By Isaac Attah Ogezi (Nigeria)
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Interlocked, their breaths came in gasps.
The loudspeaker voice in the distance as if from another world, extorting loving one’s neighbours as oneself, the portrait of the Savour’s birth in the manger, The Last Supper and other religious paraphernalia in the room draped their act with sacredness, a spiritual rite of purification, a holy act. El Dorado can only be achieved in this perfect state of purity.
Delirious moans rewarded their quest for a pure state of wholeness, the near worship state that man can only experience in the divine.
Presently, they are treading water together, fish-like. Slippery. Each thrust sends sweet-painful sparks through their bodies. They push with all their strength to stay afloat in this river at its youthful stage. Push! They urge each other, two souls at the end of their tether, trapped in the void.
Depthless, they strain against the current, this life-death strain that is spiced with pleasure not diametrically opposed to pain as the spiked cilice belt clamped around a zealot’s thigh or the religious self-flagellation as a perpetual reminder of Christ’s agony at Calvary. This pleasure-pain is seemingly endless; paradise and purgatory intricately wedlocked.
And then at last he climaxed! The split-second glimpse of eternity.
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.
Warp! The snake’s head is severed and the rest is nothingness. The silence of the graves.
Came to, the two men of the cloth were surprised at their nakedness, but it was just momentary. Every initiate experiences this transfiguration back to the earthling after this deep spiritual odyssey.
‘Blessed be God,’ they glorified …
There was a dead silence in the zinc-house room as the lady pored over the story on loose foolscap sheets, twisting her lips as if struggling with the effort to read it aloud to herself. Ogaba fidgeted uneasily in the chair three feet away from the ten-spring bed with his back turned on the rubber table. He crossed and uncrossed his legs uneasily like a young writer awaiting the death-knell judgment on his latest offering by the most renowned critic of his day. This time around the critic was a young beautiful lady seated in her nightgown on the bed, hair disheveled, which added, in spite of the dim light in the room, to the strangeness of her bluish eyes. Any time she’d taken so long a time like this to react to a story of his in progress, he foresaw a sharp censorship in the offing.
‘I wrote it this morning while you were away,’ he’d begun, a feeble attempt to thaw the thick, uncomfortable silence in the room. Wordlessly, she ran her fingers, the thumb and the index finger pressed together, through her disheveled hair, two discs of a caterpillar, hunting down imaginary lice.
‘What do you think of the story?’ he asked, relieved at last like a man who’d eventually spat out a phlegm which he’d held captive in his mouth out of shame or the courtesy of the company he found himself.
‘If I got your meaning well, the story is about gay priests, right?’
‘You got it!’ he said excitedly like Christ when Peter divulged his Sonship in the Godhead. Or more aptly, as would a professor when a bright student unravelled a difficult point that he’d thought would be a mystery to him. That was what he liked about this young English (B.A.) graduate – simply her brilliance. Except for this secret, this common interest in literature, they were miles apart like Artic and Antarctic Circles in the geography of the earth. Apart from their wide age difference – in fact, to a disinterested onlooker, he could pass for her father – he could not be said to be handsome in any way, no thanks to the compulsive local-gin drinking that had marred his face, rendered it ugly like a baboon’s or the torn patchwork of an amateur tailor. Besides, the few years of frustration, the ex ..., no, he flinched to think of the word that had ruined his life. Since that sad episode in his chequered life, he’d never known himself, a life’s tramp, moving here and there endlessly and purposelessly. In his mid-sojourn through life, he’d come to the irrevocable conclusion that a common interest between a couple, like the umbilical cord that links a child to its mother in the womb, is stronger than mere romantic love which, bereft of this foundation, would always flare up quiveringly and simmer down to cold ashes.
‘Thanks,’ said she and then she smiled her enigmatic smile that often made his member throb with desire.
‘Would you call this a catchy opening?’ he probed on, fishing for compliments.
