The women’s choir is not for people like you. We’d heard this before. So we marched, as we have done two times before, out of the church with a mixture of accomplishment and dread. On that Last Day, Pastor Okpara had said, the choir will ascend first, to fill those places of inconceivable comfort with joyful noise. We wanted nothing more than to be part of that enviable throng of humans, who, by merely reaching into their throats and shooting their lungs, are capable of transforming into worthy beings. But we had been turned away without excuse three times now. We felt accomplished because not once before in the history of our church had anyone persisted so in trying to join the choir. This made our parents proud. But we also dreaded that it was becoming late and our chances of getting in thinning quickly as the Last Day was, according to Pastor’s recent messages, any day now. As we marched away from the church we imagined large eyes searing into our small backs, burning our necks and causing the floor tiles to glide quicker under our toes. At least, so we imagined we would use our eyes, if we were older unmarried women in the choir, watching a girl nobody liked turned away for the third time. It had frankly become boring. And maybe at the beginning they got a thrill out of doing this dance too – letting us line up after Sunday School to fill the forms, pay for the golden dresses and come away with our own copy of songs to rehearse, right until the final Sunday before our debut ministration when we’d be left out of the names selected. Outside, the Ageva sun had finished baking, the skies looked like toast bread dipped in tea, just the way Titi liked her breakfast. We did not enjoy being reminded of Titi’s queerness minutes after swallowing another rejection, but we made up for it by not going home. Titi can finish the chores and we can finish the soap opera they’re showing on Alex’s cable. If they will not let us do holy things in holy places, we must find our own righteousness in other venues.
We arrived at Alex’s and tiptoed up the front door. No one was home, just like he said. We elbowed the front door gently and discovered Alex sprawled in front of the TV, remote in hand. Moron, he said without looking up, you’re late. Just rewind, please, we told him. Not before you tell me what took so long, he said. It was useless lying. Everyone knew we were trying to get in the choir and what day it was. He threw his head back and laughed. Ha ha lame, he said, pressing rewind. We acknowledged our lameness, lifted our skirt and settled to the final episode of House.
Alex was a form two boy so he was used to putting his fingers into skirts. What we didn’t like was how his face contorted while doing it, as if he was suffering, as if we caused him great terror and he had to pee his shorts. This too had frankly become boring. Alex was one more reason to join the choir. If we were in the choir, we would be required to be born again. If we were born again, we would be required to stay away from worldly things like this television, which wasn’t at home. We had to join the choir before another television series we like begins a third season. The choir must be got into because school begins in three weeks and when we’re at school, everybody will be talking about series we must see. If there are series we must see, Alex must put his hands in our skirt. While Alex stuck one hand in our pants and another in his wet shorts, wriggling around his parent’s living room, the room started to smell like yam peels. It didn’t occur to us that this kind of activity, which tortured and pleasured equally, could be responsible for our rejections. It never occurs to us to ask Alex about the rapture. He isn’t the sort bothered with that kind of knowledge. He makes his heaven right here on the carpet and his hell could be anything from the rolled grass his friends smoke behind form one building or the imported cigarettes they nick from their father’s golden pouches and share. Besides, if you let a boy like Alex participate in the rapture, where the possibility exists that gowns would be given without pants underneath them, he might go crazy with the finger-thrusting – which we find gives us a solid, sharp pleasure.
Titi, our older sister, is convinced the rapture is sooner than Pastor Okpara would have us believe. She says we must be diligent about our goodness because now more than ever, goodness means something. She does chores we abandon half-way, she spends hours watching the skies burn through the day and because she’s convinced it’ll happen on a wet day, she has her boots cleaned twice daily. You don’t want to carry dirt from here into God’s house, she says. When we point out some people will be taken from their farmlands, mid-cultivation, and what would she do about that dirt? She keeps a broom close for this situation. Every time we kill a cockroach with it, or dust a windowsill, she buys a new one. Nothing of our earth is getting into heaven, she reminds us. Not even our pants. We’re horrified. Will we get new pants? Titi doesn’t know, but she says from the pictures hanging in Pastor Okpara’s office, we all get gowns. And they all fit? She doesn’t know, either, but the angels can size anyone up accurately with one look. All the way from up there, we ask. She doesn’t answer.
