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Short Story

Cleft Stick

Adebowale Oriku tells a story about a man who finds it difficult to tell a story.

He sat at the side of his little daughter’s bed, and opened a big book of Bible stories which his born-again Christian wife had bought to be read to their daughter, to vary what she believed were mere storybooks which taught the girl nothing, but only made her giggle a bit and then fall asleep. She had felt their daughter needed uplifting stories from the Bible: her mind was pliant now, formative; this was the time to show her the difference between good and bad. And of course he could see that all the stories in the picture book were indeed moral ones: perceptive parables told by Christ; stories about the good man called Lazarus; how Jesus chased gamblers and other bad types from the Temple of the Lord; and occasional Old Testament stories, like the one telling how Moses was found in a bullrush basket floating down a river. The pictures were moral too, like the pictures of children sitting on the lap of Christ, in the passage where he enjoined grown-ups to let children come to him, for Heaven and Paradise belong to the little ones.

Ola had nothing against all this. He was a Christian too, although not as committed as his wife. He saw the sense in reading good stories to children from the Bible. Why not? Some of the Bible stories were indeed uplifting. After all, in the children’s version there were no stories like when Jesus cast demons into the bellies of unsuspecting pigs, or when he cursed the tree that did not give him fruit; nor Old Testament stories such as how the Prophet Elisha cursed some children who were mocking him because he was bald, and they were killed by bears. Ola was speedily balding too, and since he was certain he would not give a group of urchins calling him a slaphead any notice at all, not to mention cursing them, he would certainly be at a loss how to explain to his daughter why a prophet of God, God’s favourite, had to curse some playful children piping on about his alopecia. He preferred the attitude of the Danish religious philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who walked the streets of Copenhagen with a limp owing to the congenital condition of one leg being shorter than the other. Street children had made fun of him, ragging him brutally because of the funny way he walked. Of the either/or of turning nasty and thus risking more ridicule, or ignoring the youths, Kierkegaard had chosen the latter, humourously mentioning the fun the street kids had at his expense in one of his essays. Well, Ola would rather show a child the picture of children sitting on the lap of Jesus than tell them about the children-directed wrath of the bald prophet – although a male teacher in a Sunday School who had the supposedly Christ-like habit of gathering children close around him, and even dandling some of them on his knees, was later accused of abuse by one of the children. He was removed from the Sunday School and investigated. At a different time Ola had attended a church in which a rather tough-minded pastor had expostulated with those who were looking for shortcuts to Heaven, that merely having children come to you would not itself guarantee Heaven. If a child was guaranteed Heaven because of her innocence, that did not mean all of those who had tousled the hair of the child affectionately would follow her into Heaven if the child died young. It was during this time that Ola had to think about another dimension to the matter of bidding children to come to a sin-prone adult: a child could only be guaranteed Heaven if she died young enough…

Rather superstitiously, Ola had to cut off this tortuous trail of thought. Why did he have to think this way – about children dying – when he was sitting beside his own daughter? Not even the notion that his daughter would go to Heaven would be a consolation if he lost her. God forbid! He rebuked the thought as he tucked her under the counterpane of her slender bed and said to her: “Now, Mary, let me read to you how God made the world in seven days.”

“No daddy, read to me ‘Mary had a little lamb’!” the little girl protested.

Maybe because her name was Mary, the few short lines of the Mary-had-a-little-lamb cameo had not ceased to appeal to her, years after her father had begun reading it to her. Ola often indulged his daughter, and would read the story usually off the top of his head, not missing the girl’s twinkling eyes, and expectant of the question that would always come next: “Daddy, will you buy a little lamb for me?” Not all the Teddy Bears, the Barbies, the virtual puppies and stuffed rabbits would do: his daughter would demand a living lamb even on the day any of these sops were presented to her. She asked again tonight; and her dad fobbed her off with the promise that he would buy it for her tomorrow. “Now let’s return to the story of how God created the world.”

He began: “In the beginning there was nothing in the world we live in today. Everything was empty. God was not happy about this, so he turned to his angels and told them, ‘Let us create a world and fill it with things that live, let us create water, trees, animals …’”

Mary had been in her why-fixated phase for some time now, and being a child her father had fancied would grow up into a brainy lass, the question she asked next was a question her father should have imagined she would ask the first day he read the story of Creation to her. It was an obvious question any child would ask, but somehow Ola had not foreseen his daughter asking it. It just didn’t occur to him that she could surprise it on him anytime – which was exactly what Mary did, when she queried: “But who created God?”

Ola was flummoxed, foxed – not so much about the unexpectedness of the question, as to how to quickly answer his demanding, mildly dictatorial daughter. But this was a ‘pigeon’s egg’ project he had to be alive to in double-quick time.

He began, pointing at the bedside light by which he had been reading to her daughter: “Do you know who made that light there, the lightbulb?”

The girl asked again, obliviously; though again, not so obliviously to her daddy: “Was it not God?”

“Not quite,” Ola replied to his daughter, and segued on quickly. “This light was created by a man called Thomas Edison. He was the first man to make a lightbulb. He was a man of science, a man who knew a lot of things, and could do things with a lot of things. He made some other things too, apart from the bulb.”

“Like what?”

“The phonograph record. We can now listen to music because of what he did. He was a hardworking man too, who would forget to eat his food for hours, sometimes for a whole day. You know, there is something interesting about this man’s life. In primary school his teacher thought he was not a bright boy because he started to go deaf early. He was sent away from school, and at home, in his little room, he began to make these things. Later as a grown man, he lived in a place called Menlo Park, so he was called the Wizard of Menlo Park. He was called a wizard because he could make a lot of things.”

“Did he make the telephone?”

“No another man called Bell made the telephone.”

“Did he also make other things, this Bell?”

“Certainly, but I can’t remember any of those things now.”

“These men, were they made by God too?”

“Yes, they were.”

Now the simple if arbitrary law of causality would not make Ola nurse any illusion even for a second that his daughter was going to ask any question but the one she again asked: “So who created God then?”

Now, he was not going to be embroiled with his daughter in odium theologicum, which would certainly conclude, or rather peter out, in a moot way. So he began to ad lib again. He knew another anecdote would keep the unanswerable question at bay, at least for some moments, “There was another man too, called Albert Einstein. Like Edison, he was not very bright when he was a schoolboy. He would turn his head to the window in the classroom, looking at the cattle grazing in the fields outside. His teacher told his father he would not come to anything, because he was not listening to him while he taught.”

Here Ola stopped. He could see his daughter had fallen asleep: that blameless magical thoughtless sleep of children. She was breathing lightly. Ola tiptoed out of her little room, wondering how he would have begun to explain adult Einstein and his theories to his daughter. The Special theory of Relativity, the General theory of Relativity… Six and half-a-dozen; that was as mathematical as he could get. He smiled at himself. Tomorrow he was certainly going to shirk on his daddying responsibility. He would tell his wife he had a horrendous headache and she could help reading their daughter to sleep for once. He would suggest she read the Creation story to her…

© Adebowale Oriku 2006

Adebowale Oriku was formerly the Arts & Culture Editor of the Gambian Observer newspaper. He is now a freelance writer.

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