‘Not really, especially to a reader whose grasp of sublime poetry is rusty. That’s not to say that it’s not good. Not at all! On the contrary, I like the subtlety that runs through most of your stories,’ she commended.
It was his turn to say thank you to her. He was always moved by her critique of his writings. She had an aristocratic taste in arts.
‘When you write on dicey subjects, you cannot fail to be subtle otherwise you’re only writing political tracts that will surely gather dust in unknown libraries of the world after a couple of controversies they must have generated. That’s where the hungry hack writers thrive on. They know next to nothing about literature,’ he submitted, as if in a class delivering a lecture. He made to continue but had to stop abruptly when he saw the expression on her face.
‘Yes?’ he asked inquiringly.
‘As I was saying, your subtlety, instead of robbing your writing of some niceties, confers a high level of literary seriousness on it. Take for example, the images of purity in spite of the two priests being engaged in what society would call an unspeakable act. Wouldn’t it be assumed that you’re pro-gay when you clothed their sinful act with images of purity the same way that Shakespeare used religious images to describe the love between Romeo and Juliet?’ she queried.
He was cut to the deep by her in-depth analysis. What a lady!
‘You’re right. But you know yourself that I’m not gay and can never be pro-gay!’
‘The puritanical world will never think so, mind you’.
‘Then to hell with her!’
‘And the church, don’t forget that, will never forgive you. They’ll think that you’re trying to hit back at them after what they’ve done to you. Your kind of Shylock’s pound of flesh!’
‘Well, they’re entitled to their opinions. That’s not my business. I don’t think I’ll be doing my work as a writer when I’m overtly judgmental. I don’t judge; I don’t take sides. That’s my philosophy as a writer and all great writers’ as well. I only narrate the experiences of the isolated in society, the societal misfits, the outsiders. What’s more, I believe in live and let live; a peaceful kind of co-existence, of giving room to different shades of opinions and doctrines. Art will be abdicating its sacred duty when it takes sides or is overtly or covertly judgmental,’ he said emotionally
‘I was only voicing out my fears, hon,’ said she in a consolatory tone.
‘Yes, I know and I do appreciate them so much. But I don’t think I’m going to change that early part of the story in order to please a hypocritical world. No, not on your life!’ he vowed. They lapsed into silence. Funmi knew within herself that she had touched the sore part of his life by making reference to the church which always had way of making him go into convulsive outbursts like this night. The only antidote to this was for her to hold her peace for a while to allow his anger to calm down. Two years ago, when their paths had crisscrossed, she’d met him in the reception office of a newspaper house in Abuja. She’d gone there to see the Fashion Editor of a cream de la cream magazine with respect to some supply agreement they had together which she couldn’t remember now. In the course of the long wait, a conversation was struck between them by his reference to her exquisite beauty which was to conflagrate into a deep physical relationship. They’d exchanged their cell phone numbers, then came the endless free midnight calls before she suggested that he pack his things and move into her one-room zinc-house at Mabuchi instead of putting up with a friend in an over-crowded room of six men at Gwarimpa Estate. Since then, they’d been living together. In the daytime, as early as seventy-thirty in the morning, she’d go out in search of supply contract jobs at construction sites while he scribbled away the daylight at the table as a writer and occasional freelance journalist.
