I – ASLEEP
She awakens into her dreams, bathed in milk and blood. For an instant she trembles between worlds, neither here nor there, blind and deaf in a fog of gold dust and coffee grounds. Her being reconstitutes itself slowly, deliberately, skin unfurling over vibrating atoms, eyes opening inwards.
The first of her three names tumbles from the shadows. It strikes like a hammer on glass and the world begins to shatter, littering the ground beneath her with shards of remembrance.
A sun rises and banks on the horizon, sieving its rays through the woven walls of her once and future home, skittering over her flesh, settling over the sparse furniture and amidst the folds of the intricately worked thatched roof.
“You should not have come here again.” The voice drifts to her, carried on a breeze pregnant with once-beloved scents. Frankincense and injera, bougainvillea and berbere spice the air and hold her firm.
“I have nowhere else to go.” She whispers to the person she cannot yet see. “Please, Amakelech, let me in.”
A moment of uncertainty passes and she begins to drown, from the inside out, her lungs compressing with each breath, her heart contracting, and her sanity unravelling across the sun-speckled space.
“Please… please!” It is her ghost that speaks; already she is beginning to drift, helpless against the sucking tides, the crush and retreat of time and place.
The second of her three names calls her back from the precipice, expands her lungs, reassembles her mind, fills her heart, and for an instant, she is whole again.
The sensation is unfamiliar, even after all this time, after all these forays back and forth between worlds.
The scene solidifies, and Addisalem knows that her galaxies have steadied, stopped erupting into life and death for this moment at least.
Tap, bump. Tap, bump. Tap, bump.
Her sister sits on a stool, bent low over a wooden mortar and pestle, one arm rising and falling to the cadence of her own internal music. The roasted coffee beans burst and powder to the steady rhythm, their heady scent exploding into the cool air.
“You knew I would come.” Addisalem’s eyes devour the sight before her, knowing it would fade.
Up and down, her sister’s arm does not pause or hesitate in its ritual strike and retreat.
“You always come,” her sister’s low voice dances among the dust motes, “trailing your agony behind you like a cloak. Leaving our treasures behind. Tracking your bloody footprints across my floor. You always come.”
Tap, bump. Tap, bump. Tap, bump.
Her left hand holds the pestle steady, while the right continues to labour alone.
“This is my home—”
Amakelech looks up, and the sun seems to vanish behind her, disappearing into the halo of her perfectly rounded afro. Her eyes, at once severe and pitying, meet and hold those of her younger sister. “This was your home. It is no longer, no matter how you cling or fling yourself backwards to regain it.”
“Then tell me how to break free of this place, how to pull away from you! I should have been here with you. This is the only home I know. How can I fathom another?” The words pour from Addisalem’s lips. They dislodge the calm, like sediment kicked up by rapid movement. Her sister blurs briefly before her eyes, the bright colours of her dress fading into sepia, the luxurious thickness of her starling hair fluttering into dandelion pieces. She fights for equilibrium.
“The fire needs tending.” Amakelech is watching her with steady eyes, her right hand gone still, the black circles and crosses of her tattoo stark against her golden-brown skin.
Addisalem takes a step and falters. Something is amiss. It is there in the slant of her sister’s shoulders, in her blurred edges and undefined smile.
“But where are the flames?” Addisalem’s voice sounds indistinct; it bubbles and pops and bursts into the ether.
“Do you hear me, Addis? The fire needs tending.”
She shakes her head, watching her sister begin to dissolve.
“Amakelech… Amakelech! Keep me here.”
But the die has been cast. Her sister’s throat has lifted the sound, her lips have formed the word, and Addisalem’s third name has rent the air between them, and she is melting like wax, crumbling to the earth in a heap of smouldering fabric and gusting ash.
II – AWAKE
“Addisalem? Addisalem?” Her niece’s tearful voice jerked her back into herself, so that she was reinhabiting her body. Once again feeling the laden weight of her limbs, the greedy drag and pull of her lungs, the weight of her soul being pressed to the earth by gravity.
Her nostrils filled once again with the metallic tang of blood. Her tongue was coated with it, thick and coagulated, curdled with milk and honey. A lake rippled outwards and she lay, the island at its epicentre, still fragmented, too hastily reassembled.
The little girl beside her was crying, great sobs that wracked her scrawny frame and sent her trio of thick braids bobbing about her neck.
