The church bell rang as all church bells so often do: an initial clanging followed by a loud and long, discontinuous echo quite similar to the discontinuous recollection, which almost always accompanies the sound of the bell, of so much we still have left to do, only strung together by the common fact that there is little time to do these little things. It had been some time since I last attended church and suddenly I could feel the weight of my accumulated sins between then and now burden my conscience as the altar boy led the procession of choir and clergy into the auditorium while clutching desperately to the huge golden cross.
It had been an even longer time since I last visited this particular church, chiefly because my father was the vicar here. I always complained that it was his overbearing self- righteousness that eventually repelled me from the faith, but both my parents believed the well ran deeper. They blamed my liberal education in the foreign country they now regretted ever sending me to and its ethically malnourished curriculum. However, when my father’s health began deteriorating rapidly he used it as leverage to coerce a change in some of my lifestyle choices, and it was only fair I granted the old man’s dying wishes. I wonder why he bothered with me at all when he could have instead prayed to God to remove the cataract that grew to block off the blood flow to his optical nerve and left him blind in his right eye, or to destroy the cancer cells that had attacked his immune system twice in five years. But my father still believed my soul’s salvation was more essential.
I had sat still in the gallery above the main auditorium to escape the enthusiasm of the crowd below, but the latecomers who had joined me did not look any less excited. Much had changed about the church since the last time I visited. The solemnity of the procession, which was characteristic of the Orthodox churches, was somewhat misplaced within the vibrant praise and worship sessions and the occasional spirit filled interjections of “AMEN!”, “HALLELUIA!”, or “PREACH ON, PREACHER!” which were more familiar to the Pentecostal churches. Most unusual of all was the raspy speaking of tongues that came from someone I could never locate, but surely behind me, when I closed my eyes to recite the collect I had memorized as child during confirmation classes as it was being led by the vicar. Apparently, the kingdom of God must have been suffering much violence because this congregation showed extreme determination in taking it by force.
The couple that sat to my right was the cream of the heavenly crop – proficient in both the Orthodox and the Pentecostal leanings of the service. The husband’s smooth tenor and the wife’s flexible soprano made for an unparalleled duet when they got up to sing the hymns, and the only time one’s hand was out of the other’s was when they scribbled vigorously against the sheets of their sermon notes. I could tell from their matching ankara outfits that they were most certainly newlyweds, and that was one half of the reason I had not made a pass at the missus all morning given my prolific ‘Casanova’ tendencies. All of their romantic rubbish would probably expire within the next twelve months as the man, like all husbands, would grow less charming and the woman, like all women, eventually take to constant nagging. The other half reason I had not made a pass was the six-foot-plus stance and athletic build of the soon-to-be less charming husband. I had spent most of the morning harmlessly leaning towards her though: half of the reason was the irresistible scent of wild olives in her perfume that I had become familiar with from the skin of a once-upon-a-time lover, and the other half of the reason was the more easily resistible young man that sat at my other side. The way he spread the collar of his shirt over the lapel of his suit to expose a huge almost-gold pendant that hung just below his throat from a short chain would have perfectly fit into a club scene from the movie Scarface. I had never smoked in my life but with the amount of time I had spent with the streetwise laborers and artisans at the construction site I supervised, I could tell his pungent smell was of marijuana. Maybe he was one of those street boys who made it big off of one or two fraudulent deals that caused their pockets to grow much faster than their taste and class. With his crude masculine odor and reprobate demeanor, he was probably the only person in the auditorium in need of more penance than me. Seated at the confluence of attraction and repulsion, I had fallen asleep a few times already and the usher had just tapped at my shoulder for the third time, but even then I could not bring myself to concentrate on the service.
