Ed. Note: This latest fiction, from Nigerian journalist Adetokunbo Abiola, is part of the Fertile Source’s commitment to publishing work by international writers. We’d like to invite writers from around the world to submit original and translated works to The Fertile Source.
Fiction by Adetokunbo Abiola
Pastor Barabbas, the man who made a vocation of providing Arigidi women with miracle babies, is dead. He died after a heart attack on the pulpit during a seven-day revival service titled “Get Your Miracle Baby Today.” He blew air into the face of Madam Veronica, sending her into a brief trance. He clutched his chest a few seconds after, slumped to the floor, and died.
Pandemonium broke out in the church. Many of the women ran to the door, shouting at the top of their voice. A few ‘prayer warriors’ gathered round Pastor Barabbas, praying, trying to cast out the demon attacking the ‘demon destroyer’. A few of the women chanted incantation near the pulpit, hoping to ward off the spell cast by witches and wizards, who had at last got the better of their enemy. But the efforts did not wake the man of God from the dead.
Arigidi, a town partly surrounded by brooding hills, quivered with rage and grief, and not a small amount of apprehension. Pastor Barabbas was the hero of the people. He placed his hands on the brows of women, blew air into their faces, and they fell into a brief trance. They became pregnant a month later. He opened the pages of the bible, told the women to select a name in it, and prayed they should have a child having the qualities of the person they chose. Nine months later, they delivered such a baby. He gave single girls holy water, commanded them to gulp it down; and when they did, they got a husband. Pastor Barabbas had chased the demons, witches, and wizards from Arigidi. The town would never be the same with his death.
Women fainted and howled at his funeral, and their voices went as far as Ashigidi hills. Madam Veronica unwound her wrapper, threw it into his grave, and wanted to jump inside it; but someone held her. Many women brought their miracle babies, speaking to the dead Pastor Barabbas, asking him how they would protect their children now he was gone. Barren women said hope was lost with the demise of the pastor. Tears fell from the women, nearly creating a river in the town.
As he witnessed this, Papa Aturamumu, the Chairman Board of elders in the church and headmaster of one of the local schools, knew trouble brewed in the town. After the funeral ended, he saw Mama Benji, her eyes red with tears, stand by the door, carrying her baby. She gave birth to the boy three months earlier, but the baby was sickly. The doctors at the local clinic, not knowing the precise ailment, said the baby suffered from an ailment Papa Aturamumu could not pronounce. To prevent his death, Mama Benji brought her child to Pastor Barabbas for blessing and protection. Now the pastor was dead, Papa Aturamumu wondered what Mama Benji would do.
Turning, Papa Aturamumu looked into the church, saw his wife, and sighed. His wife would certainly pose problems with the pastor’s death. They had nine daughters, but Papa Aturamumu’s old mother wondered what he was doing with nine daughters. Was it not time he found a woman who would give him a son? Mama Aturamumu overheard the conversation and vowed to give birth to a son. To achieve this, she frequented the pastor’s home, anointed her body with holy oil, and asked him to persuade Papa Aturamumu they should try for a son. Her husband refused. Since the pastor died, Papa Aturamumu noted his wife’s paranoia for a son increased. He heard her asking her friend, Mama Benji, about the baby market in Lagos. Desperate women went to the place to purchase the children they wanted. Though his wife did not tell him she wanted to purchase a son from the market, Papa Aturamumu knew if she became too desperate she would do anything to get a son.
Sighing, he turned from his wife, looked behind him, and saw Madam Veronica. Though she had been married for fifteen years, she could not give birth to a child. Before she started visiting the pastor, she patronized native doctors, babalawos, for solutions to her problem. They made her sleep with as many as six mad men, Papa Aturamumu learned, yet she did not become pregnant. An irate mother-in-law chased her from her matrimonial home, and she was prevented from joining the women’s union so as not to infect others with her barrenness. What would she – and hundreds of other women – do when their last hope was dead?
Already, Aturamumu learned a few women had changed due to the death of the miracle pastor. They took their new-born babies to other churches even for minor cold, seeking solutions. It was rumored many visited native doctors for concoctions making them pregnant. Other traveled out of town, visiting prophets reputed to have the ability of praying so women could have miracle babies.
