On the eve of her traditional engagement to Pastor Charles, her mother called Magdalene into her room and told her that there were worlds between worlds. Children arrived through one and left through another. Their souls were forever trapped in this constant circle of existing and disappearing. Sometimes, some of them moved too fast that they forgot to enjoy the moment of passage. Magdalene’s mother told her this under the cover of darkness, mosquito bites, a dim lantern and the roar of a downpour around them cowering their body and hair into attention. Before Magdalene, the ones before her came through this path as quickly as they left; impatient to stay and enjoy the moment, and quick to climb up and fall through the tunnel of life. They came with scars and similar birthmarks. Abayomi came into joy and left the household burdened with sadness. Omodeinde arrived with a fishhook still dangling on his left ears, beaming with a smirk and showing off his relic. He did not wait to see the sunrise. Malomo proved that she wasn’t immortal. Her belly button had been cut off, and she boreholes in her ears. She showed her peers the impotent birthmarks that failed to keep her in the world she had just escaped from. Then went Durojaiye, who had gone to show them that he was not in the mood to enjoy life. He had merely gone for the fun of the ride, swinging through the worlds, bristling past the barricades of life and death, whistling through it all. Magdalene did not follow suit in this fashion.
They had prepared for her arrival. The Iroko tree that guarded the compound where she was born had been defiled, severing the link between the worlds. Cows, sheep, and patience had been sacrificed to seduce her appeal. Saworo was placed on her arms so that she would not be recognized. Magdalene was told that heaven roared endlessly the day she opened her eyes. Her mother had slept holding her and checking her nose to see if they flared and rested. She did this for ten years until she was sure that her daughter’s bubbly spirit and legs that never rested meant that she would stay. Magdalene had never known this, and it was as if the earth had disappeared from beneath her and she had fallen into a haystack of secret and darkness. She felt the presence of a mysterious origin to her existence, and it was this fear that accompanied her to her husband’s house.
Later that evening, she found the courage to tell Charles and he laughed it off as easily as he scorned at such beliefs. She was now a new creation in Christ, and she never had to bother about such jokes from the kingdom of darkness, he told her as he undressed her. Enticed into bed with him, she forgot her mother’s tales as easily as she abandoned her shyness beneath the bedsheets. These fears resurfaced after a year when her daughter, Busayo, laid lifeless in her arms. Again, Charles hid any doubt. His lacklustre attitude would not last long as his second daughter died three months after she was born. The next time that Magdalene got pregnant, Charles decided to approach a guest evangelist, a man who claimed to have been a leader in the marine world before he got arrested by God.
The man was in his office speaking in tongues when Charles knocked. After recounting his predicament, the man eyed Charles sternly and cackled mockingly. Charles’ eyes grew bewildered, and he had a mind to run out of the presence of this man who did not take him seriously. It was this evangelist that told Charles that the forces of darkness taunted his marriage because he could not read God’s mind. He told Charles for the hundredth time how he once stood as a powerful cult leader from the marine kingdom. Everything changed the day he heard God’s voice, the day he started to read God’s mind. That day, as Charles trekked home, he wondered what the evangelist might have meant by reading God’s mind. Charles spoke in tongues like other men of faith. At first, he imitated what his seniors said when they were in the spirit, but soon, he was able to fashion out his tongues and stumble on words that held popular reverence. The man’s laughter rested in Charles’ imagination for weeks. He stopped Magdalene from going to the hospital. They didn’t help in the past, and he doubted they would be effective now, he said to her. He told her to go to the church instead for the weekly services. Those, he felt, were an efficient use of time. She disobeyed him the first week, thinking that he had spoken out of emotion rather than reason. However, after he broke a titanium plate on the side of her head after her return from a prenatal appointment, she decided to pitch her appointment with the church’s weekly service instead. He stopped her from her occasional attending of catholic services, and instead enlisted her as a permanent member of his Pentecostal church. She complained to her mother months after struggling to cope with this new routine, but her mother’s voice was plain and brisk over the phone.
“He is your husband now. You must do as he sees fit. After all, he is a Man of God, and he will not lead you astray.”
