September 11th, 2020:
[This is an excerpt from a work in progress. More details can be found at this post: https://www.patreon.com/posts/35488916]
The Queen of Sheba was the jewel of the land. When she came back from her visit to King Solomon, she was welcomed not by the dusts of the deserts – which had greeted her in the lands of Israel – but by the vast wealth of her countries. Enkus filled her cabinets, along with the return wishes from her advisors; enkus to her heart. Jewels; it was a day of jewels, and as a result, the year was welcomed to this earth in the same way as the Queen of Sheba was when she returned home, through prayer, dance, and celebration. Enkutatash. In Mother and Father’s house, it was past the hour of five, and yet the smells of the slaughtered goats and chicken from the morning earlier lingered. They mixed with the scent of the long grass spread on the floor. In some parts of the room, the smell was fresh, almost alpine, and then in other parts, the scent of meat was so strong that one felt as if one were in a butchery.
Otherwise, the house looked as it did on any other day. The walls were covered with family portraits, next to a framed photograph of Haile Selassie, which Father had brought from his village, a welcome gift from his own father. The television was on. World news and local news dominated the television, with an occasional reel about New Year’s celebrations repeated once in a while. Father was not in the house, but Mother was not alone. She happened to be in the company of her friends from church. All four of them were sitting on the floor, spread as far from each other as the blades of grass were. between themselves as the grasses were. Mother and a friend of her were cleaving the meat for dinner, while two other friends were drinking their coffee and watching the television. The last few minutes had been largely bereft of conversation, until one of the housewives – the only one who happened to live in Gerji, Mother’s neighbourhood – burped. It was surprisingly loud given her posture. She was a short lady who looked like she was crunched into herself because she wanted to hold her bodily functions in, whereas the sound in question resonated the way that burps given by the unabashed and unselfconscious do. Goatherds in a village could be freely heard burping in such a way; not necessarily an urban, educated person.
Something about the burp forced a sigh out of Mother, and she slapped her cleaver to the goat meat that much harder. Mother had a friend who couldn’t help but respond to things which need not response. That Cloying and Cloisterous Friend of Hers looked at the two other women on the floor and said to Mother, in the tradition of whispering, “It always gets harder to control these things as you get older.”
She was probably making an insinuation related not to the woman who had released gas, but to the oldest woman in the group, nearing eighty. This was the first woman Mother had met during her first day at church in Gerji, and the one who Mother interacted with the most out of this group before time and circumstance had made them into a collective. Mother trusted so much in whatever this woman said that she often called her Her Greatest Advisor. Her Greatest Advisor looked at That Cloying and Cloisterous Friend of Hers , and then she looked at Mother, and then she said, “It isn’t as hard as you think. I think certain ladies know how to behave, and that doesn’t change with age.”
“It is okay,” That Cloying and Cloisterous Friend of Hers said. “It is scientific. Body muscles get weaker. Look at my thighs. I can’t stretch them without a bit of pain.”
“That Cloying and Cloisterous Friend of Hers, you are barely sixty,” Mother said.
“I know. I can’t imagine what it is like at your age,” That Cloying and Cloisterous Friend of Hers said, looking over at their eldest church friend.
“I was the one yesterday who helped you find the goats. I carried two of them under my arms.” Here she flexed, making it very clear that she still had biceps.
“I’m not saying you are weak,” That Cloying and Cloisterous Friend of Hers said. “I am saying certain muscles get weaker.”
“That Cloying and Cloisterous Friend of Hers, this isn’t important,” Mother said. “Change the channel. I’m tired of watching the news. This is Enkutatash. We should be listening to music, and song—”
At the exact same time, another bodily sound came. This time it was a much clearer burp, and it was very obviously from the short one. She did not hide it in the least this time. Her mouth was wide open, and it came belching out. All of the women looked at her with dazed eyes, as if she had shouted a curse. She did not respond. She decided to lay on her back and unstiffen her intestines, letting small packs of gas sound out from her stomach. “Something in the doro wat was not very good,” she said. “I might need to see a doctor.”
