continued from last week…
“Yes,” the old lady interrupted, “I know exactly what you are. You are a light, child, so why are you hiding?”
Your afternoon just went from one amazing high to a terrible low, and now you are just bouncing back and forth, your mind a jumble of abrasive thoughts.
“My dear, has no one ever told you that you have a winsome voice? A voice that moves heaven, and holds the attention of the Almighty?” The lady wore a warm smile as she spoke. “You have no business sitting down here with the rest of us, you should be up there,” she pointed at the section of pews reserved for the choir.
It’s shaky at first, but you try again and your shy face smiles back, saying thank you in whispers, like it is a little secret you shared with her.
“It’s a gift, my child, a divine gift which you can cause to shine for the world to see…”
Her words were cut short by the Anima Christi. You said the words, but your thoughts were rooted in the woman’s words. When the bishop gave the final blessing, she turned to you and smiled.
“Think about it, child,” she said and drifted away with the teeming congregation.
That was the push you needed. The following Sunday after mass, you walked up gingerly to the woman you assumed was the choir mistress. She was excited at your desire and immediately took your data.
The rehearsals were on Tuesdays and Saturday, and you requested that Chime and Saratu, your co-workers swap shifts with you. So you attended your first meeting where the choristers sang for you, embraced you and welcomed you into what they called their family.
Now you can really appreciate life. The sun-ups and sunsets, coming and going of customers, wet and dry season, choral meeting and in them all, you feel you have finally carved your niche in life. You have graduated from the choral probation class, and have been embraced as a full member. You are aloof at first, but you eventually make friends with the members.
There are days when your colleagues at work will be unable to swap shifts for you, and you miss meetings in consequence. Those days, two or three choristers will be sent to check on you, perchance you had taken ill. The nights were sacred for you, there are times you either lay quiet meditating on your past, or wrote several lines of poetry, which you later put away in that white metallic rack. Your salary is still paltry, yet out of it you are eking out a living, and paying small sums into your savings account, perchance another evil day comes knocking.
Some evenings, especially on Sundays, you take a long stroll into the street, taking in the breeze, as though it had some purifying quality. And when the rain meets you in the streets, you do not run, but freeing yourself to its will, you let its waters drench your flesh.
The Cathedral comes alive with activities as months crawl by. It is set to mark its fiftieth anniversary. The choir practices more frequently. You sing soprano and know most of the hymns and other religious songs that are taught by the choir mistress. Two weeks to the anniversary, your association is visited by the Bishop himself. He commends your past efforts, and beseeches you all to be at your best, not only because of the anniversary, but because the President has been invited.
It is three days to the anniversary. You are serving a customer when you are told that someone has come looking for you. It is the deputy-president of your choral group. He has some news.
“Susana’s mother has stroke, and is in the risk of death, so she cannot be present on Sunday; in fact, she is already on her way home.” You curse the devil for inflicting harm on your choir mistress’ mother just when the group needed her the most.
“We have deliberated at length,” Emmanuel continues, “and decided that you will take her place at the anniversary.”
What? You are short of words. You are scared, then excited, then very scared that they are asking too much of you. You are scared that they will insist and cajole you, but you will say no, and for the first time, fail this family, whose hope seems to hang on your unwilling shoulders…
The wine-red curtains compliment the roses that are standing in the cream vase on the sides of the stairs leading up to the podium. Someone whispers behind you that the roses are natural; they were flown in by a church member to dazzle the president who is fond of them. You wish you could go to the bouquet and hold them in your hands and smell their fragrance. Maybe, you think, they will bring you luck, just maybe.
Rehearsals have been tedious since the day you reluctantly said yes to the persistent pleas of your members. The teeming crowd in the hall is one that you have never seen before. The president is seated beside the Archbishop, listening with rapt attention and nodding intermittently to the Bishop’s speech. For the first time you do not listen to him. His speech is the last item on the program before the choral presentation, which would be concluded with a solo rendition that should have been done by Susana, a solo that would now be done by you.