Rejoice was given birth to in the church. Magdalene had woken up in the middle of the night complaining about the pain in her abdomen. Charles recognised this distress call and lifted her to his car. Instead of going to the hospital, he took a different route that led to the church. Magdalene was afraid, but she was too much in pain to voice any complaint. Charles kicked the creaky doors of the church open, open them up and led Magdalene to the altar. She cried, heaved and struggled to push while Charles knelt and spoke in tongues in front of the altar. It took three hours for Rejoice to cry her way into the world while Charles prayed through her screams with his eyes closed and his face dry. Rejoice survived a year longer than all the ones who came before her, and Magdalene began to wonder if indeed God had been the one speaking to her husband and not irrational sentiments. After Rejoice, Charles’ confidence grew. He screamed when he prayed, and Rejoice cried at night from panic from his prayers. He stopped his work at the bank and went into his pastoral duties full time. He evangelised from dawn to dusk and left Magdalene to cater to her motherly duties. He often told his wife that his fellow pastors were jealous of his newfound abilities and he could tell how they scrunched their faces when he laid his hands on the sick and the disabled. Charles indeed laid hands on them often, and they walked away from him healed, screaming his name in praise. He never again saw the evangelist who mocked him, and he wished they would meet one last time so he could bask in his glory and boast to the evangelist how he, too, had uncovered the secret to God’s thoughts.
Gladys, Blessing and Joy were born the same way Rejoice was. All were born in the church. While Charles basked in God’s language, Magdalene was left on the site of the altar panting heavily, and moaning, as she ushered her children into her world of loneliness and fear. Charles did not allow his seeming inability to father a male child to trouble his spirit. He often saw this as God’s way of testing him. Once, in a family gathering, a distant cousin, Sherman, had told Charles that He maintained a “whore house” because he had no male child to inherit his legacy. Charles took these words to heart and walked away, spending the next weeks fasting over Sherman’s words and how they made him feel. When Sherman got involved in a tanker accident in Lagos and lost his legs, Charles did not go to his house to offer sympathies. Instead, that night, he told his daughters during morning devotion that Sherman’s crippled body was God’s judgement against men who taunted his messengers.
Charles watched his daughters grow, and he yearned to shape them in the ways of the Lord so that they would become women who shook the world just like the way he did. He warned Magdalene to not speak Yoruba to them, claiming that the native tongue was a remnant of a culture that praised lesser gods as well as powerless deities. He hired a French and English tutor to tame their tongue. He watched over their day-to-day activities in school and made sure that they talked to nobody that he did not know. And Charles did not know anyone.
The year Magdalene conceived again, Charles went to his village in Benin and built a house. Around the house, he commissioned an artist to paint pictures of deities being tortured in a lake of fire. He painted them on the walls of his mansion. He also painted messages regarding the second coming of his Saviour, and pungent images about hellfire, pain and destruction. The village elders sent him messages through his gatemen since he banned them from entering his compound, claiming they would soil his anointing. Charles ignored all the messages. To those he replied, he smothered in curses. A few weeks after the artist had finished his painting in Charles’ mansion, the painter died of a mysterious pox. Many of the deity worshippers expected the gods to turn their wrath towards Charles next. But Charles grew stronger as they waxed in impatience. He bought two large speakers and placed them in front of his compound so that people could hear his messages from afar. He bought a car, hired more help from the church districts and stayed in the village for an additional space of three months at the expense of his daughter’s school sessions. Finally, the villagers conceded. Charles was indeed a strong prophet of his god.
He screamed at night when he prayed, and he screamed in the day when he sang. Even Magdalene swore, although she never said it to anyone’s hearing, that she did not recognise the man she had married years ago. Charles had undergone a metamorphosis that eradicated all old parts of him, filling him with a new unrecognisable void and voice. He had a firm voice, and he listened to no one except the voice of God when he screamed in prayers.
After they returned to Lagos, Charles told Magdalene that he was going to open his ministry. She had been pestering him to rent a shop for her so she could begin a trade, but Charles rebuked her.
“Do not let the devil use you, Magdalene. I am going to open a church, and you shall assist me in leading the flock as our father, our God, has requested.”
