Fall 2022 Issue

The Prophet's Tooth

     The birth of Schaffer’s first grandchild was not any indication that his terrifying night-time encounters were turning into reality. The baby’s cleft palate exposed its gums at exactly where Schaffer had forcefully extracted the Tooth on that accursed night. The baby’s eyes seemed horrified, as were the lifeless, still mortified eyes that stared at him as he carried out the orders of his superiors. By its twelfth month, a successful surgery corrected the baby’s cleft palate, but not the eyes. While most grandfathers enjoyed the occasional play with their grandkids, Schaffer avoided his. The cleft palate scars, the alarmed eyes, all told of secrets that the years, though piling up like thick blankets on a burning stove, have refused to snuff out.

     The first, as they say, is happenstance. Schaffer’s second grandbaby, born to another of his children, exhibited the same anatomical deficiency at birth. The baby moved the post further; he was born blind in one eye and deaf in one ear, at exactly the side of the face where Schaffer had savagely extracted the Tooth that bedeviled night.

A successful surgery repaired the cleft palate, but not the deafness and blindness. Both deformities were caused by the cleft palate, explained the pediatrician. Retinal detachment brought about blindness. The baby was deaf because muscles of the palate could not allow air into the middle ear and other such medical explanations.  

      For thirty years, the Tooth had remained placid, forgotten, even. If the gold still glittered, it was not to be seen, not by Schaffer, not by anyone else. Schaffer paid the Tooth no visits. Not even after each dreadful anniversary nightmare. The anniversary nightmares occurred, sometimes seven days before, sometimes seven days after, but always within seven days of the anniversary of that fearsome night. In most of the nightmare, Schaffer would be back in Katanga, in the middle of the savannah grassland that stretched for miles. The sky always appeared as if some heavenly being had painted it with tar from the numerous coal mines in the region.

     Sometimes in the nightmare, Schaffer was all by himself, but most times there were shadowy, demonic, white-skinned figures, with the swollen face and red, puffy eyes of the Baluba masquerade. The fiends delighted in handing Schaffer tools for the job. Hacksaw for the limbs was given amid a shouting ovation; an axe for the neck, with clear instructions on how to take apart the tough vertebrae, was placed in his hand with a jeering so loud it sounded like millions of voices discordantly singing the Belgium national anthem.  A black fifty-liter jerry can filled with sulphuric acid to liquefy the body, was presented to him like a certificate of accomplishment. Howling with laughter and dancing, the demons would then drag close an empty oil barrel, blackened by coal tar, ready to hold a secret forever. The last scene would usually be the body, turning to mucus in the barrel, to a loud victorious screaming, as if the Belgian National Team has won a much elusive Euro Championship Cup. 

     The Tooth extraction part only featured in his nightmares each time a grandbaby was about to be born. Instead of demons urging him on, he would be alone, in the same plain grasslands of Katanga. There were usually owls and bats flying around the Prophet’s body, like repentant fallen angels, making penance by guarding the body. But the birds would make no attempt to fight Schaffer off as he severed the Prophet’s head. He would pick up the head and with his teeth would start tearing rigor-mortified skin off the cadaver, around the Prophet’s mouth and the thick, set jaw. With superhuman strength, Schaffer would pry the mouth open and with his incisors pull out the Tooth. The last scene was usually of Schaffer pulling his head away from the skull with the Tooth between his teeth. He would usually wake up at that time with clenched teeth, a chill, a thumping heart, and a petrifying feeling.

     Schaffer often wondered why his other accomplices never showed up in any of the dreams. Was it like the judgment day, where only he would be held accountable for sins committed while part of a multitude? Was each member of the killing squad having the same nightmare and appearing all alone, as he?

     The birth of a third grandchild with the exact cleft palate confirmed the supernatural deed of adversaries. 

      Schafer hurried off to the Papacy in Rome for a confession he had immediately scheduled upon receiving news of the child’s unfortunate birth. His phone rang while he was waiting for his flight. It was his daughter, the mother of the newborn, wailing at the other end. The cleft palate came with a grave cognitive deficiency. In short, he now had a severely mentally retarded grandchild to deal with. 

      The night before the birth, Schaffer had two nightmares, the first was the usual pre-birth dream of extracting the Tooth with his teeth. He had woken at 12:00 a.m., reached for a glass of cold water and then laid back down. He was still awake when the second nightmare began. The demons were urging him to use the hacksaw, axe, and acid on himself, instead of on the Prophet’s stiff body.  

