A day of blistering sun over the mountains of Ethiopia
A novel by Pius Ngandu Nkashama
translated from the French (Un jour de grand soleil sur les montagnes de l'Ethiope)
by Robert Levine and Jimi Yuma
Part one: Under the shining stars
To Hélène, for this marvelous legend
To Elsa, for the undying memory
To Lazare, for the length of eternity
To Ethiopia, for ages and ages
Hot sun. First rays on the ridges of the mountains. Agony when the shouts had burst forth, as though they were exploding from the cliffs. They echo as far as the clumps of dry grass, right down to the base of the rocks of Wikro.
For the Magus Nefadiri these mad cries exceed the limits of the tolerable. He dragged himself from his ascetic pallet with suffering in his heart. The shadowy light grew dull, like a stubborn donkey, on the rocky path. Beyond the edge, the clay road. They hurl down the slopes, through the sharp stones, towards the village covered with night.
There is a crypt there in the estuary, tiny roofs which emerge exactly at the limit of the territory assigned to them to provide an unlikely security. They all live off the mountain. Some weary donkeys drag themselves along over the husks of prickly pears.
They chew on trampled cardboard, on rough leaves, and on mud-filled papers, among the plowed fields and the blue-grey groves of chestnut trees.
On the other side of the mountain the trees are scattered in rosaries around the rocks. Some rocks shine in muddy gangue. Science is durability of knowledge for him, Nefadiri: the Magus. Strength and power that do not collapse.
He had just felt, like a stinging, that savage impression that henceforth the universe was turning upside down. In spite of himself he had directed his gaze beyond the tangled shrubs. To exactly where the path of dry sand slips into the grass. His son had passed this way some weeks before, at the time that he was supposed to leave for Makallé. He has undoubtedly already rejoined his battalion, the death squad sent to the pitiless powder keg of Asmara.
The memory strikes him in the face with the jolt of a slap. He tries to fan it with a tired hand. But he does not succeed even in wiping off his face completely. His old man's fingers, broken by life, can no longer stifle this strange agony in his throat. The sun is sinking. It glides backwards, like a prowler fleeing the clouds' shadows. On the peaks of dead rocks the sun makes the uneven movements of a juggler caught up in a trance, frightened by the mountain.
Again the same shouts which burst forth from the marketplace. Nefadiri does not dare yet to turn his eyes towards the dust which scatters through the twilight. He will not find anything there to help him "struggle up the steep slopes," as the Hymn of Meskalla proclaims.
That morning the Magus Nefadiri awoke in a bad mood. Not only because of the accumulating clouds, but above all because of the stupid sensation that stuck to his shoulderblades. Idiotic emotions which grip his belly. A dream or a damned nightmare? A distant legend, with disparate images. A day of excessive affliction, a man had had a dream. He was changed into a butterfly, with wings. The next day he had experienced the same unpleasant distress: he constantly asked himself if it was the butterfly who had changed into a man, or the man who was metamorphosed into a butterfly. The dream became an hallucination, and the man ended by sinking into madness.
The Magus was not going to fight against the shades of his ancestors. They descend in a straight line from the Great Melkamu. Nefadiri knows that he has now become Melkamu. Melkamu has been reborn in him. He has taken his flesh and his spirit. He is incarnated in his muscles and his organs of sense. And Melkamu cannot bear any fear.
He also knows that, on a morning like this, the horde of his little disciples, turbulent and studious when they wish to be so, will not come rushing around the walls of ash. He will not teach the Amharic letters of the Holy Scriptures. At the heart of the "Year of Yohannes," the most sanctified period of the liturgical cycle, he feels abandoned by the forces of the giant stars and comets. He is inwardly shattered. The Wall was the symbol of eternity. Sheltered from the sun and from violent winds, the Magus was dispensing the necessary fundamental elements to every good subject of the Empire. And his disciples were going far down into the valley in order to carry the echoes of the primal Truth. What he got from it was not satisfaction. Through the windows that open onto the mimosas, the world seems to be going adrift.
He places a weary foot on a stone dark with rot. He attempts to hold himself up, to butress himself to climb the slope. The effort is painful. A song moves in his bowels. A psalmody heard over many centuries, which extends the years of his childhood.
My name on the pediment of your rock, Roha!
The rock is established at the end of our fingers of asbestos
The little finger raised high above the foliage of the stars
And your mouth is a moon radiant with amethystes
And your face is a translucid star.
My cry is raised to point at immensity
As far as the estuaries of the baths of Bakili
The plain has since stretched at our feet
Cliffs to climb on solid creepers
Hopes to surmount in wicker baskets
Branches that whip you on the forehead
Granite rocks interlaced with colocynths
And their boughs mingle with your hair
Curse! Curse of Ismael the son of Hagar
Curse! Curse on your descendants
He clasps his hands, he wraps his fingers nervously in his nettala, patterned with arabesque cruciforms. Multi-colored, curved designs, woven on white silk. "O light, tied more closely to the root of the earth! And your desire flames in the breast like a love song!"
Nefadiri retraces his steps. His feet do not carry him any further, and his legs seem to sink under his weight. He must lean against the wooden doorpost framing his narrow door. Not to stumble any longer like a drunken man. To forget. One must forget even the memory of torments. He knows that the borders of time will be crossed by the words of the ancient rites. He was the Magus. An imperishable Science. A complete Knowledge given as an inheritance. From the times of the distant caravans loaded with spices and pure gold. Their costly sandals crowded the trails that lead to the abodes of the Great Queen. In the country of eternity. The gold of Offir. Santal wood, brilliant gems. From the time of the great lineage of those who interpret dreams up to the solemn homage rendered by those who were the first to prostrate themselves in the stable where the Man-God came to be born. They had offered to him presents of incense and gilded chandeliers.
He, Nefadiri, the legitimate son of the Magus Melkamy: "Blessed be thy Name of Glory!" A name worthy of praise. He would so have loved at this moment to invoke the offering of his Ancestors, before prostrating himself too, forehead to the ground, to present to the divine Child fragrant myrrh. Incense, pledge of reconciliation with the primal land! What voice would tell him again the miracle accomplished upon the universe? What star flaring from afar would mark out for him the path of return, in order to escape from the treachery of jealous kings? He would have had to return to his own land by "another path…" Where now is the "other path"?
To weep! To weep again for a world that is ending. He, the Magus, with his useless Science. He will not even be able to sacrifice himself for the survival of the Empire. The curses that assail him during his dreams, since the time he took his oath at the monastery of Debré Damo, and that ignominious expulsion whose causes were never explained. They had spoken of complicated attitudes, of an impatient faith, whereas he had always believed in the stigmata of the Elect by means of which the message of Revelation reveals itself.
But by what signs does the Magus gain access to the symbols of the scattering of the stars? By what miracles does the Poet seize the Power which makes mountains tremble?
On the previous night the Magus had seen a green star turning at the other end of the sky, on the path of the heliacal risings of Sothis. Scintillations. Shudderings. What he had endured was not fear yet. He would not even have had the courage to be distressed about it. A vision would have come perhaps to deliver him from it, and would have finished by showing him the way. But he knows that the dream from now on was transformed into hallucination. Faces which contort themselves with twisting lips. Hills which collapse with a roar. Precipices where bones pile up, in the midst of howling bats. The gnawings of field mice and tarantulas.
A curse on the dried-up plain.
The Dankali awakens in the midst of flames. Its flaming rocks litter the buckle of Irta' Ale . Right into blazing Welo the bitter smoke of the furnace.
In your belly a charred heart: a column of salt, then the mountain that rises above you, gigantic and brilliant in the night. They all say: the blessed isle of the lmighty God.
On the steep slope the wild honey is no longer as abundant as the dust in the marketplace. The cattle have become as rare as the pimples on the plane trees during the sweltering times of the monsoon…
For months the clouds had wandered along the border of the plateaus of Dugum. From the sloping sides blinding reverberations were emanating, brilliantly white on the naked rocks. Their layers of clay were crackling in a suffocating heat. The metallic glow on the ruts and loose stones of Gash.
Who could believe in the ghosts of an Astrologer adrift, confusing the pipistrel with prickly pears of cactuses? Every evening he sets the bells in motion over impossible melodies while he moves among the hills. His shadow has stopped casting curses which succeeded in doing no more than provoking derision from the children.
But on the threshold of opprobrium and the swamps of crocus
his cheeks hollowed out on a groan in the sky
the door is the letter inscribed on your forehead. At the foot of the tree
the Glory of Tigray scatters itself in the despair of the sparks
they will speak in dream the useless name of Lalibela
You are not rock but rooted stone
but an enclosure with access to eternal dwelling places
you are not a cliff but a road which climbs to the crowns of Zag'ue
a face imprinted on the vertical side into the beyond of the day
into the beyond of memory into the beyond of night
On the ground
Strewn with spikes of tef and with the broad leaves of injéra
The words come back to him spasmodically, according to the rhythm of the holy Books: the Kebra Negast. The news about the "City of the Flower" was hardly reassuring. Profane and sacrilegious hands had dared to touch! They had befouled the sanctified body of the Empire. As to the Ras Makonen: the disgusting riff-raff had dishonored the Tiara of Djan Hoy. It would have been better had they been burned at the stake, reduced to cinders and ashes. From what source then will the illumination come that would reveal to him the destiny of the Empire? The face of Yohannes, the Great Conqueror? That of Menelik the Venerable?
And these corrupt Tschowa, degraded in luxury and lechery, who do not even have the courage to sacrifice their miserable lives to preserve the Empire! They have preferred to betray the ratified Pact, and they have come to terms with the sons of slaves, going so far as to crouch down, to go on their knees before the flunkeys. They have taken cowardly refuge behind ridiculous sets of hurdles behind walls packed with laughable portcullises lances, with each of them defending the guts rotting in his belly. They preferred the indulgence of lazy sensualists to the valor of warriors who brandish swords, or who turn their swords on themselves to escape shame.
But what Masters? They have allowed themselves to degenerate, wallowing in the midst of the tarts and venal courtisans of the tedj-biet. Worthless girls who possess nothing but their diseased organs. And the sons of the Baria have ended up tracking down those who called themselves the Lords, like bait for a hunt. The last patch of land belonging to the Courageous of the Empire has been devastated. Still remaining was Tigray, Land of courage and of total Knowledge. And Tigray will reestablish the brilliance of the Empire.
If one listened to them, the world could collapse without the degenerate Tschowa feeling the least remorse. They would squat in mule droppings without feeling any surprise. Now the hour has come to make them pay. Calamity has fallen upon the world. At least let the Universe of the Magus be preserved from the catastrophe, and let him extend the splendor of the Knowledge which never ends. Nefadiri intones, with a resonant voice, the hymn of Glory. He brandishes his emaciated fingers with rage. The roarings which echo through the valley seem to amplify his fury. He knows now that when the night ends there will be a sparkle in the sky: the day of a blistering sun. For ages and ages, Amina!
Calamity! Calamity! O you more noble than the tree of Knowledge
you foliage rustling on the ciphers of the world
your hand a light shed over the elements of the earth
Calamity! Calamity! O you woman of passion and desire
your body was the path peopled by phosphorescent stars
our feet have followed it to the end of the milky ways
the peat of stars and of myriads of astral lights
Calamity! Calamity! O you
the woman was the path of calamity
Her universe was sunk in the abyss
the lust of Barbary pirates
and my heart has been pulverized by the misdeed
the sin of death
Calamity! Calamity! O you
the earth will be reduced to ashes
the price of our guilty joys
will be the price of useless passions
the price of the ignorance of eternal Knowledge
Elsa tried to translate the puzzle. The words piled up under opaque forms that the Tigrinya language had sown in scanned syllables. And the language sang a hymn of fervor.
The bird and the pearls in the midst of garlands
the tree that was bent forward
the voice proclaimed: the child
Me. The slopes and the sources
A wide bridge of creepers
the macaronis burned this evening while going through
dreams: the earth calls us
I want the earth to fall upon me
we no longer are afraid. We no longer are afraid
this night in the Kimpompo
I did not see the cactus
the sanctified year -- the year of Lukas --
the year of whinnying
the Welo! The Welo!
The night was fresh. Stars were still shining, pale glimmerings in a black sky. Cries of birds on carrion? At some distance a stifled wailing, a groan.
Khédamawit Yemane got up suddenly. In his hands he was holding yellowed scrolls. Fear? He went towards the sauce pan, intending to wash his hands, but even before he manages to bend down he feels as though he were numb with cold. The night seemed greyer than ashes. The ground was rustling with murmurings. The cave was buried in the hollows of a large rock, and they had found a precarious refuge that did not protect them against the fierce squealings of the jackals. Elizabeth Adâné was curled up against a kind of pillar. Tonight they had again sucked on blackberries that had little juice in them. Like the previous night, and the night before that.
On other hills that faced them they had noticed swirlings of sand, rustlings of trampled grass. Khédamawit knew very well what that meant: crawling and skidding in the fissures where the shadows of the Warriors were threading their way. And at dawn, cracklings, gunfire, explosions. Blood, torn bodies, corpses that had been quartered. Yes, this was certainly a haunted valley, this area of curving lines and imprecise contours.
Khédamawit had ended up there some years before, in the midst of furrows badly plowed. At that moment the sun had seemed to him too high for him to dream of escaping his dizziness. And the sun shone, as only it knows how to shine at the outermost bounds of the land of Tekazze.
Cracked soil. Clumps of daisies stuck between the crevices in the dried clay. Crabs driving their spiny legs over the foliage of shrubs. The shadows of the nightjars were huge. The waters of the creek seemed of a viscous black. In this season, they fall from waterfalls and muddy ponds, flowing beyond Setit. Far off the cows had sunk to the ground, overcome by the heat. Under the stunted trees they had an unfocused look. The sound of chewing and sucking recalls the sound of millstones grinding oats and damp sainfoin. The age was not introducing itself very joyfully. For long months the storms had become rare, and the squalls were no longer carried by the impetuous winds that blow over the mountains. Then the banana plants pointing up, like stumps with needles. Khédamawit had never had enough of the scene, and he had to struggle for a long time against the intoxication of the unreal colors.
The dwarf palm trees remained far off. Very far, at the borders of the lake regions. The cliffs of Ras Dashan. They were vertical, and the crystallised silica there seemed more transparent than glass. On its sides, rocks. The mountain, imposing in its purity. The appeal of Gondar, at the crossroads of the routes of Bahar Dar, there where the Tissisat ends in the gleaming of Tana.
It was not to admire all of these splendors that Khédamawit had wandered through these foreign lands, but to carry out the promise that he had made to his Father, the day on which these crazed militia men had put him in chains to carry him away behind the hills. He had traveled since that painful day, staggering along with the caravans of mule drivers…
That had been grey, like all the other mornings. He was already accustomed to the hasty risings under the tempestuous jostlings of the Cheika. This nameless Kafir with nasal sonorities, with his nose sticking out sideways, with the heavy reek of foul breath. The memory of it was less bitter than the reality. And if the manuscript discovered between the cracks of the rafters that held up the roof had not been a difficult puzzle to piece together, he would not have hesitated to get himself crushed by the boots of the cowherds.
The years multiplied. And every day the grooms saddled the horses at the moment when the Balabat was rejoicing in dreaming of his morning rides. The Master, the Lord of Wikro. He gave orders, he whipped, he tortured. He ruled, and he was a long suffering.
His daughter, Elsa Adâné. There she is, the one who was sleeping while trying to stifle a stubborn cough. Undoubtedly she wasn't covered well the whole night, and her fragile flesh already was twitching violently. Her body burning up with fever.
"You should cover yourself, Elsa. Why don't you listen to me?"
"Don't torture yourself for me, little husband. If I should end here …"
"You call me little husband to prevent me from scolding you. Don't you know, then, what risk we are running if you do not take good care of yourself?"
" If it is my destiny, Khédid, you can't do anything. Neither our tears nor our lamentations would do anything. My fate, Khédid, Fate only."
"You no longer have a destiny that belongs to yourself. Your destiny is inscribed in my existence."
"Child, it doesn't matter what you say."
"It is you who are the child, whom I must protect from everything. From the world and from the night. It is you, the child whom I must love above all else. My child, the first born of my blood."
"Blood, Khédid! My father died in blood. The curse will pursue us everywhere we go. I killed my father."
Elsa was about to burst out sobbing. Khédamawit put a finger on her mouth, to prevent her from cursing destiny. He touched her cheeks, her chin. He caressed her with all the tenderness he could summon. He began to feel genuine fear.
"You know, Elsa, you can always go back home. It's the home of your Father. The curse is mine to carry. They will catch me, they will hang me, perhaps. It's not your fault, and everything is certainly not over. He must have had himself carried away. He has been revived, I am now certain of it. He merely fainted. I was afraid and I brought you into this distress."
"Be quiet, Khédid. You don't know what you're talking about. You don't think about what you say, and if you were of this land you would understand things differently. Perhaps you don't feel its tremblings. But me, I vibrate within myself with every twist and turn of each movement that can touch the land. To go back home will mean having the courage to accept death. I'm not afraid, you know. But if he is still alive, my Father has already removed me from his body like a thorn. He would have had to wipe out my name from his entire lineage."
"Nothing has been done yet, Elsa. You, my little her'te. Our Ghet'ta had always been good for me. I had been his favorite, and I loved him as though he had been my Father. He will pardon us. He will give us his blessing."
"And you also hope that he will give you his daughter as a bonus? That you should be so naive! I am of his blood, Khédid. Of the blood of a Ras, my Lord for thousands of years, since eternity. What we have done has no name in the history of our peoples. My Father will not even take back my ashes. Just understand that it is for you that I made this sacrifice."
"No Elsa, no! One should say that it was you I came looking for so far away, in this strange land. It is you who have called me back to life. Do you remember? I have always told you that something important was lacking in my life: a Mother. From now on it is you who will hold the place of Mother. It is you who will be my Mother. My unknown mother, that's you. You only, Elsa."
