The priest woke early as was his wont, and began his prayers, his devotions, his work for his diocese. He was its spiritual light and was held in high esteem by his colleagues and the people. Before his door, a small tree grew, planted by his own hands; his hands watered it before sunrise, so he could perch by his window and contemplate the sun bursting forth from the horizon, shedding its rays on their green leaves.
He had finished watering the tree that morning and was about to return inside when a small crowd of sad and worried-looking people spilled into the mission compound. He dropped the can by the door and walked closer. They stopped on his verandah.
“People of Aokpe,” he greeted. “Ke kwanu? How are you all?”
“Father!” one of them, a man in a faded-looking tunic, stepped forward. “Save us! No one but you can save us! My wife is on her death bed and she is asking for your blessing before she breathes her last.”
The priest made the Sign of the Trinity and kissed his rosary. “Where is she?”
“In the village nearby,” the man replied. “Her people’s clan. I took her there when she requested it.”
“I am willing to go, my sons,” the priest said. “Wait a while so that I may arrange my affairs and tell my brethren and then return to you.”
“There’s no time!” they all said as one voice.
“The woman is dying,” a woman with a large nose continued. “We may well reach her too late. Come with us right away. You are acclaimed to be a true benefactor to us and a spiritual beacon to the dying woman. It is not far; you shall be back at your house before sunset.”
“Well, then, let us go at once!” He couldn’t believe his own enthusiastic fervour. He went in, came out with his missal, a bottle of holy water, and a bit of ash. He called his boy Polycarp, who ran out of the backyard, saw the crowd, saw the priest’s face and the things in his hand, and without needing to be told anything, walked to the mission van and climbed behind the wheel. The priest asked the dying woman’s husband to climb in beside Polycarp, then he motioned the people, about twelve of them, to get in. He gathered up his soutane and got in after them, sitting by the door and muttering prayers.
They entered the village to the accompaniment of barking dogs and the welcome of its inhabitants, and they all made their way to the woman’s hut. They led the priest through the front verandah to a large room where he found the woman stretched out on a well-padded bamboo bed, her eyes staring up at the ceiling. He called to her, but no reply came, for she was at death’s door. So he began to call down blessings upon her, and scarcely had he finished when she heaved a great sigh and fell into a deep fit of sobbing, so that the priest and everyone else thought she was about to give up the ghost.
But when her eyelids fluttered open and her gaze cleared and she let out a loud fart, the people gasped and started murmuring. She turned and murmured, “Where am I?”
“You are in your house,” answered the astonished priest. He turned to the people. “Get me a drink of water.”
“Bring the pitcher!” her relatives shouted. “Bring the water jar!”
The children in the household raced off and brought back an earthenware jug of water from which the woman took a long drink. Then she belched heartily and said angrily, “Isn’t there any food? I’m hungry!”
Everyone in the house set about bringing her food. Under the astonished gaze of those around her, the woman began devouring the food; then she got up from her bed and proceeded to walk about the house. She was indeed completely fit and well again. At this, the people prostrated themselves before the priest, covering his hands and feet in kisses and shouting, “O Saint of God! Your blessing has alighted on the house and brought the dead woman back to life! What can we possibly give you as a token of the thanks we owe you, as an acknowledgment of our gratitude?”
“I have done nothing that deserves reward or thanks,” replied the priest, embarrassed by their effusiveness, still bewildered by the incident. “It is God’s power that has done it.”
“Call it what you will,” said the man of the house. “It is a miracle which Chukwu wished to be accomplished through your hands, O Saint of God. You have alighted at our lowly abode, and this brings both great honour and good fortune to us. You must let us undertake the obligations of hospitality in such manner as our circumstances allow.”
He ordered a quiet room to be made ready for his guest and there he lodged him. Whenever the priest asked leave to depart, the master of the house swore by all that was most holy to him that he would not allow his auspicious guest and his boy to go before three days were up. The priest was told that this was the very least hospitality to accord someone who had saved his wife’s life. Polycarp was very annoyed. During this time, the man of the house showed the priest much attention and honour. When the period of hospitality came to an end, he loaded the van with plantain, beans, cocoyams and yams from his barn. Yam was the king of crops, his *umunna agreed, nodding approvingly as they watched him pile the tubers, as large as puppies, into the middle seat of the van. He even added two 5-litre kegs of palmwine freshly tapped by his friend, Odinchezo—even though the priest firmly declined the offer. Alcohol was a dark, dangerous presence in the mission. The frown on Polycarp’s face deepened, but this time it was directed at the priest. Their host brushed aside the priest’s sanctimonious words and pressed twenty thousand naira for the church funds into his hand. Polycarp beamed jubilantly. Their host winked. Hardly had he escorted them to the door and walked them to the van than a man appeared, puffing and out of breath, and threw himself down beside the priest.
“Father,” he pleaded, “the story of your miracle has reached all the villages around. I have an uncle who is like a father to me and who is at death’s door. He is hoping to have your blessing, so please, let not his soul depart from him before his hope is fulfilled!”
Polycarp snarled, then remembered something, and smiled again.
“But, my son, I am all ready to return home,” the priest replied.
“This is something that won’t take any time. I shall not let you go till you’ve been with me to see my uncle.”
The priest sighed. “And where is this uncle of yours?”
“Very near here—a few minutes’ distance.”
