‘It is all a ritual’, Martha thinks to herself as she shuffles from foot to foot on the slow line that is headed towards the priest at the altar. She almost sighs out loud until she remembers that her father is standing right behind her and will probably give her the tongue lashing of her life if she in any way acts less than holy.
So she stands still on the line, her hands clasped gently in front of her, her head tilted to one side and her eyes lowered to the floor like a shy virgin. She is the perfect picture of piety; her mother would be proud of her. She always has said that Martha has a certain virginal innocence to her and constantly tells her that if she was good enough, she may get a visit from the Blessed Virgin Mary like those kids in Santa fey had.
Unfortunately, her mother never got to see if she was blessed with the Virgin’s presence. She died early in the middle giving birth to Martha’s baby brother.
Martha is almost near the priest now. She watches surreptitiously from beneath her lashes as the priest moves from person to person, swiping the black paste on their forehead.
When it gets to her turn, she shuts her eyes tight and nearly shudders with disgust as the cold paste touches her forehead.
As she walks back to her seat, she wonders how she was going to explain the symbol to her new boyfriend; Obinna had waltzed into her life when it made absolutely no sense; her mother has just died and her father was suddenly transformed from the warm funny man she used to know to a dark hovering shadow that never seemed to stay in one place long enough. So, she is constantly afraid that she will lose Obinna, especially since she is more religious than he is. He has a way of making her feel like she doesn’t know what she is doing when she goes for evening mass every day of the week.
‘There’s more to life than just going to church Martha’, he said tonelessly one evening as the shade of evening fell and he watched her pull on her clothes after a particularly violent session of sex in his tiny airless boys quarters.
‘I have to’, she had replied, struggling to pull up her zip.
Why? He asked naked frustration thickening his voice.
She didn’t answer him then and even now she doesn’t know if she knows the answer to that question.
When she goes to see him later, he will mock her about the symbol and make her feel stupid again. But she loves him and she will forgive him as usual.
Her thoughts fall quiet as the prayers for lent start and she joins in. Sometimes like now, she can almost feel a presence hover over the congregation like a huge blanket whenever prayers are going on; she looks down at her arms; the hairs there are standing up.
Soon the mass is over and she joins the throng as they head towards the exit of the church.
As she emerges into the heat of the day, she feels a hand on her shoulder and turns to look back.
‘Will you come home for the weekend? It is her father with his straight- as- an- arrow expression.
‘Yes father’, she says squeezing his hand on her shoulder. Looking at him is like looking into a mirror. People around her call her, her father’s child and even her mother then would look at her and sigh.
‘It’s as if it is your father not I who carried you for nine months and gave birth to you’ she would say.
She has her father’s caramel coloured skin and his beautiful eyes; they are deep pits of secrets that dare you to unearth them. Obinna the first time he had stared into them had said without the trace of a smile, ‘you bewitch me’
Her father turns away; she watches him as he mingles with the crowd and disappears.
Her thoughts come back with a vengeance as she walks back to the hostel a few blocks away from the church. Her father hardly smiles at her anymore but she knows that he still loves her. The child who in drawing breath ended her mother’s life is loved by only her. Her father has not looked at the child since the day he was born and does not even raise an eyebrow when his wife’s sister comes and takes the baby away.
‘You will kill him faster with your indifference Ikenna’; she had lashed out at him on the day that she had come to visit and found the child wet, cold and hungry in his cot.
Martha misses the child. Her aunt has taken him to Portharcourt; a place far away from Kaduna and Martha hardly has the time to see him even when she is on holidays because she is afraid to leave her father alone.
She realizes suddenly that she is not alone as she approaches the entrance of the hostel. There are two men walking on either side of her matching her pace for pace. From the corner of her eyes she can see that they are both dressed in black and white; white shirts and black pants. She stops suddenly and they halt too as if she is their puppeteer. Then, she feels something pressed against her back. It is cold and hard and she knows what it is.
‘Walk to the car across the road and don’t talk to anyone while you’re at it’, a calm voice says into her ear. ‘Now she is the puppet’ she thinks as she walks across the road. Traffic is nearly nonexistent after all; it is barley eight in the morning.
The two men who flank her seem to dissipate into thin air as she approaches the car but she knows the one behind her is still there. She can smell his perfume and oddly, his perfume reminds her of the incense the priest uses for mass.
Now she is in the car and there is someone there waiting for her to send her into oblivion. A handkerchief, the strong smell of chloroform and she is gone.
When she comes to she is standing up tied to a huge tree, her head covered with a cloth that has holes for her to see and breathe. Groggily, she looks around and sees that she is surrounded by a cluster of trees. She doesn’t know of any forest near the campus and struggles to stem the bile rising in her. Now she can feel terror like a vice wrap itself around her chest; she doesn’t know what is happening but she knows it can’t be good. She thinks of her father and wishes that she had gone to Port Harcourt during the last holiday to see her baby brother.
A man appears in front of her wearing a black mask but she knows who it is. The Incense is hard to mistake.
‘You have been chosen’ he intones. ‘How nice’’ Martha wants to reply. A deep hysterical kind of laughter bubbles close to the surface of her lips and she struggles to tame it nearly choking in the process.
Mr Incense moves in close to her and frowns with displeasure as she looks at him straight in the eyes. He yanks off the cloth from her head.
‘Bala’! He barks, making her start violently. Another masked man scurries into her line of vision and stands a few feet away from Mr Incense, unable to hide the sheer terror visible in his eyes.
Mr Incense turns to him. ‘She is marked.’’
