Roses and Angels V

continued from last week…

roses and angels

“You…you know…”

“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.

THE END

By Uche Anichebe

Roses and Angels IV

…continued from last week

roses and angels

…it pulled over, a small golf with tinted glasses.

Its earring and sun glass – wearing driver with dyed hair wound down the glass, and flashed you a boyish smile which even then, you knew did not go past his brownish set of teeth. At other times you would have immediately grabbed the cloak of caution, and walked away, but not that day; you had lost all the will-power that once streamed in your veins. He persuaded you to get in, and tears in your eyes you let yourself be cajoled.

He embraced you in the car, gave you his grey leather jacket and let you cry on his shoulders. Then, you told him your story, amid sobs that seemed to endure forever.

‘Life’s a bitch’, he told you when you were done, ‘if you wanna beat her game, you gotta fuck her real hard!’

He had started the engine when you ask him his name, so perchance he killed you that night, you would at least have known the name of your killer.

‘I’m a young dude trying to work my name to the national dailies’, he answered in a prophetic tone. ‘I’m gonna hit big someday. I can smell it in my fucking breath. And when that time comes, we gonna hit big together’.

He took your small face, planted a kiss on your forehead, and drove you to a place you will later call home.

***

Eighteen months have passed since you left Johnny. You have had six menial jobs with paltry salaries, and you have moved four times. You have settled on the last job you got in a middle class restaurant where you work on shifts. In your quiet moments, when you lay on the sofa of your poorly furnished room, the past always replays, the tears always come, and a surge of energy always overcomes you. You feel this emotional outburst you cannot overcome. You try to suppress the thoughts rimming your mind, but you find yourself failing. Your nights are filled with dreams, those dreams whose plot you forget as soon as you open our eye lids to reality. Yet, the wetness on your eyes always evidence that it must have been a sad dream.

These continue night after night, until that eventful night. You woke up in the wee hours of night, after restless shuffles on your thin bed. An idea came to you, you picked up an idle pen and a brown paper and apprehensive though you were, you began to write. The night disappeared with the outburst of poetic emotions. You were deaf to the sound of your clock and the distant croaks of frogs. The muse was your new companion; he captured your heart, alerted your thoughts, and wired them through your hands to your pen which spat out endless words with unrestrained fury.

You are more aware of the ever presence of your muse. You have resumed writing poetry and music is always on your lips at your quiet times. Your thoughts flow like a spring, and in your writing, you find escape. You write about love and hate, resolution and hope, culture and religion. You write about your parents, especially Mama. You write about the night of your first sexual intercourse with Johnny.

It happened that night when he first embraced you and told you to fuck life. Uncle Ofodili opened your gateway, but Johnny on that night, ensured that it stayed open to hundreds of others on the path he carved for you. At first, you did not understand why anyone should keep more than one lover, or even offer sex for money. But Johnny had spoken persistently to you, and when you would not budge, he struck you, and ravished you repeatedly.

You were not so bothered of the force of his violent plunging into you, or his breath that reeked of alcohol and narcotics, or the ripples of pain you felt days afterwards. What bothered you more was the rape of your spirit, your will, your dignity, reducing you, that girl who once thought herself an angel, to a tiny filthy tool. This continued until after a month. You had given in to that new reality. Johnny was, you thought, and would always be your supreme benefactor and if you wanted a life, you had to please him. To please him, you embraced your new career and damned your broken conscience.

But all of that was months ago, a lifetime ago. Because you have left your past in the past, along with Johnny and all he brought. No longer are you Pearl or Tracy or Suzy, the whore, now you are that ‘yellow sisi’ who works the tables at Sunrise restaurant, and attends Sunday masses at the cathedral.

