By Umar Turaki
The idea of letting go has occurred to Nenrit many times over the past years. Yet it has never gripped her so intensely. The Amplified Version is in one hand, her husband’s hand in the other. They are at it again, praying like they are trying to fell a tree, like it is only one stroke left for the mighty trunk to come crashing down. But stroke after stroke after stroke, it remains standing.
Haman’s office is a square, lawyerly unit that contains a thick bookcase, a desk, and three chairs. But they aren’t seated. All three of them are kneeling on the carpet, which feels like sharp points in Nenrit’s knees. Had she been in a better frame of mind that morning, she would have thought to wear the thicker, heavier skirt that gives her the appearance of a broom. The image of the skirt now steers her mind in the direction of those men she saw earlier in drab, heavy-duty clothes making a purchase downstairs.
One of them must be the cause of the engine that is now running outside. The noise pushes into the small room, hacking through the half-baked pious thoughts she is trying to think. She can’t concentrate. Of interest to her at the moment is what kind of engine it could be. They sell hardware and general purpose equipment downstairs, so the source of the sound could be anything from an electric saw to a lawnmower.
If it is a drill, it can’t be one of those long, heavy-duty ones because that would sound more like a machine gun with its rattling. Her husband used it once at his friend’s site; when he came home, his hands were still shaking uncontrollably.
“When men see a wall, you say there is a door,” Haman prays. “When men say there is a casting down, you say there is a lifting up.”
His words are quiet but firm. He has none of the theatricality that sets apart some of the other deacons in Spirit-mode. Perhaps it is why her respect for him has never felt put on. What she finds curious about him is his name. She often wonders about people she knows named after unsavoury Bible characters. Saul. Jezebel. Haman. Haman, the ambitious schemer who set out to exterminate an entire race.
The petty, covetous, proud and vile Haman. This man, this Haman, whose words of prayer no longer hold meaning for her, falling off his lips like tired fruit, is the antithesis of what it means to be a Haman. This Haman is kind and gentle and courteous. He doesn’t deserve to be called Haman.
“Give us a sign for the good thing you are about to do, in Jesus’ name.”
Nenrit’s amens are becoming smaller, but her husband’s deep, desperate voice overcompensates for them. Her husband, Markus, whom she loves, but in a wholly different way from how she did in the beginning. The first syllable of his name ends in a rolling r and the second sounds like half of couscous. Eleven years on and his name still rubs her the wrong way.
This is how she meets Markus.
He carries two buckets of Texacoat paint into the reception of the law firm where she is serving as a National Youth Corps member. There is a self-assurance in his ability to do practical things, manual things, as well as a brute strength. He yells at his assistant with the impatience of a cross teacher as the assistant mixes the sample the wrong way, adding too much water. He seizes the stick the younger man is using to stir and drives it through the thick liquid as though it were a pot of hot tuwo.
All of this should put her off. On a normal day, she would call this a rarefied kind of bushness, but a bushness nonetheless. But she watches him with his toned arms, his startlingly white eyes and teeth, his stammer. Now she knows it was the stammer that pulled her to him, the way it stretches and restrains him at the same time. As he concludes the business with her boss and walks by, she wants to do something to catch his eye. But she doesn’t. She lets him go out, knowing he will be back.
He returns a week later to deliver a shipment of paint, and she is still thinking about him. There are some snacks and soft drinks for sale on her desk. After a little wheedling on her part, her boss has allowed her to make the snacks and bring them from home (“Just make sure it looks presentable,” he said).
She fits everything into her large orange handbag with the silver sequins and gold-plated buckle. Having been chided by her parents for being too dependent on them for money, she is in her season of practising business-mindedness in order to supplement the measly allowance she receives as a Youth Corps member – and hating every minute of it.
“How much is your minerals?” he asks with an unassuming confidence.
She normally wouldn’t waste a second longer in meaningful conversation with a man who refers to soda as minerals. But today she is feeling reckless, wanton. She is in the mood to have some fun, and he appears to have a special talent for making acceptable the things she finds intolerable. He buys three puffpuffs and a bottle of Coke and consumes it all in three minutes. This turns her on. The way his mouth curves around the lip of the Coke bottle makes her imagine the same mouth curving around her belly-button and sucking hard.
