—-Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they
—-are of God:because many false prophets are gone out into the world.
————————————————————1 John 4:1
I FOUND GOD MANY WEEKS AGO. We called her Parfaite; God’s Holy Spirit fell from the sky. A Fulani herdsman found her in the wilderness. The sole creator of the sky and the earth, raised by the herdsman for seven days and seven nights, she walked twenty miles barefoot to the Hill of Wonders. The place was not called the Hill of Wonders when she first got there but was a rocky hill crawling with scorpions and snakes. A python slithered over her body while she was praying, recumbent. The serpent shriveled and dried up after touching her. Those who witnessed this came to her. The mountains of dire situations crumbled at the breath of her nostrils. Soon the hill was filled with miracle seekers. They collected enough money for a makeshift shed, a place of worship. They replaced the shed with cinder blocks. That was how the Very Holy Church of Our Perfect Mother was born on the Hill of Wonders.
I was nothing before I met God’s Holy Spirit. My first encounter with her was after the Very Holy Church of Our Perfect Mother had come to be. I was an itinerant cobbler waiting at the foot of the mountain for customers. The plan was simple: mend shoes, glue the soles battered by the rough terrain of the hills, and shine sandals soiled by the dirt paths winding up the hill. It turned out I was not the only cobbler in town; I had to jostle with the others to get the attention of customers. I set up shop close to the foot of the mountain; that way I’d be able to intercept the worshipers on their way down before other hustling cobblers got to them. It was not long before my spot became crowded. But then I cast my gaze on God in a yellow cassock and cherry-red cloche hat, and nothing else mattered.
Before I met God the Holy Spirit, I was certain that I was tormented. The harsh demands of life had brought me to my knees. I had moved our large family to a one-room apartment. I woke up eager to escape from a horrible, half-remembered dream—sleep burdened my soul. Wakefulness didn’t bring me joy; I had to fend for a spouse and six children. Whatever money I made mending soles and sandals, I couldn’t spend on small things. There were hungry mouths to feed.
People do not understand that the Holy Spirit, creator of heaven and earth, needs a human vessel, a temple. I did not understand this until I met her. She stopped on her way down the hill, but not to mend her sandals. She came down in the company of worshipers and altar boys, one carrying a crucifix on a long staff. A group of hefty men shielded her from the thronging crowd. People fell to their knees. I didn’t know why she had stopped until she looked at me. She said nothing. She raised a hand in the air, touched my forehead with her palm. I was tongue-tied, transfixed by her immaculate face, soft smile, and light dimples. She touched my forehead and continued on her way.
Sleep was unusually calm that night, but I expected nothing to change. I knew I would wake up spent and frustrated, muttering something to do with my torments. But God the Holy Spirit came to my dreams and touched me again with her hands, her smiles.
I was not much of a religious person. My parents attended church only on occasion. I had set foot in a chapel twice in my life. However, what happened to me I could not deny. She came into my dream, and I remembered it when I woke up. I knew she came into my dream because I didn’t wake until dawn.
Three days after I met God, I woke to my wife sitting upright in our bed, staring at me. She told me she had pretended not to notice that I now slept soundly. She said she didn’t believe it was happening. I cried with her, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her why. If this newfound tranquility was indeed a miraculous occurrence and not a coincidence, what further miracles did fate have in store for me? Had God the Holy Spirit’s touch really banished the unclean spirits that had tormented my sleep for months? If so, what more could her touch do?
I waited three days to see if she would come to the bottom of the hill again. I was not willing to join the congregation, but I wondered if I could talk to her. Maybe I would ask her to bless me. Who knew what could happen with a second laying-on of hands?
When she descended the hill again, I wanted to tell her that I was the one she had touched some days ago. I wanted to tell her that she had healed me. Behind me, I heard a man herding people away, shouting, “Leave the road!” The fellow thwarted my attempts to get close to her. I shouted at the top of my voice, but she did not turn to me. I left the Hill of Wonders, angry and frustrated, and stopped at the beer parlor before home.
