By Ola W. Halim
On a dusty November afternoon, Brother Matthias' phone beeps twice. First, a credit alert of five thousand naira. Second, an SMS from an unknown number which reads: av sent u 5k pls withdraw it & use d money 2 cm home journ mercies in Jesus name. After reading it three times in a row, Brother Matthias mutters: “Wrong number.”
He'll call the sender later and advise them always to cross-check before they transfer money because this is how people fall into Yahoo-Yahoo's traps. For now, he has to fix this faulty generator. His customer, a saturnine boy with a pan-flat face, is waiting by the thatch awning. He's now glancing at his watch every passing minute. Brother Matthias had brought out a stool and asked him to sit while he worked on the generator, but the boy shook his head. “No time, bros,” he'd said. “I wan use the gen now-now.”
“You say is nor starting, abi?”
“I will have to open it o. That's why I'm giving you ijoko to sit down first.”
“No worry, I fit wait.”
Brother Matthias returns his phone to his overalls pocket and rolls on his gloves. He bends over the generator, shuts the fuel valve, removes a clamp on the left side of the fuel filter, and pulls it off. He looks through the filter. The smudge at the other end is so thick he can't spot any hole. He beckons the boy over. After minutes of furious haggling, the boy agrees to buy a new one from him. He fixes it, but still, the generator doesn't start.
“You have checked the spark plug?” he calls out to the boy.
“Bros, I resemble mechanic for your eye?”
Brother Matthias wrenches off the spark plug and scrubs at the incrustations around the porcelain. They don't wash off, even after brushing and rinsing them in a pool of engine oil. He calls the boy again and tries to explain.
“Wait o, bros,” the boy says, “you dey purposely spoil these things so that I go dey buy from you?”
“Ah, Jesus. I can't fit to swear because am a child of God. But you look at all this stain. Do you now see? You can go and buy it from Okechukwu store; I won't talk. So far I repair it, and it work, abi?”
At last, the generator groans. Squeaks. Oozes out clouds of grey smoke. Begins to roar. The boy finally smiles. His teeth are large, covered in gooey yellow stuff. After he's left, the generator hoisted on his left shoulder; Brother Matthias lies on the heap of sand behind the awnings. He can finally release the clutched feeling in his chest. He can finally breathe. He didn't look at the boy in a sinful way. He didn't bear his eyes into his singlet, searching for rippling muscles and body hair. He didn't feel himself stiffen. God is finally doing it for him. If God takes away this cup from him, totally, really totally, he will serve Him forever.
Sometimes, when he prays, Satan slips dark thoughts into his mind. He's a big sinner. The biggest sinner after Satan himself. Satan demands he looks around him. Everyone else is praying for mercy, wealth, long life, love, faith, grace, for normal things. But he, what's he praying for? Something even he cannot mention, even in his most silent thoughts. He feels energy squishing out through his fingers. His eyes water. He sobs into his handkerchief. Does God not say whoever believes in him will never perish? Does Jesus not love humanity, irrespective of the many differences? But does he, Brother Matthias, really love Jesus? The Bible says if a man loves Jesus, he will keep his word. And isn't Leviticus eighteen-twenty-two clear about the fact that he, Matthias Ogbu, doesn't really love Jesus?
He picks himself up. Streaks of sand stick to his forehead. He closes his shop for the day. He's not going back home because the thoughts might engulf him. And when they do, he'll become restless, breathless, until he does their bid. Until he sins again. Instead of home, he'll go to church. There will be no one inside at this time of the day. He'll worship God for this small victory. Perhaps if he prays harder, fasts harder, and helps the needy more often without expecting gratitude, God will take pity upon him. Perhaps, if he lies at the feet of Jesus till evening, asking Him never to leave unless He blesses him, Jesus may reach down and touch his soul. He hurries through a bath in the backyard. He changes into clean clothes. He grabs his phone from where he'd lain it, on the bamboo bench under the awnings. And that's when he remembers the SMS and the credit alert.
He calls the sender as he heads for church. A sharp female voice reaches him. He wishes it were male. He snaps his fingers to expel the wish. But it spreads all inside him like spilled water. He begins to imagine a man calling him out of the blue. He imagines a guttural voice turgid with desire. He imagines strong, varicose arms; fine fingers; a naughty smile; a beautiful face cupped by a beard, and clean-cut sideburns. He imagines the man telling him he loves him, telling him other things lovers tell each other, things he doesn't know, things he might never know. He imagines himself cradled in the man's arms while it rains outside, their breaths in sync, the musky smell of sweaty skin hanging in the air. Then he snaps out of reverie. In the middle of the road, he drops to his knees. He opens his mouth to pray, to ask for forgiveness, but today, his lips can't even come together to mouth Jesus. They're too dirty. They'll contaminate Jesus. It's the same way he can't touch his food in his working overalls because he'll contaminate it.