The homilies on Sundays are always taken by that Bishop with narrow eyes and a solemn demeanor. You enjoy its underlying philosophy and the pleasant simplicity of his language. It is not only the homily that uplifts your spirit. The hymns captivate your mind. It has been over four months since you started attending the cathedral, and since then, you have desired inwardly to join the choir whose members are always clad in blue and red coloured outfits that are reminiscent of your primary school graduation attire. So from your pew, you always sing along, hoping that one day, you will get a divine push that will inspire you to register with them.    

Last Sunday, you sat in the front row of the section just behind the choir, as usual. After the Holy Communion session, an elderly woman who had been seated quietly beside you nudged you gently and asked, ‘How can you sit here so comfortably?’

‘Pardon me?’

‘I have been watching you and I know what you are,’ she turned to face you. ‘Do you not know that you shouldn’t be here? That this is no place for you?’

You are stunned, confused. It cannot be…

to be continued next week…

By

Uche Anichebe

Roses and Angels III

roses and angels

…continued from here

Mama died on the second week of her mourning, and the villagers shouted hosanna. The gods had again shown their inestimable strength and had done justice to Papa.

Three weeks passed, and you joined Uncle Ofodili and his family to their house – a house which few weeks ago you shared with your parents alone. Your cousins took over your little fancy room, and you slept in the kitchen.  You hated the hardness of the floor, and the cold which could not be absorbed by the faded wrapper that had become your bed. But you were grateful for the privacy it afforded you. So, you spent the nights praying, dwelling on the life you had with your parents, and studying your old books with the hope that Uncle Ofodili will one day ask you to resume school again.

But even that was short-lived. Your privacy was cut short by Uncle Ofodili who sneaked in every night and persuaded you in his baritone voice to ‘open your legs’. You were not sure what he wanted with your open legs, but your instincts and that leer in his eyes told you that what he desired of you was bad, very bad.

A week passed, and Uncle Ofodili did not stop coming. He was even more forceful with every passing day. The last time, he struck you, and when Aunty offhandedly enquired the cause of your black-eye, you lied to her that you fell. You feared that the worse will happen if Aunty found out herself, so one morning, after Uncle left for work, and after you had bathed Chika and Ikem and made breakfast, and done the dishes and scrubbed the house and dropped the children off at school, you braced up, and confided in Aunty. 

At first, she was shocked. She struck you with the china ware in her hands, and further pummeled you with every item within her reach. You pleaded with her, you told her you were sorry, and you will not err again, but her beating and curses drowned your pleas. That night, she called you a cursed child, and sent you out of the house, wearing nothing but your open wounds and a broken spirit.

It was Madam Janet, your new neighbour who took you in for the night. You recounted your ordeals to her and she let you spend the night in her apartment. She cleaned your wounds and offered you her guest room. Though you could still feel the pains running through your body, though you were still shivering in fright, you saw a glimmer of hope in Madam Janet. Maybe she would take you in, you thought.

But the next day, she asked you to leave. She feared for her young marriage. You pleaded gently, tears flowing like a spring, she said no. So you left, dazed, weary and craving for death.

Years passed and something happened within you, strengthening you, and  drowning your past. Until today, you have not given a serious thought to your parent, home, poetry or music. But today, history has not only resurrected in your mind. Today, history has taken a bold step towards you, and Uncle Ofodili, who was only a figment of that history, had journeyed out of the past, and found his way to your bedside.

You are shaking. The lights are still off when Johnny walks in. He is seething with fury and with his eyes as red as palm oil. He has obviously drowned himself in Cocaine again. Chief must have told him, but you do not care.

“You,” he spits, “you’re such a pig”

You give him reasons, but he doesn’t hear. “He’s a dick,” Johnny retorts, “just as the rest. Uncle or not, since you had fucked him, you shudda got me my fucking balance”.

He is holding your neck with such force you think it might as well snap. You scream, desperately flailing your hands on his stoic face. Vexed, he lets go of you, but before that, strikes his heavy fists on your face. He has hit you many times before, but this time, your screams are louder and your thoughts are still hung on the past, refusing like your shadow, to let go of you.

