It is Good Friday.
Preoccupied with thoughts of having his twin daughters climb his back and ride him like a horse around the sitting room, the man does not notice the bustling in the mall. He does not notice the young women clinging to their lovers and pressing their chests to their men’s shoulders, encouragingly. While the man picks a toy here, a pack of chocolates there, and some hand-made ceramic tortoises of different shapes and colours, he does not notice the dwindling shelves as people pile goods into their carts. At the checkout counter, he fails to notice that the attendants’ eyes are reddish and that they are yawning. Instead, he smiles to himself while thinking of his girls and how they always insist he feeds them eba and okro soup whenever he gets home; so, he does not hear the attendant demand his money or his debit card.
The young man behind him nudges him out of his reverie, and he hands his card.
“It’s thirty-two thousand naira,” she says.
He nods. It’s a lot of money, but he doesn’t care. He types in his pin into the POS device and receives his purchase, all bagged into several nylons. The packs of frozen fish, chicken and pork are in one large yellow bag; the toys, chocolates, and biscuits are in another, and the clothes are in a different one. All the bags have the inscription “Roban Stores, the cheapest discount you can get.”
When the man gets to his car, and beeps it open, he feels someone behind him and turns to find a young man, perhaps the same person at the mall. The young man stretches his hand and the man takes it, reluctantly, asking, “How may I help?”
The young man doesn’t smile, but says, “Nice weather, sir.”
The man nods, wondering what the weather has to do with their meeting. Then, he looks around. It’s been drizzling all day, yet the cloud looks dim and pregnant with heavy rain. There is a light breeze causing the frangipanis and queen palms scattered about in the park to swirl and twerk.
The young man is in his early thirties. He is too skinny, the man thinks. The young man’s head is shaven, and he has small tribal mark incisions on his face that makes him appear comely, beautiful like a woman.
The man says, “If you are stranded, I am sorry, I can’t help—”
“No, not at all, sir. I thought I should talk with you. I didn’t notice it was you in the mall. I saw the name on your ATM card; then, it hit me … your face.”
“We’ve met?” the man asked, relaxing but still conscious. This young man could be a carjacker, a fraudster, or an assailant, he thinks as he opens the door of the Ford and drops the bags on the back seat.
The young man says, “Sir, forgive me.”
“Forgive me, please—”
“I am the one who … who … had … who had an aff …” the young man looks away, before completing the sentence, “relationship with your wife.”
The man steps back, hitting the car. Then, he fumbles with the key in his hand and turns to grab the car door handle. On a second thought, he turns back again and takes a deep breath, remembering his blood pressure and that he has not taken his daily medication today. He wills himself to be calm, steadies his breathing, and chews his tongue in discomfort – a habit he got from his mother.
After he collects himself, he says sharply, “You?”
The young man steps back, fearing the older man may hit him. Though they are no match, the young man is ready to take every punishment his confessor metes out. He steps back further. The man, emboldened now, moves forward. They are of almost same height, and though the older man is heavier, he is of no match to the younger.
“I want to talk, sir.”
The man considers his options. They are both drenched, yet he feels warmth inside. His body is shaking not out of cold but rage. This young man took away his boy and his wife. Now, he is both mother and father to his twin girls and must drive over forty miles home every weekend to be with them and relieve the housekeeper who must travel to see her own family. He takes a deep breath, and his Adam’s apple bop up and down as he swallows saliva. It’s getting dark, and he needs to start driving to reach Abakaliki on time, especially before the kids are put to bed.
After what seems like eternity, both men staring at each other – the man filled with rage and hate, and the younger man with shame and remorse, the man turns, opens his car, and settles in. As the engine revs, he notices the young man is standing behind the car such that he cannot reverse without hitting him. The older man places his head on the wheel, veins visible on his forehead and causing him headache. The young man seeks peace, he is sure; but his mother once told him that the greatest punishment you can give to anyone who wronged you is to cause their conscience to flog them. Forgiving the young man means releasing him from his conscience, from the misery of knowing that he killed his marriage, drove his wife into depression, and killed his son. He wonders if the young man knows the extent of what he did or that when a married woman commits adultery, she becomes cursed and starts losing her children until she confesses or is discovered.
The man realises what must be done. He opens the passenger’s door, and the young man enters. He is wet all over, messing up the car.
He says to the young man, “What do you want, boy?”
“Forgiveness, sir. I have looked for you everywhere. It is God that brought us together today.”
“Don’t call God.”
“Your wife was a good woman. I was young and stupid and—”
“And you allowed her seduce you?”
“No, sir, I seduced her.” The man looks away in surprise.
It is raining heavily now. Thunder is drumming all around.
“I don’t know why I am having this conversation with you, boy. But know this, what you did at your youth will always haunt you all your life.” The young man nods. “Are you aware,” the man continues, looking him in the face, the occasional bolt of lightning causes their eyes to meet intermittently, “that by committing adultery with my wife, you caused the death of my boy? That my other children would have died in her, if not that she confessed while birthing the girls?”
The young man’s mouth is agape. He turns in his seat and attempts to kneel, but the car is not roomy enough.
Sniffling, he says, “Forgive me, please.”
“Where are you from, boy?”
“I am Ibibio, sir.”
