On their way into mass on Christmas Day, Kambili and her family pass Aunty Ifeoma and her children. Kambili fixates on the red lipstick worn by both her aunt and Amaka. Her mind strays to it during the sermon, spoken entirely in Igbo unlike at her usual church. The priest talks about money and corruption rather than the usual Christmas iconography, to the unease of Papa. The Achikes sit in the first pew, a place of honor, next to the only two men more prominent than Papa – Chief Umedi and the Igwe of Abba. After mass, they go to a fundraiser for the church. Papa writes out a large check quietly and is aghast when the MC broadcasts the amount. The priest dances garishly and Papa ushers his family outside.
They find their home crowded with people. The entire clan has come to eat in their compound. The women of the umunna coo over Jaja, next in line for Papa’s money. Aunty Ifeoma and her children arrive for lunch. Kambili’s cousins are enamored with the luxuries of the Achike home – the stereo, fine plates, creams in the bathroom. The Igwe arrives and Aunty Ifeoma and Amaka bow out of respect. Though the Igwe converted, he still carries out pagan traditions, so Papa allows his family to shake his hand rather than bow.
Kambili overhears her mother telling Aunty Ifeoma to ask her brother for the factory’s spare gas cylinders. Aunty Ifeoma has refused his help in the past because Papa expected her to join the missionary Knights of St. John, to send Amaka to convent school, and even to stop wearing makeup. Ifeoma reminds Mama of her deceased husband’s disagreements with Papa. Papa does not like confrontation or honesty. Ifeoma continues, saying her father will die soon and yet Papa refuses to see him. She says God is big enough to do his job, he does not need Papa to judge for him.
Over lunch, Aunty Ifeoma invites Kambili and Jaja to Nsukka for a visit. Papa insists that the children do not like to be away from home, but he will think about it. After a tense moment between the Papa and Ifeoma, a new bottle of juice is brought to the table. Amaka asks Papa if it is from his factory, then criticizes the sugar content. Kamblii’s throat closes when she hears her cousin’s retort. She knocks over her glass of juice, staining the table red. She is reminded of her mother’s blood. Ifeoma tells Papa that she is planning a pilgrimage to a holy apparition in Aokpe. Though the miracle has not been verified by the church, he agrees to send Kambili and Jaja to Ifeoma’s to join the pilgrimage. Kambili and Jaja will spend a week with their cousins in Nsukka.
Kambili wakes with her period the next morning. Mama decides to give her medication for her painful cramps. The Achike family fasts every Sunday before mass, not eating until they return home from Church. However, Kambili’s medication can’t be taken on an empty stomach. Mama gives her a bowl of cornflakes to eat quickly before Papa comes upstairs. But he catches her. Jaja tries to convince his father that he is responsible. He removes his belt and lashes at his entire family, asking them why they walk into sin. When he stops, a weight falls on him. He hugs his children and asks if they are hurt. Kambili says no, but they all change their clothes and wash their faces before Mass.
After New Year’s, the Achikes leave Abba. Their umunna kneels in the dirt to thank the family, taking the leftover food home with them. One man tells Kambili that Papa pays his children’s school fees. Papa is a great man, he tells her. On the way home, they see an accident near a government-erected roadblock. Though Mama tells the children to look away, Kambili thinks about the dead man on the rest of the trip. She wonders where he is going.
Two days later is the feast of the Epiphany, a Christian holiday celebrating the revelation that Jesus was the son of God. After mass, Papa takes his family to Father Benedict’s house. Father Benedict hears the confessions of the Achike family. Papa first, rambling like a motor, then Mama, softly spoken, then Jaja, who takes the least amount of time, then Kambili. After confessing her sins, Father Benedict asks her if she is hiding something. She realizes Papa must have mentioned something to Father Benedict, but she can’t think of what it could be. Father Benedict prompts her, asking about pagan rituals. She confesses her longer visit with Papa-Nnukwu and enjoying the mmuo masquerade.
The family drives home. Papa is overjoyed, telling them if they died right then, they would ascend to heaven. At home, he tells Kambili and Jaja that they are allowed to go to Aokpe as long as they realize the miracle has not yet been confirmed by the church. They will spend five days in Nsukka with Aunty Ifeoma. Mama suggests they offer a gas cylinder as a gift, asking Papa for the favor Ifeoma won’t. The children pack, sharing joy with their eyes. They leave the following day. Papa thrusts their schedules for the week into Kambili and Jaja’s hands.
Everyone in Abba says that Papa is a good man. They detail his good works to Kambili and Jaja who say nothing in response. The pressure of keeping up appearances renders them silent. How could they respond? Papa is the benevolent father of his umunna, but he is not benevolent with his own children. His love extends to his umunna by way of money. But Kambili and Jaja know the true price of Papa’s love: perfection at all costs.
Kambili focuses on Amaka’s red lipstick throughout church. As Jaja compares himself to Obiora intellectually, Kambili compares herself to Amaka physically. She notes her tight clothing, her modern hair, and her makeup. Amaka is a mystery to Kambili because womanhood is a mystery. Papa does not allow Kambili to wear pants, let alone makeup, so Kambili grasps clues of her own budding sexuality where she can. In Nsukka, her crush on Father Amadi is an awakening but her cousin’s dress and demeanor are the more important signifiers of adulthood.
Kambili is punished for breaking fast before mass. Experiencing painful cramps because of her period, she tries to take medicine. Ironically, the medication causes more pain in the form of a beating. To Papa, there are no mitigating circumstances that warrant flexibility. Kambili is beaten, but so are Jaja and Mama for letting Kambili sin. Her period, like initiation, is the first step towards adulthood. Her blood echoes the red juice that is spilled on the table. Kambili is reminded of her mother’s blood.
After confession, Papa tells his children that they would all ascend to heaven if they died at that moment. He is smiling and drumming on the steering wheel. Later, in chapter ten, Kambili sees Papa-Nnukwu smile deeply after his own morning ritual. She notes that she and Jaja never smile when they say the rosary. The rejoicing that both Papa and Papa-Nnukwu experience is untouchable by Kambili and Jaja since it carries the burden of punishment. They are only allowed to revel in the thought of an afterlife.
Knowing of Aunty Ifeoma’s financial troubles, Mama negotiates with Papa for a few spare gas cylinders to be taken from his factory to Nsukka. Papa assumes Aunty Ifeoma has asked for the hand-out, but Mama ensures him that she is working alone. By adopting a submissive position, Mama is able to get what she wants. She knows that Papa will not give the gas to Aunty Ifeoma because of their disagreements over Papa-Nnukwu, so she subtly suggests the delivery on her behalf. Mama must keep up the illusion that Papa is the benevolent protector of his family and she preys on this role to lobby for the desired outcome. Mama is not able to demand or even ask out right for what she wants. Over the years, she has learned that this is the only effective way to get something she needs.