Deep down, Papa Aturamumu did not believe it was possible for women to deliver miracle babies. Even though he believed in God, he was a skeptic who held onto his anti-miracle ideas. But he knew members of the church believed in miracles. After many years of observation, he concluded it was food for their soul. The issue would come up when Barabbas successor was to be named. Aturamumu wondered what it would take him to revert his ideas and whether he could do so when installing a new miracle pastor.
Thinking about all this, Papa Aturamumu walked toward his home, located four hundred meters from the church. Papa Aturamumu did not usually go home after service but he needed to think. Besides, he had to attend a meeting of the church council at home. When he entered his sitting room, the members waited for him. Papa Aturamumu knew they wondered the next step now Pastor Barabbas, the ‘demon destroyer’, was dead and buried.
“The women would be most affected,” Papa Moni, the town banker, said. “And when they are affected, no one will have peace.”
During an earlier meeting, the members of the council debated what a post-Barabbas’s future held for church members. Men would no longer have the opportunity of haggling over tithes and offerings, and thanksgiving money would plunge because the congregation would fall. The number of women coming to Arigidi for miracle babies would reduce, and men would lack nubile girls to bed for babies. But it was their wives that troubled them. When Pastor Barabbas was alive, he satisfied their hunger for more and more babies. Now he was dead, and there were no more miracle babies, their eyes would stray to where they could find them. The men knew they would derail, just as women from surrounding towns derailed when they came to Arigidi for miracle babies. Serious problems loomed with the passage of Pastor Barabbas.
“We must begin the process of choosing a new pastor,” Papa Aturamumu said. “Our women are going astray.”
“How does the church choose a successor?” asked Papa Boluwade, a school teacher and the newest member of the board of elders. “Is it through seniority or hard work?”
Mama Olowomeye hesitated and then coughed. She was a dark complexioned woman who had a reputation for having a fertile imagination. She also frequented native doctors and other spiritualists in town. She would not have been made a council member but was for her contribution to harvest and thanksgiving fund.
“You become a pastor if you show signs of performing miracles,” she said, “or if a little black bird gives signal you can be one.” The women with her nodded with approval. Many of them knew this, and those who did not made mental note of it.
However, Mama Gbenga sighed and said, “A little black bird is said to give a signal. It names the person who will be pastor.” Silence fell in the room.
“But birds don’t talk,” Papa Boluwade said.
“Nonsense!” said one middle-aged woman sitting beside him. “Birds talk everywhere. Come to my farm.”
“Can’t the process be made simpler?” Papa Boluwade looked doubtful. “Birds can’t talk.”
“Come to my farm,” said another woman. “I’ll show you birds talking.”
“My two-year old grandson says this every time. I’m always amused. And this talk about miracles. What …”
Papa Aturamumu felt he should say something and he stood up. “Elders! Mothers!” he shouted, “People said Pastor Barabbas could perform miracles. To be honest, I don’t think Arigidi can be peaceful if women don’t have someone whom they think can give them miracles.” Taking a deep breathe, he looked at Mama Olowomeye, who wanted to speak. “Yes, Elder Olowomeye, what do you want to say?”
“I think we should pray,” Mama Olowomeye said. “We need to wait on the lord.”
“Wait on the lord when thunder wants to blow away our roofs?” Papa Aturamumu countered. “You must be joking.” The meeting ended without the elders reaching a compromise. That was two days ago.
As he now joined the discussion in his sitting-room, Papa Aturamumu knew no solution was in sight. After a long moment, one old man with rough beard called Papa Obayan hammered on the table and coughed. “Let’s do this thing like a team,” he said. “If we stand together we’ll find a successor to Pastor Barabbas.” The elders nodded their heads. Papa Obayan said no suggestion was ridiculous if it would lead to getting the next miracle pastor and bringing peace and stability to Arigidi. Some of the men nodded their heads at this and decided to use their heads to solve the problem. They agreed to make Papa Aturamumu’s sitting room their operational headquarters
They also agreed on a few other things. A little black bird must name the successor to Pastor Barabbas. If it called any assistant pastor’s name he became the new pastor. All assistant pastors stood the chance of replacing Barabbas. All board members of the church would monitor the assistant pastors. Every information would be brought back to Papa Aturamumu’s house for analysis. The facts would be debated and a decision would be reached about Barabbas’ successor. Any decision reached would be binding on all and would be forwarded to the congregation for ratification.