“My name's Sister Maria,” the sender says. “I operate a Christian orphanage. Actually, I was sending that money to my cousin. Please can you resend it? I'll forward the account number.”
“Yes, Sister,” Brother Matthias says. “But how did you know my number? My phone number?”
Sister Maria laughs. She laughs so hard Brother Mattias swears there's no way she couldn't be farting. She clears her throat. “My brother, the Lord wants us to meet. It's a miracle.”
Sister Maria calls again later that night. He's sitting by the window, flipping through his Bible. The wind lifts his curtains and whips at his hair. His eyes sting from crying all day at Jesus' feet. Now Satan is urging him to rest so he can implant the thoughts again. But he's determined to remain here, by the window, until he falls asleep. He's actually doing so, falling asleep, when Sister Maria's call comes in.
“I didn't know honest men like you still exist,” she says.
He giggles. “Remember Proverbs twenty-one verse three, Sister, To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.”
“Indeed. Indeed. You're such a good man. God bless you.”
“I just try, Sister. I try. Am nor perfect.”
For the whole week, they talk to each other. They laugh. They sing. They talk about the scriptures. They talk about themselves. Sister Maria is the owner of Divine Child Orphanage in Lagos. She's fifty years old, twenty-five years older than Brother Matthias. There are over a thousand children under her care. With God's help through donators and volunteers all over the world, she's able to thrive. Some of the children have found their way into good Christian homes. Some have grown into successful doctors and lawyers and businesspeople, and, best of all, evangelists.
“But why they still abandon baby every day?”
“That means we won't end this call today.” She laughs. “You know, this is Lagos. Young girls are being misled every day. When they get pregnant and can't get rid of it, they ditch the children as soon as they're born. Do you know how many young girls have abandoned their children in the hospital?”
“Na wa o.”
“We can't let the kids suffer for their parents' mistakes. This is no longer the Old Testament era.”
Brother Matthias tells her he's a mechanic specialising in cars, bikes, and generators. He lives in Benin City. He lives in a face-me-I-face-you apartment. He lives on a narrow street where grass and gulleys have claimed the road. He has all Don Moen's songs burned onto a memory card he never removes from his DVD player. By God's grace (and he's not mocking them o), he makes in a week what his educated siblings make in a month. He doesn't tell her why he left his parents at sixteen, how his father found him jerking to a bodybuilder's picture and kept whipping his bare back with a metal ruler until he ran off. He doesn't tell her how he yelled after him: “Don't return here alive!” He doesn't tell her how he tried to gulp down a gallon of fuel, how the charred voice of a mad woman made him stop. She was dancing past the splintered shutters of the wrecked building he was staying. She wore a jute belt of Malta Guinness cans around her waist. They jiggled against her body as she danced on. She was singing, “Hold on/My brethren/Jesus loves you/Jesus loves me/Jesus loves you and me.”
He tells her this about the mad woman's message. He tells her how he followed her from a safe distance until he found a church. After four nights of sleeping on its cold floors, the pastor spoke to him. He took him to his brother in Benin. He was a seasoned mechanic; everyone called him Moto-Doctor. Under his tutelage, Brother Matthias learned the craft of studying machinery for diagnosis, dismantling them, fixing them, or replacing bad parts. Three years later, he had rented his own room and workspace.
“But why exactly did you leave home?” Sister Maria asks.
“I. . .don't know. You know, all young boys do stupid things.”
“Well, that's very true. All teenagers, if you ask me. I know what I go through in the hands of these ones.”
He says nothing. He wishes he could think of nothing too.
“Pray so that we can end the call, Brother Matthias. I'm exhausted. But by God who's able to do all things, I'm energised.”
He asks God to forgive. To bless. To replenish. To provide. To guide. Then she hangs up, he sinks into bed, and Satan rears his head again. He goes to the sitting room and repeats Hillsong Untied's Lead Me to the Cross until he crumbles to his knees and weeps out the lumps on his chest.
“Do you know our meeting is a miracle?” Sister Maria says during one of her calls. “I had a dream three days before transferring that money. The Lord said to me: there's a man yearning, Maria; find him and share my prophecy with him, thus: Your fortune is on the way. Just a little more patience, and you will be rewarded.”