Khédamawit had not yet ever been able to imagine that the world had been able to hang on the whip of a single man, even if he were a disgraced Ras. And yet he could not put out of his mind the horror of what the Baria did, dragging the body of their Master along the muddy ruts. If that was to be done again! But yes, Khédamawit did not doubt it for an instant; all the Baria would do it again without hesitating. They would shake the slavish rabble. Those whose will had been annihilated by centuries of servitude.
From father to son. It was not his responsibility to begin the history of the Peoples all over again.
The night became increasingly tense with distress. In the midst of the smoke which was stinging the eyes, which was wiping the mouth dry of all desire, Elsa had needed a bit of calm. As Khédamawit cradled her in his arms, she prolonged a distant dream. While Khédamawit sang to her a song of Simen, with echos carried from DebreTabor to the summit of Guna.
Come daughter of the Mountain
Gazelle you have leaped over the
Steep summits of Begemder
Daughter of Assalefech
Great flower Ababa
You are woman
The abyss of my belly
And my heart is your precipice
Come from the deep shadows
In the midst of the flight of eagles
You Ababa the mysterious flower
Great flower Addis
The song provoked a spasm of pain. How to invoke death, unless by an act of sacrilege? The haunted valley! With its ghosts clamped to jutting peaks, and their undulations suspended in the emptiness of the precipices!
Khédamawit Yemane himself had never thought of shadows. His hands still burned, slashed by the ploughshares. Hours on end he had pushed before him, with all his energy, cows highly unresponsive to the squawkings of the Baria. And everything had taken place like in a daze. You, the cursed day! You, the day of calamity! You rise at the first faint light of dawn, and the centuries are shattered by you until the end of time. That morning Khédamawit had lashed the backs of the oxen with even greater belligerence. A tenacious bite in the fat of the muscles, a sudden oppressive knot in the throat. It seemed to him that things had changed place in the natural order, and that they would never be put right again. And then, all of a sudden, the plowshare caught on a rebellious stump, a sharp rock planted in the middle of the field that he had not been able to avoid. He had shouted so loudly with all his might that he lost his voice. Caught: "the gift for the shadows", as the peasants said each time they found themselves suddenly voiceless from shouting at the animals. Then the plowshare cracked. Its rusty iron was no longer able to stand up to the hard work, and the family forge, ruined and totally delapidated, could no longer solder the corroded metal.
Khédamawit had imagined with fear the terrible wrath of Ras Taféla. He would twist his neck without mercy, or would make him spend the night in the stables, under the clogs and excrement of the pregnant mules. He had been present so many times, silent and dumbfounded, at these punishments while the victims swallowed their suffering without daring to make the slightest groan.
At the beginning of his stay he became so sick of it that he choked with silent rage each time that the Ghet'ta cruelly tortured his slaves. The house was kept under such fierce discipline that no one could nourish the slightest illusion of likely vengeance, not even by making useless complaints.
At this moment of his pain having to confront the rage of Ras Téfala did not matter much to him. As Elsa had said so gently, he himself had not been nourished on the juice of this land. He still complained about his distress, but he dared not face his own isolation. It was then that he saw running towards him a silhouette that he recognized only too well. He stared wide-eyed. His whole body tense. Elizabet Adâné! She was running, stumbling in the furrows, holding her breasts with her two hands. Khédamawit was spell-bound by this shadow that seemed to glide through the valley of Wikro. He remained fixed in a movement at once apprehensive and hopeful. He cried out: "Elsa! Elsa!"
The young girl made a discreet sign to him with her hand. She had stepped up her pace. Khédamawit, in turn, snatched himself out of his stupor and rushed forward to take her in his arms. But the gesture was still too surprising, and he did not dare to hug her body, hardened by suffering.
"You greet me with a frightened face?"
"Elsa, oh, Elsa! Why must this sorrow happen to me on the very day that you came to me? I broke the plowshare and I don't want to spend the night under the hooves of mules."
"Be quiet. Be quiet then, little fool," the young girl scolded him affectionately. "Is this the way to greet a woman? A field to be worked and mule droppings don't give you the right to give me a rude welcome on our first date."
"Then you don't understand, Elsa? I am so very happy, but why was it necessary for this to happen only today …"
She had to content herself with taking his hands and press them tenderly between her own. The smile had to light up his face.
"Are you afraid, Khédid?"
"I am not afraid, Elsa. Why did you come out here? You shouldn't. If our Ghet'ta came upon you here, with the calamity that has befallen us…"
"He would kill me with hatchet blows, I know it very well," she added with a laugh.
""No, this time I shall prevent him from doing that, even if he has to step over my body," Khédamawit affirmed breathlessly.
"Child," Elizabet murmured. "Nothing in the world could oppose his will, if he decided to punish me. These are the laws of our royal lineage. That also, I accept. I have always assumed it, as a part of my destiny."
"Destiny. You are always speaking of destiny, of fate. We shall fight, Elsa, henceforth we shall defend ourselves. With our hands if necessary."
"Tut, child. It's not worth frightening little girls with naughty words."
Their joy through looks veiled in bitterness. They had completely forgotten what crushes. The burst of Elsa's laughing, just as she always did at certain moments in a childish fit. They had withdrawn under a stunted mango tree, where she forced him to sit next to her. Khédamawit did not grow weary of looking at her, as though enchanted by her radiant face. He felt himself still paralysed by a tendency to be very timid. Elsa had unrolled in her dress of white cotton a small package held together by the ends of strings. Some pages pulled from the notebook of a school boy, on which awkward signs were scribbled. Elsa continued to stammer, as though she had heard some buzzing around her.
"I arrived at the most interesting moment of your puzzle. I believe that what follows will enlighten us about the situation described in the pages which we have already gone through. It produced in me a sudden illumination. Like a presentiment. A force that pushed me to run towards you to speak to you about it quickly."
Khédamawit said nothing, as though these words did not concern him. At least, not yet. He held the pages in his hands. He was trembling at the idea that they were going to make something known to him, and he regretted being unable to decipher the signs of the Tigrinya language. Tangled traces and letters. A moment of disbelief, with the shining face of Elsa who was speaking to him of another joy. He was murmuring to himself, almost dizzy.
"Dreams assail me more and more, sette lige. Bats, giant spiders in the caves. Monsters with scales on their backs, enormous lizards crawling in the swamps. And the two of us always running somewhere. Behind us smoke, blazing fires, burning trees."
"Dreams, dreams. We shall make them as much as we would like, Khédid," Elsa replied, too moved to find words to match the young man's distress.
The sun remained suspended over the crests of the mountains. They were silent. Then a shape erupted on the horizon, gesturing frantically. With the same feeling of fear they stood up, holding each other by the hand. They wanted to share the same disaster, and the catastrophe had not delayed long. The shape bustled about in a cloud of red dust, with the sound of clogs moving over badly cleared furrows. They understood it well: the horse snorted, as though the smell of the plowed earth burned in his nostrils. The bridle and saddle of the Ghet'ta, the Ras Taféla.
At the same time another silhouette stood out in the middle of the fields. Khédamawit Yemane and Elizabet Adâné saw that it was Ephrem Olani, the ragged Baria in charge of the stables.He had hurried to warn them of the wrath of the Lord; the horse had been speedier than he. Then they heard a familiar whistle: the Ghet'ta's strap was wrapped tightly around the body of Ephrem Olani. Now the horse was dragging him through the stones in the fields. Khédamawit Yemane had wanted to bring help to Ephrem, who was twisting in pain, but the boot of the Ghet'ta pushed him back violently.
Ephrem's face was bleeding from a terrible bruise. The Ras Taféla was reputed to be a Master of inflexible severity. When he took on the job of beating slaves, the blows given were atrociously brutal. The eyes of Khédamawit were blinded with the pain. Behind him, Elizabet had screamed in mortal terror. She tried to entreat her father. She begged, her hands outstretched to ask him to stop these punishments which seemed to be hurting her in her own body.
Ephrem Olani's face showed monstrous pain. He seemed drunk with rage and ferocious hatred, as if the earth had crumbled at his feet. He got up on his hands and seized the strap. He drew it towards himself, letting out a hoarse cry. At the second tug the bulk of the Ghet'ta's heavy body slipped from the saddle and fell to the ground. The lord had rolled onto the soft ground, curled up in a dishonor that has no name. Khédamawit heard no more, he saw no more. Ephrem Olani had taken lumps of dirt from the field to plunge them into the Master's mouth. The Ras Taféla moaned dolefully, without raising his voice. Supreme humiliation, the height of ignominy. Ephrem Olani snatched the strap of the whip. He eagerly tied the Lord's hands. With a jerky motion he leaped up on the horse's saddle.
Khédamawit was horrified by this, but a mute anguish nailed him to the ground. The other Baria had run up, gesticulating desperately. Elizabeth was crying about the punishment her father had endured by the hand of his own slave.
Ephrem Olani had struck the flanks of the horse like a madman. He had brutally lifted it from the ground, dragging the body of the Ras Taféla heavily along the furrows and the clay soil. The whole earth shuddered with horror, stiffened at the blasphemy. The stars were turning dizzily at the other end of the sky. The Baria looked as if they were in a state of numbness and stupor. They watched, dumbfounded, hands on their mouths to stifle a cry of consternation. Never yet had such a scene been seen in the valley of Wikro.
Only the farmers had the right to come into this "Haunted valley" to die. From suffering, from famine, or from loneliness. Even from starved exhaustion. A Ras in the sand, dragged by his own horse. Merely the evocation of the spectacle meant the end of a cycle of the universe. The Baria feared above all the hysterical wrath of the other Balabat, even if their Master would not die of shame about it. And yet none among them dared to make the least gesture to free him, although they had all taken the oath to sacrifice their miserable lives to preserve their Lords'.
Terrible events were certainly going to shake the entire region. The force which kept them paralysed did not belong to the order of the human universe. The body of the Ghet'ta continued to plow in its own field, tracing grooves of blood which ran beyond the fields of mud. Right up until the moment that the head of Ras Taféla struck a rock sunk in the soil. An abominable groan. The hawks scattered, their wings rustling, on the other side of the mountains. The Baria had run up to collect the body of their Master. They looked in complete stupefaction at the blood flowing from the frightening open wound on the forehead. Calamity had fallen on the accursed land of Wikro, as the sun crashed. Twilight pressed with all its weight upon the shrubs which stooped with the gestures of weepers.
The Baria were torn between two contradictory reactions: to seize the renegade and give him up to the vengeance of the other Tschowa, who would carry out their rage in a singular manner. But they also knew that all those who had anything to do with this crime in any way would perhaps be hanged, in their turn, behind the stables. Or else protect the renegade, and then … But who would dare imagine this other alternative? Who would ever feel in his heart the unbelievable audacity to confront the indestructible power of destiny? A thousand-year old destiny that had divided humanity into races and immutable casts? Their bodies would be thrown forever as food into the chasms around the valley, given over to the birds of prey and vultures. The haunted valley!
Fear heavier than the rocks of the mountains. So they scattered across the fields with screams of terror. The time that remained for them to live, they knew it from now on, was limited.
Then Ephrem Olani led Khédamawit Yemane and Elizabet Adâné by the hand. Their legs carried them in spite of themselves. Olani brought them into the dark cave, a precarious shelter against terror and fear. They found themselves shut up there for days, and they were unable to find out what was happening in the village.
At every moment Khédamawit turned over in his mind these painful memories. Nothing gave him the least hope of safety. Elsa was there, curled up in inconsolable mourning. At times she was able to rest, to sleep peacefully until coughing snatched her from her trance. Night, long as a cloudless sky. The hand on a calm face. "Sleep, my Love. Suffering has penetrated the hollows of our hearts. And no hand will be able to console us for it. But as long as we have the strength for it, we shall cling to this illusion of peace. My fingers will glide along your forehead to invoke calm for your rest. Sleep, my Love. Sleep, my little sette lige, girl of my Solitude."
As though she had felt Khédamawit's thoughts, Elizabet sighed in her dream. The shadows were pierced with greenish glimmerings. Stars or fireflies? How to go on cheating the anguish yet again? Khédamawit held back his tears, placing his fingers over his damp eyes, wide open in the night. Words hung at the edge of his mouth. This unusual moment when panic made the stones metamorphose into dust. The blind spot of existence. There where gravity itself dissolves in the void. And love, which gave rhythm to the pulsations of all fears. Nothing still throbbing. And may the loose stones crumble at the root of the accursed mountain.
Sleep my Love sleep my dove
Suffering has penetrated our hearts
Me in each of your tears
You in each of my dreams
You the beloved you are in each of my gestures
Your name is a song at the tip of my fingers
And your eyes which tell me of your pain
A grief that does not scatter in the wind
Me in each of your tears
You in each of my dreams
At every moment of your sadness
Your hand invokes a land of lights
Sleep my Love sleep my dove
Suffering has penetrated our hearts
In the home of Mother Soraya, the coolness of the evening had brought a bit of calm, and the atmosphere was truly relaxed. In these days when waiting for rain became a torture, nervousness could be seen in every gesture. The memory was still fresh of long years of torrid heat and famine, when even the air was in short supply under the white silks of the beds under the canopy.
Nightmares had given the farmers weary eyes. Emaciated bodies collapsing under the tamarind trees never to get up. Now another curse had fallen on the valley of Wikro, with unusually fierce squalls and storms.
Mother Soraya was pleased with the efforts she had had to make to preserve the families of her Baria who had been badly shaken by the drought. The memory came back to her brutally: the memory of her ancestors, descendants of the elder branch of Great Yohannes. For generations they had always given to the farmers a sense of the meaning of life, love of the virtues that elevate one to human dignity. Respect for one's rank assigned by nature. She had always observed the laws of lineage. She had walked according to the historical precepts of her great People. A free People, who had never accepted either humiliation or genuflection. Two thousand years, three thousand years. A time completely without beginning or end. Eyes fixed on the tutelary star, the star-magus which had guided the great Queen towards the trails of the country where milk and honey flowed.
At the thought of this Glory beyond time, the choice of her own people seemed to her to be the most sublime gesture of Creation. Those who had been chosen by Destiny should shine above all the mountains of the earth at twilight. Mother Soraya felt , however, oppressed by weariness. For some months order seemed to be totally disrupted. Armed bands had swept through the villages like a cloud of grasshoppers. Thieves came to set the farmers against their Lords. In spite of everything, Mother Soraya had decided to support the law of the race. The order of the world.
Her ancestors had known even more complex situations. They had always boasted of having conquered the demon in all his works of destruction. A few scoundrels intoxicated with tschatte would never succeed in shattering the foundations of the earth or demolishing the sun.
The room in which Mother Soraya was sitting was stunningly lit by chandeliers and candles set upon the floor. They cast circles of light around objects that made them seem unreal. Completely taken up by her thoughts, Mother Soraya had not heard her guests enter when Tarik arrived to warn her. The other Mette were waiting for her already in the living room downstairs. Tarik Kessaya was her guerret, her favorite girl. She held the place of confidant and chambermaid. She braided her hair. Thin tresses, which were tied carefully, curling gracefully on her forehead, proclaiming aloud the destiny of her incomparable beauty. Beyond age and agony. Beyond the vicissitudes of time.
And Tarik was made for Soraya's happiness. She had been given to Soraya as her share, as a playmate, when Tarik's parents died. Tarik was hardly five years old at the time, while Soraya was approaching adolescence. Love had already made its way into her heart. Love had invaded her body. The luminous eyes of Ras Taféla had dazzled her to the point of leading her to behave foolishly. He was of the same noble blood, of the same dream and of the same Faith … Up until the time those shining processions went through the streets strewn with flowers. Bracelets shining with every precious stone, necklaces set with every wonder and every splendor. Everything shone with brilliant gold. Cries of joy and of victory. The service of solid silver, the balm of incense. Streamers floating above her total happiness. Ah! And Tarik was there to take between her hands the long train of silk, of satin tulle, of white lace. Tarik was there to receive the wonderful smiles of the Bride. Tarik was there, her forehead shining. The hills of Tigray in the sun of an eternal morning. A great burst of lights spread out over the entire valley of Wikro.
With a firm step, Tarik Kessaya approached. She displayed her teeth of ivory whiteness, her tattooed jaws, sign of nobility and beauty. While she was lacing up her white sandals with gold buckles Mother Soraya asked, in a voice that she hoped was playful but which betrayed a certain distress:
"Is Elizabeth downstairs?"
"No, Mette. I believe that she went to play out by the banana trees."
"Little rascal! Playing, having a good time in the sand at her age! Young lost sprouts. When I reached puberty I was already dreaming of the responsibilities of the estate and the house. "
"She is not going to be late coming back, little Mette. Don't worry too much about her," Tarik reassured her.
"I know her mischievous character, but a good heart," Mother Soraya replied. "Help me go downstairs, my little dear. I am tearing myself apart by wanting to think always about this scatterbrained girl."
"You also love her too much," Tarik Kessaya added. "She knows it and she pays you back properly. She must be happy. Her happiness belongs to us, all of us. But what do you want, it's another generation, young people today."
The two doors were very tall. Solid wood, which squeaked plaintively when opened. In the living room the other venerable Ladies of the village were seated on wooden bamboo chairs covered in scarlet velvet. At the moment that they saw Mother Soraya come down the worm-eaten stairs, they suppressed a cry of admiration. Mother Soraya came forward, stunning in her multicolored shawl. Gilded pearls arranged in rows in her ear lobes.
"Hello, Mother Soraya. Endemen amashesh," they said, greeting her with reverence.
"Yes, daughters of my sister. And you, Mother Sabah, what news do you bring from the mountain?"
"Hello, our Mother, Soraya, my mother. The earth is as broad and as harsh as stone. And the wind always speaks loudly at night. It terrifies us more and more with its terrifying roar."
"You're not going to tell me that you are afraid of the night, my little Sabah?" Mother Soraya says, laughing.
"We are not afraid of the night, no," she replied to the question. "Just a bit of fear when the cries of the panther-men and tiger-men become terrifying. But Father Shemellis can still take us in his strong arms. We take refuge with him and take comfort. Then we show no more fear. We even dare to defy them: they can come. We wait for them."