Addisalem turned from the girl and pushed slowly to her feet. She staggered to the edge of the clearing, her footprints imprinting the wet earth, crunching over the spilt qolo and the crumbled remains of her earthenware jug. The heavy mantle of night pressed down upon her like a living thing, welcoming her back.
She heard the girl tripping behind her in echo of her own long strides, felt the slide of cool thin arms around her waist, the press of a wet face against her back. Her own hand, when she lowered it, swallowed the little ones clasped over her stomach. For a moment Addisalem stood, feeling the girl’s tears soaking through the thin fabric at her back, swallowing against the lump in her own throat, the burn in her own eyes.
They stood, two creatures, alone under the twinkle of a million stars, each surrendering to the emotions that twisted their insides and settled within their hearts.
“Addisalem?” The little girl’s voice hiccupped, planting itself in the little corner where Addisalem bottled away her deepest regrets. “Where do you go when you sleep?”
“To my yesterdays.”
“Am I there?”
Addisalem disentangled herself from the little girl’s grasp and turned to face her. Her eyes skimmed over the delicate tear-stained features.
“No, Isatay,” she replied gently. “You live here, in my todays.”
The girl dropped her gaze to the crushed grass and trampled flowers beneath her sandal-clad feet, her fingers twining and twisting. Her lips trembled with questions she did not dare to ask. She raised her eyes back to the woman who stood before her as unspoken words charged the air.
What do you see when you are there in your yesterdays? Why must you travel there so often? Why do you leave me here when you go?
The questions withered on Isatay’s tongue as her eyes took in the formidable woman before her. It had always been like this, as though they stood on opposite banks of a turbulent sea, their words and intentions stolen and garbled by gusting winds.
Addisalem towered above Isatay, muscles spread taut over bone, the sparse moonlight casting her half in shadow and dyeing the blood on her chin a mercurial silver. The slant of her deep-set eyes, the slash and hollow of her cheekbones, the hard line of her shoulders and the scarred planes of her hands were forbidding. She was formed in echo of the jagged peaks and scooped out gorges of her homeland, a human landscape to repel invaders and quash rebellion.
And so Isatay said nothing, only watched as the woman changed her clothes with quick economical movements, rushed to obey when told to fetch Addisalem’s horse from where the woman had secured it beyond the clearing, where the tall thin trees grew in a thick tangle of crooked limbs.
She swallowed her words as she swayed with the movement of the beast beneath her, her arms stretched once again around the warm body in the saddle in front of her, her cheek pressed against the sculpted muscles of Addisalem’s back, the rounded ridges of her spine. Cocooned within the woven folds of the netelah that Addisalem had stretched over them both, Isatay closed her eyes and counted the beats of the horse’s hooves, the bass of her heart, the swirl of time around them – anything to calm the panic building in her throat. She counted to keep from succumbing to madness, to keep from screaming until the horrors were past, until the world was over and she with it, and all was calm again.
She knew they had arrived by the way the warm flesh against her cheek turned into a column of steel. She knew by the stuttering gait of the horse and the stillness in the air. She pulled herself free from the entanglement of cloth and fear, and out into the cool air of the dawn.
Isatay gasped, even though she had braced herself for the vista unrolling before them. They had arrived at last. She knew this landscape: the cobblestone paths and the thatched homes cluttered in the valley below, the rumble of the distant falls, and the scorched earth gaping like a wound in the distance. All of it etched into her memory as indelibly as the carvings upon the stone obelisks of the north.
In the year that she had not seen this place, she and Addisalem had travelled far, her aunt setting a punishing pace. But here they were, back at the place that painted Isatay’s nightmares with blood and flame, scented it with smoke and charred flesh, drowning her in sorrow.
They had returned home.
III – THE DEAD
In her dreams, Isatay was whole again. The fragments of her life, the remains of her heart – all stitched up.
She wondered what Addisalem saw when she slept. When she lay shuddering and gasping for breath amongst the shattered fragments of the earthenware jug, with its mixture of blood, milk, and honey staining her out-flung arms and twitching fingers. Isatay would watch her aunt convulsing, her eyes rolling back in their sockets and flashing white in the moonlight. The fevered mumbling of Addisalem’s lips, the brittle crack of the woman’s body, would meld with the gust and flare of the fire, the heavy presence of the night. And Isatay would sit with fear as her only companion, her eyes on the writhing woman.