The terrified masked man whimpers; ‘I didn’t know high one…I didn’t know.’
Mr Incense looks at him without moving and Martha can almost hear the man’s heart die with each second that passes by. She finds that she is holding her breath as well.
Mr Incense turns back to her. ‘Clean that mark off your forehead’ he orders.
He takes out a knife and cuts cleanly through the ropes binding her. Her hands fall limply to her side and she is bewildered at first wondering what it is that he wants her to do. She has totally forgotten about the dark cross on her forehead
‘The mark’ he yells at her. Wipe it off!
She uses the tip of her finger to touch the black cross on her forehead that has crusted over and then drops her hands by her side.
Mr Incense looks at her as if she has lost her mind.
She hears Bala who has been standing behind her gasp.
‘No’ she retorts; even as she says it, she wonders where her boldness comes from. She wants to live and not die and now that she thinks about it, she is not sure she is ready to die. But the ball has been set in motion and there is nothing she can do now but follow through.
Mr Incense paces furiously in front of her, his hands rising and falling as if some imaginary orchestra is playing rubbish in his head.
He halts suddenly, looks at Bala and says, ‘shoot her and dump her body at the back.’
Martha’s heart fails her and she lets out panicked sigh. Bala hurriedly walks round her and draws out a gun. He looks over at Mr Incense as if seeking approval. Mr Incense looks long into her eyes like he is memorizing the lines of her face. He nods curtly.
Bala levels the gun at her chest.
Martha closes her eyes.’ Goodbye daddy, she chants in her head and is surprised to find that she is remarkably calm.
The gun goes off and Martha jerks, expecting to feel her life seeping out of the hole in her chest.
She hears the sound of harried feet and is afraid to open her eyes. A rustle and then a voice at her ear.
‘Run’, it whispers thinly.
Martha takes off nearly tripping over the body lying in front of her. She runs like the wind; she has never run like this before, not even when they had told her that her mother was lying dead in the hospital a few blocks away from the house. Her lungs are on fire and her feet are numb but she runs anyway, crashing into shrubs and narrowly missing tree limbs lying in the way. She runs until she burst out unto a tarred clear road. It looks familiar but she does not stop to think.
A car is coming in the distance and she begins to wave frantically. She can make out two people in it as it slows down and then begins to pass her by. ‘Noooo’ she moans; then the car stops and reverses back and the back door swings open. She dives into the car literally and slams the door hard.
The man driving the car is elderly and his face looks kind as he turns back to face her.
‘Where are you going my dear?’
‘The campus’, she chatters through teeth that are clicking against themselves in fear
‘Oh you poor girl! The woman in the passenger seat exclaims looking back at her too. ‘You’re shaking like a leaf! Are you alright?’
Her bespectacled face crinkles up in concern.
‘Can we just leave this place? Martha asks in a small voice
The man nods and drives off smoothly while the woman keeps plying Martha with concerned questions.
The church falls silent as the priest announces that they have a miracle sitting in their midst.
A young student narrowly escaped being cut up and used in a ritual killing just on the outskirts of the main campus two days ago.
Apparently, the black cross she was marked with on that fateful Ash Wednesday day had saved her life as the bullet intended for her missed its mark and killed the one who was supposed to kill her.
‘If she had not been in church that day’, the priest says gravely, she would have died. It was the work of an angel.
His dark limpid eyes hover over each person in the church as he moves his hulking body from one end of the altar to the other.
‘Don’t play with the things of God and he won’t play with you.’
Martha is sitting quietly at the back of the church next to her father. He has her hand clasped in his as tightly as he can as if he is afraid that she will vanish into thin air. She has never seen him so emotional before and wonders if this was what he needed to come alive. Because he has; He is no more the shadow that flits from place to place. Ever since she had gotten home on that dark Wednesday night and told him the story, he had become the father she used to know. He had even called up aunt Ifeoma and ordered her to bring the child back to him.
‘A child needs his father’ he had groused over the phone’.
Aunt Ifeoma had harrumphed but she was smiling when she put down the phone.
‘Please join me in thanking God for Martha’, the priest announces.
Martha rises to her feet, and gets a rousing standing ovation from the church. There are tears in the eyes of some mothers and grins on the faces of some fathers. Martha feels overwhelmed and tears start to fill her eyes. She sits down abruptly and buries her head in her father’s shoulder.
Martha slips out of the church shortly before the end of the mass and heads towards Obinna’s place. They have hardly seen each other since her ordeal but they have spoken over the phone several times.
When she gets there, he is waiting for her outside the boy’s quarters, resting on his hunches and drawing shapes in the ground.
As she approaches, he rises to his feet, his eyes boring into hers. She walks into his arms and he holds her there, her head pressed into his t-shirt which smells reassuringly familiar.
He takes her hand and begins to lead her back towards the campus.
‘Where are we going? I thought we would hang out in your room as usual?’
‘I had to wash the rug and clean the place a bit so it needs to air out’
‘Well, can I at least get my scarf? I left it the last time I was here.’
‘Wait here, he orders and strides back to the room.
Martha follows him slowly and by the time she gets to the room, he is locking up, her scarf wound around his neck.
Martha catches the whiff of something familiar as he comes up to her and takes her hand again.
‘You’re burning incense in your room’? Why?
Obinna stares into her eyes again as if he is searching for something.
‘I told you, I washed the carpet. The smell of the incense makes the damp smell more bearable.’
She shrugs as he takes her hand and as they make their way slowly back to the campus, she settles her body into his embrace and inhales his scent one more time so she won’t forget.