At home, the electricity was gone. The only light came from a low-burning candle. Staggering in the dark, I tried to avoid the heads and limbs of my children, who writhed on the floor mattress. Peju, my first daughter, blew a fart and murmured nonsense. My wife yawned, half rose up, then sank back down and was soon snoring. The smell of piss permeated the room. I blew out the candle and squeezed into the crowded bed. I was seething with resentment. I realized that my family was part of the problem I needed to solve. How to be free from my feeling of wretchedness? Being responsible for them made me feel inadequate. Was I wrong to feel this way?
Before dawn, I packed a small bag and left the house while they slept. I got to the hill at daybreak. The same men who had fended me off the previous day stopped me, the same men I later learned were the sanctuary warriors. I was not to be deterred. I demanded to see God the Holy Spirit. They pushed me and dragged me, but the more they did, the louder I screamed. One knocked me down; another kicked me in the head. I kept screaming that I wanted to see her, I wanted her to bless me. I braced myself for more blows; they didn’t come. It was then that I felt her touch and looked up to see her glorious face, her warm smile.
I took charge of Parfaite’s shoe wardrobe as part of my service to the House of God. How many of you can say you have touched the shoes of God who walked the earth? Our perfect yet humble Mother mostly wore sandals or pairs of black shoes. I was sure to take care of them. Some had their soles worn out, their leather beginning to lose its shape. It made me more in awe of her. God’s Holy Spirit had no use for material possessions. She was in this world on a mission to end the reign of Beelzebub, to exterminate sorcery and all evil spirits that prevent mankind from developing. Her assurance in her mission only strengthened my conviction that she was God’s Holy Spirit. She made bold declarations. Remember that she said: “Just by walking up this hill, you are delivered and cured of many ailments.”
Invalids came with rusty wheelchairs, jumping and shouting healing praises. I saw a man cured of blindness then spring up, weep, and throw his hands in the air. Parfaite raised two fingers and asked him if he could see them, three fingers, then four. The man nodded to the cheers and amazement of the congregation.
In the mornings I polished her shoes and arranged them neatly. I selected three pairs for Parfaite to choose from. In the evenings I asked her if she had anything for me to do before she retired to her quarters. I made my bed on a mat in the corner of the sanctuary; I often woke up with a sore body, but my heart was grateful. I had never felt so much peace of mind in all my years of living.
My wife found me after four days, but I had already pleaded with Parfaite not to make me see her. I told God the Holy Spirit that my wife was a stumbling block. I needed to be made whole, and that wouldn’t happen if I was with her. I should have realized it long ago, but I was a fool. I had not run away from home; I had found my home. Our Perfect Mother was my home. The guards stopped my wife at the gate. She had shown up in rumpled house wear, mismatched sandals. Wisps of untended hair fell from her roughly tied scarf. Her face glistened with stale tears. When she spotted me, she flung herself at one of the sanctuary warriors and held him by his shirt, erupting into grief. I felt sorry because she couldn’t see what was going on. It pained me that I couldn’t make her see.
“Go home to the children,” I told her gently. She looked at me like I was crazy and unloaded a string of curses on me. I felt sorry for her.
I beseeched Parfaite to allow me to serve as one of her altar boys, but she said I was too old. I knew that. I knew I was not like the sanctuary warriors with chests like blocks of granite. When all you do is shine and repair shoes, there is only so much else you can do. So you can understand how joyful I felt when Parfaite promoted me to the position of Minister of Special Assignments. The position came with no specific role. I was assigned to do whatever was needed when it was needed. They moved me to a tent, so I no longer had to sleep in the sanctuary. I had a proper bed, but I would have slept out in the open or on a cold, hard floor to serve the purpose of God’s Holy Spirit. I was doing important work that would endure long after I was gone. It was the least I could do for God. After all, God had freed me from the shackles of the devil.
I started by running errands for the church workers, buying food and supplies from the city. I brought flyers and posters advertising the weekly evangelization mission of the church. My tent smelled of ink and fresh paper; it had become a depot for stacks of newly printed materials. I was asked to lead the group that pasted our materials on every available surface in the city. We even convinced some of the commuter drivers to place our posters on their buses.