“You need to see more than a doctor if you make sounds like that,” Mother said. “May God help you.” The women laughed, even the one who had burped, but Mother kept her face taut and solemn. She had finished cutting up the meat. She took the pile of goat flesh on the silver tray into the kitchen.
“Do you need help of any sort?” the oldest of the group asked.
“No, no, rest,” That Cloying and Cloisterous Friend of Hers said, patting the air, keeping her voice calm.
The oldest of the group said, “I’m not a dying calf.”
“She is not,” Mother said, returning from the kitchen. “She is My Greatest Advisor.” Mother and Her Greatest Advisor grinned at each other. Mother came to Her Greatest Advisor’s side, and said, “Do you remember when Gerji was just a village?”
“It still is,” Her Greatest Advisor chuckled. Gerji was an industrial area important for its exportations of aluminum and coffee, but otherwise a collection of construction yards and barely finished houses, indistinguishable from any other developing suburb. “It is because we are close to the airport that we think it is anything but.,” “I can’t believe how many tall buildings there are now. Soon, the goat sellers on the other side of here will be selling watches.”
“Or they will be selling electronic candles, and not the pink wax ones.” This was said by the her who belched a lot.
Mother put on a smile and said, “You have lived here the longest, you would know.”
“Oh, I barely live here. Ever since my son moved to Canada, I spend half of the year there, half of the year here. You must know. You also have a son living abroad. Where is he living? What is he doing? I forgot.”
“You’re always forgetting,” Mother added. “She is just a Mrs. Forgets-A-Lot.”
This was the nickname that Mother always gave this woman behind her back, usually when she was talking to Father, and no one else. The other women had heard it here or there, usually when Mother had lost her temper, but never responded to it. Nevertheless, Her Greatest Advisor said, “I know. It is like she is the eighty-something one here.”
This time, Mother laughed the loudest. The problem with the laugh was that no response could be said after it. The women were silent once more, sitting about, saying nothing to each other. Despite that, there was plenty of noise. Gerji was every bit of Addis Ababa as it wasn’t; outside, on the dusty road, were vendors, selling greens, selling corn to be roasted for the New Year, mindlessly shouting out the names of their products. Often, men outside would start getting into shouting fights. No outsider would know what they were angry about, but the neighbourhood would hear it, until something or other were to get resolved. On this day in particular, little girls strolled around the neighborhood, singing “Abebayehosh.” They beat their drums, clapped their hands, and sang ‘lemlems,’ all the while carrying bright yellow adey abebas in their hands, to be exchanged for bread, calves, or hard-earned cash. The singing of the girls could be heard in the distance, not particularly close.
Close enough, though, to cause That Cloying and Cloisterous Friend of Hers to hum to herself. It wasn’t very loud, but anyone familiar with the song would hear the horns blaring, in rhythmic refrain. Almost as if it were instinct, as That Cloying and Cloisterous Friend of Hers went through the verse a second time, the women began to clap along. At the point where the chorus started, Her Greatest Advisor warbled, “Ahun aye ayine.” Her voice was harsh on the ears, but she sang with such passion that one did not focus on the cracking of her voice, only on the intent she gave to the lyrics. “Meshito ayine be’liljinete…” Mother stood up to mute the news. “Merikagn sitimot enatee…” Mrs. Forgets-A-Lot let out a convenient fart. It was barely heard through the music the other two were making between them, but in a bid to obscure the sound, Mrs. Forgets-A-Lot stood and shouted out “Lamba dina!” Now she was stuck being the one who had to shout it, after every verse.
“Anchi lay weside talechign.”
“Kurazae lik ende’maye. Anchi nesh lambadinaye.”
