The Orphan and the Priest


By Rosie Brown

          The Divine Congregation of His Lord’s Disciples was a motley, foul-smelling bunch. Obimpe could count their full number using less than two hands, and he was fairly certain that at least three of them had no idea where they actually were. One man slumped over in the back was clearly asleep, a shimmering line of drool leaking from the corner of his mouth.
          From his spot behind the makeshift pulpit, Father Murphy surveyed his audience with shiny eyes.
          “Eight people today. That’s two more than last week,” said the stout man cheerfully. Obimpe only nodded. The pastor was always so energetic right before a sermon that it didn’t seem fair to point out their audience consisted solely of those either too weak or too hated to be among the regular village people at this hour.
          A mosquito buzzed by his ear. Obimpe slapped it without thinking.
          Though not a drop of water had been seen in the sky for weeks, the village they were visiting was deep enough in the forest for the pests to breed year round. Were it not for Father Murphy’s insistence that they preach a session every Sunday morning, Obimpe would have been inside where the creatures could not hurt him.
          “Well, I think that’s everyone,” Father Murphy finally said. Another person had fallen asleep by then; Father Murphy always liked to wait as long as possible in case any stragglers showed up. Brushing away an unseen speck of dust from the cover of his Bible, he said, “If you’re ready, we can get started.”
          Obimpe recognized his cue. Pushing aside the drum he had been playing before the sermon, he slowly rose to his feet. All the eyes in the clearing immediately turned his way, and a flush crept up his cheeks.
          “Brothers and sisters, thank you for coming out on this day. I do not take attendance, but the Lord does, and He will surely remember those who came to hear His word when others stayed in their houses and hid,” said Father Murphy.
          “Anuanom medamoase sɛ moaba. Onyame bekai nea obayɛ he nea woa mba,” repeated Obimpe, wrapping his mentor’s words in a dialect his people understood.
          “This week I would like to talk to you about a topic very near and dear to my heart: faith.”
          “Nawɔtwe yi yebɛ ka gyediɛ ho asɛm.”
          As the sermon got underway, Obimpe glanced at his mentor out of the corner of his eye. Voice booming, hands frantic, Father Murphy delivered the word of God with a confidence Obimpe only dreamed of someday possessing. The man’s voice filled the whole clearing like a wave crashing over a beach, rising up to the tops of the trees and beyond, into an eagerly waiting sky. The grace with which he spoke of his God would have made the angel Gabriel shed a tear.
          Too bad not a single one of his listeners understood him.
          Their system worked like so: Father Murphy would give a huge, impassioned speech on the theological topic of his choice while Obimpe stood off to the side and translated as fast as he could while making himself as small as possible.
          This worked most of the time.
          “And in the land of milk and honey, even your most distant cousins will greet you with open arms!” boomed the pastor.
          For the first time during the whole sermon, Obimpe stumbled. In Twi there was no word for "cousin," yet saying "your brother’s child" changed the whole meaning of the sentence. He hurriedly twisted the line into something about taking your family with you to find milk, and he hoped that Mr. Jesus would not fault him for his transgression.
          However, despite the pastor’s multiple attempts to engage them, the congregation did little more than stare up from their logs with blank looks on their faces. The sleeping man in the back began to snore.
          They continued in this manner for the better part of two hours, Father Murphy exalting God’s name on high while Obimpe struggled to convey it to the people down below. When the good pastor finally reached the end of his talk, Obimpe breathed a sigh of relief. His tongue felt heavy in his mouth, and even though the sun was still high in the sky, he felt sluggish like it would set at any moment.
          As soon as it was clear that Murphy had nothing more to say, his small congregation stirred, though no one moved to leave. Father Murphy pulled out a handkerchief and wiped at his red face.
          “Good work today, David.”
          “Thank you, Father.”
          “I think that was one of my best.”
          “I think so too, Father.”
          “They’ll probably tell their friends about it and come next week, right?”
          “We can only hope so, Father.”