“I am from Izhi clan. There, if a married woman commits adultery, she is punished by the land … and loses a child or two or three depending on the length of the … escapade.” The man exhales. “In this case, my son died. I did not suspect. I didn’t know. Then, when she had prolonged labour, she knew why and confessed she had cheated—”
“I am sorry—”
“Just listen! She confessed to the nurses and her mother who were by her side that she had been sleeping … with someone in her office … you … and the babies came afterwards.”
The man hears the young man exhale sharply, surprised, ashamed. He knows the boy is wondering what tradition makes children pay for their mothers’ sins. But since the Pope was an altar boy, and before people learned to wear clothes and speak many languages, it’s been there – that if a woman commits adultery, her children die until she confesses, and if she does confess and her husband does not dissolve the marriage, he would become sick and die eventually at eating her food.
Now, tears escape the man’s eyes. He recalls that as soon as his mother-in-law invited him into the labour room and commanded her daughter to repeat before him what she said to them and the awful words were said to his hearing, he had attempted to stomp out but was held back by the midwife, who said, “Oga, if you don’t forgive her, she won’t birth these babies; and we would have to ring the doctor for a CS, still they may not live.”
He recalls his mother in-law sobbing, “Ka! Ka! Unwind your heart and look up, my son. Nothing the ears hear and bleed blood, biko. Forgive her for the sake of the children in her womb.”
He had forgiven her, and when he left the room to pace the lounge, he had heard the cries.
“Now you know, boy, you have blood in your hands.”
The young man sobs.
“I was posted as a youth corper in her office. She was too beautiful. I seduced her. Her husband … you were living away from town … she was lonely, and I took advantage of that. I am sorry.”
The two sit in the car, not talking, just listening to the rain beat the car, mercilessly, and watching lightning crisscrossing the night. The man has forgotten about his journey.
His wife left thirteen months after the babies were born because he never visited home nor set eyes on the babies, although he sent money for provisions. Then, two years ago, when the babies were five, he took them from her, saying, “I can’t leave my kids in your hands. You have no moral strength to raise children.”
She neither objected nor fought.
The boy begins to talk. He explains how he called his wife every hour, stalked her, visited at odd hours, and sent gifts until he kissed her once in her office after work, and kick started what was to be a long affair.
The man’s eyes are shut. He is counting his heartbeats. By the time he opens his eyes, the young man is back in the rain, kneeling.
The man comes out, walks to him, drags him up, shoves him into the car, and drives off. The young man sits by the edge of his seat, apologising repeatedly. The man is calm, driving until he gets to a pub that he frequents. He parks there, and they both walk in. The man orders a bottle of Eight Oaks and two torts. He doesn’t ask the boy if he drinks alcohol, believing that any man bold enough to seduce a married woman must be a heavy drinker. They take their first torts in silence.
The man says, “I cheated on my wife before she gave birth to my boy. She was heavily pregnant and all, you see. I am not proud of it. I wasn’t proud of it, but I found myself doing it, repeatedly. It was with my landlady here in this town.” The boy says nothing. “At the mall, I figured if you had the strength to accost me and seek forgiveness and I don’t forgive you; I would be the loser, for no one is perfect. None.” He pours himself a second tort. “It’s true our custom allows a man to sleep around and prescribes no punishment, but for the first time, I wondered what my wife’s reaction would have been if she found out I had an affair … I don’t know, boy.”
“She would have forgiven you. Your wife is fragile. She is too emotional.”
The man nods several times. He places his hand on the young man’s arm.
“What’s your name, boy?”
The man smiles. The pub is filled with people waiting for the rain to abate. It’s noisy, too. Barcelona is playing against Real Madrid, and several people are talking excitedly, telling the players what to play and how to maneuver the ball. There is something at the back of the young man’s mind, something about the ongoing match, but he is more preoccupied with getting forgiveness.
“What sort of name is Ramsey?”
The boy smiles for the first time, relaxing.
“Where do you live, sir?”
“It’s not important.”
“Then, you have not forgiven me—”
“I will go see my wife at her mother’s place, tonight. You see, I was driving to Abakaliki to be with my girls for Easter. I guess they would be asleep before I get there, so I may as well surprise them when they wake by bringing their mother.”
Ramsey’s eyes light up. Smiling, he says, “That would be great, sir. Thank you, sir.” He pours himself another drink. “You were shopping for them at the mall, I noticed.”
“Yes. Shopping for Easter presents, but you know, no present would be more valuable to them than seeing their mother.”
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir.”
The man stands. “I must leave.”
Ramsey says, “I must pay for the drinks, sir. I insist.”
The man tilts his head and extends his hand. The young man takes it and kneels. The man pulls him up. “Don’t be a boy, Ramsey,” he says jokingly and walks off.
Ramsey is watching him, admiring him; he smiles to himself as he turns to the barman.
“How much is your bill?” he asks, takes out some money from his pocket, and brings out a piece of paper, a bet booking stud. His breathing increases as he looks at it. If Barcelona can score two goals, he would become lucky for the first time since the affair with the woman. He would become a millionaire. If only they can score two goals, but it’s already halfway through the second half.
is the author of Satans & Shaitans and most recently the novel, Colours of Hatred. He won the Prairie Schooner Glenna Luschei Prize in 2020 and the Short Story is Dead Prize 2016. His story It Has to do with Emilia was recently optioned for film and television by Bump Films.
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Well, culture and tradition will always use the woman as the scapegoat. The Act of Contrition is a great story. Kudos to the writer