He decides to open up about the prophecy. He first saw it while studying the Bible in the moonlight. It was a rainbow-coloured halo encircling the moon. There were spikes around the halo, like those on Jesus' crown of thorns. A wind was suddenly blowing, ruffling the Bible pages, flipping them off, only to stop at Genesis Chapter Fifteen. A splinter of wood fell over Verse Eighteen. He read it, and gripping sensations encircled his head, but he didn't share it with the Man-of-God because he was skeptical (he didn't mention it was his feeling of perpetual condemnation that prevented him). But the next Sunday, the Man of God singled him out and revealed the Lord had mapped him out for a miracle. “Before this month runs out,” he'd said, “the Lord will do something grand in your life!”
“Exactly,” Sister Maria says. “Before this month runs out. That's how I heard it too.”
“Thank you, Jesus.”
“I saw another vision. A very bad one. It's about your friends and family. They're going to try stealing your destiny. I advise you don't reveal anything to anyone. And pray. Don't cease.”
That night, instead of praying, Brother Matthias weeps. He opens his mouth to say Jesus, and Satan flashes a naked man before him. He doesn't stiffen, though. He falls to his knees, presses a cushion to his face, and sobs. He sobs because he's a sinner. He sobs because Jesus loves him. He sobs because he's a sinner, yet Jesus loves him. He sobs because he doesn't think he deserves Jesus' love, because he knows he'll always yearn for a man, and he'll always falter at commanding Satan to get behind him.
The next time Sister Maria calls, he's just diagnosed an SUV with alternator failure, and its owner has sped off after calling his price outrageous. He's picking at his teeth when his phone rings.
“My children are celebrating their day next week,” Sister Maria says. “And we're inviting you."
“Lagos?” He laughs. “Sister, I can't fit to come o.”
“Ah. Brother Matthias!”
“But I am sending your children something. Is the same account number, abi?”
“Jesus!” She starts to cry. “Your pocket will not run dry, Brother. The prophecy shall come to pass in Jesus' name.”
Brother Matthias sends money in three installments to the orphanage's account. Since he can't appear physically, he has to sow seeds for the general maintenance of the orphanage so that God's blessing continues to flow. Again, there are evil spirits all over him, according to Sister Maria's vision. Evil spirits waiting to divert his destiny. Inasmuch as he prays all night long, he needs special congregational prayers from Sister Maria's prayer warriors. He also pays to sanctify the prayers since he isn't going to be in attendance.
The blessings start manifesting that evening. A young man drives in an overheating car and paces around the compound while Brother Matthias changes its water pump. The man pays him twice the fees and pats his back. Sister Maria says he's an angel hours later when he describes his fair skin and pencilled eyebrows. “Angels take human forms all the time,” she adds. “That's why we should be good to people.”
Lying on his bed later that night, he sees the man in details he'd been too busy to notice. The man had leered at him, a narrowing of the eyes, a turning of the underlip. He'd touched his hand when he handed the money. He'd let him keep the change because he, too, desires a man to lie beside him, a man to sniff in his sweat. Brother Matthias turns his face to the wall to drown the thoughts and the images. “Satan, please,” he mutters. “Not this night.” But then he slides his hand into his trousers, and Satan's jeering laughter echoes off the walls. He jumps out of bed. As he laces his shoes, he remembers Jesus in the wilderness; on the fortieth day of fasting, his belly sunk in, ribs protruding, commanding Satan to get behind him. Hungry Jesus is presented with stones to turn into bread. Hungry Jesus still commanding Satan to get behind him.
He padlocks his door and heads for church. He falls asleep there, at the feet of Jesus. In the morning, the tingling of his phone wakes him. He goes out to the fountain to wash off caked tears from his face before taking the call. “The children enjoyed their day,” Sister Maria says. “I felt God's presence, full of joy. I was struck by an epiphany I've never experienced in my twenty years of charity work.”
“Praise be to Jesus,” Brother Matthias says.
“I only wish Ronke did. Poor girl.”
“Who is Ronke? Why she don't did?”
“She's one of my girls. Pretty like an angel.” She starts to whimper. “But I can't help her. She's suffering from sickle cell. You need to see how she suffers when the episodes start.”
Brother Matthias doesn't know what sickle cell is, but he knows it's a bad thing. That's why Sister Maria, the mountain of faith, is whimpering. He offers to donate for her bone marrow transplant even though it implies half his money is going. What's the essence of money when you know it can't save you from eternal damnation? He transfers the money later at night, when the rain is heavy on his roof, like hooves galloping on gravel.