          Father Murphy didn’t say anything else to that, but Obimpe got the feeling they weren't done on the topic. Obimpe wished he could go back to playing his drum. 
          “Me paakyew.”
          Obimpe turned to see a woman with downcast eyes and a baby tied tightly to her back, shifting from foot to foot in front of them.
          “Me daase sɛ wone yɛn bɛ kasaaye. Me pɛ sɛ me tieawo nawɔtwe bia.”
          Father Murphy’s eyes went wide, but Obimpe stepped forward and said, “Yɛ ni aseda, ɛyɛ adea yɛ yɛ.”
          The two spoke for a little bit, then she handed him a green package and walked off. Father Murphy coughed.
          “What did she need?”
          “She said that she likes coming each week to listen to your tales, and that she wants you to have this. I think it’s kenkye.”
          “Ah, right. Of course. That’s the...the eggplant dish, correct?”
          “Actually the dish you’re thinking of is called egusi,” Obimpe began, but he paused when he realized that the priest was now fussing over some part of his Bible that had folded over. Sighing, Obimpe sat down and began fiddling with his drum, rapping a few cracked knuckles against the goatskin surface. Another mosquito buzzed by Obimpe’s ear. He hit it.
          The journey back to their home was a quiet one. The oppressive heat of the day forced its way down their throats, silencing any hopes of conversation. The swaying trees that lined their path cast shadows here and there, providing intermittent relief from the constant bombardment of a cloudless sky. Out of the corner of his eye, Obimpe spotted the glint of rushing water. He ignored it.
          For Obimpe, the journey was not too bad; his whole life had been spent surviving the harsh climate of the land once known as Asanteman, so now he knew the rhythm of the forest’s day and heat as well as the beating of his own heart. Father Murphy, however, was born not of the Ashanti but of the English, in a land Obimpe had never seen but had heard enough of to know he didn’t want to go there. Having known nothing but the mists of England before he’d been assigned to preach down here, Father Murphy’s body had not taken kindly to the new tropical climate.
          Obimpe tried to ignore Father Murphy’s huffing and puffing at first, but when the older man gave a wheeze that sounded more suited to a man twice his age, he knew he had to do something, at least to say he did if nothing else.
          “Are you alright, Father? We can stop if you want.”
          “I don’t need a break, really, but if you insist then, well, we can stop for a bit, but only because you’re so persistent.”
          With that, Father Murphy sat down, a cloud of dust puffing up as his backside hit the dry earth. Obimpe sat down beside him. Taking up three stalks of grass, Obimpe slowly started weaving them into a braid. His inability to keep his hands still had gotten him into much trouble at the orphanage, but he wasn’t keen to quit it.
          Nearly fifteen minutes and four braids later, Father Murphy breathed a sigh of a man long suffering.
          “Four months. We’ve been here four months and not even a dozen followers,” said the Englishman. “Where are they if they’re not here? What could possibly be more important than learning the word of our Lord?”
          “The market, most likely,” replied Obimpe offhandedly. He tentatively wove another strand into his braid. When he looked up again, Father Murphy was looking at him intently.
          “Then perhaps we should head into the market, David.”
          Not once since they had arrived on their mission had Father Murphy ever gone into the market or expressed any desire to do so. He left all the household chores to Obimpe, who was more than happy to do them in exchange for a place to sleep at night. The thought of walking into the market with the foreigner by his side made him shiver.
          He also wished he would stop calling him David.
          “Perhaps.”
          For several long moments the two just stared up at the cloudless sky. Then Father Murphy said, “No use sitting around all day. Let’s get going.”
          With help from Obimpe, Father Murphy got back to his feet, face slightly less red than it had been just minutes before. The pastor looked around. He squinted at something far off.
          “My word, is that a river? You never told me there was a river so nearby! Why do we walk all those miles to the well when we have a river practically in our backyard?”
          It was the same glimmer of water Obimpe had noticed earlier. He eyed it suspiciously.
          “We don’t use that river.”
          “Why not?”