There was so little left of her past, so little holding her to this world; she felt the fragility of her existence like a living thing. So much had been lost, and yet more could be taken from her still. She could lose this woman too. This last link to who she could have been.
Isatay imagined herself without Addisalem. Without the woman’s heavy silences and gaunt frame. She saw herself severed from all her yesterdays, floating away amongst the stars, suspended in time with no future, her present lost. She struggled to breathe as the vision seized her heart and squeezed her sanity until it bulged – a leather pouch threatening to burst.
It was a horrible sensation, but one she already knew. It had overcome her a year before, as roaring flames had singed her eyebrows and sooted her face with the remains of all those she held dear. She had been alone then too, crouched like a wild thing among the enset leaves. Shivering so violently that essential parts of her were pried loose and fluttered away, leaving her unable to hold herself on the earth, and her body rising above the crackling fire, the eddies of ash, and the guttural screams.
It was Addisalem who had dragged her back. Addisalem’s voice, inhuman and agonised, that had hauled her to earth, the painful grip of the woman’s blistered hands that had pulled her clear of the void. She had opened her eyes and met those of this woman who was both like her mother and not. Even then, she was a pale echo of all that Isatay had known before. A faded replica of the mother she had adored.
It was Addisalem who had yanked her free. They had been floating away together ever since, dangling over chasms and clinging to cliff-faces. The horse’s hooves had rung over great distances, skidding and sliding on pebbles that tumbled into the gorges below, crunching over sun-baked vegetation and wading through grasses so tall that Isatay felt they would pluck her from the animal’s back.
They had spoken little to each other in those first few weeks, watching the mountain ranges rise and fall, the terrain gaining and leaching colour, the sun blazing then sinking to make way for its pale and humble twin. The peaks and valleys of their homeland had flattened as the distances they travelled stretched, and every night Addisalem had gone further still, leaving her body behind, abandoning Isatay to the darkness that bound her to her past.
And the little girl would sit and extend her eyes beyond the prostrate body of her aunt, to the trees that ringed them and seemed to dance and blur and take on the shape of her mother. The thick cloud of hair, the kind gaze, the outstretched hand, the black ink etched on her chocolate skin: a cross encircled by a sun, with two further crosses climbing up the length of one long finger. And she would watch as her mother burst into flames and contorted with agony, and know that she had made this thing happen and feel the terror tightening its fingers around her throat.
Isatay would watch her mother blaze and burn into a gnarled heap of charred wood and black leaves, and flee the horrors of her mind to fall at her aunt’s feet, kneeling in the spilt blood and upon the shards of the broken jar. Her voice and hands would pull her aunt from the other worlds she travelled, dragging the woman back as the woman had once dragged her. She would clutch Addisalem’s hand, and feel the scars that had their origin in her folly.
She would clench the hand and see once again that fateful moment. At its centre was Addisalem, who had crouched beneath the emerald leaves of the sheltering enset plant and held out her hand to Isatay, the glow of the flames behind her framing her silhouette. The woman had clawed through flames to reach her. Isatay had watched her smouldering amidst the wreckage that her recklessness had wrought. She had watched Addisalem’s clothing catch alight, had observed her aunt’s hair go up in flame, and had said nothing. She had watched her aunt searching desperately for her amongst the charred remains and had stayed quiet, cowering and weeping, ignoring the woman’s hoarse cries. It was as though she had swallowed the fire into herself, her insides giving way to a roaring emptiness where no will and no words remained.
Addisalem’s hand, when the woman had thrust it through the leaves towards her, had been a mess of puckered skin. The remains of the markings that twinned those of her mother only just visible on the abused appendage. She had been afraid to take that hand, afraid that the skin would fall loose and leave her clutching at meat, afraid of what leaving with the woman and leaving behind the ashes of her past would mean, afraid of those black eyes even as she followed their silent command to come forward from her hiding place.
They had travelled far since that first unhappy meeting and yet, in the truest sense, they had gone nowhere at all. Isatay gazed at her homeland and understood that this had always been their destination. She and Addisalem had both dreamed of this place, leaving it knowing that they circled back to it.
IV – THE LIVING
Tap, BUMP. Tap, BUMP. Tap, BUMP.