That evening, you resolve to leave Johnny, and your wrecked existence.

You park your few decent cloths and tips you hid away in your old shoes, and you leave town. The taxi driver is running at dangerous speed like an angry cheetah. But you do not even notice, so you do not complain. Your thoughts wander again.

The very next morning, Madam Janet true to her decision, sent you packing. You were stranded, lonely, shivering and hopeless. You walked the streets until dusk came and you panicked, while hunger gnawed at the ligaments of your belly. Slowly, night drew its dark curtains over the firmaments, and full blown anxiety sank into your heart. You were a solitary figure, a poignant image under a rotting electric pole, watching the people walking back and forth to their waiting destinations. No one spoke to you. Their faces were straight, and their feet, eager with motion.

 Then it pulled over, a small gulf with tinted glasses.

to be continued next week

by Uche Anichebe

Roses and Angels II

roses and angels

For some seconds, you shut your eyes and then open them, but he is still there, that man you learnt to dread with all our life. A man you learnt to despise, the man who robbed you of those long ago childish care.

‘O god, oh my god, o god,’ you gasp.

All the while you’re wishing it was one of those dreams whose details you forget almost as soon as you awoke. Your mouth is dry, your lips are limp, you try to scream, but all you can feel is stiffness around your throat. A long limp sound escapes you and just then Chief moves a little, but does not rouse. The tears take form and travel down your face. The memories start to come, those memories you have sealed in the closet of history. You are shaking. You are sobbing. You are weakened by your past. You find your clothing, hastily put them on. Chief is still sprawled out like a small child on the expansive bed when you dash out of the room.

It all started when you were only twelve. That was ten years ago. Like a newly sprouted leaf in the raining season, the details are again fresh in your mind.

You were the apple of your parent’s eye, an only child. Your father called you Angel and nurtured your dream of becoming a world acclaimed singer. He always told you that you had a voice that could move mountains and encouraged you to join the church’s choir. Every Christmas, he watched you rehearse for Christmas carol, and eventually perform at the children Christmas carol. Every Christmas until that cursed Christmas.

The harmattan gale was fiercest that year, and the house seemed mirthless without Papa’s voice. He had left on a business trip but promised to return to watch you sing. He never returned. You never sang. Papa died in a plane crash, and the next week after his demise, Mama received a call from the village. She said it had to do with tradition. She assured you it was going to be alright and you both went to your country-home to perform Papa’s burial rite.

Things took a different shape when you got to the village. Your relatives seemed to have grown hostile over-night. They had occupied your country-home, and would not let you or Mama into the house. You were taken to your paternal granny’s house, which was on the next street. She did not smile up at you as she usually did, and when you asked her why, she gave you a stern look, and called you the daughter of a witch who had succeeded in killing her only son with voodoo. She swore that Mama must undergo some ‘omenala’, customary practices to proof her claim of innocence.

Your mother’s hair was shaved to the scalp so that you could hardly recognize her. A bevy of old women gathered around spiting and mocking and accusing her, while she cried in agony. The next day, you saw the same women leading her out of the garage that had become her room, and you thought it was all over. But it was not.

They made her kneel, repeat some words that you did not hear, and forced her to drink the content of a small wooden calabash. She was hesitant, but the women slapped her face and forced the content of the ugly calabash down her throat.  Granny later told you that it contained the bath water of your father’s corpse. You threw up and refused to eat all day long. You missed your home at the city and the near perfect life you had with your parents. You wished Mama’s travail would come to an abrupt end, so you can return home with Mama, and with considered effort, put your lives back together.  But the women had different thoughts. Mama, they said, must remain in the garage, stripped of all her raiment for a month. She must come out only once a day, when she heard the first cock crow at dawn, and whether she liked it or not, she must wail to the hearing of the entire neighbourhood.

