The Gospels of War, written in the mode of a first-person narrative, is an allegorical short story that illustrates, using respected symbols of two of Nigeria’s main religions, the untold damage that bigotry and sectarianism and hardline religious devotion can do and actually do to the unity of the country’s diverse people, or of any people whatsoever.
Luna, as I know her, was born speech-impaired and immobile, but she always wears a smile, a very eloquent and sublime smile that sufficiently compensated for her congenital inability to speak. She has, in addition, such strength of character that never fails to help her to shine in evidently Stygian hours. Incidentally, her sister, Stella has a certain strange ailment (if I remember correctly, the ailment resembles another which has a terrifying name in medical parlance that, when boiled down, means some disease of the neurons): she could do nothing but wink. Still, like Luna, Stella is a happy woman who is inexplicably forever young and has the same strength of character that explains her happy, soul-lifting winks during times cheerless, dark and dreary.
These are the ways of the two sisters; but only recently, on witnessing a strange event, I was under a strong impression that they had changed into utter darkness themselves.
On a twilit evening, only three days ago, waiting and readying myself for the appearance of the two sisters as the gloom would fall in two hours or less (I could only admire them from afar; I could not speak with them, for they always spoke to each other in an ethereal language), I stood at a high vantage point, like that Biblical prophet who said, as if to rouse himself to a bounden duty, that he would stand upon his watch and set himself upon his high tower, to watch to see…. I did fall—and I often fall—into a particular fantastic vision, you see, during which I thought of, even saw, myself as a prophet, a watchman, standing alone in my watchtower day in, day out, and being set in my watch whole nights; crying out as a lion on sighting approaching chariots of horses and camels just so that the drunken lords banqueting away within the palace’s walls might be shaken up and anoint their shields in order to defend the land; shaking my head ruefully on seeing that, like the drunken man who, in self-delusion, believes himself to be lying on the top of a ship’s mast, the lords would not awake; and stomping away, proclaiming their houses and indeed the whole land desecrated and desolate; and then shortly returning, my eyes a fountain of motherly tears, to stretch out my hands with the patience of Job all day long to ‘a disobedient and gainsaying people.’ There are no more appropriate times to think of yourself as a watchman than these terror-fraught times; no better times to dream of bearing the burdens of your native soil, as it were; to be a martyr for the cause of opening the heavy-lidded eyes of everyone to both the danger of what I might call ‘Pushkin’s Disease’ (‘the evil that sits on thrones’) and the peril of raw dogma lurking in the hearts of brutes; and then to be a hero—but, oh, when a watchman becomes a hero, that change of status must doubtless be an unfortunate distraction, for ought not a watchman to shun fame?
Ah, my thoughts had again wandered; they had hastily flown off at a tangent, by means of the fleeting vision, as they are wont to do whenever I am all alone. I was brought—or rather wrenched—from my reverie by a shocking, outlandish event that had just begun to unfold before my eyes. Luna and Stella were already up before their usual time and have mysteriously found their tongues, or so it seemed, for from them I heard voices which spoke in a language that, strangely enough, I very well understood. The smile was still on Luna’s face, but I could no longer find in it the characteristic ineffable charm; the wink from Stella was now a non-luminous sign of her assent to the absurd. I rubbed my eyes hard; this couldn’t be true, I thought. I fixed my gaze on the sisters and listened intently.
‘See that fellow over yonder, Stella,’ said Luna, pointing ahead of her. ‘He is our enemy, Stella, our very enemy,’ she added grimly.
Stella nodded and winked in understanding as she looked in the direction pointed at by Luna and sighted Crucis, a neighbor of the sisters. He, too, has virtue: he is normally sober and graceful, but often he would come out of his quietude to trenchantly denounce, with arms forever outstretched, the iniquitous deeds of humankind and urge them towards rectitude; and all who listened and accepted his words he with the same outstretched arms embraced and took in. I secretly wished he could overhear the ongoing conspiratorial conversation; I itched to observe his response.
‘Pray, what think you? We shall have to expel him, destroy him, ruin him!’ Luna had begun to be passionate, her soft silver sheen fading at once into a grave blood-red hue. ‘See, the whole world follows after him!’
Winking again, neither arguing nor reasoning, Stella replied, ‘Destroy him indeed we must; ere we ourselves are destroyed from waning influence. Living deaths we must never have.’
The language still contained words that are not entirely familiar to me, words that are archaic and dead; but I considered the matter of discussion to be beneath their dignity and that made the scenario all the more incredible.
