Celebrating East African Writing!
Written by Wairimu Muriithi
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”
“What has brought you here, my child?” Father Ngatia Maina asked the old voice behind the screen, smiling a bit at the age difference he gauged there was between this man and him.
“It has been almost forty years since my last confession. This is because three months after it, I killed two men.”
Even though he was right about how much older the man was (the priest was forty-five years old), Father Maina instantly forgot the humour in it and closed his eyes. Although he had been warned the day may come when a murderer would sit before him in remorse, he hadn’t thought it likely to happen in his lifetime. Before he could even think of anything he had been prepared to say, the voice continued in a rush, as if anxious to speak of his entire sin before he lost his nerve. “Thirty-seven years ago, I was paid an incredibly large amount of money to commit a murder and ask no questions. One man. The second just happened to be in the way.
“I spent the money. I built a life and lived it. I had children and they had children. But I know that those men had children, and their children probably have children, too. I have lived with this for decades, but I have lived. I have provided. They were never able to. Now, I cannot postpone this any longer. I need forgiveness for killing Josiah Kariuki and his bodyguard.”
Father Maina’s breath caught in his throat. He remembered the heavily publicised story about the politician’s death and the fact that nobody was ever punished for it. He was only a boy of five at the time, but what he remembered most was that the print media had only dedicated a line or two on the death of the bodyguard out of dozens of articles on the assassination.
He breathed out heavily. He knew what he was supposed to do. Or rather, not supposed to do. He was bound by his vows and by very severe penalties to make no use of knowledge, any knowledge, he received in the confessional. Doing so would be breaking the most sacred sacramental seal. As such, he proceeded in the only way he knew how:
“Are you truly sorry for your sins?”
“Yes I am, Father,” replied the penitent.
“Are you willing to surrender yourself to the authorities, all these years later, and confess not only to your sins but to your motive and, if you are aware of it, the motive of the person who paid you?”
There was a heavy silence. Then: “Father, I was under the impression that my confession here would be enough. I am not too proud to say that I am a coward. And I have a family reputation to protect that shall long outlive me.”
Father Maina sighed again, then all in one breath, he said, “Alright then. This is what I’m going to do. I am not sure how to handle this situation as I doubt it would be enough to send you off with a bunch of “Hail Marys”. This may be against protocol, but I would like you to come in for confession this evening when Father Jirongo will be on duty and re-confess your sin. I feel that he, being more experienced and as such more knowledgeable than I am, would be in a better position to help you. Can you do that?”
“Yes, Father,” was the response after brief contemplation. The elderly man got up and walked out of the booth. Shaking because he was less afraid of being caught looking after the anonymous penitent than actually seeing the face of a murderer, Father Maina peeked out of his side, committing the man’s face to memory as he walked out of the further end of the chapel.
The man returned that evening. He passed Father Maina sitting in his car without a second glance and walked into the chapel. A half hour later, he walked out looking slightly shaken, but otherwise unperturbed by whatever he had been instructed to do to earn forgiveness. He got into his new car, a Range Rover, and drove out. He didn’t notice the somewhat dilapidated Peugeot, driven by an anguished man of God, following him.
Thirty-seven minutes later, the Rover drove through the gates of a plush compound on the outskirts of Diani. The old man stepped out of his car, stared at his house with the ocean behind it and reflected on how fortunate he was to receive forgiveness without actually having to give up all that he knew: his family, his fortune, his beautiful retirement home. He was surprised that a confession was all it took to settle his conscience. Had he known that, he would have done this a long time ago. For a moment, he entertained the thought that he wasn’t really sorry for what he had done and that this confession was his only claim to having done something, anything, about it. He quickly brushed away the notion. If the older priest had felt that the penance he had done was enough, then so be it. He was only a tiny bit disturbed that he had confessed to the younger priest earlier. Only a tiny bit. Not enough to get worked up over. He walked into the house to a wonderful and expected welcome from his wife.
Father Maina noted the street and the gate that the big car was driven into. He considered following the man in but thought twice about it. He had to get back to the chapel before he was missed. More urgently, he had to think.
The priest’s mind was wandering all over the memories he had forcefully stored away. He could hardly believe it. It had been years since his life had fallen apart. Decades since he had seen his mother crumble under the weight of the news she had been given; She had begun the excruciatingly slow descent into the madness that made her starve herself to death, in part because she was unable to feed her six children. That’s when little Ngatia realised that as the only boy in his family, he was suddenly responsible for caring for a family that was no longer a family. He remembered, again, the two lines his eldest sister read to him about the bodyguard’s corpse that had been found with Josiah Kariuki’s. He remembered even more clearly reading those words himself a few years later from the newspaper he had managed to save. He remembered most clearly the rage and the utter helplessness he felt because his father had been barely recognized—hadn’t even been given a name.
Later memories resurfaced—the day his neighbour back in Nairobi introduced him to Catholicism. The day he decided to seek solace in the chapel. The day, many years later, he said his vows. The day he asked to be transferred to a church far away from the city that held so much sadness for him. And finally, the day he had found peace; when he had found it within himself to let go of the anger—at the killer, at the media, at the world.
It seemed, though, that his anger hadn’t been vanquished. Well buried, perhaps, but very much alive and not at all willing to be dormant once again.
That evening, Father Maina returned to the compound, banking on the hope that the watchman would let in a man of the cloth without question. He rolled down the window to make sure his collar was on full display. He informed the disinterested guard that his employer had called him in. He needn’t have worried. The gate was opened without another thought before the man returned to swatting at a particularly pesky mosquito.
Manoeuvring along the winding driveway, Father Maina took in the life that had been built on the back of his dead father (and that of the politician). The well-manicured garden. The high wall. The beautiful house that came into view. He parked between the Rover and a Mercedes, climbed out of his car and walked towards the front door. He felt the press of the kitchen knife wrapped in cloth against his arm, kept in place by his wristwatch and the beaded bracelet made by one of his sisters many years ago.
He wasn’t sure what he was going to do. Perhaps he was only going to confront the man. Maybe the knife wouldn’t be necessary. It wasn’t his place to pick a punishment for any man—that was God’s work. Yet God had brought this confession to him, against all odds, all these years and all these miles later. His bubbling rage seemed to be growing much bigger than his piety at the moment. This man deserved to be hurt for denying so many people a future so that he could build his own. For the media’s focus on the “more important” man as if the bodyguard had not had a life and family. For, or in place of, the man who had paid for the death of Kariuki. For his complete lack of proper remorse, if nothing else.
He rang the doorbell. A few seconds later, he was gazing into the eyes of the killer. The eyes of a drunken man holding his seventh beer, celebrating or ignoring his not-so-cleared conscience. Father Maina calmly walked into the house and quietly shut the door behind him.