I had begun thinking about the boisterous city and the business within it I had scheduled for today. I knew too well that it was always better to get going with the city as it came alive at the beginning of the day, or else risk a type of psychological disconnection from the flow of events as the day continued. The population was growing exponentially. Millions of people had been blessed by birthright to constitute the life that is the city, and millions more immigrated each year through every available aperture, hoping to fit into the dynamism of the metropolitan organism for indeed, this was a city that had life. The adrenaline-infused thumping of the city’s heartbeat amidst the blistering heat and quick tempo of the daytime emphasized its spirited life and its inhabitants’ pursuit of happiness. Yet after the exasperations of each day, the night emerged proudly as a testament to the human spirit’s capacity to continuously face daunting challenges headlong and, regardless of the eventual success or failure, still laugh, love, and live. Fibs forsaken, so vibrant is the city at night that it was once spoken to me, by someone who was told by another, that whoever controls the nightlife of the city wields the most influence in the corridors of power during the day. And even as the sun set each day to the dreams and fantasies of the satisfied, it rose each morning to the hopes and aspirations of the desperate. Ultimately, nothing captured the essence of this city of life like the break of dawn as it birthed a new day, each day blind to its own destiny, yet coming alive nonetheless like the cry of a baby. This was why I loved the city and why I was so eager to get out of the church.
I was brought back to reality by the usher who tapped at my shoulder again and made a quiet comment about how I should not allow whatever was on my mind to defeat Christianity in the battle for my attention. I chuckled and told her I had to be open to new things, that if everyone was so uptight our ancestors would never have given Christianity the chance to defeat our traditional religions (and Islam, which came after it) in the battle for our attention so many years ago. She conceded a smile and walked away. It was true Christianity had come to our country after the advent of Islam and the establishment of other traditional religions but it had covered enough ground to be considered a major religion in the country. And even though the traditionalists were rather easily relegated to the back burner by this foreign belief, Islam had put up a greater struggle especially in recent years; a struggle which was forwarded by the more extreme Islamists. The battle for dominance in other parts of the country had seen more than a pint of shed blood from supposed Islam jihadists and supposed Christian avengers. But the threats of daylight massacres and bomb blasts were distant enough for this congregation to just pray and not worry about.
I noticed the couple to my left standing and so I rose and joined in the solemn chant of the prayer of humble access. I could still remember the whole recitation word for word even though I felt a bit distant from its message. After that the vicar said prayers and broke bread which, of course, was now the flesh of Christ and poured the wine which was now the blood of Christ in preparation for Holy Communion. The usher formed a queue across the pews and directed it downstairs. The street boy who was at the end of our pew sat still either in ignorance or defiance of the order of the communion procession, I could not be sure which. So I moved past him and followed the queue downstairs into the main auditorium. The greyed reverends and the curate, who was very much the youthful limb of the ageing body of the clergy, had begun serving the symbolized flesh and blood of Christ from the golden plates and chalices as the organist led the choir who in turn beckoned on the spirit of God for fellowship with the hymn:
Oh, for a thousand tongues to sing my great redeemer’s praise
The glories of my God and King, The triumphs of his grace
The triumphs of his grace!
Yet in the midst of the sacred procession I could still hear some women ahead of me giggle about the curate’s exciting boyish charm after one of them made a rather loose comment. A few seconds later they were partaking in the communion in remembrance of Jesus Christ. It was such hypocrisy I despised most about the church and my discovery of how deep its rot ran through the body of the church that repelled me from the faith. I would never forget the morning almost ten years ago when I had gone to my father’s office at the church and overheard from outside it him discussing with another reverend how they would reorganize the clergy’s activity schedule so the younger clergymen would officiate the more tedious and less lucrative activities like baptism and confirmation services while both of them would officiate weddings, thanksgivings and other activities where the celebrants were most likely to donate a happy sum to the officiating clergyman. Never in my life had I imagined the audacity of greed in the house of God. I shook my head and took solace in the second stanza of the choir’s hymn:
He breaks the power of cancelled sin, He sets the prisoners free
His blood can make the foulest clean; His blood availed for me
His blood availed for me!
I stayed in the central of the three queues so when I reached the altar I would be in my father’s direct line of sight and he could acknowledge my presence at the service – a faultless technique I had developed over the years – and then I left the line and exited.
Outside, the blue sky was in its usual state of wonderful. Undoubtedly, it was one of those spectacles that should never be desecrated by the fallibilities of a literal description. There was a small melee taking place between two security guards and a third man at the far end of the pathway towards the back of the church, but I was not the type to get involved in urchin squabbles. Fortunately for my life, before I had completely turned my attention away I heard a loud bang and almost immediately saw a bright spark of red light ignite in the corner of my eye. I made it back into the auditorium as the red light, which was now a ball of fire, rolled down the pathway, and just in time to witness the stained glass at the altar and windows shatter into the auditorium. It took me a full ten seconds to realize I was face flat on the floor and in fear; the words of the third stanza rang in my head even though the choir was no longer singing:
JESUS, the name that charms our fears, That bids, our sorrows cease
‘Tis music in the sinner’s ears, ‘Tis life and health and peace
‘Tis life and health and peace!