She wants him to ravage her the way he is ravaging his puffpuff and Coke. As he pays for the things, he asks if she would like some. She hates puffpuff, but she says yes. There is something about the way he buys her own snacks for her, a sense of accomplishment that seems to ooze out of his smile. Though she is well aware this is all meant to impress her, she puts it down to a good heart, a salt-of-the-earth type of goodness.
From the moment she bites into the puffpuff, she begins to say yes to the things that wouldn’t normally interest her. It was the puffpuff, she will jokingly think to herself years later, and if she hadn’t been the one who made it and sold it, she might have taken the proposition seriously.
Time moves like the hour hand on the cheap clock above the door in her bedroom, the one that has the words TIMEX splattered across its face. One minute it is on twelve and next thing she knows, it is on three. One minute Markus is smiling widely at her from across the plastic table on their first date, a plate of roasted chicken with chopped cabbage and onions between them. By the time she looks away and back, he is putting a possessive arm around her waist as they pose for a picture at his cousin’s wedding. He solidifies himself into her life.
Mar-kus. It is the first concrete thing she raises to herself as a major objection. She thinks of it as a local name, a village name. Her own name, Nenrit, is a different matter, for it is confidently one thing without trying to be something else at the same time; it is simply and comfortably her name in her mother tongue (it means God is good). Markus, on the other hand, is a village man’s version of an English name, a name trying to measure up, to become something greater than itself, and not even its owner knows the meaning of the name.
She wonders whether any amount of success will allow him to transcend its essential bushness. Would he agree to update it to the more refined Marcus, or change it altogether? Mark would do just fine. She broaches the subject one day as they sit in her parents’ living room with the TV on. The questioning look he gives her manages to attain a pitiful kind of confusion.
“What is wrong with my name?”
She knows no language on earth exists to allow her explain everything that is wrong with his name; it would be like trying to explain the mechanism of a particular joke. A trapdoor suddenly gives way under her belly. Is this what she is signing up for? Life with a man who would be separated from her by insurmountable gulfs of communication? She loves him. Yes, she does. But love has to be more than just devotion and faithfulness by rote.
As she watches him become a more present fixture in her life, she can’t put a finger on why she gives in to the gravity claiming their relationship. There is an inevitability she senses with him, as though he were the sea she must run into.
She comes to learn the depths of him, the way his whole life contrasts with hers to no end: he is the firstborn of six children, four boys and two girls; he had to become wiser than his years after his parents’ death while he was in secondary school; his first job was as a teenage waiter in a nameless restaurant somewhere in Apata, how he served and washed and scrubbed and apologised to his madam for sins he hadn’t even committed; one day he tells the woman to go fuck herself, then walks out of the restaurant like a conquering hero, only to be trailed by her brothers and beaten to a pulp; this is why he has a scar behind his left ear, where they punched him so hard he went deaf for days.
He is a man who broke up concrete with his bare hands and made a garden out of his life – this makes her love him harder, and it is how she will try to think of him on the more difficult days.
“You know he hasn’t been to school?” her mother says, after he becomes a perennial presence in their house. “He only has a diploma. And I suspect that he drinks too much.”
Nenrit is tempted to point out that someone with a diploma has been to school, but she knows exactly what her mother means. She also knows he drinks too much. Yet this has never bothered her. She loves the way he contains his drunken self, the way his eyes remain as clear and precise as jewels. Still she can’t place the source of the propulsion she feels to keep going.
Her mother calls her into her bedroom one morning, her eyes wild and desperate.
“I had a dream,” she says. “I saw Markus beating you in the dream and everybody was laughing at you. He even urinated on you and all that kept coming out was burkutu. I believe it is a vision.”
Nenrit, groggy from sleep, unequivocally tells her mother that she is seeing what her mind wants her to see. Her mother, stunned for a moment, calls her a stupid, ungrateful girl. Nenrit calls her mother a manipulative, old woman. So her mother squeezes her breasts and curses the day Nenrit was born.
They refuse to speak to each other again, or even be in the same room, until Markus comes to her parents to tell them he is going to enrol in a seminary to become a pastor. He wears a solemn face as he speaks, enunciating his words carefully lest his stammer ruin the moment.
“I have been hearing the Lord’s voice all this time, but I refused to listen. Until now. I am ready to answer his call upon my life.”
There is more shame than surprise on her parents’ faces, and Nenrit makes sure she doesn’t look away as she savours her victory. Her mother never apologises with words, but everything she does after that says sorry.