      On arrival at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Schaffer put out a request for both a confessor and an exorcist. The confessor he could meet immediately, but an appointment with an exorcist would be weeks away, he was informed. The souls of many Catholics are plagued; there were too many requests for exorcists. 

     “Bless me Father, for I have sinned,” began Schaffer as he knelt before the confessional. 

     Asking for a blessing felt like a crime. All he needed was forgiveness of some sort, really. He did not feel deserving of the priests’ or God’s blessing.

     “It has been–”  a long pause. “It has been a really long time since I last confessed. I am so sorry,” Schaffer said, infusing into his words as much feeling of non-existent remorse as possible. 

     The priest muttered some soothing blessings in response.

     “I worked as a secret service agent in Africa many years ago,” Schaffer continued. "My country colonized this particular African country. Gruesome were the untold crimes we committed against the hapless natives. But I am neither here on behalf of my government nor of my nation.” 

     Schaffer took a deep breath. Ten minutes was the time gently suggested to him by the kind, elderly catechist at the door of the confession room as he filed in with the others. There was a stretched-out line of transgressors waiting to receive the Sacrament of  Reconciliation. 

     “We killed and maimed many natives on the instruction of the state. One death haunts me the most.  He was a prophet sent by God to deliver his people from my nation. His death killed the nation. For that, I have come to receive the Sacrament.” Schaffer spoke slowly as he stared at the area of the wooden confessional just below the net that separated him and the priest. “Father, I have sinned.” Schaffer let out a sigh and followed it with about ten seconds of silence. “We turned his body to slime in a barrel. I pulled a tooth from his body and took it back to my home country. Now – and now – and now...“ Schaffer’s sobbing was loud and fearful, the cries of a haunted soul who never reckoned that his grandchildren would be burdened with the sins of his youth.

     The confessor made a sign of the cross over and over again, his fingers scraping the net.  After waiting a minute and a half in silence, listening to Schaffer’s sobbing, the priest read out his penance.

      “Twenty-five “Our Fathers,”  and Thirty “Hail Marys.” 

     A clearing of the throat and a whisper, so low, so wispy, that Schaffer laid his ear on the small, square net encased in the confession box, which separated him from the confessor.

     “Have the circumstances of the killings been made public by your government?” whispered the penitentiary.

     “No, Father.”

      Another clearing of the throat, followed by a movement, the stretching of an aching knee, perhaps. “Restitution,” whispered the confessor. 

     “Restitution?” Came Schaffer’s hushed repetition.

     “Restitution must be made to clean your hands of blood.” 

      Before Schaffer could speak again, the priest quietly began saying the “Prayer of Absolution,” signifying the end of confession.

     “Amen,” muttered a more troubled Schaffer as he rose and made a sign of the cross. 

     Schaffer knew the prayer of absolution and penance would only work if he made the restitution recommended by the priest. Why and how he was to make restitution distressed him deeply. He was not the Belgian government that gave orders for the killings. 

      Schaffer depended on his pension and despite the exchange rate difference between Congo and Belgium, a financial settlement was out of the question. Even if he sold his home to settle the prophet’s family, the entire country would soon demand a financial settlement. 

      Instead of the peace he hoped would come from the confession, unease filled Schaffer’s soul, an overwhelming burden, an irresistible urge to offload a secret held over three decades. 

      First, he needed to let the world know that his government was complicit in the killing of the prophet. But he must do that anonymously. 

     Then what next? The thought came like a drop of mint on a stale tongue. The Tooth. He could return the Tooth to the family and the Congo for a decent burial. That must be the restitution he needed to do. 

     But there was one hurdle.

     Schaffer was back in the pew, facing the altar. Kneeling down, he made ready to start the first part of his penance. The last time he prayed was decades earlier, at his mother’s funeral. 

     Schaffer located a prayer book. As his lips moved, his mind worked. The confessor is right, what he needs is not exorcism, but restitution.

     Once the thirtieth “Hail Mary” was said, Schaffer, hunched over with the weight of the task ahead, marched determinedly to a red phone booth close to the entrance of the church. 

     “Can I get an evening or night flight back to Brussels?” 

     Back in Brussels Schaffer met with his personal attorney of four decades. 

