They lodged in a hotel for three days before the weekend. Visiting the small prayer building for daily prayer exercises. They had even been offered counseling services, which they both accepted more out of courtesy than because they actually needed it. It turned out to be a helpful experience as Apham and Ijeoma forwent the usual counseling they were supposed to take before they got married. They had even learned some of the Catholic prayers and taken to saying the rosary at home. Ijeoma had the feeling that a lot was going to change when they went back to their normal lives. Of course, they wouldn’t become Catholics overnight, but the prayers would impact on their way of living. That the prayer group was not discriminatory towards their choice to remain Anglicans made them even more receptive to some of the prayers that they were introduced to.
They arrived in the village early Friday afternoon, against the prayers that would begin in the evening of that same day. Ijeoma was expecting the house to be a derelict home filled with overgrown grasses and the front turned into a refuse dump area. Yet again, she was surprised. The house was protected by a high wall fence, the only fenced compound in the area. A dark red gate served as the entrance to the house.
“I built it last two years,” Apham said when he saw the curiosity in her eyes. “My father didn’t want me to. He has built two homes in his mother’s village, but he refuses to even contribute a block to rebuilding this house. Even when I did rebuild it, he didn’t let his mother live in it.”
At that time Ijeoma didn’t understand what he meant. It was when they drove into the wide compound that was his father’s village home that she understood. As soon as one entered the compound, one was greeted with the sight of a small but beautiful home. It was not a story building, just a simple house that had occupied a huge area of the house. She suspected that it contained at least seven rooms. Apham later confirmed it to be eight. Why such a flat house, she still couldn’t understand. She still didn’t understand why Apham took it upon himself to take care of the needs of the woman or even renovate the house that had been a nightmare for his father.
Despite the beautiful home that stood to welcome visitors from the gate, a worse sight was hidden behind the house. Ijeoma followed Apham through a small racket gate that connected to another smaller compound. It was the exact image of what she expected the first house to be. The compound had been swept clean but little care had been given to the grasses that dotted the compound. Two poles stood apart from each other close to the wall connected by disposed black wires. Clothes hung haphazardly on the lines, as though the washer often forgot to pack the previous clothes and when she wanted to dry a new set, she would push the dried ones to one side and spread the new ones. Ijeoma imagined how long the clothes had been outside. Goosebumps filled her skin when she imagined wearing clothes that had been treated in such manner, especially with the flies that were dominating the place.
The closer they got to the sole two-roomed house in the compound, the stronger the pungent smell that had only tickled her nose when they entered the compound got. It wasn’t a smell that came from an unbathed body or unwashed clothes. In fact, she could catch a whiff of air freshener as though someone wanted to cover evidence of a smelly toilet. It would have been overpowering if the other smell was not as strong. It was the smell of regret, of sadness, of loneliness, of death, Ijeoma would later conclude. But for now, she tried not to breathe too much of the air as they entered the room.
Apham had to bend to be able to walk through the door. As soon as she entered the room, she first took in the semi-empty state of the room. The bed was a low bed. She could tell that lying on the bed could give anybody serious body pains. But the figure on the bed, a stick-like figure covered haphazardly with a faded wrapper, didn’t look like she could experience any pain.
“Jesus!” Ijeoma had whisper-shouted when she took a proper look at the figure. It was a woman, a very old, thin, and bald woman. The figure tried unsuccessfully to say something. It came out as a gurgle, but Ijeoma understood what she was saying. “Onye?” Who?
“It’s me, Apham.” Apham didn’t make any move to go closer to the bed. They were standing quite a distance from the bed but in the small room, they were much closer to the wall.
Ijeoma curled into her body so she wouldn’t come in contact with anything in the room. Though there was a bench at the other end of the room near a basket of clothes, both of them had made no move to sit, preferring to remain standing.
The woman tried to lift her hand, probably wanting him to go closer so she could touch him. Apham stiffened but moved a bit closer, though not close enough for her to reach him. “I called a prayer group, ndi uka.” He spoke in fluent Igbo. “They are coming this evening. You will join in the prayers.” He left no room for argument. “Nneka will bath you, there is a wheelchair that will take you to the main house. When they come, you will show them all the medicine you and your husband buried around the house.”
At this time, the woman was gurgling so hard Ijeoma feared she would choke to death. Her frail hands would raise hard to gesture, then fall off again with exhaustion, then she would raise it again.
“Mba, no. You must attend. Father said he will baptize you and give you Catholic prayer for the dying.” He was harsh, practically barking every word at her.
Maybe it was his tone, a stubborn look descended on the woman’s face and her stiff body relaxed in resignation.
“If I have to force her, I will do it,” Apham said when they left the room.
Ijeoma wondered how they would get the woman to talk or even do anything. She was bedridden, perfectly unable to do anything. Even her eyes were almost shut together. Ijeoma was certain she would see nothing even if she opened her eyes.
They spent the rest of the afternoon preparing the house for the evening prayers. Apham hired some chairs and tables as the house barely even had a chair. The members of the prayer group arrived as the sun began its descent down the sky. Nneka, the maid that Apham hired for his grandmother, had a frown on her face as she prepared the stubborn old woman for the prayers. A wheelchair carried her to the front of the house where the prayer would be holding and all thought the short journey, she kept on gurgling and flapping her stiff hands in protest. The young priest that would oversee the prayers was the last to arrive, apologizing profusely that he had not had a meeting with them before embarking on the prayers. When Apham asked the young priest why he came to their home despite the fact that they weren’t Catholics, he’d said the Holy Spirit had led him here. Achike confirmed it, saying that when they submitted their case to the headquarters, the priest had picked theirs among many others, even the Catholics.
The prayers started as planned, not a minute too late.
