Bible, steeped it in water, and chewed. Every evening, he mumbled the same two-minute prayer before eating the Word of God. He chewed gingerly, steadily, reverently. It may have dropped forewarnings before it started, this thing, but you must have missed them all. One evening, as the sun went to sleep, he brought out his stool and his shiny black Bible, sent you to bring him water in a bowl, before he started with Genesis.
He was on Kings now; Solomon’s Splendour, like shreds of bush meat, being crushed between his teeth. Sometimes, as you did the dishes outside, or harvested waterleaf from the congregating sprouts, or as you placed a pot of water on the fireside, waiting for it to boil, you would watch him keenly, and in his eyes, you would see sureness—splinters of meanings you were certain you would never know.
When his ritual was done, you would wash him in the dimness of the bathroom—a bathroom with no mirrors and a broken door, as if it was proof that the world had broken in and stripped you of everything you had, as if just one dimension of the life you were living was one dimension too many—you did not need another realm to make it any clearer. In the bathroom, there would be silence, except for the splashing sounds made by the lukewarm water as it broke on the bathroom floor. You would scrub his hard, wrinkling flesh, your hands in a soaped sponge glove, and wish that one day, in scrubbing his body, you could scrub off the shadow too, this shadow that had stuck to his being like slime on a snail, slime that even alum could not get off. And then you would dab his skin dry with a brown towel and throw a loincloth around him. You would feed him bitterleaf soup and watch him fall asleep on the worn-out sofa, wondering what his dreams were.
Every morning, before your father woke up, you would be on the road to school. School was different, less depressing. Everyone carried their problems in their backpacks and their zipped purses and pretended to be fine. Unlike home, you knew the answers to the questions they asked here:
What is the formula of a straight line?
Conjugate the verb “Être.”
And then there was Save, the boy for whom your heart somersaulted. The boy you would grow to love.
The first day he spoke to you was the day you faced the Disciplinary Council for breaking another student’s head with a bottle. He had walked up to you in his neat blue jacket, clutching a hymnal, his gait holding such measured piety he looked like a clergyman. You sat alone in the dining shed before the food sellers came, staring into a book you were not really reading.
You were startled when he spoke to you. “Hey,” he said and you nodded—did not hold his gaze. You were startled too when he sat down, mumbled a couple of things you would not remember before telling you that girls should not be fighting. You looked at him, wanted to ask why. Was it that girls did not have hands to fight, or did they just lack the ability to be angry enough to? You wanted to ask him: so if humans are basically animals and the only thing that really differentiates them, according to biology, is the development of the brain, the intelligence, and males are, according to statistics, more intelligent than females, does it not mean that females should in fact be the ones fighting everywhere? But you did not ask him this. Instead, you told him that boys should not sing soprano in a choir. You shut your book and said, in fact, that boys should not be into choral music at all.
Later, he would tell you that it was the way you said it that had made him ask you if you would like to hang out the next day, and you would wonder how you had said it. You had said no when he asked, though. And he had insisted on walking you home that day because, “When so many are lonely as seem to be lonely, it would be inexcusably selfish to be lonely alone.”
You rolled your eyes, “Did I tell you I was lonely?”
He smiled, and it half-irked you, half-enchanted you, that he would smile like that.
When hours ago he had told you, “I am Save,” you had gushed out an, “I knew it. I knew you were one of those preacher people.”
And he had laughed and laughed, “I did not say ‘I am safe…in God’s name,’ or that sort of thing. I meant my name is Save.”
“Oh,” you had said sheepishly, “I am Ramatou.”
You walked past the students cramped in groups, yelling at flying taxis, past the woman who had in front of her a big bag of freshly harvested corn, and the man in the suit who was hitchhiking because his car had just broken down. When he tried to take your hand, you recoiled into yourself like your name was Mimosa Pudica. You walked past Mile 2, watching the endless green that sandwiched the road. He was telling you a story of what had happened to him in boarding school—Bishop Rogan College. How two boys had fought over a CKC girl, punching each other in the face until they were moist and gory with blood, how one had senselessly told the rector, when he asked what in God’s name was happening here, that the other had snatched his girlfriend. “Can you imagine? Future priests, in a minor seminary.” He laughed at his own story.
“So why did you leave BIROCOL? You don’t want to be Father Save anymore?”
He laughed, “I actually still want to be. I just wanted to try out life in a Day School and Mixed School before I finally go.”
You gave him a look, a playful smirk, “right.”
At the intersection leading to your house, you asked about his parents, “They better not come to my house thinking I have kidnapped their son o.” He laughed and said they’d travelled, “So even if I go home now, I’d be going to an empty, boring house.”