Nenrit’s father begins to call Markus “my first son” even though he already has two sons. In all this, it isn’t the turn of events that surprise Nenrit as much as her resolve to follow Markus. She secretly nurses the fear that he would never get it if she ever told him the way she touches herself between her legs while thinking of him, the way this makes her feel, the way she wants him now, not when they are married – now.
She keeps it all to herself. Her burning desire, her lust, her filthy mind. As he slowly morphs into a pastor, doing pastorly things and speaking pastorly words, she also finds her own self being transformed.
And so she marries Markus, progressively stripping her life down into a spare, plain thing, following him into the black hole of belief, becoming a good wife.
And then she begins to hold her breath for him.
Whenever he stands before the congregation, decked in a pristine, flowing babanriga or a shiny suit, peppering his sermons with arresting silences, scanning the room with his stunningly clear eyes, she holds her breath. She holds her breath for the entire duration of the sermon, forty minutes, an hour sometimes, fearing that a slip of grammar, or a heavily mispronounced word may come tumbling out of his mouth to upend his meticulously prepared public image.
It does happen on a number of occasions, the odd misspoken word, and if the congregation is bothered by it, there is no indication. Still, she fears that one more slip-up may be the final straw and the sheep may come to regard the shepherd as nothing more than a fraud. She often wonders how Moses pulled it off, a stutterer who became the charismatic leader of an entire nation, leading the Israelites for forty years through the desert.
Perhaps she could convince her husband to change his name to Moses if she aimed from that angle. But he might look at her with that same confused frown and ask what is wrong with the way he speaks.
At long last, she recognises it: the cause of her inability to rise higher in her choice of men; the cause of her eagerness to see beyond his bushness; the cause of her willingness to submit to a man who isn’t her equal by any measure. It is God.
The last time Nenrit touched herself, she confessed to Haman’s wife. That was at least four years ago. She had done it because she was curious whether she could ever attain the level of orgasmic heights she had known in her pre-Markus days. As Haman’s wife held her hands and prayed with her the prayer of repentance, Nenrit’s mind kept going back to the torrents of pleasure that coursed through her body. She still derives a kind of basic pleasure from the lovemaking with her husband, like tasting salt in food or sugar in tea.
But at the same time, there remains a neatness to it. Spills and squeals are treated with a forbearing silence. However, the greatest deficiency is in his incapacity to see an orgasm for what it is: a state of pure being in which it is impossible to pretend to be something you’re not, in which you as you are rise like incense into the face of your lover. He fights his orgasms. When he ejaculates, rather than moan, he holds her so tight she feels the moan travelling through his body, passing through hers, and fading away into the bed beneath them. And then quiet.
“Your daughter has been a good wife, Father,” Haman is saying. “Remember her, Lord.”
Faith is a substance of things hoped for, an evidence of things not seen. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. Nenrit raises these words up as a shield against the compulsion that is knocking on the door of her mind, telling her to just let go. God is getting too heavy for her to carry. She thought He was meant to carry her. After her absolute obliteration of self in service of her calling as a pastor’s wife, the least she could have asked for was a husband who knew where to touch her, and a child. Just one child.
“For more are the children of the barren woman than the children of the married woman. The womb that has been declared dead by science, we declare that it shall be fruitful, in Jesus’ name!”
The room is shrinking, she can feel the walls closing in. Sweat forms like dew inside her armpits. The overfamiliar odour of Markus’ skin beneath his dull perfume is climbing up her nose and filling her brain, smothering her existence. His hand feels clammy against her skin. And his name – understanding comes to her then with the force of a blow – his name is nothing more than his essence distilled into six letters, a kind of representational fractal, and there is no outgrowing or escaping that.
Though he has done quite well for himself, coming to pastor a church that takes extremely good care of its shepherd, his name will always cast its shadow over him and, by association, over her as well, for it is his very essence. This man beside her should have ripped her body apart with pleasure, and she might have been able to genuinely scream his name aloud and with passionate sincerity to boot. And children should have poured from her womb from all that passion. God should have seen to all this.
Instead here she is, holding the hand of a man whose name she abhors, kneeling with him on a dirty, threadbare carpet the colour of mud. And the decision to let go keeps pressing down on her like a finger. After eleven years, six months, and two days, her will breaks under the accumulated weight of her discontent.
It is a still, small happening, like a leaf breaking from a branch. She releases her husband’s hand, puts the Bible down, and stands up, her knees cracking in relief.