The JRB presents a new short story by Lelissa Girma.
Middle, beginning or end
There was a series of confused dreams in the process of waking up. Jumbled, knotted, soundless, as if taking place under water. Then he woke with a start and took a few minutes to drive his sleep away, until consciousness returned in full control.
He noticed on the table two plates pressed onto each other, with content concealed in their convexity. With a mild realisation, he remembered that he had missed his lunch. They must have come in while he was sleeping and not wanted to wake him. The ache in his stomach wouldn’t allow him to wash and come back, so he shovelled the food into his mouth while sitting on the bed, chewing on the last morsel meditatively.
In the living room his father was talking on his cellphone in a casual, conversational tone. He imagined him gesticulating with his hand raised high. His parents were very fond of the phone. It was their favourite habit, wearing their phones on their ears throughout the day and sometimes even at night. There was always somebody they had to talk to. Somebody not close at hand. They seldom spoke to each other, or to their children, as fondly as they did into the phone. This fact amazed him. They would try to out-roar one another, each blaming the other for excess usage.
He went into the toilet and studied himself in the mirror. Rest had restored freshness to his countenance. He pushed his face closer to the mirror and ran his fingers across his cheek. His beard was growing out nicely. He washed his face and took time in combing his hair, and left the room with a tune on his lips. He had heard the music in one of his dreams; it was a gentle melody, and a certain part kept parading through his head. In the air there was something that made his heart light.
He returned to his room, and the tune vanished from his mouth, drowned out by the wild beat that was being thumped through the walls from the adjoining space. It was rap music, and his brother was beating time with his feet, intermittently blurting out words alongside the angry voice that was raging out of the speaker. He gave all his attention to the music while he sifted through a heap of clothes, trying to find something to wear. Every once in a while he shook his head in bafflement. On several occasions he had begged to be shown through his brother’s eyes what this sonic frenzy was all about, and he had been told simply that it was the beat, the flow, and the lyrics. He was still uncertain as to how anybody with a rational rhythmic sense could be drawn to such bizarre music.
When he stepped out of the house the sun was almost setting, but there was a faint brightness coming from the horizon. The smell of damp was evident with every drawn breath. Evenings could be a marvel in Addis during the rainy season, especially when the rain had skipped a day to let the sun evaporate the mud puddles without drying the air. He could smell the crisp fresh earth and the moisture on the grass.
The air was filled with flying ants that flew as aimlessly as the wind in every direction. It reminded him of his childhood days, when he would be crazed with happiness whenever they came. The helpless creatures would flutter their wings, slow flying, very low to the ground, ignorant of the danger lurking. He always killed as many as he possibly could before they disappeared with the clouds that magically made them.
He didn’t take his phone when he went out. He never really used his phone; he hadn’t made the device friendly as his parents had. He had nobody he could think of calling. All his friends had moved up in life or were abroad. He considered attachments to things, especially phones and computers, an act of self indulgence, similar to fondling his own body. Carrying his phone on his person somehow felt like carrying a wallet that had no money, or like carrying a notebook with blank pages, it felt like a tool that he didn’t know how to use, or had no intention of using. He sometimes felt like an old-timer, as his father was supposed to feel, but his father acted much younger when it came to technology. He himself preferred books to newfangled tech. He liked books a great deal, but had recently deliberately given up reading them.
He was about to open the main gate and step into the village street when he heard his name being called. He turned around to find his younger sister coming towards him.
‘Yes, dear?’ he said, smiling.
‘Please don’t go anywhere today,’ she pleaded.
He smiled. The smile was a trade. A trade he practiced only when he was with her.
‘You know you sound like a newly married woman asking her husband not to go to work because she misses him.’
She slapped him on the arm. ‘Only I am not a married woman and you are not my husband.’ She played angry. Then she suddenly grew quiet.
‘Do you like me?’ he posed his famous question.
‘If I stay home would you like me then?’
‘How much would you like me then?’
‘This much,’ she said, tilting her neck to one side and showing him a little less than a quarter-span.
He laughed and opened the gate to go, but a sudden idea stormed his head and he turned to face her.
‘Is everything alright with you?’ he asked seriously.
