The Trajectory of a Siamese Spirit
Chiemeziem Everest Udochukwu
I passed through many hullers unhusked.
I. Fulfilling Elijah
Ugly experiences made us mistrustful and hyperconscious, such that any insect or rodent that overstepped its bounds, or any strange mark that appeared on the skin overnight, prompted bawling prayers against agents of darkness and the swift procurement of blessed olive oil. I couldn’t blame my parents for this, for seeing danger in people’s smiles and wanting their beloved children to do so too, for spending every penny inviting and visiting “solution providers”, for staying hungry, for taking risks, for closing their ears to ridicule, for surviving accusations, for servilely following instructions while scrambling for solutions to the family’s stagnancy, to my elder sister’s ailment that distributed all over her body itchy white spots that fetched her taunts and tears, to the prophecy that an arrow of insanity from an enemy’s juju bow would pierce my head.
My rarely overprotective parents began to treat me like I was some endangered species. Prayers rained. Apotropaic agents rained. Any time I moved out of the house and my mother’s frantic calls weren’t enough to make me return, her restlessness roamed in the house, as if the prophecy was a time bomb that couldn’t be defused and my stubbornness was the first sign of its fulfillment. Before this, a pastor-chiromancer, whose proposed visit to our house my parents had consented to, had read my palm in our parlour. We stood in a circle as he read from one palm to the other. Reading mine, he said I was intelligent and destined for greatness. These compliments were bland and ingratiating because I got them every day and heard people throw them to others in passing. Then he dropped the bombshell in that imperative tone that makes messages seem like emergencies, “He is a visitor, a liver, not an old ager. He may not last long.” My mother’s face puckered in pain, her eyes moistened. My father exhaled and exhaled, as if the air in his nostrils irritated him. I had said nothing, had done nothing, but my glower evinced every word I wanted to say and every action I wanted to take. The chiromancer’s head was hairless, and, bent over my outstretched palm, I wanted to give it a slap. I wanted him out of our house, never to return. Maybe it was that bitter wish that dug a chasm between him and my parents, a chasm that widened and widened until it became unbridgeable.
It was in one of the scores of austere local ministries we had visited for solutions that Man of God revealed the first spirit. He was tan, built, and imposing. With a gift-glorifying Igbo song, he marched towards our row as if to apprehend someone. I turned my face sidewards. I was at the far-end of the penultimate pew, where, like a cruet placed among jars, I cut an insignificant figure among the others seated. A woman was praying that she receive a prophecy, something I had sat at the back to avoid receiving. Having my problem discussed in public didn’t appeal to me in the slightest.
He pointed at me with the precision of a sniper. I stood. He divined my mother in the congregation and asked her to narrate her experiences while I was in the womb. As my mother stood to speak, she heaved and tears welled up in her eyes. She looked so brittle, so ruddy with emotions, so hurt that everyone must have imagined how negative the experience was even before she spoke. She said the family had fallen from the middle-class to the peasants. Survival depended on selling houseware, on selling clothing, on the generosity of an understanding neighbour-cook, and on the bandwidth of endurance. She spoke in Igbo. In her words, “That was the height of suffering. But when I gave birth to him, he was fat and healthy, and I wondered if this was the baby that hardly saw food to eat in the womb. Of all my children, it was with him I suffered the most. That is why I have a different kind of love for him.”
Man of God declared it was a divine sign of my greatness. That I would be as powerful as Elijah, but if I neglected the call, I’d run mad. “Mad” clanged in my mind. Why predict another madness on top of the one we came to prevent? Maybe because the madnesses weren’t the same; one didn’t mean well, the other did. Maybe God was the enemy in the other prophecy, or maybe He wasn’t, and it was just a mix-up.
I laughed within. I snorted furtively so that no one would say I belittled a priestly message, or worse, scorned a divine mandate. I wondered what was divine in such malediction, what was positive in bringing such pain and penury to an innocent couple. But my mother’s face lit up, as if the prophecy compensated and fulfilled her, as if the latter part of the prophecy wasn’t unsettling enough, as if the real reason for our coming didn’t matter any more. At home, she ceaselessly appreciated God for giving her someone like me to fight her enemies.
I was cozied up to prophets we visited, or rather, that visited us. They all were so quick to make on-the-spot confirmations of my prophethood, confirmations that were apparently geared towards validating me to earn more of my parents’ trust and patronage. I didn’t like that I was brought to the spotlight for such validation because each validation birthed encouragements that I pray and fast and associate with prophets more, because the more the validation came, the more “remember you are a prophet” rang at home like an alarm on repeat to correct any unholy thing that came out of me.