Since it was early May, the rains fell in the evening so all church elders stayed at home. Papa Aturamumu sat in his sitting room while his wife sat opposite him. She hinted she might go to Lagos to make some arrangements. Papa Aturamumu asked her what the arrangements were about, but she did not tell him, saying it was a woman’s business. He suspected she wanted to visit the baby market and make inquiries about how to purchase a boy. However, he did not bother to confront her since he knew she would deny it. The next day, however, sun bathed Arigidi, and the elders knew the search for a successor to Barabbas had started.
Papa Aturamumu was assigned to monitor an assistant pastor called Ijabiyi. Since Ijabiyi began duties at the church a year ago, Papa Aturamumu never attended his service because his head was long and shaped like a hammer. Rather than focus his attention on his sermons, Papa Aturamumu found himself staring at the head and wondering how one could have a hammer-shaped head. Consequently, he never made anything of Ijabiyi’s sermon or notice anything about him. On getting home after monitoring Ijabiyi’s sermon , he took his wife aside and asked her about her views on it. Did the women in the church like Ijabiyi’s preaching? Mama Aturamumu had been keeping malice with her husband for not giving accent to her Lagos visit. She saw his question as an opportunity to take revenge. “Old man,” she said, “Since when has women’s business become your business?” Not knowing how to answer her, Papa Aturamumu took his walking stick from the corner of the room and went out the house.
In the evening, he bought a finger of roasted banana and groundnut, her favorite snacks. Making sure she saw where he placed them on the center table, he asked her again whether women enjoyed Ijabiyi’s sermon in the afternoon. Softened by the sight of the banana and groundnut, his wife said in a harsh voice: “Ijabiyi cannot see vision. He cannot perform miracles. He’s not like Barabbas and Ifeoluwa.” Nodding, Papa Aturamumu asked whether she saw any bird during the service. His wife nodded her head as though her suspicions had been confirmed. “I suspected something has been wrong with you these past few days,” she said. “Now I’m sure about it. Haven’t you always seen birds in the church?” She hissed, grabbed the banana and groundnut, and left the room.
Papa Bolanle Mobolanle, a retired clerk, rubbed his jaw, adjusted his ancient spectacles, and said: “If she saw a bird, what are we waiting for? Ijabiyi must be the man.”
Mama Olowomeye shook her head. “She saw a bird,” she told him. “She did not see a little black bird. It has to be a little black bird.”
The church elders began their work from there, monitoring the assistant pastors for their ability to perform miracles. They attended every sermon, questioned their wives, and looked for little black birds. As they did this, men also monitored their wives. Many of them attended services, but others took taxis and went to neighboring towns in search of pastors who could perform signs and wonders. These pastors were thought to be useful to women looking for the fruit of the womb. Papa Aturamumu watched his wife with growing concern. She wanted to travel to Ikare, a nearby town, to visit her family, but he forbade her. He suspected she wanted to travel to the baby market in Lagos.
Back in his sitting room a week later, the members of the council looked sad. Their search had yielded no lead. “We have to bring up new ideas to solve this problem,” Papa Aturamumu told them, tapping his walking stick on the table. “Women are no longer coming to service. Papa Moni, you were supposed to monitor Ifeoluwa. What did you observe?”
Papa Moni sat straight in his chair, pulled up the collar of his shirt, and shook his head. “I didn’t see any sign of miracle during his services,” he said.
“No little black bird?” Mama Olowomeye asked.
“Not even a single bird” The elders sighed. It would be difficult to find a replacement for Pastor Barabbas.
“How did the women react to Ifeoluwa?” he asked. “Will he be able to keep them in line?”
Papa Moni nodded, touched his collars, and came alive.
“I don’t see any problems here,” he said. “He’s good with women. I did see one of the choristers wink at him. It doesn’t mean he’ll take our wives, but that he’ll be able to communicate with them.”