Your father was inside when you got home. You wanted Save to stay outside while you changed out of your uniform, but he insisted on coming in. “I want to greet your parents.” He was the kind of boy who would come to a girl’s house and want to greet her parents before anything else. The kind of boy who was used to parents gawking over him, willing their kids to draw from his mellowness, his gentility. And so he got in and you could swear he almost bowed as he said “Hello Daddy, good afternoon.” But your father just looked at him and looked away—focused on the sheets of old newspapers he was flipping. You started to hear your own heartbeat. Outside, he said, “I don’t think your father likes me,” and you laughed, and he said it was nice to see you laugh, even if it was at his pain, and you laughed again and said, “Pain? You can be a drama king eh.”
That evening, as you sat under the mango tree talking about the Senior Prefect who thought his post was a money-making job, asking for bribes from latecomers and badly dressed students, as he talked and talked about how he had been seeing you around, how he thought you interesting and was looking for a way to say “hey”, as you restrained yourself from telling him you’ve had a crush on him for as long as you could remember—the fine quiet boy from boarding school,you watched in horror as your father walked out of the house, carrying a stool and bowl of water, his Bible tucked under his arm. You watched him watch your father tear a page from the Bible, steep it in water, and chew. You watched the discomfort as it moved like a creeping thing from Save’s body right into yours.
He texted that night to say he had fun. “Me too,” you replied. You thought about him, about how he was so tall and skinny he looked like a tree—a long, slender tree—about how his fairness made him look even more fragile, about how he laughed so much it made you laugh as well, how his unwavering joy seemed to envelope your sorrow and engulf it. It made you think of endocytosis. You thought about what he thought about your father, and when you woke up the next morning, you hated him for knowing. You hated yourself for letting him know. You should not have allowed him in your house, allowed him to see your father eat the Bible. And so in school you avoided him, pretended not to see when he waved at you. The principal, short and bespectacled, strapped in a too-tight jacket, stood in front of the entire school during assembly and announced your suspension, punishment for breaking another student’s head.
Save came to your house after school that day but you did not let him in. He kept coming until one day, the sky was on his side, turning so thick and grey you knew they would rain their approval, so you opened the door and let him in. In your room, you told him that your father had not always been like this. You told him the story: how your father was a pastor, a big one with a big church, until three girls announced that he had molested them and his world started to crumble. You told him how your parents and you had grown as thin as broomsticks from too much thinking and too much fasting. Fasting for his congregation to see the light and realize it was all a lie. But it never happened. You told him how you stopped believing in love because you had not seen any stronger than your parents’, how your mother had been by his side throughout the incident, telling everyone who cared to listen that her husband was innocent and those girls were the Devil’s agents. And then one day, she had taken you out to the market and bought you so many toys you thought Christmas had been brought to June, how later that day, you and your father waited for her to join you for dinner but she did not. How you waited for her at breakfast the next day but she did not show up, how you waited and waited until you finally accepted that she was never going to show up.
You told him how for a whole week, you did not hear your father talk. How one day, he brought out his Bible and made a meal of it. You told him you have stopped believing in love.
He brought your lecture notes home to you with fancy cups of coffee, and you studied under the mango tree. You watched him pray before peeling a mango, before drinking his coffee, watched him pray before opening his book to read. He was the only person you knew who did not forget to pray after a meal. Because of him, you started to get closer to God; because of that, you started to feel lighter. Now, when you washed your father in the dim bathroom, you smiled and sang the songs he sent to you. When your father slept, you prayed that his dreams were beautiful.
The next weeks would smile on you, as if someone, on a fine morning, had brought you a gift you did not expect. An expensive gift you could not afford. It had been a while since you received any gifts. The last time was the day your mother left.
You would walk hand in hand to Down Beach and cosy ice-cream parlours, and when you were sure that your father was still asleep, you would sit with him, watching the young men in dirty, sagging shorts carry bags of cement. You would watch the structure they were building from the ground up, and you would think of it as yourself; you would think of Save as one of these boys, as all of these boys, building you up anew. It would be a boutique, this building, a boutique with shiny expensive things. It would be the boutique where, years from now, you would find a smiling mannequin that looked disturbingly like Save.
A week before the GCE, you realized how hopelessly in love you were with him. It happened on the day he called you at midnight, crying, telling you that his life does not seem to belong to him. That there are things he wanted to do that he could not, and that his parents were pushing him to the wall. He felt like an animal, bound by chains, locked up in a cage.
“How do you mean?”
He sobbed, “It’s fine, Rama. I’m fine.”
You wanted to run to his house and let him cry on your chest so that you could caress him back to normalness. And yet you felt guilty finding solace in his instability. That he seemed broken like you made you feel like your pieces could complement each other, form something whole, something firm.
When you went to his house the next day, he seemed fine, laughing and talking at the table with his parents who asked you if you were the classmate he said helped him with his math. You smiled tightly and said yes. That was the first time you fought.