‘Yes. Why do you ask?’ she said, looking as if she had been caught doing something red-handed.
‘Don’t you have anything you want to tell me?’
‘Yes …’ She was quite for a moment. ‘Bring me a doughnut when you return.’
He pulled the gate closed behind him. He thought he heard her say something before he turned to face the village street, but he couldn’t be sure.
All the doves and cats were busy, hunting the flying ants. The cats sprang to catch their prey between their paws, while the doves killed them by hammering them against the ground. They must be having a wonderful time, he thought. He caught one that was trying to crawl up his collar and dismembered its wings and threw it to the ground for old time’s sake.
The village street led to the main road, and it was impossible to observe the sun setting behind the purple-rimmed mountains. Every piece of turf or land was crammed with a litter of houses built seemingly with the purpose of outshining the other, and there were trees, prickly bushes and hedges growing with their own wild will.
A little distance ahead, a door leading to a shanty opened and a young girl appeared. Seconds behind her followed a young man. He was delayed to light a match, and then he fell in step beside the girl. Walking behind them he noticed the smoke exhaled by the man being saturated by the fresh evening air, and he thought it impressed a good and healthy feeling. The feeling encountered when first stepping into the old imperial theatre hall, or hugging a distinguished imaginary grandfather, who has a certain expensiveness and a distant odour of drink. He observed that the girl was dressed with no emphasis. A pair of denim slacks and a blouse, casually worn. She was tall but delicate, with strong legs he thought would hold her firm through a vivacious dance. Her hands were hidden inside her long sleeves, and shot out once in a while to check her hair, which was held by a plastic band, and seemed to have been quickly bunched after being dishevelled. He thought, pretty hands on a girl tell that she is no slave at home, that she has someone who takes good care of her. Her face was reflective, and he couldn’t imagine her without a plain expression. The man that was with her obviously hadn’t kept that title long. His boyhood features had not yet made up their mind to leave, knowing full well that once they were away they would not ever return. Yet he seemed very steady, from the measured strides he took. There was a trace of a smile playing about his mouth, the kind of smile only the lips remember after the cause of it is long forgotten. He looked content, with his cigarette smouldering at corner of his mouth.
Looking at the two, he thought they seemed to be infected by that fashionable disease, love. They didn’t seem to notice the people that came and went about them, they had no eyes for the old man at the corner of the street, despite his unique style of begging. On one side of the village street multiple voices were chanting in unison. The voices were coming out of the prayer house, where a person could be heard shouting in a hysterical voice to his attentive adherents, who were whimpering as if they were at a funeral. He was saying something about Moses and how he took his shoes off before a burning bush, numbering the words, straining the tale to climax, and every word was decorated with a response from the receiving end. But even the prayers coming out of the church didn’t disturb the two love birds’ gentle dream, the sound seemed to stray through one ear and leave flying out through the other. They were not attentive of anything outside of each other.
When he stepped onto the highway his thoughts changed. Something stemmed his external observations and forced him to look into his soul. It felt like plummeting, and was painful, like stubbing your toe. He found himself inside the deep reservoir of his consciousness, where all the festering, wounded feelings lay hidden. Where all the disappointments, the unproductive guilt and confusion, dwelled. And he was plunged into it so suddenly it spilled over his face and made his features sour, his face clamping into a sudden frown.
He was reminded of how he had left his college education, how he had decided to abandon that futile process of systematic idiocy that people call learning, and live the best part of their days through. He couldn’t do it anymore. He couldn’t go through with it. It was all his country and parents could provide, and it was all a useless waste of time. His mother and father had been upset and had demanded to know what he intended to do with his life. He couldn’t furnish them with a reply, because he didn’t have one. But shorter than a month later a new year was beginning, he had to decide something. It was painful to have no interest in anything, except the absolute desire to be left alone.
The street was quieter then. That’s what he liked about Sundays, fewer people. A number of cars could be seen on the highway. The road stretched like a frozen river. Stout lampposts stood like shower stands spraying pyramid-shaped light. The sidewalk was deserted.