Papa Aturamumu frowned at the reference made to wives but persisted with his questions.
“Do you think he’ll ever develop the spirit to perform miracles?” he asked.
“Thank you, Elder,” Papa Moni said. “I can say knowing whether he’ll be a miracle pastor is tricky. I’m not God, and I can’t tell the future. I know people say miracle pastors can be found through dreams, but I didn’t dream about him during the week. I thought I could define his character by the way we assess people in the bank. When people wear good shoes we feel they’re trustworthy and will build a good portfolio. But I don’t know whether we can judge miracle pastors by looking at what shoes they wear.”
To prevent laughter, Papa Aturamumu wore a blank expression on his face.
“And what did you see when you looked at Ifeoluwa’s shoes?”
Papa Moni pulled at the collar of his shirt and looked at the elders.
“Elders, he has changed his shoes,” he said. “He used to wear old shoes, but he’s now wearing brand-new ones. Of course, I don’t know whether this can be used as a criterion to judge a future miracle pastor.”
Papa Aturamumu was brusque.
“The fact he’s now wearing new shoes doesn’t mean a thing,” he said. “A devil can wear new shoes and claim to be a saint.” He looked at the other elders in room. “Any observations? Any miracles from the assistant pastors?” The elders stared at him, not saying anything because they did not witness any miracle or see the little black bird. Things were going from bad to worse, Papa Aturamumu thought, then said, “Many of our women are going to other towns in search of miracle babies and pastors. Others are thinking of going to the baby markets in Lagos. Husbands and wives are quarreling over babies everyday. Elders, Arigidi is in serious trouble.” He looked at the elders once more and shook his head with sadness. “Are we saying we didn’t notice anything in the past one week? Are there no new ideas apart from the miracle ones?” Mama Olowomeye sighed and Papa Aturamumu recognized her. “Yes, Mama, what do you have to say?”
“I’m not quite sure what I want to say is right,” Mama Olowomeye began, “but I think the situation demands it.”
“What do you have to say?” Papa Aturamumu said.
“As you know, I was assigned to Arogundade,” Mama Olowomeye said, “but after I attended his service, I found out something very important.”
“What is it?”
“Well, no bird spoke during Arogundade’s service, and there were no signs of miracles. However, I met a friend after church who told me about a miracle prophet in Ibadan. He prophesies the future by simply looking into water put in a spiritual pot. After looking into the water, the prophet tells people what will happen in future. What babalowos cannot do this prophet can do it. Some women drink cow milk for nine months before they learn anything about their future. This prophet does the work in only five minutes, and his prophecy works. Some women sleep with toothless mad men for months so their future can be revealed. This prophet will do the same thing in three minutes. And his prophecy comes true. Everybody speaks well of him. I think we should consult him so he can tell us where we can find this little bird.”
The elders burst into cheers. Papa Moni stood up, crossed the room, and patted Mama Olowomeye on the head. Papa Bolanle shook her hand as though she won a lottery and solved the riddle confronting them.
Papa Aturamumu tapped the walking stick on the center table.
“Mama Olowomeye,” he said, “Did you get this information from the village native doctor?”
“If I did I wouldn’t have told anyone about it.”
Papa Aturamumu nodded, pleased. “This is a way forward,” he said. “Who can tell a miracle pastor better if not a miracle prophet.” The elders decided they would visit the miracle prophet. They selected Mama Olowomeye and Aturamumu for the journey. The miracle prophet would only be questioned about where the elders could find the little black bird. He would not be asked to divine Pastor Barabbas’s successor. That evening, the elders went to their various homes with the confidence they would find a new miracle pastor. The problems of Arigidi women would be solved.
The prophet’s church was a large hall surrounded by oil palm trees. Shacks built of wood stood in front of it. Members of the church wore red gowns and walked about in white shoes. Men and women sat on white plastic chairs and waited for the prophet. A thick scent of incense hung in the air.
After waiting for two hours, a male usher took Papa Aturamumu and Mama Olowomeye to the presence of the prophet, commanding them to prostrate on the ground. After he was briefed about the purpose of their mission, the prophet took them to a pot placed at the corner of the room. Its water was black and still. The prophet began to chant incantations and dance. Spraying incense to the four corners of the room, he pranced about the place. Finally, he stopped and told his visitors to look into the pot. The water in it swirled and looked green.