I, along with my sister, was sent to live with a prophet. A woman spoke highly of his anointing to my parents. His name was Okechukwu, a short, obsidian, limping man, blessed with big eyes that saw big wads of cash. He had claimed he would cure my sister and realise my Elijah in an unbelievable time frame. But beginnings are like fire outbreaks. As the fuel reduces, the fire loses strength. The fire didn’t start to die out when the prophet subjected us to daily six-to-six prayers and fasting, and said it would last for three long months. It didn’t start to die when we rebelled and ate food stealthily. It didn’t start to die out when he caught us eating one day and my sister almost fought him for insulting us. It didn’t start to die out when he reported us to our parents, and they apologised and chided us. It didn’t start to die out when he listed the items needed to undo the hex binding the family, items I was surprised were babywear. Well, when my father sold a piece of land to buy the items that amounted to over 100,000 naira, he surely didn’t know the man’s in-school wife was pregnant. She had visited once. She was so beautiful, so young (should be about half the man’s age) I wondered what love spell the man cast on her.
The burning fuel finished the day Prophet Okechukwu said our family’s case would be resolved individually. He billed every member according to the magnitude of their problem, from my father to my youngest sibling. Deposits were a precondition. The sums were huge, and, by our income, unpayable. My sister, my parents, and even the drive to tilt me towards fulfilling Elijah had had enough of the situation. People began to traduce our family for being evildoers disguised as solution-seekers. My father needed somewhere far from prying eyes, and that led us to the rotund, ageing prophetess whose temple was tucked into the stony slopes of a remote community in Ngor-Okpala, Imo State.
Thankfully, staggering amounts weren’t mentioned there. But the familiar neglect-the-call-and-run-mad news was cast with a tone so imperative, with gestures so disquieting, with cocksure bet mes that made me squirm. She declared I should be ordained a prophet the following week because the time for it was overdue. She listed the requisites: a white garment, two lamps, and olive oils. I think there were more. That day, during the session of worship songs, I felt my body vibrating within as I heard and saw things about people in the congregation. The voice spoke to my ears and mind, as if having an elevated conversation with me. The sights opened to my eyes and mind, as if I was watching and imagining moving portraits at the same time. It wasn’t the first experience. Once, after our proprietor took us to a faraway school in Ntigha to sit NECO as external candidates, I told a young man where we lodged that cultists would attack him within a week if he moved about at night. He dismissed it. Two days later, it happened late at night and, mauled, he ran away the next morning.
The prophetess opened the floor for the relation of revelations. I was too scared to take a step. But there was one vision (of an elderly man crying with a bent neck) that lingered and pestered, even after the end of the service. I went to the prophetess and informed her. She gave me a bottle of olive oil, told me what to do, and said I should meet the man myself. Who was I to do such? I went to the man, my voice unsteady, words scattered like weeds. But his eagerness to obey my shivering instructions eased me. The following week, he came with a bent neck. But it wasn’t as severe as it was in the vision. While I knelt on the altar in a white robe, while the glowing lamps burned in the hands above my head, while olive oil streamed down my hair and face, while I was advised to “say fewer yeses and more nos”, while the pronouncements of ordination were made, I felt an air of déjà vu, an odd feeling that I had already been garmented and was placing a rock on another rock.
A peasant family of eight transporting itself to another state once a week wasn’t a sustainable venture. Losses were cut after the prophetess’ sincere efforts couldn’t heal my sister.
The ordination unlocked the windows to fulfilling Elijah. I became more like my mother, who, by implication, believed one prophet(ess) cannot have all revelations, hence the importance of visiting others. In my tours of prayer houses, I encountered a man who stopped giving me opportunities to manifest after I came the first week and testimonies — like the healing of a lumped woman and the saving of a crashing marriage — followed the next. Jealousy smouldered in his eyes, a scrotum-shrivelling fear of losing his over-the-years-assembled congregation to a teenage stranger. When I ditched the place, it was painful, because I felt I had found a home. I had to face why-questions from some of his members who traced me after.
A prophetess aggrandised me in her ministry. She acknowledged my prophethood, but I didn’t ask for the chair she gave me among prophets and visioners. I didn’t ask her to call me daddy — an address that puzzled me as she was divorced — or do it in the fawning manner she did. I didn’t ask her to confirm all my revelations, or ask those that received them to make sure they returned to appreciate God. But I grew to like her, to obey her, to adore her. She was a pretty woman, but I learnt to see beauty in every other thing about her: her soft-spokenness, her gracefulness, every kobo of kindness she offered and tried to re-obtain in the donation canvass of the next prayer meeting.