          “It has always been that way. Our grandfathers did not go in that river, so neither do we.”
          Father Murphy folded and unfolded his arms.
          “You can’t just do something because others told you to, David. If everyone thought like that, then humanity would still be banging sticks together trying to figure out the wheel.”
          Obimpe bit the inside of his cheek.
          “Demons,” he said finally. “The stories say that if you go into that river, then you will be taken away by demons.”
          “Demons?” Father Murphy lifted a single eyebrow. “An entire village ignores a perfectly viable source of water in the midst of one of the worst droughts in history all because of a rumor about demons?” When Obimpe didn’t respond, the priest added, “We can talk about this more later. Let’s be heading back.”
          Still, the roaring of the river’s waters haunted Obimpe long after they had gotten out of its range.
          Obimpe spent the rest of the day tidying up the small house near the outskirts of the village that he shared with the pastor. There were some who considered cleaning to be the work of women, but the boy had found that he had a knack for keeping a household running, even if the household consisted of only two people.
          Truth be told, Obimpe had barely managed to hold back his dismay when he got his first full look of the small compound they now called home. He’d tried to tell the pastor of his concerns, but Murphy had merely waved them away.
          “I can feel a holy presence emanating from this place. This is where the Lord means us to be,” Murphy had said, his voice brimming with pride.
          Why the Lord wanted them to live in a home surrounded by an almost impenetrable forest wall and nearly three miles from the nearest well was beyond him. Then again, maybe that was why Father Murphy was the priest and he was but a lowly pupil. 
          When he finished his housework, Obimpe sat down with a Bible in one hand and a small candle in the other. Opening the book to the page he had dog-eared just that morning, he began:
          “Whoever be-believes and is ba...buh...baptized! Baptized, will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be conde...eh...muh...condemned.”
          The priests at the orphanage had been kind enough to teach Obimpe how to speak English, but they’d neglected to show him how to read or write it. Appalled that his young charge could not understand even the simplest of phrases, Father Murphy had assigned the boy to read a series of excerpts from the Bible each night. In only four months, he’d gone from being unable to list the alphabet to reading whole paragraphs almost fluently. It was also a good crash course into all things Christian.
          There were still certain parts of the religion Obimpe did not understand, like why their God was both three people and one at the same time, or how a being powerful enough to make a universe in six days would be tired on the seventh, but the book itself was entertaining at the very least. Obimpe had once pointed out how Nyame, the all supreme god of his own people, and the God of this Bible were very similar, but all that had done was make Father Murphy send him to bed without supper.
          That night, instead of looming over his charge’s shoulder as he studied, Father Murphy sat at their rickety table deeply engrossed in his own affairs. A letter had arrived for the priest while they’d been gone at church, and he was now reading it with a furrowed brow.
          Thus their evening passed quietly.  Aside from the occasional ruffling of pages, the only other sound to be heard was the low humming of cicadas dancing around in the bush that surrounded their home.
          Though he stumbled several more times, Obimpe finally reached the end of the passage and closed the Bible with a satisfying thump. He drew himself to his feet, taking care not to hit his head on the low ceiling. He glanced back over at Murphy. 
          “Would you like some tea before bed? A biscuit?” he asked. Father Murphy looked up and shook his head, a strained smile on his face.
          “That’s alright, son. Thank you.”
          However, the look on the man’s face was anything but alright. It was the same look he wore whenever they received a letter from the head mission back in Accra, and he’d been wearing it more and more often. Obimpe had never liked the men who ran the mission, with their greasy hair and snake-tongued voices. He hoped the influx of letters meant they were staying far away in Accra where he wouldn’t have to look at them.
          Father Murphy must have seen the way Obimpe looked at the letter, because he added, “It’s nothing to worry about, really. Can’t let something so trivial ruin our good day.”
          Regarding Father Murphy once more, Obimpe marveled at how different the man before him was from the man who had preached earlier. Where was the booming figure that had breathed life into the dry ink words of a world none of them had ever seen? How had this hunched and huddled bird-like man taken his place? This Father Murphy looked as if one good shove would send him floating away on the breeze.