‘Against him then we must come!’ cried Luna.
Both sisters took up stones and hurled them at Crucis. Appalled, I let my lips part in a soundless scream. Crucis, true to his nature, did not respond. When, however, the hail of stones fell thick and fast and hurt and even killed a few of his followers, who clung to his feet for protection, Crucis began not merely to speak but also to launch a tirade at his assailants, much to the chagrin of many of his followers. The assault from Luna and Stella did not cease; rather, they mocked at his tirade and flung more stones at him, injuring and killing even more of his people. Finally, Crucis could take the onslaught no more. He turned to his people and exhorted them to arise and fight back.
Crucis’ followers had never heard him speak that way. Very many of them had never learnt war, and Crucis had always taught them to bless their enemies. Petrified where I stood, I was no less disappointed than the people at Crucis’ feet. I could not, by any stretch of the imagination, imagine such a thing as a war between Luna and Stella on the one hand and Crucis on the other. Rising at once from the distant past of my childhood, as it were, the memory of Isaac Watts’ poem which I had learnt by rote as a child came to mind:
Let dogs delight to bark and bite,
For God hath made them so;
Let bears and lions growl and fight,
For ’t is their nature too.
But, children, you should never let
Such angry passions rise;
Your little hands were never made
To tear each other’s eyes.
The bitter, painful understanding that we have actually all too often spawned and nursed and have been actuated by unjustified angry passions, even on a global scale, remains with us. We, for the most part, are no better than incontinent beasts and very well might remain so for as long as the earth endures. But do the representatives of the otherworldly also stoop so low?
Some of the admirers and followers of Crucis who had been raring for a reprisal attack against their hosts, had begun, following the incitement from Crucis, to hurl back the stones. It all was like children’s play gone awry. Just then, I noticed that all along the voices and actions which I had believed to have been Luna’s and Stella’s were in reality those of certain reprobate followers who had taken advantage of the seeming disabilities of the two sisters to orchestrate violence against not only the ‘infidels’ who did not think like them but also anyone from either side who would appeal to reason in order to restrain them. They were (and still are) perverts, reprobates, mutants—if you like—who had gone past feeling, having sold their very own souls to the lord of Acheron. I looked in the direction of Crucis and saw that there also were reprobates in his camp and that they were the ones who had given the exhortation to retaliation, after all. Certainly I began to realize that it was not exactly Crucis who had been denouncing the evils of humankind all the while, but useful admirers did so in his name; also, it was none of the threesome who had uttered the inciting words, nor were these three the ones who started the actual fighting, but the reprobates on both warring sides. Then I knew why, all the time of the fighting, Luna still wore her smile and Stella still gave her winks and Crucis still had his arms outspread.
Sadly, the war is still on, but the impression that the threesome had mutated undesirably has since faded away, having been checked and found faulty. On that evening, from my vantage point, I looked around and down to see if I was not the only one who would bewail the utterly senseless war and the unfortunate victims (we all, I think, are potential victims); but I found that life continued as usual. The panes of the mosque (a two-storey building with an even taller minaret) reflected light of the colour of brilliant amber which was, as it were, the last-ditch effort of the dying evening sun. From the large, impressive church, evensong blithely wafted through the air. From a ravine, which serves as a dumpsite for not only the neighbourhood but also for a large portion of the whole town, rose thick smoke, unabated, a shapeless grey monster that lumbered along in the air over the brown rusty corrugated iron roofs of the unknowing neighbourhood and soon faded away at the head. (Both the smoke and the ravine always remind me, every time I pass by the latter, of ancient Jerusalem’s Gehenna.) A bird perched on a roof of a house just below me, and then flitted, undecided, about a tree hard by the house before it finally settled on one of the branches which would be its resting-place for yet another night. Dumb, gloomy dormer windows of an ancient two-storeyed house, dark-brown with age, overlooked the neighbourhood; I saw that two of three old men looked out of the window, but from the unknowing grins on their faces I could tell that they had not seen what I had witnessed. A few young men, apparently blithe and unconcerned as the war did not affect them directly, reclined in deckchairs with mugs of frothing beer on stools before them as they idled the evening away. Two children some distance away carried water in plastic basins as they headed evidently homewards. Chickens scratched their feathered bodies with their beaks as they waited for the time to roost. But I noticed an extraordinary and comforting scene: a child in a compound was bent over her books, working away intently on what I believe was an assignment given to her class earlier at her school, in spite of five, six, equally scantily clad children who were playing close to her.