Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into the abyss, the abyss looks into you. – Friedrich Nietzsche
Priest Anselm Okoro leafed quickly through Saturday’s edition of the Punch newspaper, stopping at the Super Saturday feature section. A full page had been dedicated to reporting the macabre event: A bold headline that read, “Woman, 36, found dead inside car in Lagos traffic.” A picture of the woman, slumped over her blood-stained steering wheel, parts of her face digitally obscured, was set right in the middle of the page.
In what commuters and motorists alike have termed as extremely unsettling, a woman simply identified as Miss Sandra Ehigie, was found lifeless in her Toyota Camry sedan on Wednesday 5th of March along Ikorodu road in one of Lagos’ many halting traffic jams. According to witnesses, her stationary car had caused a stir when traffic had momentarily progressed and honks from impatient motorists did not elicit any response from the vehicle. The intervening LASTMA officials had promptly smashed the glass window to gain entry as they had noticed her odd posture and repeated knocks on her door fell on deaf ears……….
He was distraught about the spectacle they made out her death to be; and the endless speculations and interpretations the reporters tried to advance seemed like a parody of the dead. Alone in his chambers, overcome with grief, tears flowed unrestrained, trickling down his cheeks, presaging a bout of despair that will be exacerbated by his latent depressive disorder. He raised the pearl rosary in his right hand to his lips, kissing the crucifix repeatedly and hoping that, by some divine act, the effigy of Christ would offer him respite from the gnawing sadness he felt. Sandra Ehigie had been one of the faithfuls of his church, The Holy Family Cathedral in Ikeja. The news had shaken the entire congregation as Sandra had been one of the respected members of their close-knit catholic community. The manner and place of her demise had spawned numerous rumors about the cause of death. Most prominent, and unreservedly sacrilegious, but still being furtively parroted, was the involvement of the occult. Their faith abhorred such suggestions, and those who openly broached such ideas were frowned upon. However, the state’s coroner inquest had been inconclusive. Closing the page, he moved to his private altar, hands clasped solemnly as he prayed for the departed.
Priest Anselm had just been recently ordained and accepted to serve in the Holy Family cathedral after a lengthy apprenticeship at the All Saints Seminary, Ekpoma. Before his time at the seminary, he had attended Obafemi Awolowo University, obtaining a bachelor’s in Botany. Quiet, unassuming and mild-mannered, he had been affectionately touted as ‘Bishop’ by his university mates due to his ardent involvement in the activities of campus Catholics. Hence, it was no surprise when he enrolled into the seminary thereafter, completely renouncing the worldly lifestyle for the austere and monastic existence of priesthood.
Mass today, like on every other Sunday, was a success. The melodic harmony of tunes from the organ with the alternating high and low-pitch unison of the choir had evoked a numinous atmosphere in the cathedral. With scriptures read, hymns sung and hearts lifted, it all came to an end. Now, a few members flocked to the confessional to recount their sins and seek forgiveness from the priest.
The confessional was a small sparsely decorated chamber with a single stained-glass window that evinced a picture of Holy Mary. A tall wooden screen, with a rectangular grid cut right in the middle, stood between a kneeler and a plainly upholstered chair. Priest Anselm settled in the chair as the first penitent entered.
“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” began Priest Anselm, his right hand gesturing the sign of the crucifix. A terminal amen chorused.
“May the mercy of God touch your heart now so that you may know your sins and have the courage to confess them,” he prayed.
“Bless me father, for I have sinned. My last confession was a month ago,” came a faint plaintive female voice. The screen did an almost perfect job in obscuring the penitent’s identity. Almost. By tilting his head, he could, with the help of colored light washing through the window, see their visage. This was the L.A.S.U.T.H. nurse who surreptitiously discontinued the life support of a comatose patient who had brutally raped her in her younger days. He had a prodigious memory that was impeccably accurate.
“Father, I am the nurse that confessed to ending the life of a patient in my hospital who violated me in my youth. I don’t know if you remember?”
“Errrm…Yes, I do” He replied.
“Father, I keep thinking that I would still end his life if that situation played out again. Does this mean I am a bad person? That I am not truly sorry? Will God ever forgive me?
Saddened by her new disclosure, he wrung his hands as he struggled for a response. Her sin was almost unforgivable; taking the life of a person, regardless of the offenses committed against another, was a heinous act. Nonetheless, he had granted her forgiveness, prescribing one day of fasting, prayers and fifty Hail Marys as penance – an evidently disproportionate punishment given the magnitude of sin committed. His puritanical beliefs and ideas on punishment conflicted with the fundamental doctrines of the church; he expected strict adherence to the ways of Christ, and anyone who defaulted, deserved a severe penalty.
“Beloved…if we confess our sin, he is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” He reeled off the bible verse flatly.