His fight with the church had begun as early as the first few months of his ordination as a Reverend Father before it reached its climax just two and half years ago. To him, it was the endless fight between truth and falsehood, good and evil, between archaic dogmas that had invaded the church for quite a long time and the radical revolutions of the likes of Martin Luther’s war of reformation against the orthodox early churches. When he was ordained, his Hippocratic Oath as a priest was to interpret the Holy Scriptures in a strict constructionist manner without flourishes which hypocrites and charlatans were wont to. This had brought him into frequent head-on collisions with the authorities at his first diocese when he looked at the hardness in the hearts of his flock and lifted the ban on wine. He started the campaign of what was to be called:’ Drink but be ye not intoxicated.’ He used the Scriptures to confound all his detractors who came in droves from within and without to vilify him. Why, didn’t Christ’s first miracle according to the gospel of Apostle John, was the turning of water to wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee? Would he have turned water to wine if he didn’t sanction the drinking of it? Didn’t the Book of Proverbs say that thy barn shall be filled with plenty and thy presses shall burst out with new wine? Timothy son, be thou not given to too much wine; drink a little. This syllogism was so strong that even the most simple could not fail to see the streaks of light at the end of the tunnel of ignorance and fanaticism. The problem with wine, however, is that one should not exceed the quantum the brain could contain, for the Holy Writ says: ‘At last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder.’ Stunned into silence, the only option left for the hypocritical Council like a drowning man, was to transfer him to a remote village! But like a man eternally married to controversy, it still tailed him there before the last straw.
When he appeared before the disciplinary panel, he was wondering what heresy he must have committed this time around. The letter of invitation didn’t state the reasons for his invitation to face such a high disciplinary panel. His heart constricted so suddenly like a man on the verge of having a heart attack when his eyes strayed to the Chairman’s table where a copy of Washington Post lay conspicuously, with the last few paragraphs of the page where his review had appeared, boldly underlined with a red biro. They ran thus:
Perhaps, the most artistic achievement of Dan Brown’s controversial novel, The Da Vince Code, is not the world-famous blasphemies on the mortality of Jesus Christ with royal lineage with Mary Magdalene nor the unrealistic thrilling story, but the theme of physical union between man and woman otherwise known as sex or coitus or intercourse. To him, by communing with woman, man can achieve a climactic instant when his mind goes totally blank and he can see God. On page 335 of Anchor Books Mass-Market edition, Brown put it into the mouth of his character, Langdon, as follows:
‘Historically, intercourse was the act through which male and female experienced God. The ancients believed that the male was spiritually incomplete until he had carnal knowledge of the sacred feminine. Physical union with the female remained the sole means through which man could become spiritually complete and ultimately achieve gnosis – knowledge of the divine. Since the day of Isis, sex rites had been considered man’s bridge from earth to the heaven … intercourse was the revered union of the two halves of the human spirit - male and female – through which the male could find spiritual wholeness and communion with God.’
It is obvious from the word go that Langdon is the alter-ego of Dan Brown himself which he uses to express his views about life. Literature, from countless ages, has been seen as a veritable vehicle through which a writer could sublimate his entire being, the totality of his world-views. Not done with his discourse on sex and man’s spirituality, Brown sees orgasm as prayer when he wrote on the same page that: ‘Physiologically speaking, the male climax was accompanied by a split second entirely devoid of thought. A brief mental vacuum. A moment of clarity during which God could be glimpsed. Meditation gurus achieved similar states of thoughtlessness without sex and often described Nirvana as a never-ending spiritual orgasm.’
On the pain of wounding the pride and sensibilities of a sanctimonious world, herein lies the greatness of Brown’s The Da Vinci Code as a piece of literary excellence, undoubtedly his magnus opus till date! Many uninformed readers have, most unfortunately, been blinded by a gale of vituperative, non-literary criticisms of the book to see the universalism of Brown’s thoughts. This singular achievement in this great work has raised him from being a mere thriller writer and has comfortably placed him on the same pedestal with world’s thinkers, theorists, and philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Freud, Satre-Paul and Camus, to mention but a few of the most influential.
How the question-and-answer session began, Ogaba could not remember. His mind was engrossed on how the literary journal got to them all the way from the US. Perhaps somebody who knew him had bought it and sent it to them? This did not fail to amaze him greatly as the only copy he thought he had was quietly tucked away in the drawer of his bedroom at the diocese. And surprisingly, he was not afraid to own up to his review; he’d rather burn at the stake like the early Christian martyrs than to deny his work. If he had wanted to be cowardly clandestine, he’d have published it under a pseudonym or anonymity, but no, he’d rather dare them and die as a hero.
