A young woman about to get married has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness.
The sea is not your friend, it is your master. That was what her mind said. But friend or master, the whoosh of the sea was gentle as it lapped against the shore. Slowly it receded, taking bits of sand, sticks and plastic with it and leaving behind a stone or two, a shell and maybe a rusted tin can from places far away and some sea weeds as gifts from its depths. Little specks of light in the distance, illuminate the ships waiting to enter the harbor, outlining their vague shadowy presence on the deep dark sea. She sat on the beach, her hands wrapped around her legs and looked out to the roaring darkness covered in patches of frothy foam. She had been driving around since she left home at seven. She avoided the malls because she didn’t want to run into anyone she knew and she didn’t go to a bar because they were usually crowded at that time with rambunctious men, watching the European league on big screens.
At eleven, a whole hour before the meeting, she came to wait at the beach. She sat in her car and listened to music on the radio. There were two or three other cars still around, silent with smooching lovers. By eleven-thirty, the parking area was deserted. The last of the cars had driven off some five minutes earlier. There were no security lights, so she left her car and went on the beach because she thought it would be safer there. With her dark brown blouse and blue-black skirt, she would at least blend in with the darkness. She could have gone to the party before coming, but how to leave would have been the problem. They hadn’t decided on the time they were going to make the announcement and until then, she didn’t think there was an excuse she could give to leave the party.
It was funny, in a rather awkward way. Alfred didn’t like parties, but it was his birthday and he had decided to throw the party so that they could make the announcement of their wedding date together, in a rather, novel way. They had spent three weeks thinking of how to go about it, but only one of their ideas held some promise: sometime during the party, they would both disappear briefly to change into clothes made from identical fabrics with identical embroideries on the sleeves. Then after cueing in the DJ, they would re-enter with a dance. They had been rehearsing for a week. What a disaster! She could just imagine how it would have gone; both of them, arms and legs flailing all over the place and treading on the feet and toes of their guests, turning everything upside down. Aside from the planned spectacular entry which had high prospects of turning disastrous, both of them had actually been looking forward to the party. At the last minute, she had called to tell him she couldn’t make it because there had been an impromptu change and she was working the night shift at the hospital. There was no way she could have stayed at home. Her parents knew Alfred was having a party and they would have asked questions; her mother would even have called him to find out if they had quarreled.
One day when they were both old and wrinkled, with arthritis eating at her joints and the gout in his legs acting up, and the children away living their own lives, they will sit together on stuffed cushions on a woven cane sofa on the porch of their home and watch the moon and the stars in the sky while geckos gobbled up grayish brown moths fluttering about the fluorescent light tube, then she will tell him. She would say, “remember the day you turned thirty-five? When I couldn’t make it to your party?” he will nod and say, “I remember, you had to do the night shift at the hospital,” then she will place a wrinkled hand on his arm, smile and continue, “Well, If I hadn’t cancelled, I wouldn’t be here with you today” Then she would go on to tell him everything so that she would go to her grave happy knowing that she had kept no secrets from him.
She slapped her leg. The beach was buzzing with mosquitoes and she was their sole victim. She could almost see the puffy, acne ridden face of her supervisor looking at her as if they were having a quarrel and asking, “which person in her right senses would wear a short skirt to the beach at night?”
Seriously, Perfect didn’t know what that woman’s beef was. It was as if she was in some sort of competition with her; to see who was smarter, more hardworking… prettier. What she couldn’t compete with, she criticized.
If Perfect came to work in stilettos, her supervisor would tell her she was not practical, even though she always changed into flat, rubber-soled shoes immediately. If Perfect came to work with her face painted blue, the next day her supervisor would come to work with her face painted green. Whenever Perfect fixed a patient’s IV, her supervisor was quick to point out that she had not adjusted it right and it was dripping too fast, “why,” she would say, “Do you want to kill the patient or what?” if it was dripping too slow she would ask Perfect if she thought the drip was going to stay on the patient forever. Sometimes Perfect felt like slapping her puffy face or hitting her on the head with something… anything, but always she kept a smile plastered on her face, did and said nothing.
She always listened to what her mother said, and her mother had taught her not to talk back to elders. Before she started to work at the hospital, her mother sat her down and advised her to respect her supervisors and senior officers and never talk back to them. So throughout her life, whenever she felt like screaming, or shouting or ranting and raving, she kept her lips sealed and let her mind do it all. Everyone said she was the very personification of patience; no matter what, she never ever talked back. She never exchanged words with anyone and never lost her temper. To the outside world she was a closed book, an angel with no emotions. But her emotions lay deep, buried within herself, roiling, raging, silent.
Perfect’s mother thought she was secretive. For ten years, she had prayed for a child and when she prayed, she had prayed for a girl, secretly hoping for someone to be best friends with, someone who would confide in her and share gossip with her. As for her colleagues, some thought she was cold and uptight but others thought she was just reserved. Most of the time they left her alone unless there was something about work they needed to talk to her about. No one invited her to birthdays or weddings or dinner parties unless the invitation was open, but she didn’t care and never attended any.