He looked up at the moon, which was a day or so away from being full. It took the shape of a lopsided beggar’s face. It made a shudder run up through his spine and gave him goosepimples. ‘I don’t like the full moon,’ he said aloud, although he felt silly. He thought of how as a child his bed used to face a drapeless window, and of the nights he had spent in fear, stared at by the ghastly moon. Only his sister knew of his fear, and would point her finger and fire like a gun whenever they came across a full moon together.
His eyes roamed over three plump girls crossing the street towards him. Two of them must have been sisters, they had a striking resemblance. The third girl, walking between the other two, had a slight limp. All three wore clothes that emphasised the contours of their bodies, and they all wore skirts, he thought, that could easily have got them confused with street hookers.
He wondered why they captured his eye, as none of the physical charms they possessed would have been listed in the catalogue of beauty. He thought, perhaps, in his hearts of hearts, he had a soft spot for plumpness.
Under a lamppost a blind beggar was rendering a warm beating upon her infant daughter. The child stood still, opening her mouth wide, gathering enough air. Then she let out a treble so shrill she drew the attention of all the passersby, but the beating didn’t cease. The mother was holding the girl by the collar, so she could not run, while landing her blows. People intervened, and the girl clung to the trunk of a stranger’s leg the moment her mother’s grip was loosened.
A taxi pulled up at the curb. He stood a while looking at a madman dressed in pants made out of plastic bags, passing a stream of steaming urine on the crossroads in front of the Imperial Hotel. He decided to walk a little further before turning back towards home. He was trying to slip back into a relaxed mood and his attempts to return to peaceful thoughts blew a wind of memory into his mind, and made him laugh. He remembered how once he had a philosophy that he was complete by himself, and needed no rib from his side to make him a man. Women were made for those half-broken men who needed to be made whole. The philosophy lasted a month, like all the other quarter-boiled philosophies wrought from his struggle to grow up, to become a man. All the worrying and the lonely self-interrogation, the forming of a principles that distinguished him from the others about him, all forgotten, as the chill of dawn is forgotten with the glory of the sun in the middle of the day.
He was quite content now to use the door everyone else used. Books he would do his best to avoid, they had inflicted enough damage already. Instead, he would cultivate a hobby, perhaps gardening like his father used to … A dog whistled past him at a gallop. Behind it followed a silhouette dressed in plastic bags, volleying rocks at the animal, which was running sideways, its tail folded against his belly. The beast left the sidewalk and disappeared, slipping under a fence into a big swampy field. But the figure of the madman kept on, chasing whatever he was chasing, along the sidewalk, zigzagging out of sight.
He told himself to forget it. That it didn’t concern him. Let others be pushed to the wall.
He thought about his father. In his mind he had him painted as a very simple man, restricted to topics like, ‘How many buses does the city have?’ Or ‘Where is the new holy spring that has sprung up overnight?’
Then suddenly he saw a bag, left unintentionally or disposed of at the edge of the pavement. He went closer so he could take a better look at it. There was something that seemed to move inside it. It contained a thing that writhed. He looked again, stooping with his hands in his pockets. A sound trailed out of the bag, a whine and a whimper, as that of a baby. He tried to check if anybody was about, then an impulse made him walk away, quickly. After ten paces or so he turned around and glanced back from where he stood at the package, half crushed in a growth of dewy grass. No, he thought, not a baby!
Further behind him, he saw two women wearing shawls, probably coming from evening prayers, heading his way. He thought, these are women, the more sensible of the race, they will do something about the thing in the bag. He was not feeling good anymore. He imagined himself opening the package to discover a mucus-drenched foetus, moments after birth. Who would do such a thing? Anyone, of course! No, it must have been a puppy. They all sound alike and look alike just after delivery, don’t they? And what was he supposed to do? At least he could have acted as a rational human being and called for help. Rational? That old-time religion, that nostalgic, non-existent idea. He looked back at the two women. They had passed the spot, obviously having not seen the thing. But how could they not have seen it? The crying thing had been right under their noses, just as it had been under his.