Addisalem swayed with the upward lift and downward plunge of her arm. The early morning sun was cool and uncertain, adding a golden shimmer to the breeze. Her afro bent and reshaped itself with the more savage gusts, and the loose dress she wore buffeted against her long, angular shape, tracing newly acquired flesh.
Her lips were parted as she worked, and the breath that came from her lungs sang with the rhythm of mortar against pestle.
Ama. Kelech. Ama. Kelech. Ama. Kelech.
The name and the action became one and dispersed into the world around her, and the world echoed the sound until everything thrummed in time with her thoughts. The charred soil just beginning to sprout tufts of grass beneath her, the woven walls and the thatched roof of the little house behind her, the rustling of the enset trees beside her, and the undulating mountain peaks before her. And all around the flurry of rushing feet and laughter as Isatay raced, breathless and bright-eyed, away from the baby goat that pursued her with butting head.
Addisalem felt the stretch and sear of her heart as it widened, and she contracted it back to size with practiced care. Still cautious. All that she could see had once so easily succumbed to flame, and she with it. She was waiting still. Would wait always for the roar of fire to burn away all that she had gained. To force her to grow anew.
She watched with eyes that looked beyond what was before her as Isatay tripped and fell, blood welling quick and bright from her elbows and knees. She did not pause in her work but watched the child dispassionately as she whispered her sister’s name.
It was a strange bond they shared. The blood that ran through Addisalem’s veins now ran from the little girl’s grazed skin. The memories that haunted one, taunted the other. Their pasts intertwined like strands within the woven straw baskets that hung on the smooth mud walls of their shared abode. They had lost everything together and regained it together, and yet there were distances between them that both were hesitant to bridge.
Ama. Kelech. Ama. Kelech. Ama. Kelech.
Isatay sat up to smear the blood dry, tinting the golden-brown skin of her legs and arms. The baby goat watched her from its perch on top of a leafy tree, its cheeks puffed with vegetation, their game forgotten. Isatay in her turn watched Addisalem as she overturned the pestle into the narrow mouth of the jebena, stood, and ducked into the darkness of their hut. The shadows of their home seemed to leap out and swallow the woman, dragging her out of the blue-tinged morning air, and Isatay felt her heart squeeze in panic.
She pushed to her feet and followed her aunt, dashing the pebbles embedded in her palm against her dress as she ran, hearing her little goat bleat in response to her sudden departure and rustle down the tree after her. Then she too was swallowed by the darkness and in the instant it took her eyes to adjust to the shaded interior of their home, she heard the gentle exhale of her aunt’s breath, the rustle of coals, the tap of wood, the snap and pop that signalled the birth of flame.
The rising glow revealed the planes and hollows of Addisalem’s lean features, making a mockery of the months they had passed here and of the changes it had wrought in them both. Because the face that the fire revealed was that of the woman Isatay had known before. The shadows skittered over high-flung cheekbones and concave cheeks, rimming deep-set eyes. Then the image dispersed as the fire grew, and there was only her aunt, sitting on a stool before the flames, her scarred hand balancing the jebena gently over the heat. The woman of blood and milk and honey dissipated with the swirling smoke, and Isatay felt the pressure in her chest ease.
It was Addisalem who had brought her to this place, who had forced them both back from the brink – and Isatay knew that immense will had been exercised on her behalf. She was safer with this woman than she would be anywhere else on earth, and even as she felt the guilt wash over her at that thought, she had to acknowledge that it had been she who had tangled their paths together in a single moment of carelessness.
She had been staring into the budding flames, but that last thought jerked her back to awareness. She pulled her eyes from contemplation of the fire and met the gaze of the woman sitting across from her. Isatay watched the flames dance within the midnight depths and recalled a time when they had rolled milky-white.
“You look just like your mother.”
Isatay started at the quietly spoken words. She could not understand why they struck her so, until she realized with amazement that they had never spoken of the woman whose presence hovered around them like an elusive perfume. The shock of the realisation burned in Isatay’s throat and ran down her cheeks in hot, silent tears.
The flames flickered and threatened to die, and behind them a little girl wept without sound. Addisalem sat and breathed and awakened from her dreams. Her being reconstituted itself slowly, deliberately, skin unfurling over vibrating atoms, eyes opening inwards.
She watched with eyes that looked beyond what was before her and spoke with a voice that was hers but that also entwined itself with one from their mutual past, from the yesterdays of the lonely girl and the reassembled woman.
“Isatay… The fire needs tending.”