          “Both my chores and reading are done, can I sleep?” asked Obimpe, wiping his hands on his ragged pants.
          “Ah yes, of course, my dear boy. But before that, would you mind doing me a favor and playing me a little something on that drum of yours? Too much quiet is bad for these bones.”
          The instrument sat exactly where Obimpe had left it when they’d returned from church. Without the light of the morning sun to illuminate it, the drum exuded a menacing air in the shadows.
          “I can’t play it when the sun is not out,” Obimpe admitted.
          “Why ever could that be?”
          “Spirits will come for you if you play at night.”
          He knew it was the wrong thing to say as soon as the words had left his mouth. Father Murphy eyes narrowed, his mouth drawing into a tight line.
          “What have I told you about false idols and spirits, David?”
          Obimpe looked down at his feet. Father Murphy regarded his charge for several seconds,  then sighed.
          “Bring the drum here.”
          Obimpe’s hands shook as he placed the instrument by the man’s feet, and he jerked away from it as if it were on fire. Father Murphy set down his pen and set about inspecting the drum, running his hands down the intricate carvings on its side and over the smooth goatskin that made up the top. He looked up at Obimpe, a hint of something dangerous in his eyes.
          “Play something.”
          Obimpe shook his head. He swallowed, his throat suddenly dry.
          “Play something,” repeated Father Murphy.
          “I can’t. The spirits, they’ll take me away.”
          “Those spirits and demons you’re so afraid of are stories created by an uneducated mass, nothing more. Just touch it at least.” He reached out to pull Obimpe’s hand onto the instrument, but the boy moved away quickly, rocking back and forth on his heels.
          “No! They’ll take me away. They’ve taken people before. Please, don’t do it, please.”
          He could still hear his grandmother whispering into his ear the tales of the unfortunate who had been foolish enough to play with forces beyond their control. Were she here, there was no doubt she’d balk at such obstinacy. Obimpe bit down on his fist to keep from moaning.
          The priest’s mouth pressed into a hard line. Lifting his hand high as if to reach for heaven itself, he hit the top of the drum.
          Obimpe screamed. Father Murphy hit the drum once more, the sound reverberating deep and clear throughout their home. Each drumbeat hit Obimpe like a slap to the face, his own heart mirroring the sound. Father Murphy’s beat became wild and frenzied, harried and unpredictable, and had anyone been listening from the outside, they surely would have shuddered with fright.
          Then, just as quickly as he had begun, he stopped. Father Murphy pulled his hands away, running one through his disheveled hair. Obimpe slowly unfolded himself one limb at a time from the ball he had curled up into. He looked over one shoulder, then another. The house was just as silent and empty as it had always been. After several tense minutes passed of nothing, Father Murphy gave a triumphant smile.
          “I think we’ve given the spirits plenty of time to drag us down to a fiery grave. Now do you understand? Any stories you have been told, any lies you’ve learned—none of it is real. This?” He rapped a knuckle against the leather-bound Bible on the table. “This is real. Now go to sleep, lad. You look like a mess.”
          Muttering something that sounded vaguely like agreement, Obimpe stood up. The sweat dripping down his face mixed with the still rapid beating of his heart disoriented the boy, and he nearly fell over more than once on his way back to his room.
          But instead of sleeping, Obimpe simply stared at the wall, his heart still beating faster than he could ever remember it beating before.

          Obimpe was awakened the next day not by the crowing of the cock but by Father Murphy’s hands seizing him by the shoulders and shaking him violently.
          “I’ve got it! David, I know what we need to do to bring the people to us!”
          “W-what do we need to do?”
          “Telling people about the word of God hasn’t been enough—I need to show them, like I showed you yesterday!”
          Obimpe rubbed at his eyes, as if that would somehow make up for all the hours of sleep he had missed. When he looked up again, the look in the pastor’s eyes chilled him to the bone.
          “Baptisms,” said Father Murphy. “We’re going to do baptisms in the river.”