He began walking quickly. In front of him two young lovers appeared. The girl looked typical: young, hippy, buxom, with a small head. The guy was responsible looking. He couldn’t understand why they disgusted him. He followed them with his eyes, hoping they would do something about the crying package. Then he stopped and surveyed himself with a mental eye. He told himself: You are not going to become a pity-mangled introvert again. Let humanity take care of its debris, its flotsam. You have felt sad and touched, that proves that you are a benign, connected human. But don’t make it out to be more than what it actually is. It’s life. Keep your distance.
He remembered the saying, ‘If a woman is sad she hangs her head and cries, if a man feels sad he boards the train and rides.’ So he took a taxi and headed to the heart of the city. He kept telling himself it was only a dog, a puppy.
He considered the idea of paying a visit to an artistic friend of his. The friend that was a fulltime writer, a playwright, who never seemed to get tired of trying to make things out of words. But he wouldn’t be able to stand finding him working on that same play, ever labouring without succeeding. He couldn’t go through the pretence of trying to make the other feel better. Neither would he be able to refuse if his friend asked him to read that awful play all over again, to see if he liked it now, if it had got any better. But that was the problem; he knew it would never get any better. The best part of the play had been the beginning lines of the coda. The part where he described Addis Ababa as a book. The rest of it was shallow and phony, not worth the trouble the playwright had put into it. The beginning five lines should have been enough, without the play tugging along to kill it. The last time he went to see him his friend had tried to force him to read the play when he had plainly told him he didn’t want to, and he had to squirm out of the dreadful labour of reading it, making up an excuse about something. He would hate to go through all that again. But the beginning was undeniably great; it had stuck in his mind of its own will.
The thought struck him to have a cigarette, lifting his spirits, and he stepped to a nameless café. A waiter stood outside, yawning while he waited for customers to arrive.
He sat down, his back to the wall, and asked the waiter if they had doughnuts. The latter rocked his head in the affirmative and yawned again while he went inside to fetch them. He dug out some matches to light the cigarette he had clamped between his lips.
Thirty minutes he spent at the café, observing passersby, thinking of nothing significant, other than ‘it must have been a dog, a puppy’, and running his hand over his face, hoping his beard would grow out so he could tug on it more easily. He paid the bill and left with the wrapped doughnut in his grip, a balance of six birr left to his name.
Outside the café a parked car was surrounded by provincial-looking street beggars, their faces pressed to the windows, peering inside. The people in the car opened the doors and got out. They were pale-skinned foreigners with red hair, wearing the holiday clothes of the locals, trying to fit in. We really love your culture, your food, radiating smiles. The moment they stepped out of the car the children were upon them like ants, following behind the ferenji with their bare feet, stretching dirty little hands. The pale pink foreigners were going into the shops, and the children were chased away by another provincial-looking doorman. The children jabbed and hit each other as they floated about the street like a coil of flies.
He felt no anger as the lump began to set in his throat. The children were heading his way, they asked him for ten cents halfheartedly, for they knew it was pointless to spend time on his kind, and he refused them promptly. He noticed that among them one had a beautiful smile and that she was a girl. He asked her what had happened to her nose. She said it was urine of some creature of which she was not sure, although her mother had diagnosed the urine to be that of a bat. Her nose had tripled in size and was reddish black like a pepper bulb. She knew this kind of attention, so she persisted in walking with him a distance, and he gave her half of what he had left, and she flew back to join her kind. He took with him as a memory the spark in her eyes and her smile, and pushed the memory of the nose to the back of his mind, into the nightmare section. He suddenly felt happy, knowing that one day he would die and be relieved of witnessing all this wretchedness.
The shoeshine boys were enjoying their sub-adult life, wrestling with each other. When they saw him coming, they rushed to put their boxes under his feet. He continued walking, disregarding them. ‘Not polished shoes, but a polished goal in life to head towards, a successful life,’ he said in an undertone. ‘Thats what people jump up to notice.’
He took the right side of the road on his way back home; he was a little superstitious about the left side of things. He believed he would run into the right visions on the right side of the road. The lane was paved with lovers and beggars, more lovers and more beggars. People seemed to do nothing but fall in love and beg. He decided to give the three birr left in his pocket to the first beggar he came across with an artistically pensive face.