For our evangelization rallies, we made vests with “God’s Chosen People from the Very Holy Church of Our Perfect Mother” written on them. We wore them proudly. We formed a slow-moving convoy of cars and worshipers who walked on foot. We drummed and sang songs and blew vuvuzelas on the streets. The sanctuary warriors sat on the roofs of the cars shouted into megaphones. Pedestrians and market people gathered on both sides of the road, seized by the spectacle. Little children cheered.
We called on the people of the city to denounce the evil practice of voodoo, to destroy their family shrines. They served false gods, and Parfaite was the only true image of God. Sometimes our words touched their hearts and they surrendered all their graven images. We made a public bonfire of them, celebrating the people’s deliverance from idolatry. We made enemies; people accused us of eroding and destroying the legacy of our ancestors. But our ancestors were demon worshipers, and they deserved to be erased from history.
It was not long before I began doing more personal things for God’s Holy Spirit—cleaning up after her, getting sanitary items from the store, fetching water from the rock well for her bath. Parfaite had blessed mankind by residing in a vessel of clay; there, God’s temple must be taken care of. It was a great honor to be asked. You can imagine how I felt when I was summoned to her quarters in the dead of the night and asked to tend to her carnal needs. She told me what to do. I said, falling on my knees, I wasn’t worthy.
“I have chosen you,” she said to me. Body trembling, lips quivering, I gave myself to her. God’s holy temple. Her glorious light took hold of me.
One morning, my wife and children appeared. This time the warriors were not near. Embarrassed and filled with anger, I approached them, but my wife sprang forward, sank to her knees before Parfaite, and sobbed. My first three daughters unloaded bags from the taxi while the other two pranced after their mother. My lastborn dashed toward me as soon as he saw me. I surprised myself when I lunged for him and gathered him into my arms. Over the past several weeks, family obligations had flown from my head. I thought I had no qualms, but at that moment, I felt shame.
“Papa, why did you leave us?” my lastborn asked, accusation in his eyes. I could not tell him I had to leave. I opened my mouth to speak, but only a stutter came out. I could not tell him it was too late to turn back. I heard my wife telling Parfaite she had nowhere else to go and no one to turn to, that she couldn’t take care of the children alone. She said she was ready to join the church. She said she was ready to do anything to keep her children safe.
God’s Holy Spirit ordered me to erect a tent for my family and move in with them. I didn’t know why she did that, but I obeyed. Maybe she wanted me to welcome my family back into my heart. Was that what God’s Holy Spirit had wanted all along? That evening I was roused from the new tent I had erected for my wife and children. I visited her quarters. I tended to her carnal needs, as I had done several times before.
Our church was branded a cult by the Association of Benin Republic Christian Churches. Flyers around the city called Parfaite names. The Antichrist. Jezebel. They warned people to steer clear of the Hill of Wonders. They were blinded by jealousy and did not recognize that our Parfaite was God’s Holy Spirit from whom all religion originates and to whom all religion leads.
Parfaite entrusted me with her secrets, sending me once to the city councilmen. I came back carrying cash in duffle bags, tucked under the back seat of the car. They were secrets only because I couldn’t tell anyone. Not because they were wrong. There were times when I would be asked to go places, but I didn’t understand why my presence was needed there.
Like when I went with the warriors with chests like blocks of granite to a man’s house in the city in the middle of the night. One of them carried a metal pipe. They broke into the fellow’s house, dragged him from bed, and beat him. He screamed like a wounded beast. I was confused and shocked, but I thought he must have done something terrible to deserve what he got. Parfaite’s purpose was to defeat the devil and his agents on earth. No sinners would go unpunished unless they humbled themselves under the hand of God’s Holy Spirit. Maybe he hadn’t humbled himself. Maybe Parfaite was trying to teach him a lesson. I heard her say once that sometimes pain was a way to salvation. The body sometimes needed to be destroyed for the soul to be saved.