The man says his name is Thompson. Today, he's not here to fix his car; he's just here because he's bored and needs somebody to talk to. Brother Matthias looks at him, traces the cup of spiky stubble around his chin, and says, “But am busy. You can't fit talk to me.”
“It's okay. I'll just watch you work.”
Brother Matthias puts on his helmet and descends to the pit over which the Peugeot he's working on stands. Thompson is still sitting when he climbs back up.
“I'm new here,” he says. “I want to be friends.”
“You have accept Jesus as your lord and saviour?”
“Yes. Answer me.”
Thompson shakes his head.
“You have to be going then.”
“I say you should leave my shop. Customer work, you come, I do for you. But friend, I don't do. I don't have too much tight friends here because all of them unbelievers.”
Thompson gets up, dusts his behind, and turns to go. As he's about to open his car, Brother Matthias remembers Jesus at the well with the polyamorous woman. Perhaps Christ is testing him by sending Thompson his way. Perhaps, as Sister Maria believes, Thompson is an angel. If he sends him away, he might never be cleansed. He rolls off his gloves and waves at the car. “Customer!” he calls. “Don't go! Don't mind me!”
They sit under the awnings and chat as if they'd known each other as kids. He comments on Thompson's greying eyebrows. “I we jus faint if I see you in darkness,” he says. Thompson says he's got strong muscles. Does he gym? He asks what he means. Thompson rephrases: “Do you carry weight?”
“God forbid,” he says. “That's where they smoke all those igbo, that place they use to carry weight.”
Their shoulders are brushing. A lone bird is teetering in the distance. Brother Matthias traces the scars on his fingers. He finds himself getting stiff. He jolts up and runs into the shop. He picks up his phone and leaves through the back door, leaving Thompson there.
He calls Sister Maria later to tell her. Maybe that's why God brought her his way so that she could cast Satan out of him. But he stutters a few words and allows Sister Maria to talk. “How much do you have in your account, Brother Matthias?”
“Four hundred. Why you ask?”
“Wow. That's exactly the amount God revealed to me.” Then in a stern tone, “I'm just asking to confirm if my revelation is divine. You know Satan can be tricky sometimes.”
“By God's grace, Brother Matthias, your miracle is coming tomorrow. End this call and get on your knees! Pray against every force that might hinder it. The Bible says: you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.”
Still, he can't pray. Satan isn't rearing its head tonight, yet he can't pray. Again, he sprawls on the rug and weeps. He opens his Bible to Genesis 15, hoping to read, but his tears bear holes in the pages.
In the morning, as he's preparing for work, his phone rings. “Is this Mr. Matthias Ogbu?” a fluffy voice asks.
“Is this SIM connected to your bank?”
“Yes, sir. Why?”
“I am pleased to inform you that you are one of the random people selected for the HumanSpace Giveaway this year. You have won a million naira.”
Brother Matthias sits. “You say?”
“Congratulations, Mr. Ogbu. Now, if you'd oblige, I'd like to ask you some questions regarding your SIM, the one connected to your bank, because, before the money can be sent, our agency requires us to have full information about recipients to avoid cases of misappropriation. Are you ready?”
“Yes, yes. Please, go on, sir.”
He makes Brother Matthias lift his mattress looking for his SIM pack because, as he says, the money won't deliver if Brother Matthias doesn't provide his PUK and PIN, and if care isn't taken, he'd be arrested on charges of SIM theft. Brother Matthias doesn't understand his big big English—delinquency, litigation, scrounger, cybercriminal—but he at least knows the police will come for him if he can't account for his SIM information. And the money will go to someone else. He doesn't realise how congested his chest has been until he finds it squashed between the rungs under his bed and the board. He reads out the numbers to the man.
“For you to understand our legitimacy,” the man says, “we won't ask for any security information about your bank. Do you understand?”
“Good. Our system has recognised you here. Now, to register, press one on your phone.”
Brother Mathias obeys. The man hangs up. He studies his phone screen for a while. The network bar is empty, and the screen reads No Service: Want to make an Emergency Call? A few minutes later, the network returns, and the man calls back.
“You've been successfully registered. Your cash is due within three days.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that, my brother.”
“God we bless you people—”
“One more thing, once you receive the million, our agency will call you to conduct an interview with you. I hope you will make yourself available.”
“I we make myself available, sir!”