Pastor Okpara would have these answers, but he only talks to women in the choir, and Titi, because she keeps company with his daughter. So on Sunday, as he delivers a spine-tingling sermon and tries to maintain eye contact with the front pew, we try to engage him too, see if he can be divinely guided to answer our questions in his next sentence. He ignores us, mostly, because we giggle and whisper things as others behind us work themselves into a fever at the urgency of the message. Most times, our gossip is targeted at the squint-eyed doll who parades herself as the Pastor’s daughter. She farts or struggles to hold one in, and we point and laugh. We watch her watch her father and only look away when somehow, our father, fifteen benches away, spots us making a nuisance. Everybody likes Sara, the Pastor’s daughter. She sings like a duck. They let her conduct the songs. When the choir go up, her butt is directly in our face and we duck every time she moves.
Sara leads testimony. She invites people up, shyly, to share their testimonies. People seem to find blessings themed along the pastor’s sermon every week. Last week, for instance, we heard a message about giving. Four of six testifiers came up to say they had given and had been blessed abundantly in return. With what, nobody would tell us. The other day, it was Grace. Somebody testified that they’d gotten a job they weren’t qualified for. The church erupted every time. Except the Last Day sermons, every other sermon was rewarded with testifiers. Not that we expected anyone to come up and testify that they’d seen their name in the book of life or anything. That would be something. In fact, we might do that. We might go up and say we saw a vision where an angel confirmed that all members of the current choir had been de-listed and that restitution was endlessly unavailable, that the best they would get would be the waitlist, which was rather lengthy and reserved for the worst Christians. But that’s until next week.
Back home, nobody asks if we made the choir. The rejection seems to float merrily above our heads, like the star sitting atop a Christmas tree. But parents, as they will, try to make helpful sounds. They say things we don’t hear or want to. Things which, when heard, might be aimed at comforting. Their mouths drop open and snap shut frequently. Is this the language of heaven, we wonder. We go to our room and wash off Alex’s hands before Titi can sniff anything.
No one comes up to deliver a testimony about the rapture at midweek service. We are disappointed. We redouble our commitment to testify on Sunday. Sara visits on Friday. We return from Alex’s to find her in the room we share with Titi. She’s about to leave when we tell her to feel at home. We tell her we’re happy to see her, would she mind terribly squeezing us into the list for Sunday’s testimony time? She thinks it’s a trick. We assure her it is not. Her eyes light up. Her yes is a scream. We are in the dining room when Titi returns from seeing Sara off and demands to know what we’re up to. We say nothing and go into the kitchen, where Titi follows us to tell our mother what we’ve done. Mother, as mothers will, tries to make helpful sounds. She says things we don’t hear or want to. Things which, when heard, might be chastening Titi for not trusting her sibling to do anything right, to be a good-minded person with divine intentions; things which might make us happy if we weren’t already wet of another kind of happiness from our pants down. The phone rings and mother goes away to speak to her brother, who has been fighting his wife again. Father enters the kitchen as we kick Titi in the knee. He sends us to our room. This is convenient. Titi will do the night’s dishes.