Without warning, the depressive attacks kicked in again. His hitherto mild disposition slowly turned to one of gloom like the thickening darkness in the wake of a setting sun. He reached for his anti-depressant, Prozac, sheathed beneath layers of flowing priestly vestment. His depression, self-diagnosed, had gone largely unnoticed by members of the church as a result of daily ingestion of those blue capsules. Whenever despondence loomed, and he was in the open where he couldn’t have his pills, he anxiously stroked the container.
“Bless you father. I pray, again, for forgiveness for my sins and forgiveness for the dead,” said the distressed penitent.
Like the first time she came, he thought of her being publicly whipped, of her hair shaved, excommunicated even, but somehow “Recite ten Our Father and visit the church every day for the next seven days,” was the penance he uttered.
She recited the act of contrition for her sin.
With strained ease, he read her the prayer for absolution: “God the father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
“Thank you Father,” and with that, she straightened and left the room.
He listened to more confessions, praying and granting forgiveness for different transgressions: The pathological liar, the ‘accidental’ brothel patron, the dithering apostate, the grasping filling station attendant, the ‘Orijin’ fanatic, the NairaBet addict, and so on.
In truth, their constant regressions caused him considerable torment, more so was the fleeting remorse they felt. The penances were, in themselves, paltry; they were never really punitive, causing only a temporary cessation of their habits, until they indulged again like a struggling teetotaler confronted with a bar bedecked with an exotic array of alcoholic drinks. He prayed with them, read countless absolutions for recurring sins. The youths were steeped in debauchery; the adults engaged in unspeakable transgressions ranging from trysts with the opposite sex to the gravest of the mortal sins. As they had gotten more comfortable around him, their confessions became increasingly distasteful. He constantly mused about how he could purify them of the vices in their lives? Set them permanently in the path of righteousness? His apparent helplessness in the face of staggering acts of misdeed affected him deeply, more than he cared to admit to himself.
In between confessions, he reached for his anti-depressant, needing a quick fix before the next penitent entered. Checking the contents of the plastic container, he had just one capsule left. He panicked. The drugstore where he secretly purchased the Prozac pills had recently discontinued its sale, citing a lack of ‘product market’. He hurriedly swallowed the last pill.
Before the sessions were over, and before the drug took its effect, strange voices gradually milled in his head. Calling . Whispering. Haunting.
Easter was nigh, and the week preceding the Sunday climax of celebrations, the proverbial Holy Week, was filled with the usual reflections on events that led to the death and resurrection of Christ: the anointing at Bethany; the infamous last supper; the act of treason by Judas; the crucifixion and Resurrection. At day, Priest Anselm conducted proceedings, read passages, prayed with faithfuls and oversaw preparatory activities for Sunday’s festivities. In the nights, sequestered in his chambers, removed from the questioning glances of other priests and members alike who had noticed his unsettled demeanor, he prayed with feverish urgency. Without his medication, the manic attacks came more frequently, interspersed with periods of crippling depression. Now, the voices in his head were louder, creating images in his head, controlling him; just as they had when he murdered Sandra Ehigie! It was they who had instructed him to poison the sacramental wine she drank right after her disturbing confession; excommunication from the church for aborting an unborn child wasn’t appropriate punishment, they had said.
In the middle of his communion with God, a tiny whisper, amidst the plethora of competing voices in his head, rose in a crescendo, quieting the rest: “Cleanse them”. “Cleanse all of them”. Its tone wasn’t demanding like the others, but rather expressive of a mournful plea. It was the voice of God, he thought, asking him to purge his erring followers of sin. A cause he would not – could not – resist.
On Holy Thursday night, with the crudest of tools – a Hot plate, funnel, sieves, and grinder – he concocted a most potent poison: Extracts from Oleander plants. Cultivated on the cathedral’s premises as verdure ornaments, Oleander plants were as lethal as they were beautiful, and only an esoteric few knew of its dark wonders. With his reasoning patently skewed, and a strangely coherent knowledge of essence extraction, refinement and concentration – techniques acquired in the botany labs of O.A.U. – he consecrated the communion wine left in his charge.
The Good Friday rites began in earnest, mass subdued, in usual manner, to commemorate the crucifixion of Christ. After the bishop had observed the appropriate liturgies, the entire congregation, communicants or celebrants if you will, lined in a long procession, readying themselves to receive the Eucharist – wine and wheat bread. Standing next to the bishop, communion cup in hand, Priest Anselm watched as the Bishop administered prayers and bread to members, while he offered them a healthy swallow of wine. While he had not kept count, it must have been after about a hundred persons had been blessed when suddenly a bloodcurdling scream erupted from a section of the cathedral as a member barfed up blood and vomit, collapsing afterwards; chaos soon sprouted in separate clusters like a slow moving Mexican wave of a deadly contagion as, one by fatal one, faithfuls mysteriously collapsed on the floor, gasping for air as they writhed convulsively.
Rooted to a spot, tears now streaming freely, Priest Anselm observed the terrified cries, the stricken faces, the spatters of blood on the marbled cathedral floor, and the eerily choreographic jerks of torment from the fallen. Like the last supper before Christ was killed, this was, sadly, their last meal.
“Forgive them father,” he prayed.