Playing with Fire
In what language will the final judgement be conducted?
English, because everyone has to understand what is said.
However, God, of infinite capabilities, would have no problems even if the entire proceedings were in Latin, which, for romantic purposes, would have been the preferred language. But for the sake of the poor souls theregathered, English.
A single word, opening up incredible pathways everywhere: some things must not be taken lightly. Seli, airborne under the four hundred year old shadow of Sir Isaac Newton, English Mathematician and Physicist, was drifting into and out of sleep as the passenger jet streamed on its way. The demons from Accra proved difficult to shake off: the overarching sense of guilt still made him turn away whenever someone looked into his face. Fantastic visions of how he would come to grief raced through his mind.
The voice over the intercom sounded reedy, slurred: like someone high on marijuana trying to make a speech.
"This is your Captain speaking. Due to a most abominable error by the ground crew, our aircraft will soon run out of fuel. We are currently cruising at 32,000 feet. Below us is the Atlantic. Above us, more sky. I'm sorry, but we are finished."
Jonah, booted out of the aircraft with a parachute and a small tin of biscuits, for the salvation of the rest.
Seli stirred uncomfortably. The dreams were troubling, but something was happening in the aircraft... He sat up with a start, eyes popping open in fear.
Like a ghastly pantomime, he saw, up the aisle, uniformed marionnettes aping emergency procedure to a taut dictation coming from the intercom: "...over your head... pull the cord..." Wide awake now, Seli looked at the man beside him. The bulky business executive was sweating copiously, drops falling from his chin. He was holding his breath, hands clasped in front of his face, eyes bulging in terror. The taut silence throughout the cabin was enhanced by the voice over the intercom: "...emergency exit to the left, right..."
The aircraft was in distress.
Seli had not heard the announcement, but he did not ask for an explanation, because whatever was happening was his fault, the real cause could be traced to a grave in the Osu cemetary.
"This is the Captain speaking." Unlike the unsteady voice in the dream, this voice was firm and reassuring. "We have been assured that a rescue effort is already underway. Please follow the instructions carefully. We will all be safe." The voice sounded a bit too sweet, as if it had been filtered through a thick moustache which had removed all impurities.
The cabin lights went off, replaced by dim emergency lamps which bathed the cabin in a sombre blue hue and showed row after row of petrified humanity in eerie shadow; the sweat dripping from the business executive's chin was like black blood.
The muted roar of jet engines was broken only by a single, quickly truncated call: "Jesus...!"
Then the aircraft was in steep descent; as the seatbelt bit into his waist Seli remembered his lover...
Possessed of a striking beauty in the eyes of the beholder, Anna had been the object of Seli's desire since the moment five years ago when they first bumped into each other: the collision occurred when Seli, aiming to beat closing time, zipped around a row of bookshelves in the public library.After that event Seli spent hours devising clever schemes to ensure a happily thereafter with Anna. The execution of some of these plans failed with greatly embarrasing consequences; Seli's parents despaired of his obvious lack of good sense.
Once, he had gathered his entire resources of courage and gone up to her house. Anna's father, a wizened senior citizen, opened the door.
"Haar," said the old man, his small eyes glowing fiercely at the young man. "You want to see my daughter."
"If it pleases you, sir," Seli replied humbly.
"It does not please me, you fool," the man said, "but you may come in. Keep your hands to yourself. My eyes are in every place."
By the time Seli finished his bachelor's degree, his wobbly relationship with Anna had finally began to show some signs of promise. But then Seli was off abroad in search of further education.An aircraft delivered him from Accra with the loss of a critical piece of luggage, and with it Anna's address: these things do happen.
In the grim loneliness of the sleety European city which was home for two years, thoughts of the girl filled his dreams; buried underneath piles of blankets to save on heating the pillow in his arms was Anna's torso: her head was left to sheer imagination. He failed with other women, perhaps it was the language. Perhaps it was colour, or culture, or finance, but no fair damsel conceded, and invariably at night the pillow became Anna: in his fevered dreams, she was the super lover.
Anna, the girl who when he kissed had cried and then got all angry and said she was saving herself. Seli could not forget how he had grinned wickedly into the darkness, arm around her waist in front of her house, Anna cuddling up and saying, "If mommy sees us..."So full of contradictions...
Between London and Accra there is no jet-lag, it is only an extended bus trip through the sky. Seli started his search for Anna just a few hours after arrival. The question kept popping up as he met with family, friends:
"Do you remember Anna?"
He found out that she had married someone ten years her senior, a school teacher with a small head and a rotund belly. Studying a photograph of the couple, Seli was greatly astonished at how this could have happened. The girl was too... young for this sort of thing!
Anna, it turned out, was now an active member of a christian congregation; she also led the children's choir. Christmas was only six weeks away, and Anna had been meeting the children every Tuesday evening for choir practice.
In a move reminiscent of the foolish acts of the past, Seli went looking for Anna one Tuesday evening.
The church was a grand old building, impressing its sombre outline against the demure night sky; beside it was a chapel from whose narrow windows children's voices floated on beams of pale yellow light.