Our name is announced on Sunday morning for the testimony. Not only are we the last to appear on the list, we are the first to be called up. We cannot believe Sara has kept her word. More so, because we know Titi has tried over the weekend to convince her we were up to no good and that because she shared our room, she knew nothing miraculous had happened in our lives during the week. This was not true. Alex’s hands were one divine occurrence she knew nothing of. But we have not come to testify about that. We’re here to thank God for the opportunity to make fun of Sara in front of her father, and actually do it. We grab the microphone with crude gratefulness and begin to sing worship songs. This is a surprise, even to our own parents, because you shouldn’t turn voices like ours away from the choir three times. We sing past the allotted testimony time and Sara is starting to crinkle her brows. She’s under pressure to take the microphone as there are other testimonies to be heard and other banalities to pass before her father delivers his hellfire and brimstone sermon. We can see through his purple suit and striped tie that he is packing enough heat to threaten Antarctica. We sing until things begin to get awkward for the choir members in their golden tassels and sharp high-heels. Our father has started to whisper things to our mother. Titi is seething in her chair. Sara is fidgeting. Her father has just about cleared his throat enough times to leave his airways without air.
When we finally speak, we tell them about the vision. We pull out a list from under our bonnet and read out names of the angels designed to carry each church member into God’s eternal rest. None of the choir members are in it. They are shifting again and again, murmuring like stubborn bees, their huddle of golden robes beginning to look like a false sunset. In the silence that envelops the church, we cannot tell if they’re shocked that our names are first on the list or that their own is not in it all. Nobody stands up to challenge us and call us liars outright, but we see from their poisoned eyes many are thinking it. Titi is wriggling like an epileptic worm. If others have called us liars in their hearts, Titi has walked up to the pulpit, ripped the paper from our hands and slapped us severely on the neck. When we finish, we don’t find Sara in the congregation. She’s not behind us, not in the front pew, and not with the choir. As pastor Okpara apologizes to the other testifiers whose pulpit time we’d taken, we hear needled groaning from his office where we now conclude Sara has retreated.
On the drive home, our father says nothing. Our mother says nothing. We see tall handsome boys, skinny weird-haired gods who had defied their parents, returning from football fields. They are wearing green half-socks and palm slippers, holding colorful soccer boots and singing stupid worldly songs. Each of them, with their stupid manly voices, would have been accepted in our choir. No question. Titi has stayed back to console her friend, so she’s not here to stop us from staring at the lazy, adolescent arms on these boys, their dirty, slender fingers and the non-football things they could do better than Alex. If we’re not getting pants for the rapture, we think, these boys would be good company for the flight. We think of the wages of sin and immediately regret this thought.
When we get home we ask our mother to ask God, when before the rapture can we choose our pant colors? Our mother doesn’t answer. We don’t get lunch. Though we see her serving our father, she claims Pastor Okpara says we’re fasting.
That evening, Titi doesn’t return. She calls father to say Sara has been admitted at Ageva hospital. Our mother lets our father go alone because her brother, who has been sent packing by his wife, is coming to live with us briefly. Uncle Francis arrives at five thirty in his white Mercedes, accompanied by a small truck. We show the men where to keep the bags and the desk, which he claims to need for his writing. Uncle Francis is not anyone’s favorite uncle, but we can get along with anybody as long as they have a television.
Titi returns with father and we hear her telling mother everything. Sara had gone into her father’s office to hide, too shaken and embarrassed by our testimony to make an appearance. They’d found her sprawled lifeless on the floor after service. They’d rushed her to Ageva general hospital where the doctors declared her life a real miracle. Convenient, we snigger. We can see Titi is angry. Her veins are restless. Her knuckles are cracked, pale against the parched hue of her face. We imagine the warm, furious stirring in her blood. We grasp that we are responsible for some form of non-good, but it isn’t a total tragedy. Sara’s alive. And it is not as though the church missed our message. For all we know, Pastor Okpara is somewhere berating the head of choir for our continued exclusion from the choir.