You can hear your pulsating heart. You can feel the sudden stiffness settling in your palms and slowly extending its grip to your hands and chest, as if eager to reach out to your heart. The room feels chilly, much chilly than ever before, and you feel some stiffness around your neck. The applause that attends the Bishop’s final words are not unexpected by you. You manage to jam your stiff palms together a couple of times as your group rises to perform.
The choir is at its best, with each chorister playing his or her part to the nines. Then the others resumed their seats, and your hour has come. You move up to the spot light to perform the original version of Ave Maria. You cannot remember if you smiled at the audience, as you had been advised. Your grip on the micro-phone is tight, yet you can feel your hands tremble. You draw it close to your mouth, and you begin.
You do not hear your own voice at first, and you cannot see because your eyes are shut. But as you sing on you feel a calmness envelop you. You feel light, so light you think you are adrift in wonderland. You draw strength from your soul, strength that reaches your vocal cord and smoothly glides to your lips to birth the most mellifluous tune ever.
Papa is beside you smiling, nodding approvingly, and urging you to go on. Mama stands just off to the other side, wearing her blessed smile, acknowledging with glee, Papa’s enthusiasm. You can feel them by you as if they are really there.
Slowly, ever so slowly, you release your eye lids from their soft embrace. Light floods as if from the heavens into your eyes. They do not blind you. They revivify, filling your mind with sacred illumination. The passion in your voice, the celestial images conjured by their lyrics, their intricacy and angelic qualities, all have the grip of your large audience. As you near the ending lyrics, you can see the expressions on their faces – beyond delight. Buoyed, you pitch, and with dexterity, bear it up to the greatest imaginable height, those heights that always leave you breathless, yet in control of the crescendo. And at last you exhale. It is over.
As soon as you are done, she rises, her face radiant with an infectious smile. She is the first to rise, the president of your country. With her ovation, comes several more, and then the entire hall. Rapturous unending applause ringing like thunder fills the room, accompanied by broad smiles and eyes filled with admiration.
Madam President steps forward, a modest glamour written all over her. You have seen her countless times on the television in the restaurant, always clad in her dark-coloured suits. Now, as she takes elegant steps towards you, you see a tall woman full of love and simplicity and eyes that burnt with zeal. She does not mount the stairs, but gestures at the compere who hands the micro-phone to her.
“Precious angel,” she says, “what is your name?”
“Ijeoma, Madam,” you reply, “my name is Ijeoma.”
“Just as beautiful as her voice,” she says.
Then she turns to the bishop and says, “it not in my character to dine in public. Yet, if I must dine here today as I hear you desire of me, Ijeoma, this lovely angel that I have found this day in the house of the Lord must be found by my side…”
The music of life is composed of such notions which none can lay claim to have gained mastery of. Seasons have come and seasons have gone, the tides a million times have risen and fallen, the years have glided past, yet your turn around in life ever more fills you with wonderment. You often share your past stories with your students in the Malcolm University, where you are a now a Professor of Music and have bagged numerous academic awards. You also tell your story – the story of a broken spirit, of resolution and hope – to the eager ears of those teenage girls at Winsome Heart, the organization you run primarily for the emancipation of young girls from the manacles of sexual slavery.
It has been ten years since you published your first work on poetry, and so far, you have published several others. You have won two awards for poetic literature. It has been fifteen years since you read on a local tabloid, the story of Johnny’s conviction for drug abuse, women trafficking, and the murder of a young girl described as his ‘stock-in- trade’; you still book mass for him on every feast day of All Souls. It has been twenty years since you met Madam President, yet you still send fresh scented roses to her every Yuletide. You frequently visit at her country home, where despite old age, she manages a small fruit garden and by the fireside, tells folk tales to her grandchildren.
Carl, your husband, whom you met at a music carnival in Jamaica, often accompanies you, with Chimdalu, and Chidiogo, your twin daughters. And on every visit, after you have all traded stories and eaten and rested, Madam still implores you, always, to flatter her aging ears with your sonorous soul-songs.
And you do.
By Uche Anichebe