The priest saw nothing for it but to comply. They journeyed for an hour before they reached the next village. There he entered a house like the first one, this time with a dying man on a bed, his family huddled around him, veering between hope and despair. No sooner had the priest approached and called down his blessing on the patient than the miracle occurred: the dying man rose to his feet calling for food and water. The people, astounded at what had occurred, swore by everything most dear that they must discharge the duties of hospitality towards this holy man—a stay of three full days.
Polycarp could not have been happier.
The period of hospitality passed with the priest and his boy enjoying every honour and attention. Then, as they were escorting him out of the village, their van loaded down with more gifts, a man from a third village came along and stopped him and asked him to come and visit it, even if only for a little while, and give it the blessing of one whose fame had spread throughout all the district.
The priest was quite unable to escape from the man, who insisted that he bet let into the van, and brought the priest to a house in his village. There they found a young man who was a cripple; hardly had the priest touched him that he was up and about on his two feet, among the bewildered cheers and jubilation of both young and old. All the people swore that the duties of hospitality must be accorded to the miracle-maker, which they duly did in fine style; three nights, no more, no less, just as the others had done. When this time was up, they went to their guest and added yet more presents to those he already had, until bumper of the van was almost scraping the badly tarred road. They also presented him with a more generous gift of money than he had received in the former villages so that he had by now collected close to three hundred thousand naira. Polycarp felt like dancing. He asked the priest to please put the money in a purse, which he hid under his clothes. The people insisted that they go along with him back to his place.
“Our hearts shall be your protection, our lives your ransom,” they said. “We shall not leave you till we have handed you over to your own people, for you are as precious to us as gold.”
Polycarp rolled his eyes.
“I am causing you some inconvenience,” the priest said. “Besides, the way is not safe and, as you know, criminal gangs are rife in the region.”
“Truly,” they replied, “hereabouts, they kidnap men in broad daylight.”
Polycarp trembled, his eyes wide as saucers.
“Even the government is powerless to remove this widespread evil,” said the priest. “I was told that gangs of kidnappers waylay buses in the countryside, run their eyes over the passengers, and carry off with them anyone at all prosperous-looking, so that they can afterwards demand a large ransom from his relatives. Sometimes it happens with security men actually in the buses. I heard that, once, two policemen were among the passengers on one of these buses when it was stopped by the gang; when the selected passenger appealed for help to the two policemen, they were so scared of the robbers that all they said to the kidnapped man was, “Go away and let’s get the bus going.”
The people laughed and said to the priest, “Do not be afraid! So long as you are with us, you will arrive safely back in your village.”
“I know how gallant you are! You have overwhelmed me with honour and generosity!”
“Don’t say such a thing—you are very precious to us!” They went on extolling his virtues and describing in detail his miracles. He listened to their words, and thought about all that had occurred. Finally, he exclaimed, “Truly, it is remarkable the things that have happened to me in these last few days! Is it possible that these miracles are due solely to my blessing?”
“And do you doubt it?” a man with fat lips asked.
“I am not a prophet that I should accomplish all that in nine days. Rather it is you who have made me do these miracles!”
“We?” they all said in one voice. “What do you mean?”
“Yes, you are the prime source.”
“Who told you this?” they murmured, exchanging glances.
“It is your Faith,” continued the priest with conviction. “Faith has made you achieve all this. You do not know the power that lies in the soul of the believer. Faith is a power, my sons! Faith is a power! Miracles are buried deep within your hearts, like water inside rock, and only faith can cause them to burst forth!” He continued talking in this vein while the people shook their heads. He became more and more impassioned and did not notice that they had begun to doze off, one after the other. It was only when they reached the boundaries of his village that he came back to earth, turned round to thank his escorts, and was rendered speechless with astonishment at finding himself awake, alone—with Polycarp of course, who was behind the wheel.
Moreover, he couldn’t find his escorts anywhere in the van. Polycarp also looked surprised. Buy their surprise did not last long. After they got down from the van, he immediately found his family, his brother priests and superiors rushing towards him, hugging him and kissing his hand. One or two even shed a tear. One embraced him, saying, “You have returned safely to us at last! They kept their promise. Let them have the money so long as they have given you back, Father! To us, Father, you are more priceless than any money!”
The priest caught the word ‘money’ and exclaimed, “What money?”
“The money we paid to the gang.”
“The one that kidnapped you. At first they wouldn’t be satisfied with less than three hundred thousand naira, saying that you were worth your weight in gold. We pleaded with them to take half and eventually they accepted, and so we paid them a ransom of one hundred and fifty thousand naira from the church funds.”
One hundred and fifty thousand!” The priest was scandalized. “You paid that for me! They told you I’d been kidnapped?”
“Yes, three days after you disappeared, some people came to us and said that a gang kidnapped you one morning as you were watering the tree by your door. They swore you were doomed unless your ransom was paid to them—if we paid, you’d be handed over safe and sound.”
The priest considered these words, recalling to himself all that had occurred.
“Indeed, that explains it”, he said, as though talking to himself. “Those dead people, the sick, and the cripples who jumped up at my blessing! What mystery!”
His relatives again came forward, examined his body and clothes, and said joyfully, “Nothing is of any consequence, Father, except your safety. We hope they didn’t treat you badly during your captivity. What did they do to you?”
In bewilderment he answered: ‘They made me work miracles—miracles that were manufactured.”
-AKINSANYA ADENIYI AYOSOJUMI