He came suddenly alive by a question pelted at him and he fired back, no holds barred. He was ready for a showdown with this bunch of cowards and philistines; hypocrites in position of power, for what right had they to censure him as a writer?
The Chairman angrily thumped the table to silence him from responding to one of the questions from a member of the panel.
‘The last complaint against you, Father Ogaba, which you’re yet to acquit yourself of, was your advocating for the use of condoms in combating the scourge of HIV/AIDS in your diocese instead of preaching total abstinence! Imagine the effrontery of advertising for Gold Circle company on the exalted altar of our Lord Jesus Christ!’
‘I didn’t want to sit down helplessly and watch my diocese being daily depopulated by the pandemic. Let’s not pretend to be holier than the Pharisees and Sadducees in Christ’s days, even the littlest girl child among them cannot vouch for her virginity,’ he fired back.
‘In the first place, did you expect anything different from your flock when you as their shepherd could talk such rot? You need to be born-again!’
‘We know some people here who cannot see the logs in their own eyes yet they can see the specks in their neighbours’ eyes. Physician, heal yourself!’ he retorted, throwing all caution to the wind.
‘Gentlemen, in the name of Christ that we’re gathered …’ began a member visibly worried by the bitter exchanges between the Chairman and Ogaba.
‘Keep out of this, Father Baka! This smart aleck is long overdue to be reduced to his size. What does he think he is by the way?’ barked the Chairman, his Adam’s apple greatly agitated. ‘The cheek of it!’
From where Ogaba sat facing the panel, he couldn’t help but give a ghost of a smile. The Council knew what it was up to. When they were looking for whom to nail him, they had to go back to his great enemy in the past, during his seminary days, and made him the Chairman of the panel that’d crucify him. They sure did their homework very well. Father Chia had never forgiven him for topping their class while he trailed behind him throughout their days at the seminary. If their enmity had stopped at that, it would have been milder but what about the other thing? Dare he tell of a lady he snatched away from him when they used to escape from the seminary to look for girls whom they’d quench the lust of the flesh on?
Eventually, when the other panel members succeeded in quelling Father Chia’s tsunami-anger, they shifted their attack to Ogaba’s offensive review of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, the subject of their inquisition. They were unanimous in their condemnation. How would he do that to the church, nay, the entire Christendom? How could he praise such a despicable work that sought to question the divinity of Jesus Christ ‘as a piece of literary excellence’? A priest of all people! Was he paid by the enemies of the church to do so or was it worldly fame that would perish with the soul in the Last Days?
In the end, the panel members conferred briefly among themselves and told him he was free to go. He’d hear from them as soon as possible. Little did Ogaba bargain that the outcome could be this harsh. The Council had adopted wholesale the recommendations of the panel and he was relieved of his work without any ceremony nor entitlements, what with the disgrace of being defrocked after more than twenty-five years in the service of the Lord’s vineyard! Left in the cold, without gratuity, nothing!