All of the women in the living room broke out into spasmodic laughter. Mother Sabah would definitely always remain a child, even after years of marriage to the greatest Judge of the Empire, and a swarm of children.
"Sit down, my friends," said Mother Soraya, alert, with a woman's awareness of her duties towards her guests. "Tarik is going to bring us tea. Let us try to forget the hard times that we are going through at the moment. And no talk of bad news and no peddling of calamities. The less we talk about it the better it will be for everyone. To forget, above all to forget."
They sat in a circle around the little charcoal stove. A slender blue, sputtering flame rose smoothly. The pot was placed on the fire. And Tarik Kessaya was already setting the cups of baked clay onto a low table. A tray of abundantly sculpted silver, that the family received from the Emperor's generosity.
"I'ts a great day today, an immense honor for us, Mother Soraya," Mother Shewaye exclaimed playfully. "We have the honor of the weighty dishes and even the most precious silver. A welcome worthy of the great royal Court."
"Perhaps we should make use of them more often before the crazy Baria grab them to make hoops for their children," Mother Aster bitterly observed. "The news from the Big City is not entirely pleasant. The New Flower is fading on its own. Addis-Ababa no longer deserves its name. Funeral pyres are burning everywhere. Blazes are breaking out to burn up the entire Empire. No one yet knows where they will stop in their destructive madness."
"Be quiet, be quiet now, Mother Aster", Mother Soraya roared with anger, scarcely able to control her rage, at the risk of breaching protocol. "Don't make a day already sad in itself worse. It's also your fault, always remaining glued to your radio, which reports only lies and monstrosities. If these people believe that they can run the whole world, let them stay in their accursed cities. Let them be damned themselves. Damned a thousand times! The Tigray is a great, impregnable mountain. They will never finally be able to conquer it, that I promise you. And they will never walk over our crushed bodies."
"It's not going to happen tomorrow. A few moments of amazement, quickly gone. We shall get a hold of ourselves," Mother Sabah added in a tragic voice. "But I already smell the agreeable odor of the incense that you brought us from Gorgora. Let us try to forget our hearts heavy with foreboding. Father Shemellis will protect us from all misfortune.."
"Yes, to forget," Mother Soraya sighed. "Down there they say that it is the waters of Tana that perfume the plants. In Begemder they are so blue, so clear, that the entire sky
drowns in them in order to produce exquisite flowers from them. On the road to Gondar, from Dabat to Azezo, the incense penetrates your whole body. Precious perfumes, effluvia which are exhaled by odiferous vapors. The women of Goddebe, as far as the mouths of Gilgel Abbai, breathe them from the time that they are tender infants. And they are transformed into veritable balms of liquid amber. Balsamic resins with the aroma of myrrh. They set afloat small violet flowers on the Gorgora: a power that perfumes the waters of the Nile. Which fecundates the valleys of sand to a point beyond the deserts of Sudan. And there, the sparks are broken up into thousands of fragments over all the rivers of the world…"
"To listen to you, Mother Soraya! Your speaking gives such pleasure, and your words sing in the heart like a hymn from the sacred rites."
In the bewitching glow of candles impregnated with the pleasure of wax, the gleaming padded furniture mixed with the gold bracelets, wainscoting decorated with gleaming bunches of flowers. On the middle wall shone a large glory, trimmed with purple velvet. The Glory and the Majesty of the King of the universe prepared in splendor for the Last Judgment. He had chosen the children of a chosen race in order to grant them sovereignty over things visible and invisible. In his sacred Name. To one side, an enormous bronze crucifix commandingly recalled the Passion of the Redeemer.
The mother-of-pearl of nails carefully filed, manicured with polished cuticles. The rubies of rings and of alliances, the greenish topaz. An entire feudal hardware shop which cast a brilliant glow in the house. The gentleness of evening spread itself in delicate vapors. A light smoke coming from the cups of tea, infusions and exhalations.
The nose quivered subtly. Fresh scents moved pleasantly through the calm air. Cheeks filled with an intense pleasure. Mother Sabah tenderly loved these inebriating encounters. She was often intoxicated by the elegant ceremony which went back to primaeval times, when the Spirit of the earth was still lingering among the laurels. Only the chosen race could face such sweetness: those who do not die. And she, Sabah, as perfect as the original Mother, felt herself to be immortal. Inexhaustible source of all life and all power. Of all freedom. The song which the son of David had sung to her endlessly returned in the heart like a hymn. The hymn of immortality. This song had been the sign of the Pact, the victory over death. Sabbah recited it often in a reverie that approached ecstasy. Verses scanned in an incantatory rhythm during the liturgies of the Pope.
Who is this who rises from the desert
Leaning on my beloved?
Under the apple tree I wake you
There where your mother was pregnant with you
There where she who bore you was pregnant
Place me like a seal on your heart
Like a seal on your arm.
Love is as strong as death
Jealousy is as inflexible as Hell;
Its flames are fiery flames:
A blow of sacred thunder.
While she was reciting the Hymn she gazed at the crossed swords on the side wall, surrounded by boards harmoniously folded in matting. Mother Soraya listened religiously, seized by an intense emotion. Joy rushed to her mouth and swept through her entirely. She felt herself in the throes of a giddiness, something like happiness, that she did not dare to admit to herself, lest these moments of peacefulness turn into exhilaration. She herself had also begun to whisper the rest of the Song of Songs, as though she savored on the buds of her tongue the succulence of the joyful words: "the great Waters cannot extinguish Love, and the Rivers cannot drown it!" She thought sadly of her Spouse, the Ras Tefala.
Through the centuries and the millennia the dragonflies have flown above the ponds. Their fragile, transparent wings: the sign of Love. Twilight emeralds. Through the centuries and the millennia the Spouses of the Lords have always heard the murmur of the voice which had deeply troubled their Great Mother, the daughter of the Great Sabah.
Three times the tea was poured in hot cups. Three times the smell had spread a penetrating, pleasing aroma. Three times the spirit of venerated Women had flown above the hills and the valleys. The distant planets. All the countries that had provided shelter for the great Poetry of the Great Mother, origin of all Love and all Passion.
It was again Mother Sabah who drew them brutally away from the dreamy blessedness in which they found themselves plunged.
"I do not see my daughter Elizabet. Night is coming on and she is undoubtedly dawdling about outside, during these times of deceitful menaces. You know, in every bush we no longer fear the bites of scorpions, but a prowler who attacks you, who will not even hesitate to rape…"
"Mother Sabah, I beg you not to spoil our pleasure."
"No, but I only wanted to say…"
"You know what young girls are like today," Mother Soraya commented, to make her guests relax. "They are completely idiotic: ephemeral pleasures, and the passing moment. Time carries them along like butterflies without wings, in turmoil. Impossible dreams, bright colors, useless colorings."
"Pollen powder on faded flowers, Mother Soraya," Mother Sabah explained, with a sigh.
"Leave the young girls alone as long as they have the energy for it, " Mother Aster added, quite ingenuously. "Six days a week you will sleep in your bed. And on the seventh day the bed will stand up at a right angle and refuse to bear your body. Now just imagine: a vertical bed which imposes its ten wishes on the young girl who is so nice!"
They let out a hearty laugh, which sparkled in their eyes. Tarik Kessaya again brought honeyed cereal, pastries of dabukolo, little dry cakes cooked in the oven. Juicy and smooth! Let the honey flow into your mouth like fresh water in the hollow of a rock. And their sticky hands kneaded the pleasure while their faces were covered with an indolent sweat at the roots of the hair. In the heat of the living room spinning with dizziness, curls subtly vanished. Forbidden games while the distant, strident sounds of cicadas resonated. Each mouthful was burning hot, but no one would have dared to defy the ban and blow on the excessive heat.
It was at this exact moment that they all had the sudden impression that a cataclysm had crushed something in the universe, and that all their existences were going to be totally transformed. Tarik Kessaya had gone out, and now she was barging into the house, colliding with the chairs and the sheep skins. She was shouting and crying with a suffocating voice.
"Mette, Mette, what is happening to us, my Mette? You my mother, you my Life? What is this calamity that is falling upon us, which strikes us so cruelly, my Mette?"
"What, my beloved Daughter? What? What is happening?"
All the women were crying, hands on their breasts as though they feared a catastrophe. Others were already murmuring quiet prayers to ward off destiny, and to invoke silently all of their energies to resist.
"Ghet'ta,! Our Ghet'ta oh! Mette. In the field, his head cracked and bloody!"
Tarik Kessaya sobbed as she struck her body with her hands. Mother Soraya then let out a terrible cry. She had fallen on the skins piled up near the back wall. The other women tried to lift her up, without success. Their arms were suddenly weak with distress.
They held her as well as they could, all the while asking Tarik Kessaya useless questions. She herself tried to explain as best she could , while sobbing at the same time. A Baria had been in the fields and seen Ras Taféla lying in the muck of his own blood, on his own land. Some of his own men, no doubt. They had attacked him and had knocked him senseless with violent blows to the head. They left him unconscious. They were in a hurry to disappear, to rush off up the mountain. No one had been able to find their tracks.
The women slipped outside, their bulky dresses rustling. They broke into a song of lament. Calling upon the men for help in tragic accents. Mother Sabah roared in a guttural voice. Imprecations, supplications. Lamentations which lift the hearts.
"They're massacring us, they're assassinating us. You, Men, the true Lords of the land! Come and fight. It's time for war. Time to put on the sword to fight a bloody battle. Protect us from the rapacity of the sons of slaves. Death has brushed against us, but tomorrow it will carry us away. The Empire is on your shoulders. You are the Masters and Lords. You rule the lands, from the place where the sun rises to the place where it sets. Toads from the swamp have leaped upon our skins. Come and crush them. Reestablish the order of the Universe, before everything scatters with the spears of cowards."
The first to arrive at the place was the Judge of Wikro, Shemellis Fetene. Mounted on his white horse with a silver bridle. Five of his Baria surrounded him closely. Carrying heavily charged carbines on their chests. They matched their pace to that of the horse, moving along in two tight ranks. Their brilliant uniforms contrasted with their naked feet, which resounded on the soft sand. With her finger Tarik Kessaya pointed to the road that led to the work-fields. The Judge had his troop make a half-turn. They headed off towards the valley.
Night had completely fallen when the Judge returned with the mud-covered body of Ras Taféla. The blood had stopped flowing on his face. The Judge had put a cloth on him. He had bandaged his forehead right above his eyes. At the sight of the body of her Noble spouse, Mother Soraya broke out into tears. She had him brought into the house. She laid him down on muslin sheets and white cotton fabrics. The night was heavy. Dejection weighed on everyone's shoulders.
The Pope of Wikro arrived in his turn, almost immediately. He was followed by the Magus Nefadiri, who was holding his daughter Martha by the hand. The Pope wore a large ceremonial scarf around his waist. The Magus was swinging a long staff tipped with a cross. He showed even more signs of prolonged fasting, of ascetic practices and acts of mortification. Mother Soraya clung to the Pope with bitter lamentations.
"Papase, Papase! They have massacred peace. Wasn't the Passion of the Redemptor enough to save sinners? Was my Ras Taféla's also needed, his Glorious name sung throughout the Empire? The beloved Spouse, the Spouse tortured to death, tortured by whom? By slaves! Papase, tell this to us. Abate has been eclipsed in death. Abate above the torrid suns, and who will be given a rough time. We are going to burn in the flames of the terrara, the cursed mountain. Oh! Tigray, eternal land! Land of eternity, and here it lies as the land of death. Accomplish the promised miracle, Papase. Accomplish the miracle of the Magus. Revive my Spouse, and we shall sing a great song of Faith. Give me back the breath of his life. Bring us back to life, Papase."
Putting his arms around her, the Pope tried to comfort her. The Magus Nefardi in his turn approached her slowly. He rubbed his feet on the floor boards, as though to stifle every unruly sound. But as soon as she sensed that he was near the body of her Spouse, Mother Soraya let out a terrible howl. The Magus seemed to her the embodiment of the entire force of the curse that had fallen on the earth. For the Magus Nefadiri such a terror was akin to horror. It meant the end of the power of the stars and planets. His daughter Martha had covered her eyes to avoid being present at the unhinging of the universe.
The Pope came nearer and touched the body with his hands. He succeeded in removing the shirt soiled by mud. He pressed his ear to the chest. He almost cried out. The heart was still beating, but so weakly that the pulse was scarcely perceptible.
"He is alive, Mother Soraya. Belief is needed. Belief and hope. Faith has conquered the world", he merely murmured.
He made everyone leave the living room. The women walked backwards with exhausted sighs. Only the Magus remained, immobilized in an unbearable rigidity. The Pope very carefully removed the pieces of material that had served as bandages. The wound on the forehead was terrible to look at. The blood which had dried up began to flow again in a narrow thread. He held it back with his hand. Mother Soraya had a basin of hot water brought, some almond soap and some rubbing alcohol. The Pope carefully washed the head, rubbing vigorously. The Ras Taféla groaned. A hideous pain. He moved his head back at the bite of the alcohol on his wound. Mother Soraya had slipped behind the Pope. She took the hand of her husband and held it tightly and tenderly in her own.
"Abate, Abate! If you should die, it should only be on the field of battle. In the confrontation of swords, the shock of battle, the clash of steel blades. You will fight only against Nobles of your blood. If destiny must carry you away, it will take you in the dust of battle. Gun in hand. The way all your Fathers died. And the Fathers of their Fathers. You can die only for the Empire. For the Glory of the Emperor, for Djan Hoy. For the Holiness and the crown of the eternal Empire. For the Lion of Judah. We were born, presented before the Priests. They blessed us, they consecrated us. We were born to exist only for the Empire. For the Power and the Honor of our immortal People. But to see you this way, in the dust and dung; Abate! The dung of old goats and the excrement of mules! Abate! No dishonor will touch us. No curse. We are the Glory of the great Earth.
Not even emancipated ashekars, my Man. But slaves from your own stable! Return, Abate! Return to us, Father, and save us from degeneration. Soraya, what have I done then against heaven to deserve such ignominy? Soraya, have I been able to commit a crime, some infamy for which there is no leniency? Cherka, cherka, land of death and wickedness! What disaster then has challenged the Children of the Conquerors? Where is death, that wipes out the Sons of the Victorious? Where is death? May it be cursed. Cursed be the mother of death! The duct through which she engendered it! Whence she excreted it from her accursed belly, devastated by corruption. Its plague-infested body, as putrid as a filthy carcass."
The cries of Mother Soraya scattered in the night. The smell of ether still filled the house. A great murmuring which rose above the din and the stamping under the shadows of the trees. The Pope threw himself on his knees next to the stretched-out body, in a kind of clumsy rigidity. The Magus Nefadiri still remained immobile, like a giant ghost with
vague and evanescent forms on dull velvet. The Pope joined his hands on the belly of the wounded man. He murmured fervent prayers in Ge'eze. Incantations which came from another age.
Outside, the Balabat of Wikro and the Tschowa of the neighboring hamlets had gathered spontaneously. They held tumultuous discussions under the direction of Judge Shemellis. However, they did not arrive at a common agreement, but they did not raise their voices, as though to avoid provoking the forces hidden in the night. One thing, however, became clear: the crime had to be punished. The situation had already deteriorated to an intolerable, simply inadmissible point. If they did not quickly put an end to the vague impulses of the Baria, they would themselves swiftly be swept away like wisps of straw. It would then be the end of the cycle of time.
Mother Shewaye returned without making a sound. She was soon followed by the other Ladies who had come together again some moments earlier. Whisperings under the sloping shadows. Plaintive cries.
"It seems that it is this stranger, this wild toukour, who wanted to kill the Master," Mother Shewaye suggested in a sinister hum.
"Who is that? Little Khédamawit?" the women exclaimed, stunned.
"He is not capable of doing the least harm," Mother Saban retorted.
"We gave him such an affectionate welcome. He is our child," Mother Aster added, with a consoling hand on Mother Soraya's shoulder.
"Children born on the road always remain attached to their roots," Mother Shewaye maintained, at once pitiless and sarcastic. "I have always said that it was not worth wasting seeds on a bird in the field. They should be saved for birds in the hen house. Birds in the field eat and fly off into the sky. The bird in the hen house eats and goes into the house. Isn't it odd to pick up just anything? These things that come dragging through the valley. Children without a father, abandoned bastards! You will never transform them into loving children."
"Please, Mother Shewaye," begged Mother Soraya in a feeble voice. "I implore you, not now. I beseech you with all my strength, with all the force of my dying body. Stop torturing my spirit. The distress and grief of seeing my Master lying here, his face smeared with blood. It's more than I can bear. Don't add that too. Heaven is my witness, I have led a very hard life. God gives and God takes away. My ravaged womb, children who rejected the light of day. Elizabet alone has remained for me. A crack in the shadows of the night, towards the clarity and brightness of the sun. The lineage of Great Yohannès. I welcomed Khédamawit, the wild child, as you say. But Papasè, is this a sign of a curse?"
The Pope was still kneeling near Ras Taféla. Unconscious of the world, he chanted silent prayers, with great fervor. He was only remotely aware of the lamentations and recriminations of the women. The massive shadow of the Magus seemed to weigh on beings and objects. But when Mother Soraya called upon him, the Pope in his turn lifted his head. He fixed an afflicted look on her. He searched for words while formulating ritual supplications.
"Very holy God, very powerful God, very good God, have mercy on us. Very holy God, very powerful God, very good God, pardon us our offenses. Thrice blessed, thrice holy, immortal God, have mercy on your children. We bow before you and implore your Mercy. Your infinite Mercy. Do not hold it against us. We do not resist your anger, and our lives are in your hands. Thrice blessed, thrice holy, immortal God, have Mercy on our children."
Those present responded with devotion. Voices mumbled prayers. Shadows cast on the walls and on the floor moved strangely. "Thrice blessed, thrice holy…" Images floated before their eyes and they trembled with hope. The candles sputtered around fragile flames, while tiny sparks gnawed away at the wicks enveloped in tallow. The Pope continued, addressing Mother Soraya directly:
"Mother Soraya, only Egzi Habilhaire. Only the Just and Merciful God. He can judge our actions with complete equity. He alone awards the joy of his glory to even the least significant of our actions. 'What you have done for the least of my people you will be rewarded one hundred fold, because it is for me that you have done it.' Remember this, Mother Soraya, and do not provoke the wrath of the Lord God, the Almighty. He alone knows by what oblique paths he leads his children. May his name be blessed. For his Love is eternal. His love lasts for eternity. He punishes those whom he wishes to punish, rewards those whom he wishes to reward. Blessed be his holy name."