I was happiest when I ran errands for Parfaite, because then I didn’t have to stay in the same tent with my wife. Maybe my faith was being tested. Was the thorn in my flesh preparing me for a glorious outcome? Whenever I got close to my wife, she stiffened and wriggled out of my grip, anger on her face. She seemed withdrawn, a shell of herself. I wished she would spit on me. I wished she would snarl, wave her hands wildly. I wished she would strike me on the cheek and make my skin give a quick shout before turning red. I wished she would kick me and curse me, but she didn’t do any of that. She fettered her lips. But I could see what was in her eyes. What she did to me was worse than any physical pain. She hovered around me without being there. She was a reminder of everything I wanted to forget. The children constantly asked me questions I mostly couldn’t answer. My lastborn asked why I always visited Parfaite’s quarters when it was time for bed. I told him I was the chosen one. What could be more honorable than being chosen by God?
Parfaite had become powerful in the city and hosted dignitaries and politicians, all of them seeking endorsement for political office. The members of the congregation were mostly poor traders and artisans who could not contribute much to the offering plate, and their poor grasp of French meant we needed an interpreter to translate Parfaite’s sermons into Fon. The church’s financial backing came from honorary members—musicians, former soccer players, politicians, wives of rich politicians, businessmen, professionals. Parfaite predicted that Dennis Kublai would win the presidential election, and he joined the church as an honorary member when he won. I joined two guards in cordoning off a special section in the auditorium for our honorary members and gave them special seats close to the throne made for God’s Holy Spirit. The president attended one Sunday service in a convoy of black limousines, trucks, and SUVs. We received the heavy presence of mobile policemen with starched trousers tucked into their boots and goggled state security servicemen in oversized suits. The president came that Sunday with Bishop Mamle of the Banaue Catholic Diocese. President Kublai was called upon to deliver a short address in which he extolled Parfaite’s virtues. After the sermon, the congregation lined up in front of the altar to receive communion from Parfaite. The choristers sang praise songs. The president left after his speech, but Bishop Mamle waited until communion was over and was treated to lunch at Parfaite’s quarters. The bishop visited regularly after that day, mostly on Sundays after his priestly duties in his own church. He would stay at Parfaite’s quarters for hours, his deep laughter echoing from the living room.
At first the bishop visited with two orderlies, but the time came when he began visiting alone. He drove himself and showed up late at night. He left the quarters with his shirt untucked and sleeves turned up. Sometimes he did not leave until morning. Before long, my visits to Parfaite’s quarters became few and far between.
The magnitude of my foolishness was not revealed to me all at once. For a long time Parfaite could do no wrong in my eyes. Even after I felt like I had been used and tossed away like an unwanted rag, even after Parfaite declared that Bishop Mamle was leaving the Catholic diocese to join Our Perfect Mother, I still didn’t see anything wrong. I blamed myself for not being worthy enough. I scolded myself for thinking I was important enough to compete with a bishop. God’s Holy Spirit did as she wished. Who was I to question her?
Not long after the bishop started frequenting our church, Parfaite announced that she would install him as Pope Christopher XVIII of the Very Holy Church of Our Perfect Mother. She would also install five cardinals as his associates. I did not expect to be on the list. I had started to feel the ground shifting under my feet.
The bishop’s consecration had the pomp and pageantry of a royal coronation—red carpet, richly embroidered robes, long staff, skullcaps. The president and his ministers were in attendance, and the security was so heavy that I couldn’t get close to the altar. The crowd cheered, but I felt empty. I wanted to be in the bishop’s shoes, to be not only the center of attention but the object of Parfaite’s desires. Worse was to see my relevance in the church diminish before my eyes. Things had seemed fine before the bishop, but there had never been any hope for people like me. I was never going to amount to anything or be God’s favorite plaything. My family was all I had, and I did not even want them.