He looked at the sky and marvelled. The day had meekly surrendered itself to night, and the studded sky was looking down on earth with innumerable eyes. Feeling the gentle breeze on his face and on his scalp, he felt that something sinister and evil was stirring, melded with the wind. Unplaceable, yet quietly rising to its full height, summoning all its vitality to be seen. He felt all this as certainly as a sleeping man suddenly sits up in bed and feels sure that somebody has slapped his face. He felt alarmed. He asked himself why he was walking the streets on Sunday. Sunday was for lovers and beggars.
A man was coming towards him with a little girl in his hands. He hadn’t noticed the man and he was very close. The man took off his hat and began to say something, but suddenly he stopped talking and just worked his mouth, fighting tears.
‘What’s the problem?’ he asked, and the little girl fixed her eyes on the doughnut wrapped and held in his hand. Her face was made mostly of eyes. Her mouth seemed like it was painted by the smallest brush, with a single stroke. It looked beautiful beyond imagination. It reminded him of an exam paper where he had utilised all his art to beautify a single answer, and then muddled through all the rest, due to inability, carelessness, or a shortage of time. The man was still searching for words, fingering his hat. The story he told has been told a thousand times before, but it was obvious it had never been told by him, this was his first time practising his trade.
He took the last tree birr from his pocket and pressed it into the man’s hand. The little girl was still watching the doughnut. He gave the wrapped roll to her, gently rubbing his hand on her head. The man tried to utter tangled words of gratitude. He turned around and left them.
Suddenly the coda that was at the beginning of the play his artist friend had written came into his mind.
Addis Ababa is a book, a masterpiece that has no author, a book with scenes vividly described, but with no prominent character. It is a book of words, words that run off the page leaving it empty, or that cluster at the middle to form a verse, or that slitter like mud into litanies, prayers, sobs, sighs, slogans. It’s a book you pretend you were reading, with a finger in the middle, and if read it doesn’t matter where you begin reading; middle, beginning, or end. You are lucky if you live in the book and do not understand a page of it. And like all the masterpieces you are wiser at the beginning than at the end. And if you never knew about the book, never knew it existed, you wouldn’t feel like you had missed a single thing at all.
He had reached the end of the highway and was feeling flushed, tingling with the delight that comes only from giving. Then he felt that unpleasant sensation again, like something was speeding his way, vehemently, to wax him over the asphalt, like a stampeding bull, and then vanish. The feeling was so real he couldn’t neglect it. He felt it coming, coming, coming, almost on him, then it was over him and he felt it pass. It was moving with the wind. He was able to trace and identify the smell of it trailing behind like perfume. It was the most distinct scent, which had fumed the world since time began. Through he couldn’t describe it, his senses screamed: the smell of death.
The scent had the vigour of a lyric tied beneath the ground for hundreds of years, it was like music, it was painful, and it was combing through people looking for somebody to mark. When he turned onto the cobbled street of the village he sensed death had passed through there just before him.
Beneath a telephone pole people were standing around a crippled man who had collapsed writhing on the ground, his crutches still in his grip, blood and froth trickling out of the corner of his mouth. The fallen man was fighting for breath. He passed by on the other side of the road, carefully avoiding turning and looking at the spectacle. He heard the people discussing matchstick smoking, thinking it was an epileptic seizure. He left them far behind with the fast strides of a coward, running away from liability.
The scent was not left behind with the man fighting for his life. It was still ahead of him, leaving a faint foul aroma behind it; it had lost most of its anger and vehemence. He felt it on his flesh. The dogs were also disturbed, baying at the moon. It was their nature to know things with the surface of their skin.
When he stood at the door of his home, his senses crawled up his spine. What he had been following along the street that night, the music of crises, that irrefutable end point, had walked through the door just before him.
- Lelissa Girma was born in Ethiopia in the era of the revolutionary terror, in the year 1977. He trained as a tool room technician, working at the Addis Ababa University mechanical engineering workshop, and did not start writing until his early twenties. Some time towards his mid-twenties he decided to become a full-time writer. For the past fifteen years he has been working as a columnist and contributor on several local newspapers. He has published five books in Amharic, three of which are collections of short stories. He has lived in Addis Ababa his entire life. A story of his will feature in the forthcoming anthology Addis Ababa Noir, edited by Maaza Mengiste.