"But Papasé, Mother Soraya replied in a grieving voice. "Papasé, to see a love so powerful dissolve when we are torn apart. Has destiny reserved for us alone the curse of being the last of the Empire? For centuries the brave ancestors of the sacred race ruled and prescribed the law in every thing. Our heroic Fathers. Even when invaders brought war within our mountains, and raised their sacrilegious hands against the body of the Empire, we held the sign of the Elect. The race of the Great Mother, she who does not die. And now, under the sandals of the children of the Baria! Where is our glory? It is not only the fate of my Man. No, I do not entreat. No, I do not blame destiny. But I need at least part of my share of existence, in the name of our Power and of primeval time. We have never departed from the paths of Egzi'abher. We have never raised our eyes in haughtiness to the stunning greatness of the holiness of God. We were a strong People, a People as solid as a forest of bahar-zaff…"
"Do not say never, Mother Soraya," whispered the Magus Nefadiri, as if he had emerged from a trance.
"You, be quiet," barked Mother Soroya, furious and suffocated by anger. "You are as repulsive as those impenitent drunkards of katikallé. Where are your visions? You have worn out our ears with nonsense about the stars. They scattered at the first explosion."
"Don't be wicked," the Magus began, with a cry of astonishment.
"What? What are you saying? You are….."
Her voice was hoarse with contempt. The Pope had intervened energetically to prevent the supreme affront. He did not understand this sudden hatred towards the Magus.
"God alone, Mother Soraya, Egzi'abher alone. Let us accept all the ordeals with humility, as the sign of his immense love. He will show us his compassion and his mercy. It is perhaps that, the best part, which has been reserved for us in his Justice throughout the centuries since his advent. At the heart of his Power. We shall be the morning of a new generation. Not by abolishing the power of casts, but in courageously overcoming our pain and suffering. In overcoming our solitude. We shall place our grief as an offering into the hands of his blessed Son, he who knew a great Passion in order to assume our little human miseries. And we shall say to him in all confidence that he has made of us staunch disciples by the third crow of the cock. We shall not be able to claim to the palace servants that we 'do not know this Man.' We shall not have denied our heritage. No, we have not renounced. No, Mother Soraya, we have not renounced."
The Pope began to intone a long oration in Gué èze, in the midst of a heavy silence. He stood up, staggering. His hands trembled like a gleaming on an expanse of water. A trembling which delicately shook his fingers whose joints he was trying to stiffen. He squeezed them hard, to the point that the effort had to draw a groan of pain from him. Putting his helmet back on his head, he announced to those present:
"In the morning we shall say a Mass, to drive off the curses and disasters that threaten us. We shall come together to beg for the Mercy of Egzi'abher, the Almighty. We shall ask him to sustain our strength in times of despondency. No, he cannot be angry with us. Tomorrow we shall humbly address prayers to him. We shall present our hearts to him. We shall purify our thoughts. We shall ask for grace, for pity. He will hear us, he will console us. He will not be able to abandon us like this, in our distress and discouragement. He will give us back our Ras Taféla, stronger, healthier. He will carry out for us the eternal promise. Closer to him, the great Djan Hoy. And we shall share the glory of those who do not die. Who can never die, nor disappear from the face of the earth."
He left, leaning heavily on his staff. The crook of a Pastor with a panic-stricken flock. The Magus followed in his footsteps, as though he were trying to dilute himself in his shadow. Behind them, the women stood up, painfully. They were going their separate ways, scraping their feet in the sand. The daughter of the Magus stayed close to Mother Soraya. Martha Nefadiri also faced the ordeal of death in solitude, in utter pain. Her eyes were still dry, and she had not murmured a single prayer.
Since sunrise the stiffened limbs of Ephrem Olani had been numb with weariness. Curled up upon himself behind the outside wall, near the stables and the donkeys' enclosure, Ephrem had tried to close his eyes very tightly, to clench the lids with all his might. He had tried in vain to bring himself a moment of sleep. The night was coming to its end. The leaves crackled along the furrows. Some tin-chell were rooting around energetically on a crumbled soil. A universe of furtive crawling things which was already cutting into his dislocated body.,. At least it seemed so to him. He admitted it to himself, like a fatality.
However, what had kept him stimulated were the words that escaped from the interstices of the branches across the doorways where blinded cockroaches still crawled. The Balabat had held secret meetings all night long. They had to decide on a punishment to impose on the entire group of the Baria, particularly on those belonging to the Ras Taféla who had dared to profane the sacred body of their Lord.
Chewing frenetically on the juice of macerated leaves of tsachtté, Ephrem Olani had reached the point of mixing his hallucinations with the confused projects of the Masters. Shortly before dawn he had heard, in the drunken fog of his senses, some terrible words. Some muddy glimmerings were already promising to explode above the ridges. Then he saw the band of Balabat head toward the "Valley of death." A bit out of the way, hidden by some bahar zaff, the village cemetery lay concealed. The famous funerary niches and tombs of Wikro. A brick cloister which jealously held the tombs of dignitaries.
Slaves were often thrown into the precipices and the excavations of rocks. Some ashekars who had survived evil spells and the disgrace of poverty were able to enjoy the privilege of rough tombs. So they had tiny mounds built, covered with hardy brushwood. The dust was ochre in the midst of thorns.
It was this scrofulous cemetery of bahar zaff that the Balabat entered. Silently they moved on quickly over the rough stones and gravel, looking wildly around at the funerary tombs. Twisted columns, brass crosses, translucent in the night. Shadows which move over the kobba placed high on the head, in the midst of other colonial helmets. The sign of their high rank, of the mission that had been assigned to them to dominate the earth, to make the inferior races submit.
That world had always been forbidden to the slaves. A land upon which their feet might never tread, even after death had carried them away and bruised them.
Nothing had moved on the marble slabs which covered the sleep of the Nobles. An oath, a pact. A vision. A crushing power. The tiny portion of stellar energy, parsimoniously preserved in the hearts of the Sons of the founders of Empires. Those whom the hand of the King of Kings had raised to the rank of supreme sovereignty. The dispensers of goods and the fruits of the earth. How long had the renewed pact lasted? When the shadows began to glide beyond the fences, light began to illuminate the leaves. Soon the sun was going to burst forth densely on the peaks of the mountains. Worthy of the heritage with which the Tschowa had been graced by their progenitors. The audacity of the Baria in upsetting them was going to turn into a farce, if not a general massacre.
However, when he connected these rites from another age to the remarks overheard behind the walls of the stable, Ephrem Olani came to understand that this unshakable power had endured its first defeat, and that it would no longer be more than an illusory phenomenon. In spite of the fact that his stomach was tied in knots, he was resigned to the idea of the punishments that would be inflicted upon him. He was ready to face them for the sake of his own penance. Then, in his eyes burning with drugs, years of ignominy brutally arose. Furious waves which swirled in the midst of his poisoned memories. Entire generations had been kept in a state of slavery. For how long had his fathers and the fathers of their fathers, with total disregard for themselves, worked in the arid fields, pulling up weeds to provide pleasure for others, plowing so that others might celebrate? Sowing and reaping to delight the mouths of others, for exquisite dishes which they had never in all their lives tasted.
Images were turning in the midst of violent glimmerings. They exploded in his temples with a rolling roar. Shadows danced in macabre processions, like furious horses. On the slopes of the mountains, which were swaying, desiccated bones were gathering, combining, putting themselves back together again. Skeletal ghosts moved about with vague gestures. Hands, ankles, cartilage which were cracking. Rams with shorn skins, revealing their fuzzy wool covered with scabs.
The objects became entangled with each other in his complete intoxication. Trees thrust themselves into vertical shells, like the spear-like leaves of cactuses. At their tops, broken skulls were swinging. Those of the serf-tenants who had succumbed to the famine some months earlier. Bodies astonishingly shrunken, drained of all strength on the torrid lands of Makallé, and which the hysterical Balabat were continuing to hunt down ferociously with buckshot, when they tried to rejoin the half-starved caravans which disappeared into the distant horizon in the search for some way to survive.
Ephrem Olani was chewing even more bitterly the toxic leaves of tschatté. He had tried to stand up, holding himself on his weakened hands. But he staggered and fell on his butt. In front of him, protruding eyes. Judge Shemellis' gaze, simultaneously angry and sarcastic, like the head of a terror. Olani saw only fiery eyeballs radiating hideous blazes. He heard turning in his head the dizzying number of debts he had contracted. He saw again with horror the faces, contorted into a grimace, of the children he had buried because implacable Balabat had beaten them to death and stripped them of all their meager crops. The tithe on raising rickety hens, the poll tax to allow exhausted mules to graze. Obligatory drudgery for a crushed poodle, to accommodate a lubricious Lord. Nothing belonged to them exclusively, and the Judge had the exclusive right to confiscate everything, including their own lives.
Then, years of deadly epidemics. Children carried off by dysentery, to the total indifference of the Masters. Death had struck. A wife whose hands convulsively grip an arm in the hour of agony. Consternation at the sight of her mouth hollowed out by the sickness, eaten away inside, and who did not let out a cry to weep. Lumps of stone had covered over the last glimpse of his child in a frayed mat. Then his wife had howled. She took off her worn out rags and, stark naked, climbed the sharp peaks of the rocks that surround the mountain of Wikro. No one had dared to go after her. Ephrem Olani had experienced the agony of the curse.
But the hills are inextricable. When he returned to the village, after having searched the caves filled with stagnant water all around the mountain in vain, some children announced to him, with grimaces, that some puny dogs had dug up the body of his child.
He had leaped up to get to this scorching land. Some puppies, covered with ringworms, were still fighting over an unrecognizable carcass, from which the head, hands, and feet had disappeared.
And the Masters were there, making fun of his pain. With all the haughtiness of their arrogance. In his breast Ephrem Olani had felt himself repressing a howl. Spasms. The next day he had again tried to follow the traces of blood left by the cut hands of his wife.
The curves of cut rocks. In vain, since only rapacious hawks were swirling around, rustling their frightening wings.
In this cemetery of pain Ephrem Olani finally understood the direction of destiny, in front of the wide-eyed stare of Judge Shemellis. A dizziness. He painfully tied one word to another. Sentences which had the bitterness of a curse. They were as sharp as spikes. They hurt with the pains of child-birth. Spikes and daggers which cut the throats and blood veins. Death sentences. Their suffering trampled upon. More rags to confiscate. Livestock seized, small change snatched from rag knots tied around the chest. Little children held in confinement, reduced to the state of donkeys, wallowing in cow excrement. Huts wrecked, entertainments in the midst of sumptuous celebrations by the Masters. And the Baria, the serf-farmers, the sons of the poor were going to pay with their own dignity until they were stripped of everything.
His head spun horribly when his eyes managed to make out the hallucinated faces of the Balabat leaning towards him. They were already all around him, gnashing their teeth with furious satisfaction. Instinctively Ephrem Olani put his hand on his hunting knife. He knew that he was already condemned by these bloody looks. He let out a wildcat's cry and leaped on the first shape within reach of his knife. He stuck it in with the randomness of despair. The flesh was flabby, and squealed as it shrunk with fear. Ephrem Olani was moved by an incredibly excessive energy. He rushed at the shadows floating before his eyes. He charged forward roughly, like an animal wounded to death. He ran towards the mountain trail, the one his wife had followed when she climbed the sharp peaks. Rifle shots in his back, tearing the sinuous line of ramparts laid out by the rocks. The echo reverberated endlessly, as far as the borders of Tekazze.
Ephrem Olani was mortally wounded, but he had succeeded in regaining his momentum. He felt neither pain nor any other painful sensation. He was doubled over. He held his belly with a hand sticky with blood. He made an effort and ran a few more steps. He ended by stumbling against the badly cleared furrows. His feet slipped and then he fell face down on the layers of encrusted humus.
In a last gasp he tried to get up, leaning heavily on his two hands, on his broken knees. He turned his whole body over. His fingers dug into the soft ground. He had on his palms the blood of the Balabat he had stabbed. His only revenge against the stupidity of the Lords. He was going to die with the clots with which he was able henceforth to knead the soil of Wikro. The bitter taste of tschatté filled his mouth. Bitterness, aversion. Horror. Scents of a vital sap which was propagating itself concentrically through his limbs. He could no longer restrain death. He clenched his fingers very tightly. His nails broke with a stifled moan. He did not even take into account the fact that some Balabat, astounded by the violence, surrounded him on all sides. They were crushing him with blows of their rifle butts on his useless body. His last breath was already mixed in with the agony of night.
The Balabat lifted his broken corpse carelessly. They tied it up with creepers and hemp fibers. They dragged it in the sand back to the village. There they made a slip knot. They hanged him on the acacia tree planted in a central courtyard. His feet were tied together and swung in the emptiness of the morning. The Masters started to gesticulate as though they had been caught up in an insane hysteria. They fired shots in the air, they celebrated, they were overjoyed, they were filled with their own drunkenness, with their vanity. They shouted to the slave-farmers and to the Baria to take a look at their self-conceit.
The sky was still trembling when Judge Shemellis ordered his militiamen to carry out the application of the penal sanction of giving one hundred lashes of the whip to the corpse of Ephrem Olani. In front of the stunned, powerless Baria, in front of the women and children numbed by such cruelty, the body bobbed about, savagely thrashed by the thongs of bull pizzle. It moved in all directions, until the ropes which held it to the tree broke. It fell heavily to the ground with a terrible cracking of bone. The Magus Nefadiri ran to hold it up. His hands were still trembling with fright.
Judge Shemellis then pulled himself up to his full height. He began to speak. He fulminated in a cracked voice against the terror-stricken slave-farmers, who lowered their foreheads in terror. The judge's face seemed to have been carved by the clumsy blade of evil. A bloated scar was inflated into a star on his chin, twisting his mouth when he exploded in anger.
"Then you wanted to make yourselves into rebels? Ah, yes! You are trying to set yourselves up as a subversive force? You think that you can overturn the order that was established for all eternity? For a long time we have thought of you as our own children. Better than our children, better than the heirs of the Empire. We have granted you the better part of ourselves. To allow you, you and your progeny, to live in acceptable conditions. Without any merit on your own part and without any gratitude. What can be expected of miserable wretches, frantic with endemic miseries, decked out in ridiculous rags? You have no land, no fields, neither tilled nor fallow. Derelicts, wretched human debris who have no place in the land of the living. We have agreed to try to procure for you some boards, some wooden shacks. We could have crushed you like harmful fleas. Instead, we have shared the fruit meant for our mouths. And look at the gratitude we get: you drag the noble body of the Lord in the mud! In the name of the Empire, in the name of Djan Hoy , and as truly as the Almighty God rules in heaven! We have shared your sufferings. Famine, death. Your children wiped out because you didn't have the foresight to save your harvests. You ate everything, without a thought. We have spared no sacrifice, not even that of our own lives, to lighten the burden of the epidemics, to alleviate the disastrous effects of droughts. And in return? What have we not given in our total, boundless devotion? Our wealth, our livestock. Our jewels sold, our necklaces scattered. The entire heritage of our families, the dowries of our own daughters. We have traveled to all the villages around, at the cost of unheard-of efforts, searching for food to feed you. We could have let you perish in misery. Besides, we should have. No one would have thrown a stone at us. We could even have wiped out the entire Baria scum, and we would have been none the worse for it. You owe us everything, and we, we owe you nothing. Nothing at all, you heard me, nothing at all. You should be wiped off the face of the earth. Ingrates! You have no guts …"
And Judge Shemellis, magnanimous, enumerated the instances of the Lords' heroism. Their kindness, their clemency. Without omitting the details of tragic situations in which desperate slave-farmers were entangled. He described the generosity agreed to by the Balabat. Inexpressible good deeds. The Lords of Tigray, the most noble, the most generous, the most tolerant. Also the most intrepid. They avoided the circle of vultures on the corpses of the slaves. The Judge insisted upon the worthlessness of those who were sharecroppers. Slaves who had never been more than physical organs, filled with ulcerous mucous and viscous entrails. Mouths of phlegm and excremental anuses. It was commanded that they would serve forever, for interminable millenia. And now see how they have let themselves be misled by the lies of people from the Big Town. But the Lords had the means to reestablish the eternal order, even if it was necessary to annihilate the vile and contemptible race of slaves.
What he had forgotten to say seemed of little importance: the food diverted by the Balabat, on instructions from him, Shemellis. But that no one had the leisure to make him notice. At last he ended, by approaching the body of Ephrem Olani, curled up in death. He placed a foot on the belly of the corpse and continued his oration in an even more stupid voice.
"Here is where we are now. We shall not be moved. We shall no longer take your whims into consideration. You know very well what you should do now. From now on we shall be pitiless. In the name of the Empire, in the name of the Emperor. In the name of Djan Hoy, and as truly as God the Almighty rules in heaven. From this moment the plans that we had in mind are all cancelled. We had thought about sharing with you some acres of fertile land that stretch out as far as the plain. To irrigate the stretch of fields on the west side of the mountains. All of that is certainly ended. Nothing will be done until the moment that you stop behaving like spoiled children. You have behaved like idiots, in spite of the rudiments of elementary culture that we have tried to instill in you. From this exact moment every Balabat has the right to hang high and quickly the slave-farmer who turns down the agreement offered for paying back his debts. The distribution of seeds and grains is interrupted. I say clearly that the Masters will have all the rights. In the courts, in the market, on the plantations. For the Baria, the Lord will exercise all rights in matters of life and death. We shall be inflexible. In the name of the Emperor. In the name of Djan Hoy, and as truly as the Almighty God rules in heaven. We shall never yield. For all the centuries of wars than we have fought, it will no longer be tolerated for a miserable slave to raise his filthy hand against the sublime body of the Nobles. Those who have taken refuge in the caves, we shall track them down. We shall smoke them out like field mice in their burrows. Justice will rage without pity. All conduct capable of provoking the least disturbance will be suppressed. In the name of the law and of the sacred principles, we shall catch those who disturb public order, who stir up the peasants against their Lords. All privileges that have been granted are abolished, no matter what the claim. Even for the children of servants. Schools are closed. Deacon Nafediri will never again teach …"
While he was enumerating the items of deceptive privileges, illusory sanctions, the Pope came by at a sad pace. He pulled him by the sleeves of his scarlet gabi, and murmured something into the hollow of his ear. Judge Shemellis was staggered, struck with astonishment, his hand suspended in the air. He stared wide-eyed, with a cry of horror. He looked around on all sides, dumbfounded. He seemed unable to understand what was happening to him, as though he were having an apoplectic fit.