“Can’t you see the bushes?” the prophet asked.
Papa Aturamumu did not see anything but said he could. “Yes, yes, I can see it.”
The prophet looked at Mama Olowomeye. “And can you see the hills?” he asked.
Mama Olowomeye did not see any hill but said she could.
“The little black bird would appear next tomorrow by the bush behind the hill beside the church,” the prophet pronounced.
The elders stayed by the bush behind the hill beside the church on the appointed day but no little black bird appeared. Angry, Papa Aturamumu said Mama Olowomeye must have got her information about the prophet from the village native doctor. Papa Moni said the church must screen out people who patronized soothsayers when it wanted to appoint new council members.
Meanwhile, the women continued to travel out of town in search of miracle pastors and babies. Husbands quarreled with their over the incessant journeys. Mama Aturamumu quarreled with her husband for not wanting a tenth baby and preventing her journey to Lagos. On Monday, while Papa Aturamumu strolled to the church to monitor, once again, Assistant Pastor Ijabiyi, he saw people trooping to the street as though a spectacle had occurred. Men, women, and children spoke in an animated manner. Something strange had happened in the town and Papa Aturamumu wondered what it was.
However, he considered it bad manners to poke his nose into matters that did not concern him, so he continued his stroll toward the church. But he noticed women in the throng were in a jubilant mood. He had not seen them looking so bright since Pastor Barabbas, the miracle baby pastor, died a few weeks ago. Intrigued now, he stopped and looked at them.
The women, with big smiles planted on their faces, headed for an orchard of mango trees standing beside the church premises. Many backed their children, while others held the hands of their sons and daughters and moved into the orchard. They walked as though they could hardly wait to discover the secret awaiting them beside the church. They shouted and clapped their hands.
Following them, Papa Aturamumu entered the orchard. He saw women and children looking at a giant mango tree in the center of the orchard. Some of the women brought chairs and sat on them, while others stood under the tree. Flies buzzed in the enclosure, and the air was hot.
Papa Aturamumu noticed his wife standing twenty meters in front of him. She folded her arms across her breasts and stood next to Mama Benji. They spoke to each other in whispers, then clapped their hands as their eyes riveted to the top of the tree. As he watched them, he noticed a stir rise in the crowd , and everyone looked at the branches of the mango tree. Papa Aturamumu saw disappointment on their faces a moment later as they moaned.
Now completely interested in discovering the reason for the big crowd, Papa Aturamumu inched his way toward his wife. He stood a few meters from her so he could hear what she said without arousing her attention.
“Yes,” Mama Aturamumu said, “I’m sure it’ll appear again.”
“Now you mention it,” said Mama Benji, “the church elders should hear about it. Miracles like this don’t happen every time.”
“Didn’t the boy say the bird called an assistant pastor’s name?” Mama Aturamumu asked.
“He said so,” Mama Benji said. “He said he had been going to pluck mango from the tree. The little black bird perched on the branch with the mango. The boy said the bird started speaking to him, calling a name. The boy said he was so frightened he almost jumped down the tree.”
“Where’s the boy?”
Mama Benjo pointed at a scrawny looking boy sitting on a tread-bare mat a few meters away. Papa Aturamumu sighed, pushed two women standing in his way to a side, and marched to the boy. He was one of the boys Papa Aturamumu chased from the orchard with a stick anytime he came to steal mango. He bent down to his haunches and stared at the boy.
“Did you say you saw a little black bird on that mango tree?” he asked.
The boy was too frightened to speak.
“Don’t worry,” Papa Aturamumu told him. “I won’t beat you for trying to steal our mango. I just want to know what happened. What did the little black bird say?”
“It said Ifeoluwa many time over.”
Papa Aturamumu decided the little black bird could not have spoken to him. God could not choose a man who wore old shoes as pastor. It was bad enough believing a little black bird could speak to people.