There was a false-heartedness, a growing sneakiness about her. I didn’t bother to call it a thing until the prayer-meeting of the Wednesday that followed the week she requested that I head the Sunday so she could honour the invitation of another prophet who pastored in another state. Everyone knelt whenever she or I was about to give prophecies. I did too. She asked me if I knew the source of her powers — a question I didn’t understand. A crease appeared on some people’s faces as soon as it was asked. She said that in that church she travelled to, the Holy Spirit tranced her and puréed her back with whips for allowing me to relate my revelations. That the revelations were spurious, and I wouldn’t prophesy in her ministry again. That henceforth I would be like the other priest, an ebony man who did nothing in his white garment other than lead prayer sessions or give sermons. It was a machete-strike of hypocrisy, a huge crack in a calabash of trust, a break-up with a beloved, a maiming of what I held dear. Good news is for the sea, while bad news is for the air. Attendees from my community who would sink every good prophecy ferried that one home at the speed of a peregrine swooping down on prey. I would walk around with a skin overlaid with shame, perforated with angst. Two leading people from the small prayer group I was invited to join backed me after hearing the story, and yet they started to attend her prayer meeting. They eventually joined as church members.
There were talks of establishing a ministry for me, but my inability to recover from that sickening shame, that scalding disgrace, and that searing betrayal was the foothold of my decline, a cancer that deteriorated until I became a gift that never gave. The woman’s ‘sermon priest’ left not long after, and she herself was later mock-evicted from the land for indiscretions with men. I should feel vindicated, but not all stripes of injustice heal.
After fortunes had been spent on the traditional and the modern, after the bitter and the sweet and the tangy and the slimy and the sour had been consumed, after my parents threw their hands up and rested their legs, my sister slept one night and woke up without a spot on her skin. I wanted healing too. I wanted mental healing. I wanted respite, but I wasn’t as lucky as my sister.
The solution movement took a new and grisly turn to another location where a prophetess said the arrow was not only of madness but of death, and it needed a live sacrifice bigger than a fowl to be diverted. I remember how two guys dug a grave close to her ministry, how fresh plantain leaves were laid in it, how the billy goat used was gripped at the head and legs at the mouth of the grave, how I lay on the plantain leaves, my hands tagged to the sides in the posture of a corpse in a casket, how the knife sliced through the fur of the billy’s white throat, through its skin, until blood flowed. I shut my eyes. The billy’s helpless bleats pierced, then heaved. The blood, thick and hot, splattered over my body as the prophetess made pronouncements. The billy’s carcass was buried in the pit.
Our pastor recommended deliverance for our family. After convincing my father to purchase the requirement, he shirked the date. They say a child is not punished the day they accidentally spill oil, but rather on the day they spill crude oil. The relationship between him and our family fractured on Thanksgiving Sunday. My father had come early and sat in the second row from the front, and our pastor arrived and commanded him to give up his seat to a rich gentleman guest and take another seat at the back. The insult impaled my father. But he was ice. My mother was heat, and she scorched our pastor in her open confrontation and blamed God for reducing my father to a doormat; every shoe dropped its dirt on him. A pang of guilt seared me. The conception of me blew the wave of misfortune on the family, didn’t it? Tempers flared. Vituperation was hurled. A change-church siren began to blare.
My father joined another church after a self-sanctioned break from church activities. He trusted the pastor owing to the accuracy of his prophecies, and it was on this trust that he believed the simulacrum of Prophet 7’s prophecy when it came from him. The thought of it tortured me. Another live-sacrifice panacea? Why a sequel to such gore? Wasn’t the billy’s blood enough? Or was my head an abattoir of some sort? I remember frowning at this. I remember griping about the gaggle of solutions and questioning the essence of our ceaseless prayers. I remember wondering why salvation must come in those ways, in ways that imply all my anointing wasn’t enough to save me the stress. I remember being scolded on the day I would be taken to the prophet when I delayed preparation till nightfall, pretending I wasn’t aware of the schedule. I remember contemplating running away to stanch it all. I also remember putting my clothes on after my mother, with eyes tears-ready and in a tone so sombre, told me how she’d be done for if she lost me.
The backyard had a pathway that ran through two tender bushes that constricted as one progressed. Naked and battered by the drizzle and cold in the thick of the night, I knelt on a small smoothed area in the left bush. I rested my hands on my member to conceal it from the candlelight and the man’s sheeny eyes. At each chirp of a creeper or buzz of an insect, I feared a sting, a bite, or worse. The fowls’ heads were pulled off their necks over my own head, in turns. Their bodies flapped and made breath-like sounds. The blood gushed onto my hair and face and washed down, like that scene in the old Living in Bondage movie where the occult fraternity spilled blood on Andy’s head to save him from his troubles.