Everyone present was frozen in uncompleted gestures. The slave-farmers tried to make out signs by means of which they might interpret the mystery. But the judge looked dumbfounded, almost paralyzed by terror. While the silence was weighing heavily, a child ran up in a small cloud of dust. He shouted at the top of his voice confused words which resonated terribly in a torrid air. When he was only a short distance away people were now able to understand those dismaying words.
"The Emperor is dead! … The Emperor is dead. Djan Hoy has been killed. The radio, the news, there …"
A long moment. The stupor of leaves hardened with anxieties. A fetid odor continued to float around the flayed corpse of Ephrem Olani. Martha Nadia, the only daughter, the beloved daughter of the Magus, rushed in, in her turn, screaming in pain.
"Ras Taféla is dead! Ras Taféla has gone beyond the rivers in spate, the meadows inundated with mud!…"
Only Ephrem Olani remained the focal point for everyone's eyes. The nucleus of the circle which was turning on its own vertigo. A motionless body, covered with every calamity, as though he had emerged from the very belly of the earth. A body without a name, as it were, a total body . And the death of Ephrem Olani cried out more loudly than that of the Emperor of Emperors. More loudly than that of Ras Taféla. The body of the slave inscribed in the earth where he had been dragged the ellipsis of all the death which would no longer be able to make the hands of men tremble. He was stretched out under the acacia tree where he had been hanged. He had become the principal root through which the sap of the earth is absorbed.
The symbol had such power of affliction that the Judge removed his foot from the skin covered with rags and dust. Next he burst into sobs, with grotesque stridulations. Then he suddenly took hold of himself. He leaned over the stretched-out body. He kicked it, with all the force of a furious animal. The other Tschowa also ran up. They poured forth shouts of rage. They were suffocating and no longer knew how to control their harsh voices. They took out broad swords, curved axes. They displayed emaciated blades which the peasants used to prune bunches of bananas. They planted them in Ephrem Olani's corpse. It was simply abominable.
The Baria stared intensely at the scene, incapable of moving their feet. They seemed positively hypnotized. The world for them had ceased to turn, one way or the other.
The bawlings of the Lords went on in a confused manner. Incoherent phrases, words out of order. The extravagance of strange gestures. A savage, animal exaltation. From the other end of the world, the death of the Emperor brought about the defeat of the logic of the universe. It provoked a sudden rush of instincts long buried in the primeval memory of generations of Masters. They seemed to be willing to exorcise energies and malevolent powers that had surged up from within them in insane gestures. Turning from the slashed, chopped up body of Ephrem Olani, they attacked the trees at the edge of the courtyard. Then the shacks of the Baria. With the same movement, as though they had been ordered by the same blind mechanism, they returned, to reassemble on the spot where the fragments and remains of the body of Ephrem lay.
The Magus drew nearer, with the jerky gestures of a somnambulist. He had not dared to think. For years the slaves had suffered. They had groaned. How to erase all that with a single stroke? What refuge still remained to call upon when man had just denied the order of the movement of the sky in the direction of the rising of the sun, through the path that it treads to the other end of the immense and boundless seas?
The Magus had placed his hands in front of his eyes. Hands filled with the blood of Ephrem Olani. He started to chew frenetically on the leaves of tschatté that had somehow fallen into the pockets of his vest. He sensed a powerful, mind-destroying odor rising in his throat, almost asphyxiating. His eyes were puffed up with tears, and were irritated in the fog of dizziness. Intoxication took possession of all of his senses. His head buzzed while stars exploded in spirals with fiery lights. He made frenzied movements, while trying to keep control of himself with both hands. But they slipped inexorably, as though they had been coated with grease. He didn't even succeed in staggering, so carried away was he by an irresistible force. Then the bite of a burning fire that was rising from his stomach. He spun around: bile filled his chest. Vague visions made unreal colors flicker in front of his blurred gaze. Tremors. Glowing embers.
It was then that he leaped forward. Madness had seized all of the Balabat. They had not had enough of the agonies of destruction. Faced with the frightening cries that they continued to emit, the Magus thought that the universe had been shaken by an earthquake, and that it was going to come crashing down in a roar of thunder. The planets were shattering. Frenzied comets were rioting with hollow growls. Echoes, prolonged vibrations. All of his thousand-year old knowledge appeared to him in a strange dazzling moment, in which suffoccating reverberations mixed with the bitter foam that trickled from his mouth.
The moment of total death.
He tore his hair. He ground his teeth. He gasped breathlessly, his muscles painfully contracted. It was at this moment that the crowd, in a single movement, parted in front of him, to make way for him. Without perceiving it himself, he felt himself being pushed by an extraordinary force. He propelled himself upon Judge Shemellis. He brutally tore his sword from its sheath and brandished it threateningly. Before the other Tschowa were able to make the least movement, he had plunged the weapon into the Judge's body, cutting right through him. The world was truly transfixed in a moment of amazement.
Only a moment. Very quickly, as the Judge was still twisting in the mud, moaning with spasms of agony, a tiny Baria rushed forward. With his slaughter-machete he cut off Judge Shemmelis' head. He performed his rough labor before anyone was able to make a movement. Shouts and vociferations multiplied with tumultuous echoes. A general explosion that shook the sky in the rumbling of stones.
The Baria shouted to each other with strident voices from one end of Wikro to the other. The Balabat, surprised and frightened, fired their rifles without compunction at the bodies of women and children. The crowd scattered behind the rear of the stables. The Magus Nefadiri could see nothing any more. A fleeting silhouette that seemed to him to be the shadow of his daughter, and which followed him in complete panic. He found himself propelled, as if by some miracle, at the head of the horde of Baria. They were already calling him their hero. They were pushing him in front of them, waving knives and rusty machetes, cowherds' staffs. Signs of their subjugation. They ran towards the holes in the rocks where the Lords in disarry were looking for a precarious haven. Instinctively they sensed within them a new force, in the midst of a cloud of dust which swirled around their nettala.
With a sudden movement, the meaning of history tipped over in the void of the insurrection. Primal chaos. The uncontested and absolute Masters had become hunted beasts. The hatred of the slaves hunted them down implacably. Hands cracked with suffering. Fists brandished in defiance of the stars.
As the fog of drunkenness and of the narcotic dissipated, the Magus perceived with fear the inextricable mysteries of the trap which was closing upon him. Another power had snatched him up, carrying him along in the irresistible momentum of the band of slaves who were freeing themselves.
Some moments later, the thick edifice of the Tribunal, painted in bright red on the backdrop of a village gone wild, was burning with sputtering and crackling, while the ecstatic Baria applauded and shouted. The symbol of the Law and order of the Lords was collapsing in the blaze of the revolt. Now the invulnerable walls had blazing colors. They spoke of something essential which was finally ending. A departure which could evoke no other return.
The body of Ephrem Olani had been buried on the Place of the cattle market, after an impressive procession of all the emancipated slaves. Near him the body of Ras Taféla, which the former slaves wanted to venerate. They gave to both the same worship and the same funeral ceremony. A mourning mixed with the same fervor, in the unique secret of death which makes one cross the limits of the visible world. And they promised themselves to proclaim the boldness of the history of the People who have remained nameless.
Melkamu Makuria was a child of Aduwa. Of that city, planted like a giant tree on the rocks of sun, he knew all the tiny alleys, like nerves which lead the sap into the branches of the mango tree. From the time that he was young, he had leaped, hopped, bounded like a little faun in the brush. Covered with dust, with twigs and sparks, until he lost his breath. On the steepest slopes of the tentacles of Tekeze he had climbed the shores filled with polished stones and flat rocks.
The wild child of the uncanny triangle, between the Mêreb, the Gash, and the Tekeze. The plain of Victory. The Glory of the People for ages of fantasy and cavalcades on the slopes of the hills. Routes that split in strings of sand until memory abandons them. Acrobats and magicians rose up in the hollows of the night, covered with shells and with indigo. With their bodies smeared with unguents, they went into trances. They predicted eagles which were to feed upon the blood of young virgins, above the ruined cliffs. War against the invaders. Aduwa!
"If you were able to understand, Khédamawit Yemane," he groaned gently, pushing his head back. "This city is planted in my flesh. My blood moves across the paths that descend toward Enda Selassie, as far as Gondar. And my arteries beat the pulse of Axum, the eternal Citadel. Aduwa is my heart. And they have burned it!"
Khédamawit did not find words to console Melkamu Makuria in his suffering. For the past week he had found himself involved with this band of plunderers. They had found them on the rocky trails. Hagard, distraught, Khédamawit was running. The heavy body of Elizabet Adâné! Let us hope that she gets well, now that she was able to get up, to smile … It was a nightmare of a day, in the midst of remote hills.
The bushes behind which they were sheltered began to move slowly, revealing the indistinct shapes of the holy Priest Yohannnes. The General of the "army of liberation"! A small man, fat and ghostly. Short in stature but large in the belly, with thick blood. Melkamu stared at him with rapture, as though he had represented for him, and for him alone, an extraordinary being. A prodigy!
"Look at him, Khédamawit. Look at him carefully. And thank Egzi'abher the Almighty for this unique privilege which has been granted to you. To you, miserable earthworm. Lower than an earthworm. Look, but look then, with your eyes of a pathetic mortal. An ambassador from heaven, Khédamawit. He alone will be able to restore to us the splendors of Aduwa. The splendors of the entire Tigray. Even beyond Maychew. As far as into Lalibela."
"But what can this really mean?" Khédamawit asked, perplexed and anxious at the same time. "Even you, who have been to school, still believe in stories about ghosts?"
"Be quiet, wretch. Be quiet!" the young man roared without, however, raising his voice. You don't even know what you are talking about. This is not a ghost, Khédid. You yourself have seen, with your own eyes. Marvels and extraordinary things. And when he speaks, his words transform our hearts. Even the most hardened. His eyes, my God! His eyes! Eyes like glowing coal. They set the branches afire. All the foliage of the furrow. His eyes alone would set afire all the lands soiled by the sons of the bastards of the Balabat. See how magnificent he is, Khédid. Isn't he admirable, more strikingly white than all the brilliant lights that the Angels of paradise can buckle on?"
"Wendem'me," sighed Khédid, "you, my blood brother. I believe in only one thing: the affection and sympathy that I have felt for you since the first day. The friendship which links me to all the outcasts who have sworn to reestablish justice here in a cursed land. The love I have in me for Elizabeth Adâné. The rest surpasses my understanding. If I have remained here with you, it is only to save Elizabeth from the claws of death."
"You understand nothing, Khédamawit Yemane. If you were able to connect one word to another, their meaning would be startlingly clear to you. But those things are forbidden to the uninitiated, wonde lige. You, the child of faraway lands. If you were able to grasp the least of the miracles that assail us. These times do not belong to any single age, neither ours or that of mortal men. A great light would descend upon you and illuminate you entirely. It would sweep through you. It would fill you with another understanding of the world. Your thought itself would be in tune with the rhythm of the things which hover about us. You do not imagine, wendem'me, what sublime passions this world has kneaded bestowed into us. The holy Priest Yohannnes has come to fulfill our prayers. He is the reality beyond appearances, after the great Djan Hoy.
At that moment a guttural voice arose behind the charred fences of the old monastery of Debre Damo. Then, in the circle of the sun, the massive silhouette of the General, the Kessé Yohannnes of Tigray, appeared. Khédamawit had never seen him at such close range. He forced himself to stare at him, but at the same time did not want to admit the terror he inspired in him. A tenacious feeling of awe that spread through him. He observed with fear the folds of flabby flesh that spilled from the olive drab combat uniform of the General. A uniform too short and too tight for his drooping hips, with its distended buttons ready to burst on his belly. Worn out seams which were frayed under the armpits. Tufts of black hair in scrubby nostrils, with others bristling in ears filled with bushes. Which emphasized even more the ridiculous appearance of his simian face, gathered in sidelong profile. A bestial figure with strongly arched eyebrows. A double chin, thick and shiny, bloated with soft flesh under the throat, and an equal amount of slimy fat. He dripped with drops of abundant sweat which he did not take the trouble to wipe away, as though not to waste his energies uselessly.
The General carried his square head high, like an animal endowed with the instinct of voracity to dominate, seize, crush. The pupils of his blood-shot eyes conferred on his person the look of a wild clown in the circus. And yet none of his acolytes showed the least desire to laugh. Quite to the contrary, they all prostrated themselves before him. They were sunk in an almost idolatrous adoration, as though he could single-handedly trigger cataclysms and natural disasters. An irresistible magnetism radiated from his body. Such a force was simply inexplicable for the mass of peasants who followed him submissively. Destiny seemed to have shaken them with blindness and amnesia. No one tried to understand towards what horizons of madness this unusual General was able to lead them.
And yet they assembled there. They kneeled down at a sign from his hand. They croached at a blink of his eyelids. They crouched when he shook his head. Even those who had been brave ashekars found themselves prostrate at his feet, in a prostration akin to despondency, despair, and even dismay.
By what reversals of history did an entire People renounce its rights, limping along with all its miseries on the roads of an impossible war? They clung together in tight clusters, as though they wanted to draw from the conglomerate of bodies a force that they had not known how to get out of themselves. Then the crowd swayed. It worked its way across the cracks in the rocks. It clung to the walls of the excavations in the mountain like frogs on top of sticky secretions.
No one asked questions about the mysterious origins of the Holy Priest Yohannes. But everyone listened to his pronouncements and clung to the tails of his olive green uniform. He laid out for them, in inspired language, the routes of their wanderings. He had proclaimed the "War of deliverance." He made peremptory use of the symbols of the Red Star and the rainbow, in order to mobilize them around their collective frenzy. Stunned, unbelievably conquered, they acquiesced. They collected around him from the burned fields of Inticho to these piled up ruins of the Monastery of Debre Damo.
The sun was high. It towered over the motionless bahar zaff. But the shadows were no longer frightening. Behind the crushed walls, Khédamawit had come nearer to the scene to follow more closely the movements of the reptilian Prophet. The heat had, in effect, stunned him. More than the heat, there were the acrid odors of the smoke. They mixed with the strong, stubborn smells and the stench that arose from the swamps. He was stunned by it. His head spun strangely. Neither the haruki nor the best made katikalle had been able to daze him this much. He promised himself not to touch these filthy drinks, but the rules of the camp imposed frightening sessions of savage drinking, which degenerated into drunken bestialities. For the moment he strenuously tried to divert his mind. Above all he contemplated the burned walls of the ancient Monastery, which
bore traces of ashes and threads of mouldiness, mingled with marks of violence. They had led to young people of his age dying for the great madness of the Holy Priest Yohannes. For not having complied with evil rules, for having flinched at the obscenities of the militiamen, for having told off a disciple. For having laughed at the wrong moment, for having yawned at the wrong time; they had fallen before this wall spotted with every kind of despair.
There were macrocephalic bricks smeared with soot. Statues broken off from their pedestals made an indecent exhibition of their entrails on the gravelly cement. Faces reversed on the rocky ruts. Earthenware jars torn open also showed the rage of the attackers, the fierceness of their desire to destroy, to devastate all te symbols of power and of death. Everything that had constituted the feudal institutions, the implacable power of the Nobles.
Abébé Hagos advanced towards the group, wobbling as though drunk. A slender, tall young man. His oval face bore the imprint of adolescent mildness. His brown eyes seemed to hide a deep mystery behind webbed lashes. He smiled very little. But his joy often had the force of sympathy. Sometimes excessive and even exuberant. Abébé Hagos was not yet 16 years old, and his anemic body already suggested a precocious old age.
"Ghet'toch," he said, addressing Khédamawit in his merciful voice, "we are grateful to you for having brought our little hert'te to us. She puts a ray of light in our wounded hearts."
"I have already forbidden you to call me Ghet'ta," Khédamawit whispered, to avoid scolding him. I am not a Noble Lord of ancient times. And you know very well that all my troubles began on the day that I raised my hand against my Master. Besides, I am only a poor, abandoned orphan, without Father or Mother. Ending up in strange countries on the far side of the hell of the Simen."
"The Simen!" exclaimed Abébé. "Tana! The Castle whose walls shine in the morning sun. Then you know the Simen? The shining waters. They say that at certain times the island tips and racks gently from one corner to the other of the waters. At that moment you should rock with it. And no matter what you wish for, it will be accomplished immediately. The radiant reflections of Gorgora. The intoxication of Paradise, where the first being of our race of immortal men was created. The Gates of Heaven. Bahar Dar. There where the central tree was planted. The tree of the knowledge of everything, of all learning. The tree of the Knowledge of God. Have you already touched this tree, Khédamawit? Tell us about it and share with us your immense happiness. You have seen it, this central tree?"
"Child!" Khédamawit whispered plaintively. "Child, look at my skin burned by all the fires of sulfur and by the lavas of all volcanoes. Look at my thick mouth and my fleshy lips."