There was no moon. The sea was all black, save perhaps for the foam on its surface which looked gray. Pitch blackness. Like death. Dark empty nothingness…. or maybe death was rather like a shadowy range of mountains, far away, shrouded in mist, calling softly to unsuspecting souls. Sometimes she woke up at night sweating and panting and thought she saw shadows beckoning to her, reaching for her with long grasping hands. When that happened, she would bury her head under the pillows and shut her eyes like she used to do when she was six years old, only this time she never called for her mother to come and get her.
At church she had been taught that heaven was for the good, God’s chosen ones and hell for the bad. It was also said that God knows a person’s heart, and God knew, she kept much in her heart to make the devil sing Hallelujah.
She stood up, rubbed the sand from her skirt and walked towards the sea. She stopped just before she reached the point where the farthest reaching waves stretched to the shore, and stood there looking into the distance. Death was for people like her aunt, Atsupui, ninety years, old, withered, unable to see even the tip of her nose. Her legs were worn and frail- useless. Every day, she lay on the same layers of faded rugs in her wattle and daub hut in the village. A hut that held the stench of stale sweat and drool. Sometimes she begged the little girl who came round twice a day to clean the room and run errands for her, to open the only window in the room so that the she could see the sun; that tiny dot in the distance, struggling to penetrate the haze in her eyes, and to feel the heat from its rays. Eight times a day, she called for death to come and take her, but it seemed death was too busy in other places and didn’t hear her call.
Death, was not for a twenty-four-year-old woman planning to get married in a few weeks, have three children- two boys and a girl, and together with her husband put aside some money for family vacations abroad. A woman, who liked to use purple lipstick, rouge her cheeks and lengthen her lashes with mascara. A woman, who always left the smell lavender in her wake, so subtle that when she passed by, people were left wondering why the air was suddenly so pleasantly sweet. She always kept a bottle of nail polish remover in her bag along with three different colours of nail polish, red, black and blue; whenever pressure eased at work (and her supervisor somewhere else), she cleaned and painted her nails the colour that suited her mood.
Apart from the fainting spells which only happened while she was at work, she showed no other signs. She never experienced shortness of breath, never felt weak or tired or sick in anyway. In fact, lately she was filled with bursts of energy that made her wonder… She could seek a second opinion from somewhere else. That had crossed her mind, but something stopped her. She preferred that little question mark to having a second doctor confirm what she feared, killing that little hope that lingered inside her.
The Prophet Jeremiah Abu was the answer to the prayer she had not said. When she was at home, she was not one to wake up before six and had her radio permanently set on one station. Whenever she did the night shift at work, she listened to music and played games on her phone. One morning she woke up at four and couldn’t get back to sleep. She switched on the radio and the prayerful ramblings of an unseen pastor filled the air. Someone had touched her radio. Someone, had changed the station! She closed her eyes and took in deep breaths. After the prayer he gave his number and people phoned in to give their testimonies. She was not one to believe in such mish mash and mumbo jumbo like that, but the testimonies called to her. When she heard that his ministry was in Tema, where she lived, she made up her mind to visit him the next day after work.
Her supervisor was trying. It was hard for her but she was really trying to be nice to Perfect, after all the poor woman was dying. Someone must have breached the sacred code of medical confidentiality because it seemed the whole hospital knew. She brought Perfect an apple every day and Perfect always took it with a grateful smile. On her way home if she didn’t happen to meet a beggar or anyone she could give it to, it ended up with the trash. She told Perfect to take things easy, take some time off. So for three weeks Perfect left home every morning at seven-thirty, told her parents she was going to work, gone to Prophet Abu’s church, witnessed miracles and listened to testimonies. He had made a cripple walk, a blind woman see and a woman, barren for twenty years conceive. If he told her to run barefoot to Kumasi and back, if that was what she had to do to be cleansed of any disease, she would do it… and he had told her to meet him on the beach at midnight, 25th March, the night of Alfred’s party.
Sometimes she wondered what if…? There were many “what ifs”. Like, what if she couldn’t have any children after her marriage? What if she had not met Prophet Abu? What if her miracle did not happen? What if she died? Sometimes too, she felt there was something rather dignified about dying and having your poster about in town and people paying attention to it. She could see the caption, “What A Shock” above a photograph of herself; sweet, smiling, with her age, the number twenty-four, in a circle at the bottom right hand of the poster. People would say, so beautiful, so young, and ask, what happened to her? But perhaps her parents will choose the captions, “At Rest” or “At Peace” to give them solace. But then, they would probably find “Triumphant Departure” more appropriate in an attempt to scorn the fates that would have played such a mockery on them.
She didn’t have a watch so she didn’t know the time and the prophet had specifically told her to leave her phone at home. She turned and saw the tall lanky form of the prophet, approaching the beach from the direction of the road. He wore a long white robe that reached his ankles and made him visible in the dark; he had tied his robe around the middle with some kind of sash. The long strap of his black bag was slung across his shoulder so that it rested against his hip. She met him halfway and he stretched his hands to her in welcome. He was a kindly faced, gray headed middle aged man whose clothes always smelt of camphor. “I hope you have not been waiting for long,” his voice was thick and raspy in a way that she always found peculiar, yet comforting.