     “I have a confession,” he began. “I know what happened to the Prophet of Congo. I cut his body myself and dissolved him in an oil barrel filled with sulphuric acid.” 

     “Say no more,” his Attorney whispered in panic. He held his forehead and looked down. “Oh no, Monsieur Schaffer.”

     Schaffer worried his attorney might have a heart attack. 

     “What do you want to do now, Monsieur Schaffer?” The attorney’s voice quavered as he spoke. Schaffer had come to his lawyer for advice and was now being asked what he wanted to do. 

     “The world needs to know.” Schaffer said,  “about the story, I mean. Not about me.”

     Schaffer’s attorney stared at him long and hard with eyes misty with grief. He had been a Communist in his younger years, a great admirer and follower of the Prophet. His assassination had broken his spirit. When he looked away from Schaffer, it was to fix his gaze on a plaque on his desk. An award about some activism he had spearheaded at some recent point in his career.

     “I mean, you do not have to do anything if you cannot,” Schaffer said.

     “Are you sorry?”

     Schaffer looked up sharply, meeting the eyes of his attorney. He had never considered that. It was his turn to look away, to search his soul. His eyes rested on the painting on the wall, a rendition of a crying adult male. He was afraid but not sorry. There was no remorse in him. If the grandchildren did not happen, he would never have bothered. He could live with the nightmares. Hadn’t he lived with them three decades and counting. “I am sorry,” he lied, “terribly saddened by the role I played. That is why I am here. I need the world to know what happened.”

     His attorney’s face loosened up. Some color returned to his skin. 

     “I will look into your request and get back to you.”

     “How soon?” Schaffer’s voice was heavy with fear. His first child was carrying her first child, Schaffer’s fourth grandchild. The pregnancy occurred after fourteen years of childlessness and multiple fertility treatments. 

    “I cannot say.” The attorney fixed his gaze on his client. 

     “One more thing. I had willed a particular possession of mine to my first daughter. It is some sort of trophy, the tooth of--” Schaffer went quiet. How could he tell his lawyer of his savagery? He must not. “...the tooth of a rare wild animal I killed in my days in the Congo. I wish to revoke that bequest. I need the tooth.”

     A date was fixed in the coming weeks for Schaffer’s request to be executed. 

     That attempt at a fourth grandchild resulted in a stillbirth. The grotesquely deformed remains of the baby was mangled in the face by the worst appearance of cleft palate doctors had ever seen. The cleft palate, as with the other Schaffer births, was positioned at the exact spot Schaffer had pulled the tooth on that dreadful night.

     Schaffer’s attorney secured him an interview with a writer working on the Prophet’s story. Behind a dark curtain, anonymous to every single soul involved in the publication process, Schaffer spilled all.

     Schaffer died in his sleep a few weeks after granting the interview. He never got the chance to rewrite his will and his daughter got the jewelry box containing the Prophet’s tooth.  

     Years after Schaffer’s demise, the Prophet’s daughter wrote an open letter to the King of Belgium demanding the return of her father’s tooth. 

     “In our country’s traditions, each passing is a birth, every grave a cradle. Our family cannot follow his illustrious footsteps and receive the precious heritage of his genius, his piety, his valiant and patriotic virtues, unless the much-mourned departed can be placed in his perpetual grave.” She wrote. "The Tooth must be honorably returned and given a befitting burial. Her father must rest in a grave to be reincarnated."

     The author of the book that contained Schaffer’s interview, on a tip-off from Schaffer’s attorney, filed a lawsuit against Schaffer’s daughter declaring her continued holding on to the Tooth an unconstitutional act, a declaration of war even, against the constituted authority of an international territory, in this instance, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

     One day, in her home filled with blown-up pictures of three stillbirth babies with severe facial deformation, Schaffer’s daughter surrendered the Tooth to the Belgian police. 

Chika Ezeanya Esiobu

Out of 250 submissions, Chika Ezeanya Esiobu's first ever attempt at fiction writing was one of six manuscripts shortlisted for the Penguin Publishers Award for African Writing. One surprising thing about Chika is the deluge of stories that come to her to write on a consistent basis; she looks forward to when her schedule will allow her that indulgence. Chika's deepest connections happen when she is in the midst of nature and other humans who hold humanity and nature sacred. She is a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, writer, and teacher. Chika holds a doctorate in African Studies from Howard University in Washington, DC, and is a university professor, among her other tasks.

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