The prophet called on the spirit of God, the spirit of his forefathers, the spirit of my forefathers, the spirit of the air, the spirit of the land, the spirit of the sea, the spirit of spirits to bear him witness as he exchanged my death with the sacrifice of another life and the appeal of salt. He mixed salt and water and washed my head, after which I stood and flung into the bush seven fresh, thick sticks that had been cut from heterogeneous saplings to symbolise enemies’ death plots. The fling was to scatter and nullify the plots.
I thought the man would bury the fowls too, like the billy, but he didn’t. He buried their heads only and asked me to take their carcasses along as we went back to the house. There, he pointed to a naked corner for me to drop the carcasses. While I lay on my mat that night, I couldn’t sleep. What baffled me was not the practice, but the contradiction in the practice, the intersection of what was preached evil and what was preached good. I did not only doubt its impact, I was unsure of its intention. The man’s wife used the sacrificial fowls to enrich her pot of stew the next morning.
II. Defying Elijah
Success and failure are routine in our lives, but when their occurrences are deliberate and of equal measures, like two bumper plates at the ends of a barbell, and so complementary that one happens just to fulfil the purpose of the other, the handshake has passed the elbow. As directed by a pastor, I went to Oyigbo to join a Bible school. It felt like a roasting. The brook of funds dried up, for my family, for the person I stayed with. I withdrew and got admission to university, where a strange miracle and a scholarship fulfilled what seemed impossible from the outset. The Bible school talk interred itself.
It was then that I began to ask questions. Why my churchly experience was alfalfa growing with dodder. Why the ministries I tried to establish myself stumbled me. Why in any Elijahic manifestation there was a striking intrusion like a hard pinch during tickles, a sneaking feeling that I was doing the right thing at the wrong place. Why, though I never left, my enthusiasm and concentration fluctuated like currency values: rock-bottom — sky-high — repeat. I realised this fluctuation was neither out of the imposition of self, nor the need to quit the terrible affair of seeking solace in places that condemned the wiring of my hormones, in chapters and verses that put a full cauldron of guilt on my head to trudge out of the church every Sunday, in people that delivered me into self-harm and watched me teeter on its edges, mistaking it for a meditation on the Word. It was out of something far yet so effectively near, something well-meaning but possessive, a superimposition of spirit I couldn’t eliminate yet couldn’t freely talk about.
In one of the evenings the madness prophecy jostled my parents, my father had a heart-to-heart with me. He preached safety-assuring Bible verses to bolster me, then pointed to a loam patch in front of the house and said it was there my grandfather poured a libation of protection and said the child coming was from his forefathers and would be a boy, and neither the manipulations of whomever or whatever would harm him. Having not expected such pro-pagan talk from a man who prayed without ceasing, I resolved the libation talk was false, appended to the Bible verses to assure me I was safe. But it wasn’t the case because my mother was less than four months pregnant at the time. After my birth and our forced relocation to the village from Port-Harcourt, my father said I harried my grandfather while growing up. Sometimes he locked his door and I’d shout at him to open it. He’d refuse, and I’d try to break in. After his death, my parents tagged me his reincarnate because I talked like him, had his eyes, and was as slow in performing tasks.
At the eve of teenagehood, some people had called me possessed, thanks to my eccentricities and a “sacrilege” I committed. The event is as clear in my mind as a QHD motion picture, despite happening over 15 years ago. Daring and mischievous and incredibly speedy, I had earned myself the annoying moniker “ọgba ọsọ ọgba ọtọ” — a pejoratively inflected form of saying “one that runs naked” — because of my penchant for puttering around the community in underpants, fomenting infractions against peers, and humiliating offendees foolish enough to engage in a footrace with me.
I was on my way back from school in my usual self-tattered uniform, flitting in and out of bushes in search of local fruits while playing around on the road with two male friends. We passed a small mud hut, the shrine of a dreaded priestess. It sat at the right corner of the lip of the entrance to her compound, under the bough of an ụdara tree, its roof and surroundings a carpet of leaves. No one dared enter it. I had never seen the priestess herself, but breaking that record of no-see in her shrine drove me when I felt an irresistible compulsion that checked my movement and had me march towards it in the wake of the do not gos of my friends. One of them said she might be inside the hut.