“No, good prophet” she said with all the hope that lay buried within her, as she strained her eyes to see his face.
They walked together on the beach, side by side. She stopped briefly to remove her slippers to reduce the pull of the sand on her feet so that she could walk easier. Soon they left the sandy beach behind and reached a rocky stony part. Here, the waves roared and slammed against the stones as if in a vicious fight against unseen forces. The tide had risen and only a small stretch of rocks remained untouched, and these were slippery. Some of the stones were sharp and cut into her bare feet. She held unto the prophet who walked surefooted in his slippers. He stopped suddenly at the entrance to a small cave. It was on a slightly higher ground above the rocks A piece of cloth had been strung across the entrance like some curtain, torn and tattered by the forces of the sea wind, it hang in shreds. He dug into his bag and pulled out a white robe similar to what he was wearing and handed it to her.
“Wear this inside there.”
She looked at the entrance, her brows knitted in a small frown, if he had told her, if he had given the robe to her earlier, she would have gone to wear it inside her car. It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him that she would prefer to wear it inside her car. She looked back at him and he tapped his bare wrist impatiently. With a deep breath she climbed the rocks the short distance to enter the cave. As she entered, the cloth at the entrance flapped against her cheek; she felt the dampness, the slime from the mould and the algae rub against her face.
Inside, the roof was high enough for her to stand up straight. Her eyes adjusted to this new darkness, but she could barely make out the size of the cave beyond her immediate surroundings. She had no idea if the cave went deeper inside or if there were other outlets beyond the entrance she had used. She quickly stripped down to her underwear, a draught blew and cold air touched her bare skin. She shivered and pulled the robe on, over her head. It smelt of sweat and there was no sash to tie around her waist. She folded her clothes neatly and bundled them up in her hands with her slippers on top and stepped out of the cave. Outside, she hesitated. On that narrow stretch of rocks, the Prophet was on his knees, facing the ocean with his back towards the cave and his hands raised high up. The wind blew away all sounds and she could not tell if he was saying anything. He stayed that way for about two minutes, when he turned back to her, his eyes were sharper, brighter than she had ever seen them.
He held her elbows lightly and they walked back to the beach where they had met earlier, where the sea’s waves were gentle.
“Kneel my child,” he pointed a long tapered finger to the ground before him. She placed her clothes on the sand and knelt before him, with her head bowed in supplication. He had come a few minutes before midnight, there was no clock to check the time, but the prophet, guided by pure instinct and experience born of much practice knew it was exactly midnight. She felt something cool trickle onto her head, down her forehead to her nose, she smelt the olive oil, raised her head a little and let it dribble down her lips to her chin where it dripped unto the sand. She closed her eyes as she felt his warm hands on her head and opened up her heart to receive whatever benediction it was he was bequeathing on her. Mumbling softly beneath his breath, some incantations she could make no sense of, he knelt before her, so that they were face to face, and she could feel his warm breath on her face. He placed both hands on the spot where her diseased heart was, one on top of the other and his frenzied breath poured incantations on her, mixed with flecks of saliva.
It took thirty minutes. After, he told her to open her eyes and together, they stood on their feet. She felt light, airy, like some load had been taken off her. She wanted to sing, and dance, but she remained where she was, her eyes still lowered. The prophet dug into his bag and brought out a small transparent plastic bottle that contained some clear liquid.
He gave it to her to drink.
She took it and drank until the bottle was empty. It was water, clear and refreshing.
“Now my child, you need to enter the sea so that it will wash you clean.”
He turned her around by the shoulders towards the sea. It was as black as ever and the waves whooshing even more gently.
“Now, go. Walk into the clear salty waters.”
She felt a pull and walked slowly towards the waves.
“Yes, yes, let it carry away all the uncleanliness, all that disease, all the filth,”
She felt the cool salty waters lapping against her legs,
“Aaaah, let it wash everything away.”
The water had now reached the middle of her thighs and the white robes floated about her.
“Yes, yes. a little further...”
She felt like diving into the water, flapping her hands about and singing to the stars.
“Let the seas take the disease away. Far far away.”
He must have been shouting on top of his voice, for the sound of the waves was strong yet she could still hear him, or maybe he was in her head.
The water had reached her shoulders. She looked back, he looked so small, so far away, he was flapping his arms and jumping about but she couldn’t hear him anymore, all she heard were the crashing of the waves in her ears. He looked like a caricature, a mad man waving his arms and legs. She had gone far enough, she thought and she tried to go back to the beach, but the sea was pulling her the other way, away from the beach. She no longer felt the sand beneath her feet. She rolled under, and the salty water burned her eyes and her lips. Some of the water entered her mouth and seared her throat. The robe was all tangled about her and got between her legs.
She came up again, felt the pull of the ocean stronger than before, felt the spray of the waves on her face and tasted the sharpness of the salt on the tongue. The pull of the ocean was stronger than ever, as she let herself go.