IN BETWEEN THE DONKEY'S EAR
Zelembessa. Zelembessa. She heard the name and repeated it. She said it twice to confirm the pronunciation. It sounded better if you said it two times. Tesfy recommended the place. ‘You are an artist, then you will find it interesting.’
She recalled the sounds of coffee beans hitting against the tin pan made from USA ration cans being roasted on the coals. The afternoon light rays cast through the window brushed across her arm, ending on her left breast. It hadn’t rained in over three weeks. Dust storms scattered across the uncultivated plain where hyenas scavenged in the night.
The mother poured a small amount of coffee into a cup, swirled it around and threw it on the floor. She then refilled the cup until it overflowed onto the saucer. It spilt on the floor and ran down into a crack.
The young girl closed her eyes.
‘Bunna Beat’ was painted in the Amharic alphabet above the doorway. There were no more doors, only opening in walls, which had been blown wider by the bombs. The son had bought a can of sky blue paint and painted outlines around the stonework of the façade. They tried. They had no rooftop. Stones lie in neat mounds in front and behind walls. Inside and outside had been turned into outside or inside.
wasn’t satisfied. The fresco of a woman milking her cow had raised
hatred much like the sight of the crucifix scars on their foreheads. He
lifted his rifle casually, but methodically and sprayed bullets into the
wall. You couldn’t see their faces anymore, only an outline. He
lowered his rifle then pulled his pants down with one hand and shat on
It would almost be over. Would she feel less? Her desire stunted by a quick swipe of a razor blade. Blood poured between her legs. It was thick deep red, deeper then any other cut she had before. It seeped into her muslin shema and dripped onto the cement floor. She watched herself inside the deep crimson. She would later see much more. A kitten crept up and tasted her drops.
The Horn is notorious for 'genital mutilation'. Rituals into adolescence were severely scrutinized by the Western world. She didn't know otherwise. Entrance into womanhood, she would miss her childhood- she would lose part of her body. Something would die. She knew something would change, but she didn't know what.
She looked down and saw the mess she had made and dropped the pot back onto the coals. She didn’t bother to clean. Instead, she abandoned the bunna ceremony; nobody was left behind to participate. She would prepare the Ethiopian coffee out of habit. She stood up, stepped over a rock, then an old broken sandal, then a red tattered shirt. She didn’t step on the pile of dried feces. She continuted to walk forward. There were no more obstacles in her path. She walked right through the broken wall into the street. Nothingness lay on the other side.
1998 or 1992 on the
Ethiopian calendar, two cousins, one from Eritrea, the other from Ethiopia
decided to kill each other’s families like so many other neighboring
countries once at peace then at war then at peace again. Tanks and warplanes
blurred the boundaries of this side and the other. 20,000 people perished
in the last two weeks of fighting. An estimated 100,000 would die or be
wounded in the war at the end. Zelembessa, lying right on the line was
hardest hit. Nearly all the civilians escaped into nearby towns, Adigrat
and Mekele. Tigrayans distinguished by their crucifix scars and tattoos
to the forehead would not stand a chance of survival in Eritrea. They
would leave in haste.
Her aunt put a patch of dry tobacco where the tip of her clitoris had been seconds earlier. Her screaming subsided and was followed by low whimpers. Nobody came to console her. Nobody put a hand on her forehead nor touched her arm lightly, but she was imagining someone there. ‘Where is my invisible angel?’ she asked herself. Maybe, she can’t see me because I’m lying down too low. She raised her arms above her head and touched her fingertips together. ‘There. She can see my hands at least.’ The invisible angel must have seen her because she could no longer feel the pain. The sun was lower. She remained on the ground with her hands in the air in the dark for what seemed like hours.
The mother held a
yellow plastic petrol container filled with well water. She sprinkeled
the water onto her head. The mother leaned over and poured cold water
on the girl's legs. The young girl continued to stare up at her fingertips.
Her mother started to hum a prayer. She turned to look at the mother’s
profile. The lines around her eyes were darker. They now matched the lines
around her mouth. The mother started to sing louder with a smile. Her
invisible angel had also come to pay her a visit.
Emmanuel paused to
load a new roll of film. He lagged behind the barefoot pilgrims. Their
blackened feet were cracked hard as leather. Some had walking sticks;
the holier ones had steel rods, which were toped with crucifixes. Emmanuel
was conservative with his imported Fuji film. He framed his shot, took
only one click of a monk wedged underneath the cliff face and pushed on.