"Then you will never understand?" Abébé Hagos shot back with conviction. "You do not understand the Kesse Yohannes-the-Great? He is always predicting that the casts will be abolished. Feudalism destroyed. The monarchies are in agony. The People triumph. The People have won the greatest victory in the History of men. A new era is beginning in this century. It is us, with our hands brandishing bludgeons and lances. We shall build that universe. Words fail me, of course. The dreams are perhaps beyond my powers. But I am sure of one thing: no one will ever be able to undo the History that we are beginning here, or snatch it from us. Neither the Ashekars nor the Baria, nor any caste will be able to survive any longer the fire that we will set ablaze. Evil will disappear from this new land. In any case, slaves and serfs will no longer exist there, surrounding the Lord and Master at the feast, their backs turned to the banquet table. They will no longer be there to collect saliva in their nettala, or to pick up the quail bones thrown to them, like puppies, in the sand. They will not be there any longer, Khédamawit Yemane, I swear this to you. They will not…"
"It's the Ghet'ta who are going to rally around us from now on," Melkamu Makuria broke in energetically, jovial, and in an amused tone. "It's us who will make them eat dust while we reward them with kicks in the ass!"
They laughed now hilariously. They continued to grasp leaves of tschatte in their mouths. A yellowish foam flowed from the corners of lips drawn back in a grimace.
"You know," Abébé Hagos continued, with a dramatic pout, "the Holy Priest Yohannes is going to lead us to a society of justice and equality. He will reestablish the People of Tigray in the Promised Land. Do you know where he comes from? From very far away. From the other side of the seas. He has been sent to us: he is the Chosen One, the Prophet of the Sacred Scriptures. It is he who will bring about the Pact concluded with the holy People."
"No," Khédamawit, unable to restrain himself, replied brusquely. "He comes from no sea. I think I know his origins. He spent his life in an abandoned Monastery in the neighborhood of the plain of Dankali. Which fits his words of apocalypse."
"Silence, Khédamawit Yemane. Silence, be quiet instead of blaspheming," Abébé vigorously protested, carried away by the force of his anger. "You don't know what you are saying. Who had ever told you this grotesque story? There are so many idiotic and childish legends, but this goes beyond anything. The Holy Priest Yohannes is not an ordinary man of flesh and blood like you and me. He comes from nowhere. He was not born of woman. He will never know putrid death. Do not speak of these filthy countries, worthy of falachas. Cursed countries, where they recite their prayers in the stifling odors of the houses of blood. Houses polluted by the menses of women. All the ablutions of all the rivers will not be sufficient to cleanse them. People who tell such abominations should be walled up behind solid rock until they suffocate to death. The breath of fetid waters will always cling to their bodies, wherever they go. Nothing can remove it. I shall detect them at a great distance from here. Their children should be crushed at birth in these filthy, accursed houses. Right down to their masquid, which swarm with disheveled monks who hold the poor for ransom, feeding themselves on money stolen from the misery of the peasants. And then, oh wretchedness! Ah! They eat donkey meat. The meat and even the skin, completely raw!"
"But I did not speak with evil intentions," Khédamawit replied, very much annoyed.
"Keep your intentions for yourself and where I think," Abébé Hagos said angrily. You will have need of it one of these days perhaps. We, we shall follow the Prophet of God, the Envoy of Egzi'abher, until the end. Because we believe in him. Because I have faith in him. An immense faith. Which nothing can shake."
Khédamawit realized suddenly that he was making enemies. But he was unable to prevent himself from disapproving of his companions, who were too fanatic to follow his words.
"Your Prophet is not a god! He represents nothing eternal."
"He is simply the Voice that precedes the coming of God," Abébé Hagos said, in a tone which was intended to be calm and pacifying, but which contrasted with his anger. "He is truly a Saint, like the ones we have known in the Holy Scripture and in the sacred Books. You know nothing about being devout, you. That no one has ever taught you. But I love you very much, Khédamawit Yemane, because you are pure as morning on the mountain. See how the Holy Priest Yohannes has come back among us, after centuries. He is going to thrash evil. He will announce the coming of the Lord Egzi'abher. The people who follow him will see a great light. Those who revolted will be swept away. We shall reestablish justice, because it is the very sign of the great Kingdom of God as it has always been seen in the Prophets' dreams. In the Kebra Negast, the Book of eternal Glory. Do you know the "sacred Song", do you? Listen a bit to how it sings the Land which has been promised to us.
And from the time that we have been in the country, everything that we have seen seems beautiful. All its many waters are good without pollution, and the air moves without being fanned, and the wild honey is as plentiful as the dust in the market place, and the cattle as numerous as the sands of the sea …
"The eternal Legend," whispered Melkamu Makuria, excited.
"In this blessed year of Yohannes, it became necessary to destroy all the places that had been given over to evil and sorcery. They had become places of disorder, of perdition. How did the deacons say it? The Pandemoniums? Yes, that's it indeed, hells on earth. Demons hiding in the bodies of men. Unclean beasts. Monsters without feathers or horns. With their filthy girls of the tedj-biet, and all the drinkers of katikalle whom we shall burn on gigantic pyres. The Holy Priest Yohannes is going to reestablish for us the Kingdom of the Glory of Tigray. He will establish the power of the chosen People throughout the entire world. You will see, child. You, the unbeliever, with your big, mischievous eyes. You will see and you will believe. From sunrise to sunset. From the feet of the mountains of Dankali to the immeasurable stretches of the sandy deserts. Have you already seen the desert? No? Then come with us. The universe finally reconquered, subjugated by the force of arms and the will of the children of the Great Sabah!"
The eyes of Abébé Hagos sparkled with giddiness. They shone with unknown ardor, so strangely that they seemed to be filled with glowing embers. At this time of midday sun the light spread, radiant, bursting, like a day scattered over the still waters of the great lake Tana which so fascinated him.
"Look at our People, vast around us," Melkamu Makuria rejoiced. "You must believe in what Abébé Hagos tells you. He is an intelligent young man. You would appreciate him very well if you were near him all the time. And then he will protect you from all imaginable dangers, from all threats. He has control over death, you know. Then you will understand that usurpers from all the countries must tremble when our conquests are mentioned. Our fabulous legends, our heroic exploits. Those who torture their people, the tyrants fabricated by the deceiving powers of money and luxury. We shall sweep them away with a single sweep of the broom. Swish, into the garbage can! We shall throw their carcasses into the nettles of the history of free Peoples. We, our army of Heros. We shall fly from victory to victory, without ever knowing the least defeat."
We shall swarm through the dwellings of those who have oppressed our fathers as far down as Mekele. A triumphal march, to the rhythm of cymbals and trumpets. Nothing will be able to resist us. We shall reduce them to ashes, to rubbish," Abébé Hagos went on, transfigured by his own words.
Khédamawit had raised his sad eyes to look at him. Elongated forms under the burned banana trees were chewing furiously on leaves of tschatte. Others nervously were swallowing liquids that were inflaming their bellies. Which were setting their guts afire with hot smoke. Melkamu himself had contributed some in shards of broken gourds. He was learning to roll his tough leaves in paper chewed to make a day's supply. During this time Abébé Hagos forced himself to swallow an unrecognizable drink, completely viscous, in a disgustingly filthy vessel. At each swallow tears burst from his eyes. His face contracted. The brown foam of tschatté spread around his adolescent, naive mouth.
His clean-shaven lips twitched painfully at each swallow. Abébé Hagos cried out, in a fit of madness.
"We have arrived. We have marched, moons, years. A huge crowd. Our steps have made the rocks tremble. The mountains. Our feet have resounded. Right into Makallé. We have marched until our feet could no longer carry us. The stones split to pieces as we passed over them. Of Adigrat, of Maychew. We printed the rhythm of force on the tremblings of the trees. On the tops of hills. Of broken, torn hills. The country vibrated with our shouts. We, the People of glory and power … Ah, ah! Glory is ours. Victory is ours."
In a muffled voice, Melkamu Makuria explained to Khédamawit, whom he had drawn into a corner, what Abébé Hagos' distress meant.
"His entire family was driven from their lands by the brutality of the Balabat. His relatives were massacred before his eyes. Lords gone wild, besotted by blind furies. Keep in mind that the members of his clan were caught in the Fitaourari.
An unpardonable blasphemy. The grandfather, an honorable ashekar, was whipped, naked in front of the whole village. When the torturer finished the whipping, the old man had stopped breathing. They suffocated him before throwing him into a ditch of liquid manure. Desperate gendarmes meanwhile had set about assiduously pursuing his sisters through the undergrowth, where they knocked them down fiercely. One must therefore understand his suffering. Immense and inconsolable. Nothing can take it from him. The Négous died. All that can be expected is the confusion and bad luck of orphans. Distress compels the cruel pursuit of the torturers of the People. They would go all the way. As far as Makallé. They will march. A huge crush. A multitude of hands brandishing swords. No one knew what came over men when they felt in themselves this imperishable force about which the Holy Priest Yohannès speaks."
"Something so violent, Khedid. I struggle within myself day and night to control this thing. And it always returns. It grips my heart. It makes the blood beat in my belly, in my chest. It almost suffocates me. I strongly believe that one of these days I shall be asphyxiated. And nothing can free me from it. But before this thing makes me burst, I shall fight. I shall kill many Tschowa. All the Tschowa on earth. It is perhaps because they breathe the same air that I do that I am stifling under the power of that thing. Like a desire for a woman, Khédamawit Yemane. And yet I desire no woman. I fell no desire for sex."
"You should," Khédamawit ventured, with a smile.
"No, I cannot. The Holy Priest Yohannès has forbidden us. Even to speak about it. Words alone are a great sin. He encourages us to kill, to spill blood, much blood, and not the diseased liquids of our bodies."
"It's the same thing, since blood comes from there, and the child sucks a bit of it with its mother's breast."
"Blasphemer! You're crazy, Khédamawit. Don't you know that others have been hanged here for less than that? But I love you very much. We shall be an army of men hungry for the conquest of liberty. A prodigious multitude attacking suns which have blazed without us for millenia. The Holy Priest Yohannès will lead us into combat and he will show us the way to follow. Together we shall attack their castles. We shall launch well-ordered sieges. Military strategy, we have experience with that. They will not escape us. This time it sustains us beyond the possible. You cannot know. We shall clear away their homes. We shall make of them tombs for their rotting corpses. Balabat decomposing, that must be beautiful to look at. We shall make Makallé the great capital of Tigray. The Capital of the entire universe. A place of prayer, of knowledge and of power. From its center a new light will radiate through the night. And we ourselves shall be able to inaugurate a new time. By the strength of our hands. By our strength alone, Khédamawit. Isn't this beautiful, Wendem'me, you, my blood brother? Answer. Answer me, I beg you. And tell me that I am not dreaming."
"With such fanaticism you will go far," Khédamawit contented himself with murmuring, breathing an exhausted sigh.
"Yes, we shall go far," Melkamu Makuria replied sharply. "Instead of their trampling on us always, instead of their spitting on us, I still prefer to take nourishments from that fanaticism, as you call it. We shall make ourselves founders of new dynasties. Princes of kingdoms that have no bounds. No one will ever be able to stand in our way. Even if it requires millions and millions of corpses of feudal lords. Mountains of demolished, mutilated bodies. Cut into small pieces. We shall march over their corpses.They, they have marched over our people for centuries, even when famine decimated hordes of us.
We were only floor-clothes for their tiles. For the marbles of their latrines. Now it is their turn to serve as food for birds of prey. Ah! There is nevertheless justice in the world, no?
We could not be counted upon to be the ones who always pay. Each in his turn, friend. Ours has passed. It's their turn to dance. This is the way history progresses. As the Holy Priest Yohannès says it so well. It is so wonderful, Khédamawit. You should listen to him more often, you know. You will love. You will live, I assure you."
"It really serves no purpose to keep holding such a grudge, my brother. It's like a cow that keeps chewing bitter herbs," Khédamawit concluded as he got up.
He sensed clearly that the tschatté was beginning to take effect, and that this debauch of aggressive words could only come to a quick end. The bitterness was too violent for his words to establish a rallying point. Which gripped his heart most tragically, this ardor. A passion. The idea that kids dazed by strong liquors might react in their own way to situations that no one had yet dared to imagine in the generations that preceded them.
Since the death of Négous everything around him had become so confused. Men seemed to be carried along by a ground swell, without being able to ask themselves about the very meaning of their destiny. Balabat and Tschowa, their backs to the wall, with the energy born of despair, attacking indigent sharecroppers. Or simply peasants deprived of all means of defense. Frightened Ashekars who had, in their panic, ravaged the crops which might have saved them from food shortages. Barns filled with grains, granaries with seeds. Bands of unleashed militiamen who had pillaged everything, who had devastated the public buildings without any other pretext than that of affirming their capacity for destruction. To create havoc for the institutions they had defended with their blood.
"Yes," Khédamawit added, in a murmur full of pain, "I myself have also seen peasants pursued, tortured, put to the rack. They fled their lands. They abandoned their homes. Wives and children. Huts, acre after acre, in the middle of piles of trash."
Memories rushed to his lips. An aqueous rattle. He saw again scenes of horror, from the time of his childhood. When his father disappeared behind the groves and hills of banana trees between two unlikely carbines, cartridge belts on their shoulder straps. And then when the peasants were driven from Wikro. With Elizabet Adâné wrapped in dusty blankets and fabrics that had lost all color.
How he would have liked to protect her from the cold, from fright. From death. From death, Elsa! To save her with useless hands. He had scarcely gone beyond the hedge of apple trees when a prolonged salvo greeted them. Other arms crackled in their ears. Occasional shadows which hopped into the midst of fiery blazes. Twigs exploded in a sky dark with a ashes. The stars themselves seemed crushed, shattered. A dusting of scattered fires in the firmament. Stars which no longer twinkled, which exploded with sparks, and which flew off into the distance.
Affectionately he pulled Elizabet Adâné's body to him, while he murmured to her fervent prayers. Other shadows had come out and joined them on the crests. Children were shrieking in a night of madness. Women let out cries that tore the shadows. The men, they seemed plunged in a stupor. They hurried on, as though not to rush into the invisible line that formed the border between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
The ashes stung the throat like pins. The horse had galloped along well, then began to stamp his feet vigorously, as though he sensed in the darkness a force that was guiding him, and which imposed an irresistible rhythm on his movements. His nostrils trembled. From time to time he let out an expressionless whinny. Sometimes there were even repeated explosions which infuriated him. They were so close that they echoed in the trees at the edge of the trails.
Far off, the cries of warning from the Balabat had the resonance of the gratings of gahanneb, that hell of the damned where the fire of the furnace consumes even metal. The horse reared up and the shadows moved like hallucinations. The haunted night. In an agonized voice Khédamawit Yemane called Elizabet. So gently that only the murmurs hummed in her ears.
"Elsa, my Love! My great Love. Our marriage night, Elsa. Fire is going to burn us in a great passion. Don't look back, or we shall both be turned into pillars of salt. We are going to purify ourselves, Elsa. Elizabet Adâné, you, my wife. But must our bodies be consumed on pyres where the sons of your land were immolated? Are we going to snatch our joy on paths strewn with ashes? Life! There where the strangulation of our great People is taking place. Paths leading to death. Elsa! Have I then passed through these regions, one more devastated than the other, only to come face to face with the fear that has no name in the language of the damned? Our language for us? Save me. Elsa. You carry the name of the insurrection and of redemption. Save me from the fire, Adâné. Elizabet Adâné, my sanctified Love. You, my sanctuary, my most secret place. Elizabet Adâné, save me from perdition. May the road that leads to you, my beloved, be the path that bypasses the burning bushes. Show me the road of vast pastures. And let them be filled with stars, proclaiming eternal marriages. I love you, Elizabet Adâné. Is it because I love you that I am going to burn like a pruned plant which has not been able to take root anywhere? Where is my Father, Elsa? Where is my own Mother? She who carried me stirring in her womb? My Mother, Elizabet Adâné, is you from now on. It was undoubtedly she of whom the leaves say that she was buried too soon. There are swamps in Kimbembé, between two ant-hills consumed by a September on fire. The same sun that devoured her who gave me birth. On the shores of the rivers that I do not know. Not even their names. The universe is vast. Where did she go to die, my Mother? Where is my Father now, Elsa? I shall look for him everywhere until my last breath. I certainly shall end up finding him again, even if he is only dust. And I shall say to him: here is the one whom I have chosen as my bride. I love her. Give her to me for eternity. I shall find him again, even among the ashes. A Father always ends up finding his son again. He himself chooses him in the mass of nothingness. He carries him in himself and passes him on affectionately. A son must also be able to find a Father. Even if he must cross the meridians diagonally. And you, Elizabet Adâné, you will lead me towards the spaces where gentleness is not merely a precarious dream."
He had forgotten the cries and noise around him. The furious stampedes, the groans and moans of the dying. Then they had entered the cracks and gorges of the hills. In the narrow slopes of the crumbled villages between Dugum and Adigrat. Days and days of an exhausting march. They had to climb on the backs of mules hitched together by their hooves, as far as Debré Damo. Dense creepers,, roots plunged between the cracks of the rocks. Wicker baskets and bamboo thongs. The old Monastery destroyed. It was there that the raging bands of the Holy Priest Yohannès had caught them, then cut them off. Then they brought them along with the other peasants. A caravan dug up out of legendary times. The ruins of Debré Damo.
They came to congregate around this enlightened Prophet, exhaling impossible fantasies with the odors of his fermented mouth. He announced to them in hysterical tones the end of famines and droughts. The disappearance of the pillagers of the People. And they believed in this, because life left them no other choice.
Khédamawit was brutally torn from his reverie, as though he had fallen into a deep pit. A prolonged cheering, a shouting that covered over the whisperings. The grass rustled weakly.
"Here is the 'Voice that cries in the desert,'" the principal Cherub shouted. A kind of fantastic scarecrow, who hopped par â-coups on his grasshopper-like legs. He was given the task of punctuating the proclamations of the Holy Priest.
Decked out in a faded military outfit, the sinister Prophet stood there in his full, corpulent massiveness, badly fitted out in his monstrous obesity. The turbulence had reached a climax. Ragged peasants, tenant-farmers reduced to the state of living ghosts. Half-starved Baria, whom the torments of successive famines had turned into skeletons. Deeply dejected children, with prematurely wrinkled skin crackling with every movement. A lugubrious crush. They flowed along like grasshoppers in a storm. They brandished clubs, bludgeons, weeding harrows, plows that no longer worked, rusty hatchets. Knives that were not worth much in darkened sleeves. Others were carrying on their shoulders old carbines, tied with pieces of rubber. They had cut them into strips from tires that had never been used. All this, weapons that they had used to defend the Masters against the violence of thieves who had come up from the valley. Now they were returning them for use against their own Lords.