That week I tried to turn my attention to my spouse and children. My wife remained in her shell, her soul somewhere distant. She had started talking to herself. Whenever the children asked her for something, she would pretend she wasn’t listening. She would snap at them on occasion. She recoiled from me when I tried to touch her. She called Parfaite a mere woman, a woman who was not right in the head. Sacrilegious! She said I was not right in the head either. She said she came to the Hill of Wonders because of the children. She wanted them to see what had become of their father. She said other things I didn’t pay attention to because I was sad about what I had to do. Her violent attitude and the words coming from her mouth could only mean one thing. My wife was possessed by the evil one, and she had to be exorcized.
The next morning, the sanctuary warriors kept my children away and bound my wife to the pole of the tent. She would join six others who were also possessed by the agents of Beelzebub and in need of deliverance. It was my job to make arrangements for the spiritual cleansing in the prayer room. Together with some of the church members, we placed seven censers in the room. The incense alone would not banish demonic spirits. We also needed coals. The red-hot coals would make the room too hot for the devil to stay in their bodies. As I worked to secure my wife’s deliverance from the evil one, I could hear her scream in the tent. I could hear her call my name and curse me. I remembered the words of Parfaite
Sometimes pain was a way to salvation.
We nailed the windows shut, sealed the doors. A warrior brought my wife out, screaming, cursing. It would be over soon, and she would be well. She would be well.
Sometimes pain was a way to salvation.
Screams echoed behind the closed doors as we waited. It would only take a few minutes, and they would stop screaming and struggling with their restraints. They would collapse on the floor, delivered from the power of darkness.
Sometimes pain was a way to salvation.
The screams did not stop. They only became louder. The incense must be doing its work.
Sometimes pain was a way to salvation.
Thick smoke seeped out through the wooden cracks of the prayer room, then turned into flames. Right before my eyes, fire engulfed the corrugated iron walls. I dashed toward the cabin before it occurred to me that the door was barred.
“Don’t just look at me! Help!” I yelled.
I tried to pry open the barricaded door with my hands, screaming my wife’s name, but I only heard coughing and choking. My hands bled, but I kept on. What had I done? Hands held me back, and the door came down. Billows of smoke rolled out. I leapt into the smoke, untying the rope on my wife’s wrist, my eyes stinging, my throat burning with smoke. When I tried to pick her up, my knees buckled.
Some days were better than others, but my burns healed. My wife was discharged from the hospital before I recovered. I was later told that she took the children and left. She was not going to come back this time. Three worshipers did not make it, and I felt responsible for their deaths. I repeated to myself that the fire was an accident. Red hot coals had touched wood and grown into a fire. The smoke was meant to drive their demons out, not burn their bodies. I turned on the TV and saw her round, immaculate face. The press asked her questions. Parfaite said to the camera, “Those who died are not really members of the church; they are people who came to test us.” When they asked if she was worried about going to jail, she gave a soft, reassuring smile and retorted, “Can you put God in a prison?”
Before they let me go, the enemy struck again. The townspeople attacked us. The news called it a violent clash between the residents of the town and cult followers who had “insulted and offended” traditional leaders during a mission of evangelization. Lies! All lies!
When the police arrested Parfaite, I thought it was a joke. When the news first broke, I thought it was all a joke. Surely they must be mistaken. Surely the city governor or the president must intervene? Then it occurred to me that maybe Parfaite had allowed herself to be arrested. No one can really imprison God. Impossible! She was going to liberate herself when ready. That was sure.
The day I was released from the hospital, I went straight to the Hill of Wonders. Where else could I have gone? Where else could I call home?
The church was empty, chairs overturned, furniture broken. Clothes and shoes were all over the place. Parfaite had not been released from jail? I combed every corner of the premises. There was no one to talk to. No one to ask questions of. I turned on the transistor radio for news about her whereabouts. Nothing. Too exhausted to walk, I sat at the gate of the church and turned my gaze to the city below.
Samuel Kọ́láwọlé was born and raised in Ibadan, Nigeria. His work has appeared in Agni, Harvard Review, Georgia Review, Hopkins Review, and Gulf Coast. He teaches fiction writing at Penn State University, and his debut novel, The Road to Salt Sea, is forthcoming from Amistad/HarperCollins.