Another thought occurred to him. Ifeoluwa may have paid the boy to stage this spectacle so he could be made the pastor. Papa Aturamumu decided to keep the issue from the hearing of his fellow elders. If they did hear, Papa Aturamumu vowed to say Ifeoluwa bribed the boy to stage the charade. Having come to this decision, Papa Aturamumu left the orchard, heading for the church.
As he trudged down the street, another thought occurred to him. Pastor Barabbas preached anyone lying against the spirit got destroyed by lightning and thunder. Papa Aturamumu looked at the sky and did not see any sign of the agents of doom. Pastor Barabbas could not be telling the truth, he thought. He decided to keep quiet about the incident at the orchard.
But when he got home in the evening, a mysterious wind began to blow in the town. Papa Aturamumu heard a crash at his backyard and ran out the house. His treasured paw paw tree lay flat on the ground, blown down by the wind. As Papa Aturamumu mused about this, he felt pain pound his head and groaned. Suddenly, he felt the world spinning around him, and he crashed to the floor. As he got up, he fell against the tree as the wind buffeted him.
He ran into the house, amazed by the quick turnaround of events. What could have caused it? he asked himself. Could God be punishing him for not wanting to disclose what he heard and saw at the orchard to fellow elders. Before he answered the question, thunder crashed in the evening and he heard the sound of the turbulent wind as it buffeted the roof of his house. The wind wanted to pull it away and fling it into the street. Papa Aturamumu quickly decided his refusal to alert the elders about the orchard episode could be responsible – spiritual issues could be so mysterious. As soon as the storm subsided a little, he ran out his house to summon an elders meeting for the next evening.
In his sitting room twenty four hours later, the elders were in a jubilant mood. A replacement for Pastor Barabbas had been found. They did not question whether birds could talk to people.
“Okay, Papa Aturamumu, where is the boy? Let him tell us what the bird told him,” one of them said. Their eyes moved to the frightened boy, still not convinced they would not punish him for stealing mango from the orchard.
Immediately he saw him, Papa Moni frowned.
“I know this boy,” he said. “He’s fond of stealing mango in the orchard. Is he reliable?”
Papa Aturamumu coughed and stood up. “Good talk, Elder,” he said. “I myself have seen him stealing mango many times. I didn’t believe his story until God sent thunder to blow off my roof and I almost got killed. We must remember the spirit moves in mysterious ways. Look at Paul in the bible. The woman whom the bird told that Barabbas should be our pastor, was she not an old woman without teeth?”
Mama Olowomeye turned to the boy.
“Boy, what did the little black bird say?”
“He kept on saying Ifeoluwa,” the boy replied.
After a little argument, the elders decided Ifeoluwa should be appointed the pastor of the church. The church members should be summoned and informed of the decision of the elders. Mention must be made the choice came after a miraculous revelation by the little black bird. It was a sign Arigidi would continue to have miracle babies. But Papa Moni raised an objection.
“What is it?” asked Papa Aturamumu, irritated.
“Pastor Ifeoluwa should be told not to wear his old shoes again.”
“Your advice is noted”
By next Sunday, the announcement was made. The elders and the congregation wore satisfied smiles on their faces. Once Ifeoluwa assumed duties, the women brought their babies to him for blessing. Madam Veronica, instead of visiting babalawos, returned to the church in the search of the fruit of the womb. Mama Benji stopped traveling in search of miracle pastors to save her baby. Mama Aturamumu suspended her trip to the baby market and decided to appeal to the new miracle pastor to persuade her husband so they could try for the tenth child. As for Papa Aturamumu, he smiled at the peace that returned to the church even though he still did not believe in miracle pastors.
Adetokunbo Abiola is a Nigerian journalist and writer. He has published LABULABU MASK, a novel (Macmillan Nigeria). He has also published in print and online magazines such as Rake Journal, BBC Focus on Africa Magazine, Flask Review, Zapata!, Liberation Lit, Sage of Consciousness Review, Africa Writer.Com , Big Pulp, the One World anthology, The November 3rd Club, Mobius – A Journal for Social Change, Tres Crow World, 5923 Quarterly, Contemporary World Literature Journal, Bicycle Review, May Day Magazine, Saraba, Pulse Literary Review and the Mainstay Press Anthology. He has stories about to be published in Wilderness House Literary Review.