He struggled the climb with his rubber tire constructed sandals.
As the village s’alli, Emmanuel chose to wear countryside clothing; a white muslin dress with an Ethiopian flag sash which read ‘I ‘heart’ Ethiopia,’ neat short dreads and a black canvas camera case. People would stop him on the streets asking, ‘Where’s my picture?!’ Emmanuel was able to make a living running around to town functions and shooting candid photos for three birr a piece.
Lamb’s blood ran down the stone steps. The blood had been smeared over the stones by their bare feet. Faint red footprints criss-crossed, gradually fading up to the entrance of St. Mary’s church. The crowd cheered. The monks sang. Bells rang. Sounds echoed in the valley. The mountaintop swayed for hours until the sun hit noon.
A fresh pair of sacrificial
goat horns lay outside the doorway. With every step, she felt a jolt of
pain between her legs. The donkey that was pierced by her scream peaked
out from behind the wall and pretended not to notice her. She felt hunger,
but there wasn’t any injera to eat. She spotted a ferange. ‘Ferange,’
she whispered out loud to herself. The tourist stopped in front of her,
stared for a moment, raised her camera, but didn’t take a photo.
The tourist looked through her eyes. ‘Yellem.’
The tourist turned to walk down the street, but looked back at her before taking a picture of a wall painting of a woman and a cow pocked with bullet holes. Another tourist walked passed her, but he was an Ethiopian dressed in white with a red, yellow and green belt. He yelled out to the tourist pointing to the bunna beat sign above the doorway. He had a big camera. It must have been expensive, she thought. Maybe at least 100 birr.
Emmanuel was wondering what
the ferange was looking at. ‘Cactus?’ he questioned.
In the middle of the desert was a deep hole where an ancient church was carved from solid rock earth. The church had been built by a miracle. Now, the church was absent and a deep square hole was left mysteriously in the earth. Monks stood around the perimeter. Some huddled underneath their gabis to avoid the sun. Some raised their donkey hair fly swatters against their faces while they read the bible in G’ez. A monk in bright yellow chanted and leaned on his wooden staff. A lanky girl with blonde matted hair followed behind. She was not normal, but had a big smile on her face. She ran in front of them looked back with a laughing smile and dove into the hole. The followers looked on shocked. The girl climbed to the top before they arrived to the edge of the hole. She had survived.
‘Why aren’t you dead?’
‘It’s soft at the bottom. Really. Go ahead and jump!’
The others jumped. After a few seconds they also climbed to the edge.
‘I don’t want to die,’ I confessed.’
‘You don’t believe us?’
I didn’t jump.
I felt some regret and self-doubt. They must be angels. They should have
Miracles happened a lot in Ethiopia. Mostly they occurred in the 11th and 12th centuries. Now it was rare to witness or notice miracles. You had to try harder, but if you were patient and very, very still, small miracles occurred everyday. The Priest claimed he had completed the marble carved ceiling within the course of a few weeks. A miracle was provided once again for the construction of a rock hewn church. Like other world wonders: Machu Picchu, the Great Pyramids, Ankor Wat- only faith in a higher being would explain its existence.
I heard a woman singing. She walked out of her house, which had been freshly painted with blue lines around the remaining brickwork. Someone was trying to recover.
The afternoon sun shone through a side window and exited the front entrance. ‘Ferange’, she smiled.
Her ebony skin against
the room lit with the orange afternoon sun made her appear like a saint.
I was amazed they still had smiles leftover. I looked down and took a
picture of a broken sandal and pieces of a gourd basket. When I looked
up she had disappeared.
'Nice?' Asked the photographer. 'Ishi, tsebu.' But, Zelembessa was a different type of beauty. Beauty in suffering? 'All life was suffering,' said the Buddha. Zelembessa knew only this. At one time this hadn't been the case. Destruction forced you to search for your own breadth. Death was attached to life. This place reminded you now.
The artist was afraid to say it but did so anyway, 'Yes, Zelembessa is beautiful.' And he understood.
'You are an artist, then you will find it interesting.'
The camera zoomed into the fine white hairs lining the donkey's ears. The ass seemed to be quite aware of his audience. He waited in patience. His ear made a few fly-swatting twitches. He stood comfortably in the corner of a building half standing. He turned to look into the camera. He said he had seen it all happen. He had been there to hear the calls of death and then he turned away so that the camera framed his ear once again.