“Math tutor? Is that what I am to you? The classmate who helps you with your math?” He stuttered, “But you do help me with my math.” You looked at him, eyes bulging, you walked away. He called to tell you that you were overreacting, you know how parents behave.
The next time you fought was when you went to his house for the second time. The maid had served you a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice which you sipped gently as you watched the music video of an elderly priest who basically sat there singing whilst the rest of the choir swayed. On the way to the kitchen to drop your glass, you overheard the maid tell his mother that your father was a madman, and that madness is likely to run in the family. The glass fell from your hand, and before Save came out from his room, you were gone.
“You left before I came out, why would you do that?” He asked when he called.
“Ask your mother.”
“What? What has my mother got to do with this?”
Later, he called again. “She said she doesn’t know what you are talking about. Rama…”
“So, I’m a liar, or a mad person who doesn’t know what she is talking about?”
You turned off the phone and avoided him for a week. Told yourself you were never going back to that house.
But good news is the water that quenches fires angry decisions have made. Acing the GCE was the good news. Two days after the GCE results were released and you were still celebrating. You returned home from Down Beach with Save, arms wrapped around each other, to find your father hanging from the mango tree, a noose around his neck. The shock was so much you fainted in Save’s arms. When you woke up, you did not tell him about the little relief you felt. About how your father had taken your hands and smiled joyously when you told him you had all five papers. How his death made you feel like he had been hanging in there, waiting for you to achieve something before he left this world that had stopped making sense to him. No, you did not tell Save any of this. But you let him comfort you, you watched him call home, telling them he would be spending the night with you since you lost your father. He walked away to complete the call. He returned and said, “I’m staying the night.” That was the night you unbuttoned his shirt. The night you made love for the first time.
A few weeks after your father’s burial, you stared at his picture, reminding yourself of how much you looked nothing like him. How he always said you were a spitting image of your mother and the only thing you got from him was his brain. How your mother would laugh and say, “thank your stars for that, Rama; at least you look like a human being,” and your father would quip, “at least you think like one.” You stopped yourself from thinking about your mother. She did not deserve your thoughts.
University application forms were made available and you’d wanted to go to Buea and get copies for you and Save. He had been such a rock and you truly felt safe with him. Sometimes you wondered how you could be so lucky, and it surprised you that you still thought yourself lucky after losing everything. You were lucky because you still had him.
You called him a week later and told him you were ill. He ran to your place, holding a bag of sugary pastries and two fancy cups of coffee. You asked him what illness coffee cured and he chuckled. Sitting on your bed, you wanted to tell him. It was when you cleared your throat that he said, “Ramatou, there is something we need to talk about.” How did he know? You asked yourself, your heart thumping in your chest.
“I am going to the seminary.”
You looked at him, waited for him to laugh. He did not.
“Everything is set and it is almost time.”
“What?” You said, realizing how light your ‘what’ sounded, how weightless. Your eyes trailed as he talked about enjoying his time with you. You watched his long slender fingers and clean fingernails, the young sprouts of beard on his face looked out of place, like grass growing on a wall. He was talking about his mother, how she had promised God that her child would serve Him if He gave her a child. How he had no choice in the matter. He had been groomed to be a priest. You felt something aching in your chest. You wanted to laugh, ask if his mother was bloody Hannah from the Bible. But you collected yourself, told him you love him. He told you he loves you too, but as it is, God needs him. “God doesn’t need you,” you yelled. “He is God, He is ultimate. He doesn’t need you. I need you.”
“God is my saviour,” he yelled back. It surprised you because you had never heard him yell before.
“But you are mine.” You said, “you saved me, Save. You cannot leave me now. Not now, Save. I love you.”
“I love you too, Rama, but I love God more. Please don’t make me choose.” And then he paused, “you know, I really thought you’d be happy for me.”
You could not believe him. “Are you serious? Happy?” He said you were being melodramatic, that he had told you his dreams when he first met you. That was when you lost it; seized your father’s half-eaten Bible and shot it at him. He ducked and the Bible hit the coffee cups on the nightstand and fell on the floor, you were screaming “Get out! Get the hell out of my house.”
You watched him leave, knowing you would not see him for a very long time. You hadn’t even told him yet. You wouldn’t. You wrapped your arms around your belly tight. You thought of finding a knife, of stabbing it so many times the baby in it would die.
Nine years passed and you did not see Save, did not hear from him. Before he left, he called but you did not pick up the phone. The day you strode to his house to work things out, his mother smiled at you and told you he left yesterday. You felt your heart fall to your stomach. You saw him every day though, in eight-year-old Hope, in his tall ranginess, in his fair skin that glowed even in struggle. You saw him when Hope laughed, in the sharp dimples on his cheeks that pierced your heart; and sometimes you would hug him too tight, or flog him too hard because he reminded you too much of the man you loved, the man who left you.