Mama’s mother came to see Mama and in your innocent confusion, you asked her why life has taken a new turn. She told you that it is a path that all widows must thread. You pressed on, and enquired why Uncle Ofodili, Papa’s cousin and his family have taken over your country home. She cast you a sad look which lingered for some seconds, and said, ‘you should have been a boy you know’. 

Her voice seemed distant and accusatorial as she continued, ‘girls are such vain treasures. They come and go, but the man stays, and must be succeeded by another man. Ofodili is the new man!’                           

 Mama died on the second week of her mourning, and the villagers shouted hosanna.

…to be continued next week

By Uche Anichebe

Roses and Angels

roses and angels

The room is chilly and quiet, so quiet that the tick-tock of the golden vintage clock resonates. Unlike the other times, you are not entranced by the tasteful furnishings this place. It is tagged first-class, this room in which you have lodged four or five times now. Johnny always tells you how lucky you are. He says suites of this sort are meant ‘for the rich, or the accessories of the rich’. The very first time he said it, you decoded what he meant, and into what category you belong – the accessories of the rich. But you did not mind.

The clock keeps ticking. On the muted television screen is a thin woman in tight khaki shorts. She is making frantic gestures. The piece of terra-cotta art work which you learnt is over a hundred years old and have spent time admiring on your previous times here has been replaced with a blue abstract painting.  But you do not notice its absence. Your thoughts are rooted in the fields where anxiety reigns, but you do not know why. There is something amiss about today, and you know it. You cannot explain it, yet it feels strange. Stranger than the sudden stiffness you now feel on your neck.

You try to shake off the present feeling. You decide to take a warm shower; it has always had a magic effect on you. Standing from the bed, you take slow numbered steps towards the wide mirror. You hold up your naked ebony complexioned breasts, wondering if Chief your new client will, like the others, find them attractive. You have heard he has high taste for women, and you are certain that that is why Johnny chose you for him today. Unlike other times, Johnny did not even spend much time bargaining. He had just mentioned the prize – your prize, and chief had accepted without objection. Your heart bounced again when Johnny dropped the phone, with that boyish smile plastered on his bleached face.

The water is running gently over your velvety skin when you hear the entrance door open and shut with a small thud. You hasten up. Chief’s heavy voice comes from outside,

‘Baby, don’t tell me you’re not ready yet.’ Silence follows for brief seconds before he speaks again, ‘Baby, I hate to be kept waiting, so you just tell me if your ass ain’t ready, and I’ll give Johnny boy a quick call,’

Chief’s voice is laced with impatience, arrogant impatience. But wait. You have heard that voice from somewhere. There is something about its heavy baritone that makes it so familiar. You have no time to dwell on such thoughts, to compare the similarities, and reach a conclusion. So you hasten up, calling back with mild apologies.

You rinse the last trace of lather off your body and step out of the sky-blue Jacuzzi. Chief has switched off the light and the only source of illumination is the bathroom room light which is sneaking into the room. You see Chief’s silhouette on the bed. You are sure he is annoyed, but of course, you know what to do to bring him back in the mood. It is your vocation, your calling.

You immediately drop your towel, unveiling your naked form like it’s a precious offering to a god. You can see Chief’s full cheeks move and you assume it is smile. It is a boost to your morale, so you gently mount yourself on the bed and get down to business. You are about to think of how impressed Johnny will be with you, when you notice on the old man’s face, a tinge of familiarity. You wish the lights were switched on. Anxiety slowly spreads its tentacles on you and tightens its wicked grip when chief mounts on you. His breathing is labourious. His movements are deliberate. His thrusts are quick and forceful, belying the shriveled features of his elderly frame.  

Morning comes with a new awareness. The sun’s rays are creeping into the room when you awake. Chief is still asleep and all other sounds, kowtow to his heavy sporadic snores.

You open your eyes, the environment looks surreal at first, then everything takes shape, and the first thing that your eyes behold is…

‘O god!’

…to be continued next week

by Uche Anichebe