As I struggled to my feet the first set of pews were ablaze, the congregation was in chaos, and all I could think about was my father. Everybody had moved away from the pews and was now in a desperate tussle to get out through the main entrance at the end of the central aisle. Through the smoke, I made out my father’s silhouette staggering by the altar and had to fight my way to him through the stampede of choristers heading for the main entrance. He was already bleeding from his forehead and limping on his right leg, so I placed his arm around my shoulder and carried the weight of his body as I dragged him along. I tried to avoid the pipes of the organ freefalling everywhere as the wall that supported it had caved in. The wound on my father’s forehead was still letting out a lot of blood so I placed him against the pulpit and took off my necktie to dress the wound, but the old man started crawling away from me and before I could get a hold of the situation I felt a weight crash against my back and shoulders and I was flattened to the ground. My father paused in his motion and looked back at me, as bewildered as I was; I could see the fear in his one good eye. I tried calling out to him but he turned his back on me. I had never seen the old man move so fast.
The weight of the rubble was now crushing me. I closed my eyes to allow my mind concentrate on breathing. I tried to picture the blue sky outside as it was just before I saw the red light to take my mind away from the pain, but the choking smoke distorted my imagination of fresh air. And soon amidst the smoke there was an even worse smell. But as the smell grew stronger, the weight upon me grew lighter. I recognized the crude, masculine odor just as something began to drag my body from underneath the rubble and I opened my eyes to see the street boy from the gallery upstairs with his hands all over me. He dragged me across the entire width of the auditorium as the chandeliers on the ceiling crashed on bloodstained tiles below and up the stairs leading to the gallery. Just as we reached the summit there was a second explosion at the main entrance which engulfed everyone in the blink of an eye. My last view of the auditorium was a gory mosaic of red velvet blood, flaming debris, and human torches. The stained glass at the back of the gallery had been blown away and people were jumping out unto the upturned asphalt below. The street boy dragged me to the edge; a crowd had already gathered at the other side of the church’s short fence. I turned back to look at my savior before I jumped – maybe say thank you if the fear in my bones and blood in my mouth would let me – but he had moved off in a frenzy towards the staircase that was already in flames.
My leap from the gallery was more intuitive than deliberate, and the jagged asphalt dug into my ribs as I landed on the ground by where some onlookers had gathered to help survivors get to a safe distance. A few other people joined them in assisting the wounded that were now flocking out of the open gallery windows in leaps. Some daredevil boys had moved closer to record the carnage on their mobile phones. I looked at them and for a second envied their foolishness, questioning why it was my fate to be blessed with commonsense. It would have been a lot easier to live ignorant of the problems and dangers in your way and die happy – however young – than to live under the constant constraint of commonsense, always worrying a bit more than necessary about the next day so that the present is never fully appreciated.
Suddenly, there was a loud crash as parts of the top floor caved, collapsing on the ground floor below, interrupting my train of thoughts, and hurling the daredevil boys a few yards into the flower bush. I instantly said a silent prayer thanking God for my commonsense after all. It was regrettably funny how skeptics got so spiritual in the face of danger.
I saw the newlywed man who had sat beside me jump out from the inferno without his wife. Other parts of the building were now fully collapsing and the number of people flocking out of the building seemed to have reduced. But as the dust from the earlier collapse on the top floor settled, the street boy emerged once again with a limp body over his shoulders. He dropped the almost lifeless body down in front of the onlookers helping with the rescue and in the same breath a deafening explosion erupted, vibrating the very bedrock of the ground we stood upon.
