Novel Excerpt of “Nutcracker Man” by Kamaria Muntu
Ordinary people do not wake up one morning and suddenly decide to kill their neighbours.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o
“Celibacy… as the official position of the church… was not intended to be a kind of pedestal-platform if
you will.” He clears his throat. “No, that was not, uh… the original intention of the church. It was and still is critical that ordained clergy have uninterrupted energy to devote to ministry availability.”
About eleven kilometres outside the capital city, Father Gideon Njanu garbed in the starched black uniform of the cleric, absent his white collar, is in counsel with a young woman. The two sit adjacent in small rough looking chairs suited to primary students; a tangerine sun dipping in and through clusters of frothy white clouds pasted on a postcard blue sky. Coved in front of a weathered parish house by the manifold green of palm trees and a hotchpotch of flora, the priest raises an eyebrow and the furrows in his forehead deepen as the young girl, Margaret, digs frantically into her mosquito bitten ankles. “Use you’re fingertips dear, else you’re sure to get an infection”. Gideon watches as she eyes a platoon of red ants advancing dangerously close to her long narrow feet. She’s beautiful he thinks, intrigued by the way the sun shifts and shadows her face in angles of woman and child. Precipitately, Margaret kicks at the insects – rousing spumes of dust from the hot ground, and the priest wonders how he let her lure him into this particular conversation. This young woman who like the rest, is here because she has no place else to go, and who is now trying he believes, to pull him into her rather sedated oblivion. But there are talons in her aura that shoot subtle yet dangerous twigs of fire. Without warning she looks up from her aggravated ankles and glares directly at the priest, catching him off guard. And speaking without feigning a modicum of bashfulness she says,“So you don’t miss it? Sex I mean.”
“Of course I miss it,” he says without pause for introspection. There is no reason he believes, to avoid frankness – she has seen the worst in men, and a priest who missed sex would not be shocking. “Being a priest allows me to stay here and better care for people in need.” He doesn’t meet her gaze but takes stock of the pattern of black cornrows that line the top of her head. “People like me?” This causes a start in Gideon’s chest. And as instantly as those same eyes had regarded him with venerable awe, she now examines the ankle with the broken skin, embarrassed she had not heeded the priest’s warning. “No, not people like you, really, mostly the dying babies. You aren’t surprised I miss sex?” He asks this, as it seemed he got the precise reaction he wanted and yet was not prepared for it. “No” she says, tugging at a beige piece of thread until the edge of her skirt unravels as if from a bobbin. She then wraps a slender piece of the fabric around her ankle. “You’d better go see Sister Muna about those ankles Margaret – you don’t want to get a fever.”
Later that morning, Father Gideon eats a small portion of ugali, prepared by the sisters – the cassava flour boiled to a thick paste that so many Burundians seemed to adore, but of which he was not terribly fond. Commencing to his modestly appointed quarters, he embarks upon his daily ritual with St. Augustine, beseeching the Saint in prayer as he does so many mornings, to give him compassion for the weaknesses in humans – to give him insight into the unquenchable blood-lust set upon the region. He studies for two hours – The Letters, the Benedictine collection, closes his book and thinks about what he’ll do about Margaret – his papal duty so to speak.
The girl had been eerily calm given the circumstances of her arrival, and as Sister Muna aptly pointed out, she could seem quite reasoned when she chose to – even wise beyond her years. But often she was given to childish forays into fanciful storytelling, and then there was last Tuesday’s daylong of monotonous humming. Gideon knew these things could be explained away by the trauma she had undergone before she got to the refugee camp. What disturbed him most was that Margaret now thought she possessed prophetic abilities.
The latter was not necessarily unusual for girls from Kibeho who claimed to have witnessed the visions… the miracles. After-all it wasn’t just them, people travelled from all over the world to see if they too could witness the kind of phenomenon the girls reported. Gideon remained firm with Margaret about these matters; firmness was the key he believed.
“You have to listen to me Margaret, because if you don’t let me help you separate what is real from what is imagined, you might lose your sanity for good.”
Yet it was this very thing, the problem of predictions that caused the last two girls to be with him at the parish – the tender young sisters, Thérèse and Paulette who were no longer alive.
Dr. Easterlin had given a reticent diagnosis of Dengue Fever, despite the fact that they were both asymptomatic.
“It’s difficult to say” he had grimaced, rubbing the reddish stubble on his chin, “given the level of exposure before you found them – it could be anything.”
Gideon’s fellow priest, Father Donner had urged Gideon to take Margaret to the parish the same way he had the others. “She also has remarkable gifts Father,” brandished the rotund New Zealander who father Gideon suspected was a bit mad, as his hazel eyes were always glassy. “Something very special is going on here, so take her too Father and witness for yourself!”
Gideon knew Margaret to be special in the way that all God’s children who needed refuge were special. He had witnessed nothing more with Thérèse and Paulette then two tragic little girls embroiled in wars not of their own making.
Amazi… amafi … he did not hear her scream…
At six pm Sister Muna accosted Gideon in his room as the sun was setting over a horizon of tangled trees.
“Margaret is having fits”.
“Oh? She was fine a few hours ago…”
“Yes Father, she’s calling out to the baby Jesus, and yelling words like amazi and amafi.”