He waits for his temples to stop thrumming, his hands to stop shaking, and his breath to slow down before he calls Sister Maria. She's dancing for him; he can hear the conky sounds of her shoes. “Keep it within you,” she tells him, “until you receive the alert. The enemy is still hanging around.”
He tries to steer his mind away from it as he waits. He works all day. He returns home at night and prays until morning. He calls his mother and holds himself from spilling the news. On the third day, he calls the man by noon, but the number is switched off. Sister Maria asks if he's sure he hasn't told anyone. He shakes his head vigorously as if she can see him as if he's trying to shake off blurred memories of telling someone.
“Maybe it's network then,” she concludes. “Call them again by the end of tomorrow."
The day runs fast. Before he finishes inspecting a heap of carburetors riddled with cobwebs behind his door, it's evening. His mother had called. He doesn't have to call back to enquire why she'd called; it's the end of the month. He scrolls through his contact and copies her account number. He transfers some money to her as he heads home. A message returns, telling him he doesn't have sufficient funds. He tries again and again and receives the same message.
He doesn't know how to check his balance, so he goes to Mikko, the boy next door, who usually helps with all his complex bank transactions. “Broski, na only five hundred naira dey this your account o," Mikko says.
“Ah. Maybe is network?”
“No be network anything. You no get money. You give anybody your PIN?”
“Apart from you, Mikko, nobody know my bank stuff o.”
“Broski, you dey accuse me abi wetin?”
“Is not like that, my brother. Why will I accuse you?”
“Better o. Oya, come dey go. Make you go bank tomorrow, you hear?”
He storms the bank in the morning. They tell him his account is empty. He barks at them: “How can it be empty?” They ask him who he shares his details with. He says he doesn't understand the question. He asks them to look at the series of messages he's received, and one of them, a woman with the stiff demeanour of a law official, explains calmly that it's against their policy, the reading of clients' private messages. Then she asks him to step back a little bit because, obviously, he's not the only one in the queue. He hobbles away, gropes for a seat in the lobby, and slips to the floor. People keep trooping past him. Girls on stilettos, their shoes conking the tiles. Boys hanging knapsacks on their shoulders, smacking bubble gums in their mouths. Men in oversized suits and shiny walking stick spluttering incredibly good English. No one notices him on the floor.
Later, after he's gathered all these thoughts, he realises this must be God's punishment for him. He turns swiftly, and soon, he's out in the blistering sun. He treks home instead of flagging a bus. He calls Sister Maria, but her lines are dead. At home, Satan rears his head, and, for the first time, he charges at him. He screams into the silent, hollow afternoon. He yanks off his shirt, rips it apart, and lets the pieces out the window. It strikes him at that tiny moment: God is punishing him for nothing. He's never killed anyone, never told a lie, never visited any shrine, and never compromised his relationship with God. He's only been touching himself dirty. He's only been dreaming about men. He's only been yearning for the warmth of a man. And he's been trying his best to change. Doesn't God see it, or does He always look away? Doesn't God feel his heart ripping, bleeding?
His heart jumps when his phone rings. It's an unknown number. The caller's Thompson.
“How do you get my number?”
“Oh, it's on your signboard. I took it from there.”
“What did you want from—”
“Wait, have you been crying?”
“They have dupe me, Mr Thompson. They have dupe me!”
“I want to come over. Right now. Where do you live?”
He comes in the evening when it's drizzling, and winds are lifting nylon sheets. Brother Matthias is sitting at his window, watching the rain soak his bedspreads on the line, first splattering maroon blotches onto the pinks, then spraying them all red, like Joseph's coat of many colours soaked in sheep's blood. He'd sat there all day, waiting for calls he knows will never come, jumping at the beep of his phone, rehearsing ways to tell his mother he didn't have anything for her this month.
Thompson sits beside him at the window. His perfume smells soothing, something Brother Matthias wants to hug, to sip.
“My brother.” He spreads out his hands as if to show his innocence. “They have dupe me. I don't do evil to anybody. Am just a simple man living my life. But still, they dupe me.”
Thompson helps him to a sofa and lodges beside him. NEPA has brought the light. The fan screeches to life, now whirring high up, slicing the moist air. Brother Mathias lays his head on Thompson's shoulder, and Thompson picks grains of dried grass from his hair.
Ola W. Halim is one of the two inaugural fellows of the Literary Leadership for Emerging African Authors. His work has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, the Gerald Kraak Prize, and the Kendeka Prize for African Literature.
Halim tells stories not frequently told.