At school, we chat about Bones and Grey’s Anatomy and 24: Legacy. These are the newest series and we know all about it. In fact, all the open-eyed nights spent in front of Uncle Francis’s television seemed to be rewarded by the tumultuous unit of girls who crowd about us, wielding stick-sweets and mangoes, demanding to know what they’d missed. These girls, whose fathers bought televisions but kept them on a strict diet, once jeered at us for our faith, for the absence of television in our house. Yet here they stood on tiptoes, listening to us as we carried news from other worlds and twisted it into their pliant chests. We are big girls in small bodies now. Alex, walking past with his friends, splits and comes to pull us away. He demands to know why we have stood him up seven straight days. We tell him nothing. He promises to tell everyone the color of pants we wear on Thursdays. We tell him we’d be surprised if anyone cared. He storms off.
At home we find Titi alone, weeping. She rallies our litany of bad behavior, at our continued pant less visits to the basement, where Uncle Francis lives now, and how long we stayed there. We know she is still mad about Sara. We ask our mother if we can go with her to see Sara the next day.
When Pastor Okpara answers the door, his bold face crumbles into a fat smile. Our mother asks how Sara is doing. He mumbles something about the lord and his faithfulness. We cannot believe it’s been two weeks since our testimony and that Sara has not left her bed the whole time. She is sleeping when we walk in. Asleep, she could’ve been one of those angels coming to escort the saints, whose names we’d looked up in our father’s New English Translation bible. The head of choir, whose head consisted of a neat wad of flesh, two small inquisitive eyes and a nose which forked out of her lower face, is sitting on the cusp of the bed. Pastor Okpara stares at us the entire time. We are not far from the truth to imagine he has peeled the skins off our backs in his head. Mrs. Kofo, the head of choir, stares up at him, strangely, in the way we looked at those football players. Pastor Okpara asks if we want anything. We cannot believe it. We nod as Mrs. Kofo serves us a big jug of cold juice. Our hands are shaking as we take it.
Our hands are shaking because we cannot believe that there is a television in Sara’s room. We wonder if her father knows, but we correct ourselves; he has to know. It is a big TV, bigger than Uncle Francis’s, bigger than Alex’s, and brighter. We think it is HD. We look at our mother, who herself is engaged more by the TV than the girl we’ve come to see. The screen is blank, of course, but there’s a remote near it and from our experience in Alex’s parlor, we know it can be used to summon the TV to life just as easily as it can assassinate it. Pastor Okpara excuses himself. Mrs. Kofo strides the room like an emperor. Nobody, it seems, wants to address the TV. We ask if we can watch. This is not meant to be heartless. Indeed, we have only just remembered Suits is premiering its seventh season that evening. Since we’ve already promised to come, we have come, but now that the TV is in this room, we can kill two birds with one stone. This is our thinking. We ask our mother if she can ask Mrs. Kofo if we can turn it on. She steers her eyes away from us. Unimpressed, we ask Mrs. Kofo directly. We learn that this will not be possible.
Pastor Okpara returns and slides the remote out of sight. We ask him directly if we can turn the TV on. He fixes on us with his big eyes, the way he looks when he casts out demons at special services. He expresses his dismay that we should be thinking of sinful things in that moment. We start to ask why he keeps sinful things in Sara’s room if we are not supposed to think about them. His frown breaks. A lone tear slinks down the right side of his face. Look at her, he says, with a touching humility that tickles our neck. We should not have obeyed, had it not been commanded and in the presence of our mother. We look at Sara. She is frail, unbearably small and life seems to be seeping out of every pore in her body. Her skin is depressed and colored like something they would need an operation for on Grey’s Anatomy. We’re not sure why he wants us to see her like this. Or why she is like this. We wonder if Sara has been sneaking into this room to watch TV, and if this is what happens to girls who sneak behind their pastors to watch worldly things happen on sinful television sets. We tremble, slightly. If this is for watching TV, we wonder if we’re going to get any gowns at all, knowing how many times we let Alex and Uncle Francis discover us. We look up at Pastor Okpara with our worldly eyes and unsaved ears, hoping for some reprieve. We wonder if he’ll explode tearfully and tell us there is no moral, that Sara’s ailment is unconnected to watching TV, that we’re still eligible for rapture.