In more sober moments, when reason was able to dethrone self-pity, Ogaba was not surprised at the outcome of the inquisition. From time immemorial, there is no love lost between art and fundamentalism of whatever clime be it in religion or governance. As the mirror of the society, art is eternally pitted against extremism of any kind. Any wonder that political and religious leaders hate the artist with unruly passion? The poet is excommunicated from Plato’s Republic, a Dutch filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, slain in 2004 for a 24-minute film Submission, that mildly criticized the treatment of Muslim women, with fatwa being declared on Salman Rushdie’s head for purportedly blaspheming Prophet Mohammed in his novel, The Satanic Verses. Was death not spread across the globe for a handful of Danish cartoons that linked the Prophet of Islam with violence? Deaths to innocent souls far, far away from the scene of the crime, unleashed by some placard-carrying zealots? What about the countless, most gruesome wars fought in the Christendom during the Protestant Movement in the 16th and 17th centuries only reminiscent of the treatment of the Jews in Germany under Adolf Hitler? Martyrs were burnt alive at stakes for heresies. Can one possibly write the history of the church without wanton bloodshed? Tired of all these, the world’s supreme dramatist, William Shakespeare, cried out his helplessness in one of his sonnets:
Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,
And Art made tongue-tied by Authority …
Tired with all these, from these would I be gone …
It is a fight to the finish! A war without end. Art must never allow itself to be robbed of its power to shock. To be docile and obsequious is for the snake to be without its venomous fangs. Art that is polite is aesthetically bereft, impotent and toothless; cold ashes in grandmothers’ hearths …
‘You’ve succeeded in describing the sexual act in the opening paragraphs which I believe it’s like a foreshadow. What exactly is the plot all about?’ asked Funmi rather curiously.
‘Yes, that’s where the flashback comes in,’ began Ogaba. ‘The two priests had met earlier in the day during an All-Ministers’ Conference and fell in love immediately. In fact, the conference was still in progress when they’d decided to take a break and before they knew it, ended up in each other’s arm. It was love at first sight like the one between a man and a woman. I want you to note this: that the two priests in the story are not celibates and thus cannot be Reverend Fathers before the Catholic Church will feel that I’m out to take my revenge on them. My temperament is beyond such petty sentiments. The story is going to be a psychological study of why some are genetically constituted to be gay and cannot enjoy the normal sexual act with the opposite sexes like the same sex. To them, they believe that its pleasure is deeper and lasts longer than heterosexual sex.’
‘In other words, are you saying that these two priest in your story were doing it with women and yet not being satisfied?’ asked Funmi more alarmed by the psychological thrust of Ogaba’s statement.
‘Definitely. It’s to do with their genetic impulses and nothing more. I’m still researching on that,’ he answered.
‘Would they be caught?’ asked she anxiously.
‘Sure. As the creator, I’ll allow them to be caught as only that will bring out my message more clearly and pointedly.’
‘Caught and dismissed, perhaps?’
‘No, not at all. I dare not try that amateurish nonsense,’ he said determinedly.
‘Because that’ll completely mar my message, my theme. I want a situation where the church will show them some more understanding and tolerance. Besides, the question of allowing gay priests to be ordained is still raging in the church today like a wild harmattan fire.’
‘Yes, I know. But the church will never forgive you for this, I bet you. They’ll call it your cowardly onslaught at them, especially the Catholic Church!’
‘Well, they’re entitled to their opinions, as I said earlier. I dream of a world where the society will stop pigeon-holing its writers,’ he said passionately. ‘What’s more, I fear the gays more than the church. They’ve long become a mafia headed by Bishop Jackson Spoon. Their fear is the beginning of wisdom in the modern-day world,’ he added jocularly. Funmi giggled girlishly, stifling the urge to burst into a boisterous laughter. They lapsed into a momentary silence.
‘Come to bed,’ she invited amorously and huskily, breaking the silence. He sat, without moving a muscle, undecided. Wordlessly, she pulled the nightgown over her head as if to prove a point, threw it on the wooden clothes-rack, and stood unashamedly naked in the light, her orb prominently outlined against her silk pant, with her brassiereless breasts dancing quiveringly on her chest. Something rustled in the thicket of his shorts, throbbing with life.
‘I hope your writing on gays has not affected your psyche that you now have a phobia for women?’ she taunted teasingly. ‘Oh c’mon, sugar,’ she invited again rather huskily, with a mischievous smile playing at the corners of her mouth.
Aflame, he got tremblingly to his feet with his shorts bulging, and made for her. She moved backwards towards the bed, then lying on it gently and trance-like, their eyes locked in inexpressible desire. Instinctively, her left hand reached for the rope-switch, plunging the entire room into total darkness.