          Obimpe blinked.
          The rest of the morning flew by in a blur. Only once did Obimpe attempt to talk the pastor out of what was surely madness, but Obimpe was so tired and Father Murphy so excited that he may as well have been talking to his own foot. Mere hours after waking up, they were in the market, Obimpe yelling for anyone who would listen to follow them down to the river. Most of the reactions were mirrors to Obimpe’s own; most people didn’t even look up from their goods to acknowledge them as they walked by.
          But much to Obimpe’s dismay, they soon had a sizable group behind them, though whether they were coming due to genuine interest or sheer boredom, he could not tell. Unlike all the other well-trodden paths surrounding the village, the path leading to the river was covered in prickly thorns. Obimpe pulled as many away as he could with a stick, hoping that this minor deterrence would be enough to convince the pastor of the folly he was committing.
          “I see it up ahead, there it is!” exclaimed Father Murphy.
          Obimpe was now closer to the river than he could ever remember being before. He didn’t trust the way the sun glinted off the rushing waters nor the way the animals chattered between the swaying reeds of the bank.  On a sandy beach halfway between both banks, a black cormorant preened its wings in the afternoon sun, completely unfazed by the sudden appearance of so many strangers.
          Father Murphy surveyed the river and nodded.
          “Perfect. Now, David, if you could—David?” Father Murphy turned. The villagers and Obimpe stood huddled together over thirty feet from the river’s edge. The more superstitious among them were muttering to themselves, and even the most courageous men of the village had fear in their eyes.
          “David, please come over here so we can get the ceremony started.”
          Obimpe looked at the gleaming river, then the sweaty pastor, then back at the river. All at once he remembered every tall tale and story his grandmother had told him, her withered hands turning her pestle over and over as her words beat into him all the forbidden paths of their ancestral land. So many, many stories, the only remnants he had left of a family he barely knew.
          He didn’t move.
          “David,” repeated Father Murphy, raising his voice slightly to be heard over the rush of water. “Come here.”
          He shouldn’t do it. He couldn’t do it. But then he remembered the drum and how courageously the pastor had gone against the spirits and won. If that tale had turned out to be untrue, who was to say this one wasn’t as well?
          Besides, the woman who had first shared these stories with him hadn’t hesitated to give him away the first chance she’d gotten.
          Heart pounding loudly in his ears, Obimpe came to stand by Father Murphy’s side. The man placed a hand on his shoulders and gave him a smile.
          “My good people, I have brought you today to behold one of the many wonders of God’s glory!” boomed Father Murphy. Hands shaking, Obimpe translated the priest’s words. Several people in the crowd looked ready to faint.
          “For too many years, you have lived in ignorance, blinded by the lies fed to you by false idols. But where has the path of fear led you to now? Here you stand, downtrodden and half-starved!
          “Well no longer! Rejoice, for today you shall all be returned to the glory of your Creator! Today, right before your very eyes, I shall prove to you all that there is no river demon that can hold weight against our one true God, Lord of All, He without equal!”
          At this point the pastor was screaming at the top of his lungs, flecks of spittle flying from his mouth. It was the fastest Obimpe had ever translated and even then he could barely keep up. All of the villagers had now turned their gazes to Father Murphy, their eyes wide like owls.
          “Now, let he with the most love in his heart be the first into this river."
          Not a single person moved. Father Murphy scanned a sea of brown faces of every size and age.
          “Superstitious lot we got here, huh? I think they need an example. Why don’t you show them how it’s done, David?”  When Obimpe didn’t respond, the pastor repeated, “David?”
          Slightly out of breath, Obimpe couldn’t bring himself to look the pastor in the eyes. Instead he gazed down at the top of his sandaled feet, eyes skimming over the familiar grooves of his dry skin. He heard the pastor sigh.
          “Be that way if you wish.”
          Without a single glance backwards, Father Murphy strode, arms swinging, toward the heart of the river.