Mother stood up, inhaled, and absolved Mrs. Forgets-A-Lot of her duties. She belted, “Lamba dina, lamba dina. Lamba dina honshilet. Le’ayine, le’ayine mebrat…”
Whenever Mother sang, it was hard not to stand up and take notice. She had one of the best voices in Gerji, and everyone from Meserete Kristos Church knew it. It was why she was the one in the choir who spent the most time practicing with the debtara, or why if anyone in Gerji had a birthday party or ceremony of importance, she would be invited to sing. Her voice was smooth, and yet deep. She wasn’t classically trained, but she knew how to hit the notes of whatever she sang in just the right way. She did not need to put any work into it; it just came out of her. She finished her portion of the song. The other women had their hands clasped together, as if they wanted to clap, but they didn’t know how. The light in their eyes were beaming, dazzling, as if they had been graced by the voice of one exalted.
Mother smirked at every one of them and sat down. This time, she led the chorus.
“Ayinoche ayayu, birhan yelachew. Belijinete, diro atitchachew. Liben tesemaw, engida neger, mirkuz yije new, yemiyawkegn hager. Alem tayechign be’anchi wist hona. Befikir kuraz be’ lamba dina.”
That Cloying and Cloisterous Friend of Hers and Her Greatest Advisor took over for “Ahun aye ayine, ahun aye ayine.”
Mrs. Forgets-A-Lot returned to her refrain of “Lamba dina, lamba.”
For the next stanzas, Mother pushed her voice harder. She sang, “Meshito ayine be’liljnete” as if she were an alto, and whispered out the words “Anchi lay weside talechign.” She was about to take her part up again as Mrs. Forgets-A-Lot repeated her “Lamba dina,” but as she did so, what came out of Mother’s throat was not the note that she expected. It was a crack. It wasn’t the loudest crack, but for someone who sang as well as Mother, it was clear she had not only missed her note, but messed up that part of the song. The women appeared to not have noticed it, and waited for Mother to sing along, but Mother resang the part of the song in which she’d cracked, and failed to hit the note again. She tried to sing on, but her notes were completely off.
“Go get her some water,” Her Greatest Advisor said to That Cloying and Cloisterous Friend of Hers, and That Cloying and Cloisterous Friend of Hers rushed to find some.
“Not cold water,” Mother said as she heard the fridge open. “It is worse on the voice.”
As if she had said nothing, Her Greatest Advisor and Mrs. Forgets-A-Lot continued singing where Mother had left off. Neither were good singers in the least. Mother tried to join them, but her voice and theirs combining created an utter cacophony, and as they realised it, they suddenly stopped. That Cloying and Cloisterous Friend of Hers came back with the water and Mother drank it. “My voice isn’t what it used to be,” she said.
That Cloying and Cloisterous Friend of Hers said, “Your voice is still beautiful.”
“I missed so many notes.”
“We’re singing just for fun.”
“My voice used to carry all of the notes.”
Mrs. Forgets-A-Lot said, “It is tough. Getting older.”
Something about the way she said it made all of the women look down. That Cloying and Cloisterous Friend of Hers winced at her thighs, well-clothed but visibly swollen. Her Greatest Advisor pressed her arms together, feeling her own biceps, wrinkled and grooved. Mother was staring in the direction of the television, but were eyes were empty, almost hollow. Mrs. Forgets-It-All took a glance at every one of them, pursed her lips, and sat back down. They made attempts at conversation, though none lasted long It was one thing when silence came because there was comfort, and nothing left to be said around close friends. When it came because there was too much to be said, but no one wanted to share their hurt, it was intolerable. Their attempts at conversation failed, and resulted in the housewives thinking up excuses, one by one, to return to their homes. “My house is a mess. I should clean it.” “My husband will be coming back from work anytime soon.” “My favourite serial is coming on in an hour.” Mother went to the door and said her goodbyes to each of them, heartily, superficially. She stared out into the potholed street. On the other side was a vendor sitting out with grass for sale who turned to stare back at her. She clutched her shawl tighter over her face frame and looked back in the direction of her friends. Just like the girls in the distance who were still singing the Abebayehosh song, her friends were walking in line, in white garb, hooting and hollering. And, as if she were still one of these girls, or because she had been one of these girls all along, Mother sang quietly to herself, “Lamba dina, lamba dina,” and closed the door.