The cries grew louder. A short time later, a compact crowd was arguing around Yohannès. They were awaiting orders for battles that were to be waged during the night. They had a confused understanding of the importance of events. A violent blast of air swept like the desert sirocco through the interior of the walls of the old Monastery. But they knew that the wind would die down and exhaust itself against the sides of the mountain.
Lost among the dozens of arms and legs that twisted the courtyard, Khédamawit desperately watched the eyes of the group of women. He wanted to discover the fragile silhouette of Elizabet Adâné. The sounds and uproar reached his ears like the buzzing of bees in a collapsed hive. In his feverish head thoughts tumbled about, disintegrating. They combined in odd dreams, filled with primary colors. How to get Elsa out of such a trap? Echoes were increasing, returning. They rebounded off the clouds which were growing larger in the sky.
"In the name of the Master of the universe, the Lord of power and of eternity. By the Sacred Throne of the God of gods. By his holy mekomia and by the force of meskalla. By the immortal, lofty mountain of Tigray, greet Victory!" the Prophet intoned.
"Victory!" the hoarse voices of the peasants were shouting. "Victory!"
"Victory. Tatek! The cry of combat and of battle, the cry for the triumph of Tigray."
" We are establishing the prestige of Tigray. The honor of Tigray. The triumph of the Holy Land. We are proclaiming great justice throughout all the mountains. The citadel of the children of the Almighty: Aduwa the impregnable. The lord of hosts leads our armies with his hand. We shout aloud the mission of the Elect. Theirs is the prestige of leading the flocks of the Master of the heavens to pasture on the verdant fields. You, the valiant Warriors. Upright. Stand tall as the wave swells. The Master of life grants you the right to possess the whole universe. From the mountains which watch the budding sun burst over the summits to those that watch it cover itself again with shadows. Victory, Tigray the Great citadel."
"Victory, Tatek! Victory, Tatek!" they exclaimed with applause.
Several times Khédamawit was present at these obscenely hysterical scenes. The same words were repeated, singing the glory of an empire impossible to reconstruct. Vengeance to be accomplished: an illusion. The Prophet had a transfigured air. His hairy beard wagged under a double chin, on a face swollen with fat.
He had always sensed fear, for having known how to anticipate the excesses and crises of this old fool who had originated from the depths of the valley. And yet a magnetic power attached him to itself, as though invisible threads had woven themselves between the Prophet and each one onf those who let themselves become drunk on his spells. However, the nausea, disgust, repulsion. As well as an irresistible attraction, while the Prophet began an enigmatic monologue.
"Hounds grind up everything in their flaming mouths. The army rabble have joined sides with the usurper. They have betrayed the treaty of Aduwa. The pact of victory. They should die. The hand of the Master of knowledge has brought me to a hill of beginnings. It will accomplish prodigious things. The miracle of Scripture. It is going to strike the devil's henchmen. It will reduce them to ashes under our victorious sandals. Victory has been forecast for you since primeval times. In front of you, scorpions, spiders with poisonous tentacles. Wipe them out. Stinking and wild beasts. Kill them. The Master of the forge will be with you. Filthy animals. Get rid of them. They carry the curse which has stricken you all your life. Now the curse must be eradicated. Throw it out. Bellies that are going to swell and explode like rotten goatskins. Destroy them. And then all misfortunes will flee from you, like western winds filled with putrid fumes, like swamp gas. Slaughter them. Throw them to the ocelots to eat. Let the jackals fight over their corpses. Let their guts fertilize the fields with seed. Victory!"
"Victory, Tatek! Victory Tatek! Victory and Vengeance."
"Yes, the power will be great. Do you have shoulders broad enough to carry it?"
"Victory, Tatek! Victory Tatek! Victory and Power."
"Break them like clay jars which have cracked. May they be the holocaust of the Holy Empire of Tigray, that we shall extend to the four quarters of the horizon. They have stripped us of our heritage. They have brought upon us the wrath of the Master of Vengeance. Famine, suffering. Annihilate them. Let their bellies teem with rottenness and with disgusting things. Pierce them, drill through them with blows from your axes. This evening, tonight. Adigrat you will be set free. A torrential rain will inaugurate a new era. It will wash the world. Drown them in the rain. Choke them. Beat them with your strength. Do not let your arm tremble on the carcass of the damned. Their shades will not pursue you. Trample on them, crush them. The Voice has spoken to me in a dream. The Voice has proclaimed the Truth. Sing the canticle of the Voice.
The intoned this song which made blasts of hatred fill their cheeks, and whose melodies were going to make them transgress the limits of the forbidden.
You are happy, Tigray! Holy city illuminated with my grace.
You are like the great mountain which shines in my light
Which is comparable to you Empire succored by the hand of the Lord
Master of smithies Master of Knowledge and Master of the universe
He is the shield which come to help you
You the Baria and the emancipated
You the child of liberty
He is the sword by means of which you have won power
Over the multitude of scoundrels assembled against you
Your arm has not trembled and you have trampled at your feet
The arrogant ones of their country and you will bury in the plains
The deep valleys and the verdant steppes
What has been stripped from their filthy bodies
Here we are at the foot of the sacred Mountain
Victory Tigray! Victory Tatek!
"Look at the spectacle of miseries which have indiscriminately struck women and children mingled in death. Bones have turned white in the vast plain. The entire plain of Dallol colder than the subterranean waters that flow on the sides of the mountains. The valley was shaken with our laments. Here is the time for violence. We were overwhelmed with shame because of the crimes of usurpers. Wipe them out. You have followed their stampedes over your hides while the dying howled with pain. Death which rises from the earth together with the smell of putrid water in the ravines. Your marriageable daughters collapsed under the burden of baskets of sand. And the sons of the usurpers laughed with contempt. It's your turn, strangle them. We have born our wounds in every latitude, even beyond the burning equators. There where the fissures have only been mass graves filled with your decomposing bodies.
At these words Khédamawit felt his heart beating quickly. He began to tremble, as though he had cramps in his knees.
Shouts were already increasing, drowning out the proclamations of the Prophet. Skilful militia patrolled in the midst of the crowd and reestablished order, or provoked it with threats whispered in a low voice, with confused howling.
"The word expressed itself through me, an evening on which the moon climbed atop the highest summit of Adi Kwala. The word mingled in the tumult of Mereb, and the rumblings of the waterfalls. From Dukambiya, from Tesseney. At the confluences of the mysteries. I shall bring you together from the limits of the earth. From the lofty summits of Simien and of Gondar, to the uncrossable mountains of Abune, as far as Sekota. I shall bring the rivers together in a vast interior sea. You will never be thirsty. None of you will die of hunger. The black waters of Ashangi, the green waters and the blue waters of Tana. They will inundate the furrows. The earth will produce fruits in abondance. Oh, the Tana! The waters of victory. Victory, Tatek! "
"Victory! Victory Tatek!"
"I have been on the Nabro. I have plumbed the depths of the ocean. The ocean looks at me, and me, I can charm the waters with my magical eyes. I have won them over, I have charmed them like a sorcerer. I felt them twitch at my every blink. The waters of the seas shudder. I was there, fearless. Full of power because of that Voice which had spoken to me. I heard the cry arising from your throats; I put this power at your service. I lead you on the fields of battle. The usurpers, massacre them! Free yourselves from the scorn of the sons of bastards who have enslaved you. I have bewitched the sea. With a single gesture I have stopped the movement of the waves. On the Scheraro I have seen the Master of Knowledge in all of his splendor. He has shown me at my feet the vast plain where we shall construct Axoum, the celestial village. Axoum the pure. The Citadel built in the rock. Axoum, the Citadel of the Empire. The slab that pierces the clouds. The invincible fortress. Yes, invincible, Axoum. Victory!
The bodies of the dead have arisen from their tombs. Deep holes dug in the ravines. Chasms even in the waters of the abysses. Funereal recesses, graves dug in the loose rocks. Out of all the tombs the bodies of the dead arise and climb towards me. They gather together, they increase and multiply. They beg me to lead them up above. They want to find again peace and rest in Axoum-the-Great. The cursed City is dead. It has been tossed into the abysses. Into the pools of fire. The dragon has been hurled back into the abysses. Into the pools of fire. Seittane in chains has been tossed into the abysses. Into the pools of fire. See a great light rising in the sky. Death will be no more. Evil will be no more. The old world shall have disappeared from May Nefalis, from the grasslands of Az Daro. You are going to gaze upon mausoleums built in Axoum, the eternal City. It shines with the glory of the Master of Light."
"Victory! Victory Tatek!"
"The bones have reassembled themselves, the bodies are whole again. The crowd is there, immense, uncountable. From the pools of the swamps, on the clay plateaus of Kundelungu, I have seen you running towards me, hands outstretched, imploring. Recall the sacred Word when we have been sent to death in the steaming vegetation of the equator …"
Again Khédamawit trembled in his belly. Images that he had heard from Elizabeth’s mouth when she read to him the untied pages of his Father’s nettala. The words by means of which this voyage towards the mystery of his birth conveyed itself imposed themselves upon him gradually. Elsa had made the names of the regions around the equator come to the surface. A dream too distant, too quickly vanished. He had not yet succeeded in reestablishing the link among the plateaus of Kundelungu, the mysteries of his Father, and the words articulated by the visions of a Prophet led astray. "Elsa! Elsa! Come quickly. Come save me."
Already voices were swelling, growing, getting louder. A song being recited repeated the drone of the Prophet.
Johanès Johanès! You are the Priest annointed with holy oil
You will be my messenger to my chosen Land
You will be the beech tree which grows in the fields of Tigray
Your white bark will be the incorruptible beam
The wood which nothing can rot without my content
The arm will break the spinal column
And you will destroy damned cities beneath your feet.
Meanwhile the Cherub general had climbed up a small esplanade. His cheeks twitched, his hands fluttered. With his cavernous voice he hurled couplets:
Don’t cry don’t every cry
Here he has carried off the great Victory
The lion of the holy tribe
The offshoot of the new dynasty
He will open the Book of the seven seals
I have opened the Book and I have broken the seven seals
The Voice has arisen from every mouth
To call me by my powerful name
The crowd repeated in chorus the Prophet’s song:
Johanès Johanès! You are the Priest annointed with holy oil
You will be my messenger to my chosen land…
The arm will break the spinal column
And you will destroy damned cities beneath your feet.
The Cherub general imperturbably added:
Then I declare to you: you will carry the war
In the avenues of abomination you will wipe them out
The holy tribe has entered into its heritage
All the assembled enemies all the usurpers
Massacre them, strangle them and stamp on their corpses
For all eternity you are the tribe of the Master of Power
You exercise complete control over visible things
Those things upon which the Name has been called from the firmament
The Name which you will make known to all your enemies
See the nations which collapse like houses of sand
Their faces buried in the dust no longer twitch
The things that you will accomplish will be terrifying
Even the mountains have trembled before your restless hands
While he continued his peroration, and songs punctuated the curses of the Cherub general, Khédamawit had succeeded in slipping up to the group of women. They were surrounded by a cordon of guards wearing discarded rags. Cleverly he had been able to clear a path to the edge of the guarded circle. With his hand he made many desperate gestures to catch the attention of Elizabet Adâné. The paleness of her face wounded him to the heart. Her forehead had become pale, and her expression was one of great weariness. The thermal baths of the fountains of Debré Damo had helped her without making her entirely well.
With a furtive nod of her head, the young woman made him understand how much courage she still could show. She undoubtedly was enduring fatigue with great force of character, even if the isolation was making her harsher. With outstretched fingers, Khédamawit formed the number seven. Elizabet nodded discreetly with her head, a glimmer of fear in her look. She understood that Khédamawit had been shaken by the allusions that recalled the mysteries of the pages.
Before he had time to realize it, Khédamawit felt himself being prodded: a hand was digging into his ribs. He turned around swiftly, and discovered the cruel eyes of Abébé Hagos, the young boy who no longer spouted the verses of the Kébra Negast. He perfectly understood that Abébé would always dog his footsteps. And that he would be pitiless each time that Khédamawit tried to break the rules, or make his way into the group of women.
As the crowd shouted in confusion, the acolytes of the Prophet picked out groups for nocturnal operations. Khédamawit found himself in the same section as Melkamu Makuria and Abébé Hagos. The one who had been placed in charge was a former militiaman of the municipality of Adigrat. As he spoke he hiccuped, with a hissing in his voice that made all of his words more complicated, as though they were continually unable to produce a flow. The way Nuredin Ibrahima spoke was not odd. His name, of course, indicated that he had the misfortune of being Muslim. He had been hunted throughout the city when men saw that at the height of the famine he was surreptitiously selling them donkey meat, mixing it with a large amount of dressing made of cartilage and tendrons filled with the guts of cows that had died of starvation. The trickery might have gone on indefinitely if a prowler had not surprised Nuredin Ibrahima one night as he was leading a cart filled with the heads of dead asses, which he was going to throw in the dung pile. What a sacrilege to make Christians eat the putrid flesh of impure animals?
In ancient times the culprit would have been publicly accused and condemned to be drawn and quartered by horses, or stoned in the same dung pit. Only the fact that the war had begun at this moment saved Nuredin Ibrahima from being punished, but he was losing nothing by waiting. Khédamawit had guessed it the moment he saw him; he was unappealing and was going to die. With his large, broad mouth and very heavy puttees
hanging down to his feet, Nuredin Ibrahima was not going to be able to come out of this very well.
Evening was already approaching. The signal to depart was given. Just routine, the Cherubic general has assuured them. They left the Monastery by a tortuous rout. Khédamawit then caught a glimpse of Elizabet Adâné under a sickly eucalyptus tree.
He slipped over to her. The other members of the band were seated at a distance, comforting themselves with puffs of tschatté, which they were smoking in silence. Khédamawit looked at Elizabet anxiously. He approached the young woman. He touched her gently with his hand. Without a word. They stood there face to face. They forgot the time and the place. They were no longer arguing. They were no longer at odds. On the contrary, a complete calmness. They did not dare to embrace, in order not to break the sadness that had fallen on the world. They did not yet know that they were wretched. Or, if they knew it, they tried desperately to forget it.
Elsa was the first to squat down on her heels. She pushed Khédid to sit down next to her. She caressed his head. Her fingers lovingly smoothed his hair, which was bristly like shells. She sang a lullaby from her childhood. A song come down from the ages, which spoke of the power of love:
O you beloved in the sad night
I want to be in your mind
The light of an eternal morning
Me in each of your tears
And you in each of my dreams.
O you beloved the song has burst
Into my heart filled with your name
And your sad face imprints itself
on each joy smothered in my hand.
Sublime child of water lilies
In each of my gestures
Your name is a song of love
At the end of my fingers which make you reborn
You will find your face full of life
Your birth and your engendering
On the earth of my total death
When are hands shall be joined
and that we shall shall love each other
You my only
You my sole love
Khédamawit felt himself grow faint, as though he was going to dissolve in sobs, under an intense grief. He should not cry, not because it was against the rules, but in order to give support to Elsa. The song had moved him, and he was content to comfort Elsa’s heart.
"Life will never break us, sette lige. I know it and swear to you that it is so. We do not conceal the game of fate, but in this circle of death we must confront suffering until the end of the journey. We shall be strong, my beloved, you will see. What was said just now troubles me. Why these words about the Kundelungu? Have you been able to discover traces of these unknown lands?"
"Oh, Khédid! I so want to feel me near you. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to carry on."
"You must, Elsa. We have no other choice. Then I shall bring you back to Mother Soraya, who has been Mother to both of us. But tell me, have you read the pages again?"
"Some passages are still so obscure, with complicated handwritings. Here is what the text says"
An uninteresting land. The tamarinds of Degoma. But the dried up waters.
May Egzi Habihaire protect you, Alemaya! My name is relic on the Tissitat.
Your name is faithfulness.
Her name is Wichallé.
I have dreamed.
The dream was unreal beneath my eyelids.
We have fused: translucent bodies. Fused flesh.
Burning skins. I have become liquiified. O Egzi Habihiare, your name
blessed to the borders of the swamps of Kimpompo.
An attraction of shot (??)
Here are swamps and shot.
An uninteresting land.
I am going to die beneath foreign soil. Final curse. In the interest of others. For profits of which you know nothing.
Everything stops at the belly-button. And they die of hunger.
She will never be her mother. She will give birth to no children.
On the branches of the pomegranate tree thorns planted on red fingers.
Forbidden children. The law stipulated it.
The hand on the belly. You my child will you see Simien?
my love for you is scar on the chest.
The bush palpitate.
Water flows beyond Ras Dashan.
The holy year. The year of Markus.
The year of bellowing. The stones.
TheWollo! The Wollo!
The song of Kundelungu!
Khédamawit listened, his hands clasped on Elizabet Adâné’s shoulder. The words seemed to resound within him, with overwhelming echoes. Distant memories which brought back a recollection even more distant. He almost stammered.
"Elsa, my Father, would he also have gone off into these frog-filled swamps? Would he have engendered me in some anthills? What is this Kundelungu which comes up incessantly in all our travels?"
The silence weighed on their shoulders. Khédamawit looked at Elizabet Adâné’s belly discreetly, but in distress. By a natural reflex the young girl had put both hands on her belly. She had put her hands together, as though to support the child who was growing quietly. She smiled with a sigh of weariness. They felt that an event that transcended them had taken place. They summoned the energy to fight and fight again, to preserve the spark of life poured from their knotted guts. The child was going to grow and thrive in the madness of massacres. In the murderous madness of perverted brats, drunk on vile liquors. It would be a fire of expiation and purification. Men would say aloud that they still had wonders to achieve, since he will be born in inclement lands. For he was to bend destiny and history, and they would understand the will to live. He would wipe out abjection and fear. The miracle of love like a complete offering.