Seli found a bench underneath one of the numerous jacaranda trees that populated the parking lot east of the building. The choir was practising ‘Good King Wensceslas'. The carol was about a King, a good king for that matter, who had looked out (of a window, it may be presumed) on the Feast of Stephen; snow lay on the ground, the frost was cruel, and then a poor man came in sight, riding on a mule. By process of continuous correction, Seli came to understand that it was no ordinary mule that the poor man was riding, but probably to rhyme with ‘cruel', the sad beast could only be a ‘mu-el'.
Then choir practice was over: the children spilled noisily from the building. At seven twenty-five Anna appeared in the doorway.
And Seli said: The Arrows of God tremble at the gates of Light.Anna came down the steps, fumbled momentarily with her handbag, then walked leisurely past Seli's bench. The bumbling haste of adolescence was lost: Seli was remarkably composed as he rose and followed Anna with firm and steady stride. When he was a few steps behind her, Seli said in the most alluring tone he could manage:
"The children sing beautifully."
Anna turned: recognition was instantaneous.
Poverbially, it is easy to light an old lamp wick.
They fell towards each other, lips merging in a sudden kiss, and after some unintelligible exclamnations finally settled under the jacaranda and spoke about... things.
Presently Seli asked about her husband.
Anna laughed. "He's nice, I love him."
Seli thought, ‘Love is a great blanket which covers many unspeakable things.' And now love would have to excuse Anna's impending adultery, his planned fornication. Fornication. The word itself connotated damnation.After an hour Anna insisted that she had to go. Walking her to the bus stop, Seli, suddenly wondering about the christmas carol, asked: "Why a mule?" Anna sighed.
"Gath'ring winter fuel," she replied tiredly, as if she had answered the question one too many times.
Seli considered this. "I like the mule better. Cru-el, Mu-el."
Love is usually associated with some sort of falling: falling in love, falling into sin, falling into the couch.Seli's dreams of passion came to clandestine fruition in the form of the beast with two backs – horizontal version, vertical version – and other bodily contortions. Anna's poor husband suddenly had to contend with mysterious extensions of choir practice hours and unchaperoned children who had to be escorted home. Anna's purported weekend trip to visit a dying cousin in Cape Coast ended at a hotel in Winneba – where Seli waited in an airconditioned room with champagne and high expectations.
And every Tuesday evening after choir practice Seli would walk Anna to the bus-stop, the nearness, he proclaimed, engendered exhilaration.
Then one week before Christmas, Seli arrived to find the chapel dark and deserted. He wandered about the grounds, worried: Today was Tuesday, was it not? It was. Had they closed early? Postponed choir practice? Or had they finally tired of the Good King Wenceslas? Seli wondered if he should risk calling her. But Anna had explicitly forbidden telephoning. Under no circumstance, Seli. Never call. So he went home, and then went on to endure several nights of such excruciating loneliness that no pillow – despite softness or size – could provide even the smallest relief. He waited for her call; because after all, she loved him too. But Anna did not telephone, so Seli decided to go to church on Sunday, if only to catch a glimpse of Anna beside Hubby, the one singing treble, the other accompanying with a rich bass.When after church service the pastor announced that he regretted to inform the congregation, and went ahead to inform them anyway, may her soul rest in perfect peace and so on, Seli fled like the Devil from the church; fled as if God had hurled a flaming dart at him. Yet the flaming darts were within his chest, exploding outwards and the pain was so much that he faltered as a mist of hot tears momentarily robbed him of vision. On Tuesday morning Anna had suffered a stroke while she hurried about preparing breakfast. *
Seli lived the next few days in a trance. He did not eat, drifting listlessly about the house, staring blankly when he was spoken to. People began to fear for his sanity. Yet what could he do? Confess the reason for his grief?Prudence also dictated that he avoided the burial ceremony, lest he lost self control and his grief attracted public notice. Anna's father, if no one else, might want to find out Ah, why is that man crying more than any of us?
A fatal stroke in one so young could only be a sign of divine retribution. Seli's unbelief was under attack; at night his grief-induced insomnia was gilded with the terror of imminent punishment: phantasmagoria of blood dripping from the ceiling.*
Some things do not change: the school year was beginning again. There was a flight to catch on such and such a date; another aircraft to deliver Seli from Accra. Perhaps this was the only way to free him from the dark melancholy into which he had been plunged. To school...! Back to the dear old institution where Professors asserted their superiority in front of the bathroom door: ‘Let me pee before you pee.'
Certainly, such a friendly environment would banish all thoughts of death.*
In what language will the final judgement be conducted?
And Seli whispered in anguish: God, God, may this be a dream – may life itself be a dream.
The distressed aircraft slid uncertainly through cloud cover at eight thousand feet.
A note by the author. This story was first published in the Weekly Spectator in 2001 or 2002. The exact date, unfortunately, has slipped my memory at this time. The version here has been further edited and is slightly different from the orginal.
Martin Egblewogbe writes poetry and short stories. He lives in Accra, Ghana.