Ijeoma had attended prayer gatherings and intensive prayer sessions before, especially during her university days. But she had to admit, these prayers were on a different level. It was nothing like the ones she had attended. A whole night of holy water sprinkling and several expositions of the Blessed Sacrament that the priest had come with. She stood until she felt dizzy and had to sit down. A few times, she found herself dozing off. It was towards midnight that the prayers picked in intensity and the priest faced the old woman seated on the wheelchair.
She was stubborn, Ijeoma gave her that. Despite the way the priest had questioned her, calling her by her full name, she remained adamant about what was going on. Ijeoma would have suspected that it was because she could not talk, but the nonchalance the woman displayed was not because she could not talk. She had gurgled out some words during the prayers, once requesting for water, so it was obvious that her silence was deliberate. The priest resorted to bathing or rather flogging her with holy water before she eventually opened her mouth. All signs of sleep fled from Ijeoma’s eyes when the woman opened her mouth and started talking in clear and strongly accented Igbo.
As quickly as it came, that was how quickly it left. Once the old woman finished talking, she went back to her silent state. It seemed she fell unconscious. But no one needed her to say anymore. She said enough. The priest was swift and was already heading to the first direction she mentioned. The prayer warriors followed behind him, one of them pushing the old woman on the wheelchair. Apham and Ijeoma brought up the rear. There were no extra participants. Some prying neighbors had hung around the compound when the prayers began at dusk, but as the prayers continued they slipped out one by one until there were none left.
The first location she called was beside the well in the main house. Ijeoma’s hand tightened around Apham’s arm as three men from the prayer group started digging. They came prepared, with hoes and other equipment. They had to break through the cemented floor before they met soil. Ijeoma wondered if any of them, especially the muscular man in blue shirt, was specialized in digging grounds. They worked fast too, with familiarity and agility. Ijeoma would later joke with Apham that they underwent special training where they learned to dig grounds and bring down walls.
The pot with chalk and sticks tied with red was only the first of seven charms they found in the house. One hung on the guava tree near the gate, another was hidden at a corner of the fence adjoining the main house to the other house. When they had to go into the newly constructed and uninhabited house to dig up another charm, Ijeoma imagined that they would have to bring down the main house as well.
“What of her husbands own?” she whispered to Apham when the seventh charm had been dug out in the farm behind the house. They were heading back to the prayer ground. All the charms that had been dug out were inside a black leather back that Achike carried. Ijeoma wondered how he could bear to touch it. Left for her, she would have disappeared from the house as soon as the first charm was found.
Apham put a hand round her shoulders. “I think they have everything now. The one from inside the house and the one under the mango tree might belong to him. I’m not sure. I don’t want to know as well. Don’t worry, the priest won’t leave without cleansing everywhere.”
Cold wind brushed their skin. Ijeoma shivered and snuggled into his hold. “Do you think we will ever live here?”
“No.” His voice was firm. “After she dies, I will turn the whole place into a hotel or I will sell it. My father wants nothing to do with this place, neither do I. If we ever need to come to the village, we will go to my father’s maternal home. It’s safer there.”
Ijeoma nodded with a wide yawn. She rubbed her eyes sleepily. It was two hours past midnight and if her thinking was right, they still had a long way to go.
“Don’t worry. It will soon be over,” Apham said even though he knew it was a lie.
Apham’s grandmother passed away in the morning, a few hours after the prayers ended. She was buried later that same day in the farmland at the back of the house. It was a very silent affair. Apham called some men from the village to dig the hole. He also bought a ready-made, cheap coffin from the coffin maker in the village. Nneka had bathed the woman and dressed her in one of her clothes. Ijeoma stayed away from the whole affair preferring to tour the village after she woke up from a short sleep. By the time she returned with a young boy pushing a wheelbarrow filled with foodstuffs, the small house that the woman lived in had been thoroughly cleaned, all her clothes including the mattress had been burnt until nothing but ashes were left of them. Apham ordered for the ashes to be packed up and poured into the grave as well. Within a day, all evidence that she existed was wiped out. When Apham called his father to give him the news, Thomas grunted with approval.
“You say you want to sell the land, when you do so, give the money to the orphanage and the church in the village. Don’t use the money. After everything that happened in that place, I don’t believe that it is safe for any of us,” he said before he hung up the call.
They spent the night in the newly-constructed house. Ijeoma wouldn’t have agreed to it if the priest had not sprinkled holy water around the whole place and lit incense at every corner of the house before he left.
“This place is now covered in the Precious Blood of Jesus, no evil can step into this place from now on.” The priest had used a wooden cross to make the sign of the cross in front of the gate, drawing an invisible line with the cross as well. He had left as soon as the prayers were over as early as five am. The prayer warriors said he was rushing to say the mass in his village, while they stayed back for some conclusion prayers.
Ijeoma worried that the lack of rest would affect the priest dozing off during mass, but Achike assured them that he was used to it and had made proper preparations for the tight arrangement before he came.
The next morning, a cab came to pick them up from the village to take them to the airport. As they rode out of the village, the boot filled with many food items, she and Apham in the backseat of the car, a gospel song playing in a low volume from the radio of the cab, Ijeoma felt light, a pure lightness that she had not felt in years. She found herself singing along to the voice on the radio. When Apham’s tenor voice joined hers, she looked at him, love shining in her eyes. Their hands interlocked between them.
“We made it,” he mouthed. She repeated it much louder to the chagrin of the driver, who infected by their enthusiasm joined them in singing.
Ijeoma felt truly happy. They were finally free, she thought. They were free. They would never come back to this village again, not because they were scared of what would happen, but because they had no ties to the place again.
“Time to plan our wedding,” she whispered into Apham’s ears and he replied with a loud burst of laughter.