Sister Perricone says “it’s Kinyarwandan…”
“Water and fish?” Gideon queried, his chest rising visibly in his partially opened black shirt.
“I’m worried about her”, Sister Muna continued, “Her fever is raging – and there isn’t enough cool water from the well”.
“Is it the ankles…?”
“No Father, we helped her ankles, her ankles are fine.”
With a discernible heaviness Gideon thought, and then spoke with the authority that made all things in his parish run as they should.
“Ask the neighbouring parish for cool water – send Helena there, she’s quick, she’ll make it back before night. Leave the doors open, let the cool air in… and … pray sister…”
The last lines all of a sudden seemed harsh to him, like a betrayal. As if someone had just sneezed and the appropriate offhanded response was a mere Gesundheit. A few hours ago, he was discussing sex with a 17-year-old girl who had no home or history. And like the ones who came before, her body for no apparent reason had become ravaged and contorted with illness.
“Yes Father, we will pray,” sister Muna said with generous conviction.
They couldn’t eat. No one wanted to lose another child. In the air was an unspoken feeling of unnaturalness around the sickness that had stolen the lives of two young girls not yet eighteen. Everyone looked fastidiously after Margaret. Some even went to their rooms and worked magic that was typically forbidden, but which Gideon ignored on nights like this. He didn’t want to sleep, but it came like crashing water at three am. And when he awakened, it was to the news he had expected.
“Margaret is breathing steadily, and her fever has broken…” Sister Muna spoke with a spirit of happy exhaustion to Father Gideon at six that morning – he knew it was six, because of the way the sun peeked pink into his window. “God heard the prayers this time”
“I imagine so…” Gideon answered in the affirmative to what now had begun to spook him. Margaret, he had wanted to believe would live because of her will, because she so refused to die on those Bujumbura borders where the Priest had found her, tortured and confused three weeks prior.
“We are in need of supplies for the next time. I have to go into the city,” he said.
Gideon leaves shortly after Sister Muna leaves him. He ignores his bible on the dresser and his morning ritual with his Saint. He dresses in blue-jeans and a beige T-shirt and climbs into a seasoned but sturdy green Ford jeep, driving to the service station to pick up bandages, cloth and bottled water. He doesn’t pay and the service station attendant entreats him, “Father, Father, a blessing today?”
“I thank you brother the priest says to the familiar looking man who he cannot name, and the struggle thanks you – that’s your blessing for today.” The polio-affected man limps out to Gideon, putting his hand on his shoulder, “No Father” he says, “you, you bless me…”
Gideon looks uncomfortable – he’s in a hurry, but obliges the man anyway. “Bless, you brother”, he says, placing his hand over the man’s head. “Say two Hail Mary’s and kiss your wife.”
The priest situates the supplies in the back of his jeep on top of an old military issue blanket and drives quickly with the windows down, hot air rushing the sides of his face, slowing when he reaches the wide boulevards of bustling city traffic, downtown Bujumbura – with its slick cars and mini-cabs, its omnibus of vendors old and new-world hawking their wares – its mockingly elegant colonial architecture.
Endemic now to the landscape is the easy presence of armed soldiers who have become perennials like flowers – like seasons and tides.
Gideon knew this drill. He would come to the narrowing of the road, the checkpoint, and a menacing but frightened young soldier would wave his jeep to a halt, peering inside for traitors or contraband. And another soldier if he was lucky would say “It’s Father Gideon”, and with that he would be waved on.
It takes him thirty minutes heading northward to the mountains – toward graceful Lake Tanganyika – to get to quieter terrain, rural country; with its plumed vegetation sprouting from its thousand hills – a place where women and men still wore pagnes and children played nude. He pulls up to a house with a roof made of mud, nicer than the rest, fronted by clay pots of Grevillea, and off to the side a clothesline pitched between two skinny sticks – the string sunken into the shape of a smile straining under the weight of modern, colourful dresses and feminine undergarments.
He yells through an open window, “Madam…” and a waft of sweet French patois answers his call in a singsong African voice. He remembers his short time in Paris, and thinks, nowhere on the globe is this language spoken more sweetly than by the women of Burundi.
A curvaceous indigo figure emerges, Clotilda, smiling at him, parting her plump lips, rolling her pink tongue over ivory teeth. Gideon is at once guilty. How could he miss sex when he never stopped having it?
The click of her heels in her burgundy back-out slippers, her crepe amethyst robe of mottled flowers and black vines, wide open and flying away from charitable hips as she hastens toward him, summarily allays his guilty thoughts.
It makes sense to patronize the women trained in this craft, rather than become one of those priests who preys on his own ordinal Sisters to subdue his natural manly impulses.
Clotilda embraces him and he breathes in the sweet mixture of cocoa butter and sweat that emanates from her neck. “I have some peanut stew cooking” she says to him in patois French, “I would like us to have a meal first if you don’t mine, cher.”
“Of course I don’t mine, Madam. We’ll eat quickly as I’m in urgent need of your counsel today.”
Gideon observes Clotilda with mounting delight as she throws back her head, her wide helix of laughter pouring over him like silver sand. He is seducing her now in perfect Parisian French, aware of how much that impresses. It is important to the man that she is seduced first, because if there is anything that Gideon agrees with God about, it’s free will.