No more words were exchanged. They understood each other perfectly with their eyes and their looks. Their minds were intoxicated by the same dizziness. Irresistible forces united them in a misty twilight which floated over the rubble, over the debris of a Monastery in ruins.
While they were being carried away by mutual tenderness, leaves rustled behind the wall which they had just left. Khédamawit threw himself to the ground. He crawled towards the group of the ghostly militia man, Nuredin Ibrahama. Burning torches crackled in the wind under the eucalyptus. The Holy Priest Johanès passed by not far from there, looking weary. At his sides Khédamawit recognized the aggressive silouette of Abébé Hagos, who was explaining something inaudibly, with the gestures of a sleep-walker. Until the moment that he rejoined his own group, Khédamawit felt his heart beating swiftly. He arrived alsmot at the same moment as Abébé Hagos, whose downcast face made clear the anger and dislike with which he was going to be surrounded from now on. He promised himself that he would fight with all his strength, just as he was committed by placing his hand on the place where his child was growing, in the belly of his mother Elizabet Adâné. He approached Abébé and tried to murmur:
"This evening, shall we discuss the ancestral limits of the Empire?"
But Abébé threw him a poisonous look. Khédamawit did not let himself be cowed. He took his hand in a friendly manner. Abébé jumped, then held Khédamawit’s hand in his own. They were both quiet while Nuredin Ibrahima, in a cracked voice, laid out for them the plan to pillage farms. On the other side, twilight was settling over them. The ruins of stones were covered with fog. Night fell on a thick cloud.
6(from this point a very rough draft only)
A brief cracking sounded in a jet-black sky. The thick air was becoming unbreathable. One had to open one’s mouth wide to breathe a bit of coolness. Night expanded beyond its own limits. Khédamawit felt the oppressive stickiness which penetrated everything. Weary breathing rose from the sweating rocks. They came down from the mountain, following the mazes of fissures and crevices. They wanted to have the advantage of surprise, like marauders, but the fog had preceded them. It was so dense that they had to hold each other’s hands to avoid getting stuck between the steep slopes. The ground continued to rumble with muted sounds coming from ancient waterfalls on the basalt rocks.
The cracking sounds continued and intensified. Others followed, even more sinister. Suddenly, like a burst, the shower of hail came down vehemently in the night. Across the interstices of the shadows of the trees buffeted by the wind, the rain growled in the midst of green glimmerings bursting in the tense sky. Lightning flashed from one corner to the other. The falling hail mixed with the cold rain make the boughs of the trees smash against each other.
Melkamu Makuria seemed to be suffocating from the rain vapors. The effects of the drug were wearing off. They dissolved with the violence of the storm. All the accumulated suffering was flowing, and his head was on fire. He was imploring.
"Khédamawit Yemane, wendem’me, I don’t want to die yet."
"Who said anything to you about dying?" Khédamawit replied, crushing his hand to make him feel his presence more vividly.
"This world is not ours," babbled Melkamu, suddenly panic-stricken. "This world has rejected us since we were born."
"And the victory of the Empire? And the glory of Tigray?"
"To what Empire are you referring there, son of my Mother? Walls are lined up in front of us. The rain hammers us with stones and straps. Ramparts are erected that our hands do not dare to challenge. And you speak to me of Glory?"
The leader Nuredin Ibrahima was shouting for his small, scattered group to reassemble. Rain water filled his mouth, thickening his voice. His words were only cluckings. His torn boots squished in the mud. The gusts of rain now punctured the approaching dawn. A heavy dawn under the eucalyptus and acacias with soft foliage. The thick drops grew more intense and multiplied like powerful spells. Shouts were suddenly raised, expelled from invisible bodies. The swaying of the earth under intermittent hooting. Melkamy Makuria continued to murmur.
"We have already accepted every abomination, but this horror which comes from impiety?"
"You want to construct the Empire in all its splendor. Show us now the courage of your People! Then you have not been nourished at your Mother’s breast on execrable fluids?"
"Don’t talk that way, son of my Land. Do not condemn me with hateful words," Melkamu begged. Your voice is formidable in the rain. Tell me why, wendem’me ! Tell me, speak to me. Don’t stop speaking to me, otherwise the rain may try to carry me away."
His terror was frightening. Khédamawit held him by the arm while thick drops fell from his tangled hair.
"To make the limits of probability recede," Khédamawit said impassively. "The infamy of a time like no other, since man first stepped with his sacrilegious feet on the sands of the Valley of death. And death set out to pursue us into our last hideaways. It came hurling down from steep slopes to annihilate us. Don’t cry any more. Children of the vast earth. Never cry again."
Shouting broke out continually. It rang in their ears. Their shoulders grew heavy. The leader, Nuredin Ibrahima, exhausted from having been yelled at so much, had begun singing a funereal dirge in a rhythm filled with sadness. Hailstones punctuated the rumbling of the thunderstorm. Then they heard a loud, terrifying cry. The tornado itself was held back by the gush of foam. A body was buried in the ruts of the torrents. Nuredin Ibrahima, stabbed in the chest, bellowed with death rattles. A delirious, fulminating voice rose up near them.
"Die, Ibrahima! Die, abjection of Nuredin Ibrahima. He made us eat filthy donkeys. May he perish along with the stinking corpses!"
Khédamawit did not have time to understand the scene. It took place so quickly that he felt himself propelled ahead. He waved his hands and arms without being able to come upon a solid object he could get hold of. The rain was whipping about still more violently. His face was shaken by with huge forms which moved about, smashing the shadows of the piled up rocks. He stumbled on the roots of uprooted trees. He waded about in the muddy ruts. He was moved as though by a powerful hand pushing ahead of him. Cries of pain clanged around him, pushing into his eyes, drunk with rain. Other bodies sank behind him. The whole earth was collapsing in a thunderous crash. He cried out a name. "Elsa."
Suddenly the night was torn by a terrifying explosion. The shadows seemed cut by a knife, à ras des crêtes buried still in the clouds. A drowsiness of fear had seized him. The giant shadow of the Magus Nefadir rose up before him. His daughter Martha was illuminated as though surrounded by a halo of light. She was wearing a dress spotted with flowers. Her hair, hanging down her neck, was tied with a ribbon. She was magnificently beautiful, like a wonder that fades as soon as it has been perceived. She mingled with the radiant, dancing, fitful gleamings.
The hallucination became clear. The outlines of the hords surging upon Adigrat. The heavy panting, like that of wounded buffaloes. Bodies were falling heavily as gun shots mixed obscenely with the rumbling of thunder. In the fury of a muddy dawn, which was battling laboriously to triumph over the night and the tornado. Jostling shadows, staggering everywhere. Those who were firing were visible only in the interstices of a morning covered with fog. And when the dawn exploded in a sky grey towards the west, scarlet towards the east, it was streaked with thick horizontal streaks in the reflections of the clouds. The rain stopped immediately, vanquished by the dawn. Then an atrocious day revealed itself to his shocked eyes.
Very near Khédamawit Yemane Elizabet Adâné was standing. He had not noticed her. She was still and stiff. Her mouth open at the upheaval. Khédmawit held on to her neck. He uttered a groaning exorcism, anguish so gripped him. "Open your, eyes, Elsa. Look at the day! Look at the sun streaming over the mountains, with the last tears of the rain, as far as distant Begemder. Elsa, watch the light splatter the land of Tigray. The light which quivers when it rubs the rocks."
A column passed in a burst of light. It carried with it the unrecognizable body of the Holy Priest Johanès. The Balabat had given him the haircut of a comic, pathetic kobbé. He was rigid in death, and the rain waters fell from his face like tears of affliction. The vision vanished into the caves of the mountain.
On Elizabet’s lips her smile of immortal woman was fixed in a convulsed grin. Femme fatale. A small, damp down of rain trembled around her nose. An illumination which made Khédamawit understand that men always have only one necessity to obey: to live. And to continue living. How pain here seemed to him illusory!
In the road strewn with crumpled leaves, cries and confusion. Frightened cries, shouts that rose up from tramplings in the sludge. Smells rose from furrows in which the disemboweled caracasses of mules were heaped up. The road seemed so long, so endless that it lost itself among the peaks of the mountains. Nevertheless, it had to end. The distances became longer, spread out. And the day seemed never to want to end.
Khédamawit Adâné was now carrying Elizabet Adâné in his arms. She was so light that Khédid believed he could leap with her without ever touching the sandy ground. He longer trembled. No longer looked to see the day end. But his feet were as heavy as lead. Each effort to life them tore groans out of him. Death had taken up residence in the interstices of the morning. At random it struck faces, foreheads covered with mud. Very much like stigmata of dilapidation. Gesticulating corpses. Bodies folded over, splashing and twisting grotesquely. They were stretched out in the death of space and the moment.
Torpor. Flood. In front of eyes filled with the tears of rain. Ghosts. Simulacra. They rose up with wooden masks on their heads. They sniggered with hollow voices. Things emptied of all matter, of all life. Spread out on the roads of suffering.
The blasts began again. But this time they swept under the trees. And yet the crowd meandered, and grew. A huge crowd, hurrying from no one knew where, was swelling. They lined up facing those who had for centuries enjoyed exclusive privileges for exploiting other men. Making use of their muscles, their bodies. Reducing them to the role of puppets. Burning sands strewn with human remnants. The rebirth of the world proclaimed by the Seer Nefadiri. The scraps of bleached skeletons. Would the broken bones put themselves back together to create new beings, endowed with voracious feelings and passions? Khédamawit tried in vain to open his eyes, as though his eyelids had been glued to the sockets. The eyeballs pricked him with all the sulfur of calcified tears. An acid juice that burned with a dry biting. A taste of decomposed salt. There he was, facing an unformed universe. A sky in the shape of a cross: the cut stone of Axoum.
Memories drove through his head. He glimpsed in a brilliant day the mystery of the Father whom he had so loved, and who had gone off one evening behind the dense shadows of the mountains. His belly shivered in the throes of an indefinable pain. He called upon that Mother whom he had never known, and who had bequeathed to him an excessive passion. Abundant light over the swamp.Then some words written on the leaves of an old notebook. The chain of villages and hamlets that he had imagined in the haze of his mind. They dotted the road from Kimbembé all the way to that lake Changalele in Biano. Names whose consonants intoxicated him sometimes when he dreamt of being an abandoned child. At the limits of the world of the living.
As mementos he had left only some ivory tusks which ended up in a strange house, before it was set ablaze by angry soldiers. And the Emperor did not save it from the apocalypse. The desperate flight in the area around Lake Tana: Khédamawit ran like a sinner hunted by infernal demons. His long nights of wandering through the hollows of fissures and stone ravines. The putrid meat of donkeys who died of hunger. He fought for them with the birds and dogs preying on the corpses. Then the providential caravan of camel drivers along the slopes of Simien. The dusty trails across the gorges and passes of
Ras Dashan. The bleached limestone buildings of Makallé; they sizzled, and his eyes, dried out by tears, were no longer able to cry. The steep slopes of Wikro. The house of Ras Taféla. Mêttè Soraya. The heat of love. And everything suddenly collapsing on a rainy morning.
Meteors seemed to emerge from the crowd, climbing to the sky and exploding in the midst of bundles of multi-colored flames. The landscape shone above the mimosas. Gleaming light was reflected in his eyes, burned by fears.
"Go, People of Glory! Go, People of Victory!" the crowd yelled in a burst of madness.
But, on the other side of the street, corpses blocked the passageways. Khédamawit remained firmly fixed there, in a state of boundless excitation. Panic weighed heavily on him now. Yes, Elsa and he: their fused nudity in the inexhaustible swarming of uterine energy. To be born to life. "And the sun is the superb cry of our newborn baby. Do not cry, Elsa. The breath and the effort of our ground flesh. Your body torn from top to bottom. Your belly is the immense ocean with translucent waters. Sweetness, gentleness! Your people born in the great plasmatic river. Its death strewn under the thick foliage of the plane trees. Its placental death. Elsa!"
They stopped there to contemplate the bodies that no longer moved, that no longer spoke. That would not speak any more about the path of the sun, or about planting in the plain. The child moved violently in the belly of Elizabet Adâné. In the belly of Khédamawit Yemane. He felt his heart beating again. He no longer knew if it was his own. The one that he had carried in his breast since birth.
He tried to speak, to articulate sounds. He wanted to get an appeal out. But his voice had become hoarse in his dry mouth. He sorted out the bodies. He searched to discover the gestures which would reveal to him the other face of death. The other face of destiny. Not ever. He would never lift his feet again to put one in front of the other to measure distance. But other men were going to come who would make huge leaps, because they, they had live this total death of the legs which would no longer walk. Never again.
All along the roadway, rivulets. Lifeless bodies. Crumbled basalt. They accumulated. They piled up. In heaps. They multiplied as though fermented by death. By the leaven of death. Death with enzymes that make hope seethe. The boiling point of profuse suffering in the veins of desires.
Open hands seemed ready to gather peace. The sediments of all the fears and terrors. The banquets of reconciliation. The bread of love. Hands with fingers spread open. They were still looking to receive friendly handshakes. The succulence of fresh springs to quench humanity’s thirst for hope. Deep palms turned towards the gift of death. The silently begged: "Whoever you are, help! Relieve us from our death, above all from ignominy. Cloth yourselves in our human forms and exist in the same death as we!"
Cries could be heard. Hideous voices in the belly. Khédamawit’s stomach churned, as though he was going to vomit the juices of the withered pancreas. Livers that exploded their acid and bile of anger. However no hand moved. Faces said to him: "What wonderful things still remain to achieve joyfully!" The field that had been plowed in which no seed grew. The banana tree from which no drageons sprouted above adventitious roots." Figures and superimposed figures.
Hypnotized looks at immobile clouds. Incredulous at the whiteness of a rain-soaked day. Lost looks that did not dare to break the silence. Faded eyes, around which gleams of exasperation still floated. They were already cleansed of all lascivious embraces, frothy nights, sick effluvia. However, an inexorable power emanated from these eyes. An immense strength. Something like the very sense of immortality. Something that extended itself into the realm beyond death. For man never entirely dies. And that would be announced in letter of blood: Liberty. Man finally found again. Man finally revived. Delivered from his almost inextinguishable agonies. Delivered from himself. Man finally restored to his original land. Purified of every thought, of the exhalations of the crowds crushed by pain. Sewers bordering the painted building of the Balabat. The sad land, soiled with brooklets of black excrement. Khédamawit had never seen shacks shine with so much plaster and chalk. With so much white chalk. They were entirely whitewashed with a lively whiteness. The eyes of the dead protected him from his own fear. He knew that Elizabeth and he were going to be saved.
When he came to his senses, Elizabet Adâné was beginning to move her arm slowly. Her eyelids. Her long eyelids quivered imperceptibly. They blinked so gently that they seemed to refuse to allow her to be startled by the sun and the explosions.
The rain had stopped only a moment earlier. There they were, in the midst of anonymous corpses. Men who had nothing at all but a single name: that of death which makes one free. True identity. The name of Freedom. Shadows laid out, who would have been able to conquer the world. For that they had made such an impression on Khédamawit. He had thought that he understood that life would never again have meaning, even if he tried to accomplish something… Something unbelievable and superhuman. Something which transcended life itself, which wiped it out, annihilated it, went beyond it or even denied its very essence.
He propped himself up strongly and forced himself to maintain his balance with his bruised elbows and knees. In this manner he advanced into the middle of stretched out corpses, smeared with blood, filth, vomit, and phlegm. A voice filled his throat with a painful cramp. Always the same voice, which did not want to come out of his mouth, but which filled his ears, tongue, and even his uvula. All the orifices and all the cracks by means of which he could make the peace of the universe penetrate into him. And suddenly the voice burst violently in his face: "do you know the weight of the earth? Do you know the weight of suffering? The density of all those suns that have no dimension?" He heard himself reply, but indistinctly: "no, not these harmless mornings, their faded illusions on coagulated foam!"
At the level of his shoulders, a heavy breath: the flight of birds of prey. Drunk with the blood that they had only scented. And already the bitter stench of sweat, of exuded bile that poured through all the alleys. A thick vapor of happiness and rebirth.
The outline of heavy women on the horizon. They were advancing at the edge of day with a solemn pace, as though perched on a stiff rope. They were unaware that the stars were falling. Nettala floating in the wind hugged their enormous breasts, sustaining bellies that weighed all the weight of choked poverty. They were no longer surprised by anything. The threnody of grief transformed them into mysterious priestesses whose movements were dictated by sinister oracles. An aura of brilliant light enveloped them in a diaphanous circle. A halo of stars in the mist of death.
The village had become so flimsy in comparison. So flimsy that it might have flown off with the ragged clouds that were gradually breaking up behind the mountains. Throughout the scraps of songs hammered out by hiccoughs, a canticle of distant liturgies. To exalt the power of men who would not die. No! Death did not defeat them. It will never again defeat them. For a long time they had been keeping the watch, fearful of the slightest premonitions.
Breaches through which evil might infiltrate. But to see them displayed in all the shamelessness of swollen flesh, fear itself could no longer be more than a construct of language. Impalpable smells. Walls which stood out in a vertical light, blanketed with dust. Winds that shouted with fear, sensations, and anguish. Rushing water that eroded the rocks. Ah! Despoiled potholes!
Trails of fire traced a path where the vultures were going to pass. Rapacious with black plumage. Their flight scarred the sky. They were like scratches on the smooth bodies of banana trees. An entire sky lined with stripes. Lacerated with thorns, with hoof marks. And birds of prey wheeled around the faded skeletons. In the thick of the day. The day is heavy upon the overturned shadows of the Balabat. Heavier than the uncrossable ditches. Heavier than the barbed-wire paths, towards ethereal lands.
Then the crossroads. Khédamawit and Elizabet entered into the central square of the city without knowing it. At the midpoint of death. At the midpoint of passing away. At the very center of the invisible. The eye of the cyclone. Life fermented there, like dough in leaven. Flat silhouettes moved about there without any reality. They glided rapidly among the plump fir trees. They did not want to slip on the claw marks made in the ground by the rain.