The street boy was hurled into the air as the building vomited a burst of fire and heaved in a final collapse. He landed face first on the ground, covered in flames. Everywhere became still, except his body writhing and rolling on the floor, everybody just watching as if scared of the fire from him. I looked at the total stranger who had given his life for me as he burned to his death as recompense for his kindness, just if the pity in any of our eyes was turned into mercy and someone reached out to him. I closed my eyes and with one mind I launched myself into a sprint. I saw myself running towards him and I threw myself on him, rolling with him, writhing with him, sharing the fire as it divided its flames between us and eventually fizzled out into nothing. But all that heroism was in my mind. In reality I had stopped my sprint halfway. It was then I began to feel the pain of my injuries ache. Or was it fear I was feeling, I could never be too sure. So like all the other cowards I turned my back on him, though not physically but in essence.
The first ambulance, with which I was carried away, arrived at the church fifteen minutes later. Later on, I heard it took the fire trucks another half an hour to respond to the distress calls. I was told I had fallen into a state of unconsciousness as the ambulance rushed me off to a nearby hospital and had spent the subsequent days wrapped up in white gauze all round my body, allowing space only for the network of plastic tubing interwoven all over my body to feed intravenous fluids into my system to help my immune system fight against the blood and tissue infections that were inevitable in cases like mine and to replace other fluids I had lost through my wounds. After a week my blood pressure stabilized and the doctor gradually began disabling the ventilator support. My mother sponsored my transfer to another hospital where I could be attended to by a specialist doctor. That week, the new doctor carried out two surgeries on me to relieve the swelling and preserve the pulse in the burnt regions. And in my second week at the new hospital, I went under the knife again and the doctor performed grafting skin replacement surgeries on most of the affected regions using my own skin.
I regained full consciousness exactly a month after the incident but it felt like an eternity. Not because so much had changed but because nothing had changed at all. The media had labeled the incident a national catastrophe. Detailed reports explained the explosions were fruition of bombs placed at strategic positions in the building by a man who had been apprehended by security guards just before the first explosion went off. He was said to have ties with a radical religious organization who soon enough claimed responsibility for the bombings. The suspect was presently being tried for multiple charges, the most prominent being mass murder. And though over two hundred people were reported dead and many more injured, a spokesman for the president, who was out of the country on official duty, casually remarked in a condolence speech that the incident was ‘a blow to the nation by radicals who would be thoroughly investigated’, a statement we would become quite familiar with as a nation in the following year.Lunacy! It was more than ‘a blow’, it was a bloody massacre! The international community decried the statement and called for the government to declare the organization as ‘terrorist’. The local community cried for the bloodshed and cried even louder for vengeance with blood while their leaders begged for peace. After a while the noise quieted, except for a few shots in the dark made by a few hard-nosed journalists, and life as it was previously known went on undisturbed.
During this period my mother came to see me often at the hospital. My father came along with her occasionally; somehow he had survived with just the wound to his head and minor leg injury. But I never spoke a word to him, his eyes were too much for me to look at without remembering looking to his eyes as he turned his back on me in the burning church, even his presence was too much for him to bear without remembering abandoning me to the inferno.
But then I realized I was not in any way different. I had turned my back on the street boy after he had saved my life just as my father had turned his back on me after I had saved his. I abandoned him to the inferno just as my father had to me. And still I had the audacity to be spiteful. I tried to make enquiries about him but I had no name or any sort of identification at all to work with. He was not a member of the church so they had no record of him. However, when I got reports of a thoroughly burnt corpse with a decent amount of pure gold melted around its neck region I knew I had found him. The corpse was among a handful remaining in the morgue that no one had stepped up to claim. The undertaker said the remaining corpses were going to be cremated and sold as cast away as rubbish, including the corpse of the man who had saved my life. A man who had been castigated in the church, but amongst the congregation was the only one who embodied the doctrine of love which was indeed, the crux of the Christian faith. For what greater love could a man show than to give his life for another?
I claimed responsibility for the street boy’s corpse and arranged a funeral when I was discharged from the hospital, attended by just me, the officiating reverend and the poll bearers. Giving my hero a proper burial was the only way I could find some kind of peace with myself. I was not sure if I was going to turn once again to religion but the incident at church was more of a spiritual encounter than any other I had experienced in my life and I had definitely drawn closer to God. Our new relationship was quite obvious from the way I sang the last stanza of the funeral’s closing him, a hymn I had started long ago and left uncompleted at the church that fateful Sunday:
My gracious master and my God, Assist me to proclaim
To spread through all the earth abroad, The honors of thy name
The honors of thy name!
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