It was two months after his ordination that you heard he was coming from Bamenda to visit his hometown and celebrate mass at the Holy Family parish in Bota. The person described him as one fine yellow Father who went to GHS Limbe. “Don’t you know him? Father Matute Save. Their family house is in Sokolo.”
You swallowed and decided to go there and see for yourself. He was surprised when he saw you, almost shocked. You had walked up to him after mass, Hope attached to your arm. You told him he looked different. His biceps were huge and he wore reading glasses, and facial hair defined his face now. “Do you people have gyms in that seminary?” He laughed. He still laughed a lot, it would seem. He told you you looked the same, beautiful as ever. You shrugged the compliment off and asked Hope if he was not going to greet Father.
You met later; he came over to your place. He wanted to know if Hope was his. You said yes, you had meant to tell him. He walked to the window and stood there for a while, silent. Later, he told you he felt at home in the priesthood. But he felt at home with you too. And you told him he could not eat his cake and have it. But then he kissed you, and you let him. You had expected him to be angry at the information about Hope, but he did not seem angry, he seemed fulfilled.
He started coming often, bringing fancy cups of coffee and toys for you and Hope. He would carry Hope on his shoulders and run around the compound laughing. In his shorts and T-shirt, any passer-by could tell it was his son. You would watch sometimes, lost in paradisiacal realms, imagining possibilities. The times he spent the night, you would wait for Hope to fall asleep before he snuggled next to you, and in the morning, he was out before the boy was up. He had clothes at your place; his toothbrush was there too. You felt again what you had not felt for nine years—consumed, whole.
Neighbours had started to talk such that one day, Hope walked up to you and asked if Father Save was his real father. You looked at him confused at first, and then told him Father Save was everyone’s father, including yours. That was why everyone called him Father. He nodded and walked away. You knew he was not satisfied.
One morning, a day after he spent the night, you told him, resting on his chest, playing with the strands of hair on it, that he should quit the seminary and join you and Hope so you can start afresh “as a proper family.” He said that was not possible. “Everything is possible,” you said.
“Not this, not this one.”
“Why? Are you afraid of what people would say?”
He looked at you, shifted away unbelievingly, called you selfish.
“Are you kidding me? You are the selfish one.” You snapped, “You left me with your child for nine whole years, nine years; do you know how we survived without you?”
“You did not tell me. You had a chance to tell me you were carrying my child, but you did not. How in God’s name was I supposed to know?”
“You slept with a girl, made her fall in love with you; got her pregnant, and then left her. Tell me if that is not the height of wickedness.”
The room was trembling with rage. He yelled at you to stop yelling.
“Why? Are you ashamed of me? Of Hope? Tell me, are you ashamed that people would know about us? Just like you were ashamed to properly introduce me to your family.” He told you that you have lost your damn mind and you said “Yes, that is what everyone in your family has been saying, that I am a mad girl from a family of madness. Is that not why you left me? Me and your son?”
He stood up, pulled up his trousers and said, “You know what, Rama, go to hell.”
“You would reach there before me,” you yelled back, “Get out of my house.”
“I know,” he said. “That is all you know how to do, push me away.”
He slammed the door behind him so hard the reverberations remained with you. You fell on the floor and started to cry, you cried until your head felt like stones were boiling inside.
Hope asked why Father Save wasn’t coming home anymore and you told him he had to go back to his parish in Bamenda. You did not even know if it was true. You tried to call him, but it rang out.
News of Father Save’s death came one hot evening, as you sat with Hope outside, helping him to do his homework.
“That fine Father that was newly ordained had an accident on his way to Bamenda. The other priest survived but Father Save did not. Ah, this life.” The woman had said.
You felt your bones liquefy.
For weeks, you tried to conjure the relief that had come with your father’s passing. But it did not come. You could not feel any sort of relief with Save’s death. People kept saying “How can a fine Father just die like that? It had to be witchcraft.”
For days, you just sat there. Sometimes, when Hope was in school, you would go to Down Beach, try to remember your conversations with him. And you would roam until a bike would almost knock you down, and the angry rider would yell in Pidgin “Ah-ah, life don pass you? You nodi look road?” It was on your way back one day that you stopped at the boutique and found the mannequin standing there, smiling at you. It looked disturbingly like Save.
You took it home. Paid the salesgirl who thought you were foolish for paying all that money for a mannequin.
This thing, when it started may have dropped forewarnings, but Hope missed them all. He watched you, as he did the dishes, reciting what had become your mantra, “He is back. He is back for me. He is back. He is back for me.”
He watched you chop your hair off with a pair of scissors, handful after handful, sticking it to the face and the chest of the mannequin, where you remembered Save used to have hair. He watched you dress it in the clothes Father had left behind, telling him smiling, “This is your Father Save.” He watched you sleep close to it every night, the mannequin, and he would sit by your bed as you fell asleep in the mannequin’s arms, probably wondering what your dreams were.