          Several people gasped. Someone screamed. A grandmother cried out prayer of protection to Nyame and any other gods who would listen. There was no reaction from Father Murphy until he’d made it to the middle of the river, where he then turned to face the spectators back on the bank.
          “Do not look away! See how far into the water I have gone, yet not a single misfortune has befallen me!”
          Obimpe couldn’t really hear the man over the roar of the water, but he doubted anyone would have listened to his translation anyway. Everyone had leaned forward to get a better view of the pastor’s stunt. A few had even gotten to the very edge, close enough to touch the water but still not actually coming into contact with it. Obimpe realized then how shallow the river really was, for the water barely reaching Murphy’s chest.
          Father Murphy ducked beneath the shimmering surface of the river and for a moment, Obimpe wondered what would happen to him now that his mentor had been spirited away. But a second later the man resurfaced, water dripping from his light-brown hair.
          No lightning came from the sky. No demons surged to tear him limb from limb. Not even a crocodile showed up to drag him into the murky waters. A flurry of murmurs went through the crowd.
          Someone stepped forward. Obimpe recognized her as the same woman who had given him the kenkye just a day earlier. Her child clutched tightly to her chest, she dipped a toe into the water then immediately flinching back. When nothing happened, she put her whole foot in the river, then her leg, and soon she was all the way in, wading out to where Father Murphy welcomed her with open arms. Slowly, one by one, the villagers waded into the swirling waters. 
          “Blessed are they who shall enter God’s Kingdom!” cried Father Murphy. Grabbing the nearest person to him, a portly young man who Obimpe recognized to be the butcher’s son, Father Murphy dunked the young man’s head under the water. One by one he baptized each of his new charges, praising God’s glory as he did so for all that would hear. No one else joined the baptized group, but a few darted forward to scoop the river’s water into their clay jars.
          Nobody noticed Obimpe slip away from the crowd until he had disappeared far, far back into the tree line away from the madness of both gods and man.

          Decades later, when Obimpe was a graduate student at a grand university whose name he could barely pronounce, he would discover that within his childhood river lived no demon, but simply an organism scientists would later recognize as a relative of the Onchocerca volvulus, the parasite that causes river blindness.
          The pastor and his twelve disciples all died less than two weeks after the mass baptism, worms burrowing out of their eyes long after they had taken their last breaths. After much deliberation, the elders declared their deaths as suicides, since they had all gone into the river willingly, and as such, custom dictated they could not be buried within the village plot. Thus a large pyre was built on the outskirts of the farthest field, and the bodies were placed upon it with little ceremony.
          Staring up at the dancing flames, Obimpe wondered if there were rules against suicides in the heaven Father Murphy so dearly loved. He hoped there weren’t, for Murphy’s sake.
          “He was a good man.”
          Obimpe turned to see the man who had slept his way through Father Murphy’s last official sermon. He now stood as the ragged remains of the legacy the priest had tried to build. Obimpe hadn’t even realized that the man knew English, but then again, he had never tried to befriend any of the church members.
          “Priest. Good man.” The man shook his head sadly. “No more church now.”
          “Yeah,” said Obimpe softly. “No more church now.” There was something befitting about speaking in the man’s native tongue at his farewell from this life.
          He thought back to the very first day they’d met, when Father Murphy had picked Obimpe out of all the boys in the orphanage to assist him on his mission.
          “But if what these good women tell me is true, then a name like yours just won’t do,” the priest had said, one burly hand on Obimpe’s scrawny shoulder. “You look a lot more like a David to me.”
          Obimpe. Unwanted. David. Beloved.
          Obimpe closed his eyes and opened them.
          “Actually, if you’d like, I could teach you some more of the stuff the Father taught me before he passed,” he said slowly, turning away from the flames. The man turned to follow him.
          “Thank you very much...?”
          “David. You can call me David.”


Rosie Brown was born in the West African nation of Ghana and is a graduate of the Jimenez-Porter Writers' House at the University of Maryland. When not writing, she can be found hiding out in the library, asking her dog the meaning of life, and pestering people about Batman.