Your father died. We buried him yesterday in the new cemetery by the cliff. The priest spoke about him in Amharic and the imam spoke in Arabic and then we all prayed, each in our own language and religion. And in the evening Debrezeyt thronged with your father’s gypsy friends. They sang and danced until morning broke over them.
How can I console you when you’re so far away? But nor do I wish you to come home. Everything has changed. Debrezeyt is not as you left it. So much has happened, and in no time at all. The town exploded, became so crowded you cannot breathe, and we are no longer able to walk here in safety.
On every corner there’s a tourist grinning like an idiot and taking photographs of our lives, like our lives are something remarkable. The town’s lost the soul we loved.
Ian is delighted with this growth: the hotel’s doing great business. So many people turn up every day that we’re forced to turn some away. We tell them the rooms are all taken, but some don’t mind sharing a bed!
Ian and I are doing well. At last we’ve found a way to live together, to raise the girl while we manage the resort. Sofia has grown since you’ve been away. Speaks to her father in French, in Amharic to me, and English with the hotel guests. I don’t know how her little head finds room for it all, but she’s still easy and spontaneous in everything she does. I can barely greet the guests in this broken rubbish that I speak. Eight years and I still can’t muster a single sentence in French for Ian, and his Amharic’s as bad as my French. But, as you see, we are muddling by together.
I won’t claim that I’m happy, exactly. Sometimes I’m woken in the night by cats fighting, and I ask myself, What’s this white man doing in my bed? And I remember your voice, saying that Ian’s really more red than white and that his sweat runs green as his eyes, which makes him look ridiculous when he stands out in the sun.
We’ve come through a lot, me and him. A decade of tedious gossip, for instance. Half of the town said he’d married me for the lake, so he could build the resort, and the others said that I had married him to emigrate: to drop my nationality and turn French. But from the very first day I met him I knew he’d never be going back to what he calls “the hell of the materialistic world.” He says it with disgust, as though vomiting up something bitter and unpalatable. What little I know about him I know from what he says when he’s drunk. When he cries, when he pushes his face into my breasts and says things in his language that I don’t understand. But his grief I do understand. He weeps.
A woman came here. A very stylish lady. It was May, and she was wearing a long blue overcoat. When Ian saw her, he looked unsettled. Then I saw them together. They stayed in the garden until all the guests had returned to their rooms. I left them there and went to bed, but when, hours later, I went back out, I found them still together, gazing at the lake in silence. I returned to bed and waited there another hour until I heard Ian come softly in. I asked him once, and once only, Who is she? He was silent as all eternity, and then the phrase escaped his throat, bleak and cold: My wife. When we woke the next morning, she wasn’t there. We haven’t spoken of it since.
Sakina folded her friend’s letter shut, and her gaze drifted toward the clouds that sat like stickers against the plane’s window. She had Sara’s letter memorized from end to end. She must have read it a hundred times, each time hoping that the words might be different, if only a little. Two years since the letter came, since her father was buried, and she had yet to weep over his grave. Today, all she wanted was to stand before him, to tell him that God had chosen him as His guest in paradise; that she was happy because his soul was completely free; that she was grateful for everything he taught her.
Her father was a gypsy. Could never take entirely seriously the idea that a person should squander a whole life on a single plot of earth. He traveled frequently, and she rarely saw him growing up. Didn’t know him the way daughters know their fathers. His zeal was a mystery to her, but when she was old enough, he had taken her with him so she could know him better. Her rebellion was just beginning then. Against everything: her mother, the town, school. Everything. She interacted with the world as though it was in a conspiracy against her. She was extremely brittle and permanently angry.
When her father asked her to accompany him on his trip, she had almost refused, but hadn’t, and at dawn the next day, they had set out together to Shashamane. The whole way there, her father told her about himself, and she learned everything there was to know about his Rastafarianism, from his dreads and the Bob Marley tapes he instructed her to bury with him, to the hash which he said purified him. Left him clean inside.
They met many of his friends on that trip. The men were properly kind and gentle with her. Hugged her a lot and smiled. They were always talking about love, and dancing. It was on that trip, too, that her father took her to the place that was to become her own sacred site of pilgrimage: Wondo Genet, or Heaven’s Gate, as she came to call it. He paid a small fortune to bring her there, to the place where Haile Selassie had lived. They wandered through Selassie’s bedroom, and she bathed in the hot spring where the great man had bathed. She didn’t share her father’s passion for Selassie; it was the land itself that shook her heart. Wondo Genet was untouched and untamed, God’s secret garden here on earth. The whole village was carpeted in green: trees and fields; coffee bushes and guava and banana. Very, very poor and impossibly rich.
On her first, revelatory visit with her father, she climbed the mountain there barefoot. Climbed to the very summit of the mountain and breathed in the blend of scents: jasmine, basil, mint, coffee berries ripening. Her heart was light as a dove, and she felt grateful that she was here, a mole on the cheek of the earth. It was the first time her troubled spirit had stilled, and this she remembered and carried with her always.
She had changed her name from Mehret to Sakina, once and for all.
The stewardess brought her out of her reverie: Tea or coffee? This wasn’t Sakina’s first time on a plane, and so she knew exactly how to make sure she got the order she wanted: black, with no sugar or milk. She never ate on planes after the meal of chicken with grilled vegetables she’d attempted on her first flight. She’d had to sprint the length of the airport, trying not to heave up the contents of her burning stomach. She hadn’t even been able to read the signs properly, and there wasn’t one kind soul to tell that all she wanted was a bathroom, nothing more.
She smiled and returned to her coffee, to the endless gazing out at the sky. The clouds were crimson, ordering themselves: a woman getting ready for a secret assignation. Suddenly she remembered that she hadn’t brought her hair dye with her. Most likely she’d left it in the drawer in the communal bathroom. Had she left other things there too? The only place she’d managed to overlook completely. She began to panic. So many things she had hidden away in that drawer. Personal things. She shared the apartment with five other women, and this was the only place that was hers and hers alone. Yes, now she was half-recalling something, a memory of clearing it out a couple of days before traveling. But had she really?
Then Sakina did something that bewildered both the cabin crew and her fellow passengers. She laughed out loud. Hysterically. Some might have assumed she’d been drinking, but the stewardesses knew she hadn’t ordered alcohol. The sudden laughter lasted minutes, but felt as though it went on for an hour. The first thought to cross Sakina’s mind, a thought which had seemed hilarious to her in the moment, was that she would never need her dye again. She would be going back to the little town where she was born, and no one there would care if her hair was chestnut or black. Then she thought that at last she would get to drink good coffee instead of this vile black liquid.
What kept her laughing, though, was the thought of herself dancing the way she used to, before she went away. Finally, after all these years in which she’d wrecked her body with bad food, the anger held back behind her broad, clamped lips, she pictured herself dancing again: like a duck drowning in the lake, thrashing its wings and sinking farther beneath the waves, and everyone mockingly looking on. She imagined Sara laughing when she saw her grown so fat, her elegance and calm beauty gone to ruin. And instead of the thought making her feel ashamed, sitting there in the plane, high above the clouds on her way back home, Sakina suddenly found her voice.
For the first time since she had left Debrezeyt some eight years, three months, and half a day ago, she laughed.
Bwader Basheer is an author and artist from Sudan who focuses on short stories, flash fiction, and prose. Her 2010 short story “Glass” won the short story prize from BBC Arabic and Al-Arabi magazine.
Robin Moger is a translator of Arabic prose and poetry based in Cape Town, South Africa.