Magdalene knew that members of the church, especially the rich investors, had been whispering to Charles behind the general overseer’s altar. A month later after he slapped Magdalene for resisting to become the female flock leader, he opened a church on Lagos Island. The following month, Charles moved into his own house donated by a church member. He organised vigils and crusades that spread out to the streets.
It was in one of these crusades that he uttered the controversial statement that led people to flock to his church like black ants to a cube of sugar. A member had asked him why God watched from high above when people suffered below. Charles had laughed at this man the same way the nameless evangelist had laughed at him years ago. Finally, he spoke in the wisdom that his Messiah had bestowed on him.
“My dear friend, God does not watch from high above. It is all a test.” And then he waited for silence to return to the congregation before he spoke again. He enjoyed their eyes poring over him, assessing his words and movements for faults he was confident they would not find.
“It is all a test, my people. Our God is a jealous God and He knows that if He gives us all we ask for we would never ever come back to His presence. That is why he makes us poor, sick, depressed, so we can remember him. Many years ago, he made the heart of Pharaoh so hard so he could manifest His superiority. That is what He is doing today. The Nigerian government are tools in the hands of God. He touches them to make life hard for us, so that we can remember that He exists.” Applauds took over the crowd, and his speech was swallowed so deep by everyone that he was unable to calm them from praising his wisdom until the service was over.
Miracles reigned in Charles’ church. Sometimes, he brought actors to boost the level of faith among the congregation. He knew this was wrong but there was no better motivation for people than belief. Whether he orchestrated the miracles with the actors or they were a product of heavenly intervention, he believed that all was influenced by his divine ability to read God’s mind. In the years to come, he would use his daughters to reprise this role at the expense of Magdalene’s silence. And indeed, his family observed in silence all he said and all he did.
Charles was crude to his family. He ruled them with a holy hand. One time, his eldest daughters Rejoice and Gladys, had hung up pictures of RnB stars around their room. When he found out, he beat them with his belt until their eyes swelled like overripe avocados. In the place of the music stars, he commissioned an artist to paint symbolic pictures of the devil laughing at the people he tormented in hellfire. The artist painted it on the walls and the roofs of their room. Later, he would do same to the other rooms his daughters lived in. Magdalene never spoke. Between theological school and cooking dinners, she never had enough patience to plead amidst slaps and punches. She, too, suffered the same agony as her daughters. She did not have the right to plead tiredness whenever Charles fondled under her thighs in the darkness. She lay as dead as a doornail when he moaned above her. He recommended Bible texts to her where the scriptures asked her to be submissive to his touch. And in his stretched, raised voice, he asked her to not believe like the heathen who thought outside the scriptures and in their sleep judged the men of faith. Magdalene understood the message, and in the coming weeks, she howled and sang when he held her under the cover of the bed spreads at night. In church, he forced her to speak in tongues, and he beat her into learning it when she stalled.
His ministry was devout to raising the seers of the new generation, and he urged them on. He organised competitions where prices were given to children who spoke in tongues. None of his daughters came first. In front of his congregation, he hugged them and encouraged them to try harder. At home, he ordered them to take their clothes off, led them to the shower and flogged them thirty-six strokes of the cane each. Magdalene always waited in front of their rooms to bandage them up while Charles lamented about the three hundred and sixty thousand naira that they had lost by losing in a competition he organised.
At night, he sentenced them to pray for forgiveness for hours while he watched. That was his solution to all, prayers. He said Nigeria was bedevilled by many forms of corruption because we thought we could bring the change ourselves. Our only panacea was to pray away oppression, and only a revolution from the church could bring the change. The Muslims were busy defiling their bodies to a false god, and occultic, ignorant individuals were propagating biased and ridiculous doctrines in our entertainment and even in schools. He spoke like this often, when he was alone and when he wasn’t. Hardly was anyone able to stomach his contempt.
Magdalene and the girls nodded out of fear of exorcism if they appeared nonchalant. The next year, after two miscarriages, Faith was born. Like her sisters, Faith was born on the altar of a church. Only this time, the church belonged to her father, Charles, a man who read the mind of God.
Festus Obehi Destiny
is a creative writer from Lagos Nigeria. He owns a website at www.hugsandeyes.com where he has published his works over the years.