She was not. Instead, I met a cold and dim windowless space that smelled of damp and lye, occupied by wooden sculptures painted with toyish human faces, earthenware bowls of red and yellow powder, a pot of chalky clay, ribbons hanging low, a mortar of bean-like particles with a pestle inside, and other shrine paraphernalia, insignificant, yet sinister. As my two friends screamed dissuasions at me in our dialect, I pounded hard in the mortar, but the particles in it were not crushed. Itching with mischief, I rampaged, and the sculptures and bowls and pot and mortar and everything standing fell to the floor, spilling out whatever contents they carried. When I heard a different voice near the hut, that of an elderly woman who had been alarmed, I fled.
The news diffused the community. Most of my friends began to avoid me, and I stayed indoors more often. Some people came to our house to enquire. Some offered advice on how to appease the priestess. Some, after obliquely mentioning I’d die in no distant time, commiserated with my parents in advance. The priestess sent an emissary to inform my parents of the backwash of my action. When my mother chastised and threatened me, I was unrepentant, the precocious confidence of a boy not sorry for taking a chief’s cap because he could take the chief’s staff too. And so it happened: not even my shadow got scratched before and after the priestess died.
Before I consumed a saraka tabled at a major T-junction in our community, I had heard of a man who did something similar and never remained the same till death. I had woken up early one morning to go in search of ụdara. Many people did the same in the village, so one had to wake up early to reach a desired tree before others.
The first tree I searched, the one named after its planter, had been picked clean, so I marched to another, farther from home but sweeter than the former. The tree was broad and bulbous, canopying a large portion of an elevated plain opposite a ledge. Steep routes circumnavigated the plain, creating many pathways to the tree. But I went through the one people plied the most. Somewhere there lay a sacrifice, a wane-strewn 60cl bottle of Fanta lying beside a plate of freshly cooked rice topped with a stewed head of chicken. It was surrounded by white feathers sprinkled with blood. I uncorked the Fanta with my teeth and slurped it down. I kicked the plate of rice to spill because it smelled of garlic, which I hate as much as the head of chicken.
I never told anyone about it, not friends, not family, even when the news of the touched sacrifice made the rounds and people said anyone that ate a deity’s saraka would feel the sting. Maybe I am yet to because I am a deity too.
I don’t want to talk about many things
The day some friends, my sister, and I went for nocturnal snail picking in the bush. An embittered man who seldom responded to my greetings came out and barked at us as we forayed into this compound. We ran deep into the bush. Something prompted me to throw myself to the ground. As soon as I did, the man’s gun blasted in my direction. Its fire-like trail flew past my head.
The day I visited home from school and, on the very day I went back and on each of the following four days, a small burning nipple-like lump with rock-hard edges and a tip the colour of pus would break out on my ribs. After the fifth, they disappeared in their exact order of appearance.
How a man launched a sudden tirade at me and called me a witch under people’s watch after I recovered from a strange sickness.
The day a man gave me a chunk of cooked meat and urged me to eat it before him. I sensed evil and took it home and my mother instructed me to throw it into the toilet. The next morning, spider webs spun the whole place. We had to cut and cut through the dense mass.
The second chunk of meat another man who had relations with the first gave me.
The ignominious deaths of the two men.
The dirges I’d sing at home without knowing someone was marked to die the next day, or in subsequent days.
The dashing priest that wanted the Elijah in me to thrive on his holy oil and holy hands and holy milk. Say an altar mentorship with a bed fellowship.
My body tingles and vibrates as an omen. In dreams, I am flesh in the boxing ring of spirits. Priests preach my existence in the language of pagans. People tell me I am “not alone”, and others call what they see a special grace. If I forehear or forefeel or foresee, I reveal none because I resent Sundays. I see my burial poster in occasional trances, the death age prominent in the middle like bling on austere clothing. Whenever something reminds me of all the “God will use you mightily”, like each time I see that garment of priesthood folded in my bag, something also reminds me of the words of my grandfather’s libation and the sacrifices my head has swallowed.
Each day, something indeterminable serenades my body. It overwhelms like a spell of insanity and sometimes makes me feel like the anecdotal bat that is neither aerial or terrestrial. Each day, that something leaves me rudderless. Each day, I try not to choose between living my remaining years under siege and living them under two gravestones that would immortalise all my conflicts.
Chiemeziem Everest Udochukwu’s works appear in Kalahari Review, Eboquills, Itanile, Woven Poetry, and Second Chance Lit. He was a finalist for the Quramo Writers’ Prize 2019 and the Nigerian NewsDirect Poetry Prize 2020. A graduate in Linguistics, he writes from Awka, Nigeria.