Gash Wondimu: Excerpt From Short Story by Agazit Abate
The resting place of the dead is respected here. Straight lines, manicured grass, clean concrete and untouched graves. Everything has its place. There is an order to things here. People die and are buried after careful planning. Death lays neat, it doesn’t pile up here.
You know, I hear that they even keep bodies in walls. I can’t imagine that. Bodies should go back into the soil, but what do I know.
You remember when Seifu told us that they were removing bodies from Yosef to build roads in Addis. His family had to collect the bones of his mother, father, and two brothers. The dead are overwhelming the new city there.
You always did have bad timing. Looking back on things, I think we both did. Maybe our whole generation had bad timing, maybe that was our problem.
You slipped into this earth the same way you slipped out, unexpected and displaced. I remember when you told me that your mother didn’t know she was pregnant with you until you began kicking. According to her calculations, you were supposed to arrive during the bright yellow blooms of adey abeba. She believed that you were a boy and that you would be born on new years’ day. She was only half right. You came early, during the rains. She was in a neighbors’ house across town and had to rush home to have you.
It was 1940. Your mother believed that even though the Italians occupied Ethiopia, her home was free. She wanted to make sure that you were born on your grandfathers’ land, that your umbilical cord would be buried on that piece of earth. She didn’t make it home, but she kept the umbilical cord and buried it where she believed you belong. She said that the soil was soft, that she didn’t have to dig, and that the earth swallowed it. She knew that the land accepted you, that the resistance would succeed, and that the Italians would be leaving Ethiopia.
We spent decades talking, and you die six months before things start getting interesting. Before protests and revolutions, before leaders fled, were overthrown, and killed. You died before our own two months of silence. Before change took place on our land and before everything stayed the same.
I had to have conversations without you, sometimes with other people and sometimes with myself, sometimes at this spot, wondering what you would say.
It’s cyclical. Now is the time for fire. It will burn out and we will deal only with what is left behind. Nothing is new.
There was so much that we could have spoken about. The world was anxious for a time and you missed it.
I’m an old man now. I’m older than I was when you died four years ago. You know what I mean by that. It feels like yesterday, but somehow my body remembers it differently.
Walking up this hill to see you is getting harder and harder each time I come here. The landscape is crisp and unrelenting and you are resting at the top of what might as well be Entoto. This is a place for young people to come visit old people who have died. Thank God, Tsion decided to give you an upright tomb. Some of them lay flat in the ground. If yours was like that, where would I rest my back? There is no tree to give you shade, no base to give my body comfort. I would have to bring a chair up here. Imagine, carrying a chair all the way up here.
I look older too. I get senior citizen discounts without even asking. I went on the bus last week and paid the full fare. The bus driver looked at me and said, “You know you only have to pay fifty cents.” I didn’t understand until I sat down and a man whose body has been lived in longer than the emperor, looked at me and nodded his head as if to say, welcome.
But, I don’t mind getting old. I like it when people call me Gash Wondimu.
You woke up every day of your life for seventy years until you didn’t.
God, let my end be beautiful.
I never understood it when you said that. I didn’t want to talk about death, especially our own. But I guess things have changed.
Ashenafi died yesterday. He was sick and it was expected. It seems like every few months we get a call that somebody is gone.
Tsion and Selam are at the house, cooking. Our wives are becoming professional chefs for death. I stayed in the bedroom until I left the house so that I wouldn’t absorb the smell of cooking onions, a scent that enters through your eyes, exits your pores, only to embrace your cloths. I don’t know why I cared though. I left the house only to come see you and I doubt you can smell me from where you are.
They are beautiful women, our wives. They are beginning to look more like twins than sisters. When I look at Selam, I see her face is deceptively clear and only when I am very still, do I notice the slight wrinkles and heavy steps that whisper the stories of all of her years.
They have decided to stop dying their hair. When I asked Selam about it she said, “We are not fooling anybody. Let it be what it will be.” It is only her grey hairs that match mine. She has aged far more gracefully than I.
After four years, Tsion is still wearing black. Everybody has tried to convince her to stop, but she won’t listen. She is as stubborn as the day you left her. The kids have pleaded with her; they don’t even understand wearing black for one year. She says, “It is my right. He was my husband. Besides, there is no shortage of people to mourn.”
They got in a fight last month when they wanted to come see you for your birthday. Tsion didn’t remember the day and they argued that she will always remember the day you died, but never the day you were born. They questioned a culture that makes that possible.
I pray that I die like you. What’s the likelihood that it could happen to me too? I hope there’s no quota amongst friends.
Samri came home today with a handout, bold red letters on the front, The Revolution Next Time. I opened it and there were excerpts from The Communist Manifesto and The Little Red Book coupled with a quote from Malcolm X, George Jackson, and some man I’ve never heard of.
I asked her why she had it and she said, “A guy on the street was handing out flyers and talking about revolution.” I asked her why she took the flyer and if she believed in what he was talking about. She said, “I was just trying to be nice, nobody was taking his flyers. Communism is just a system, like democracy, I don’t know anything about it.”
I could have told her then that there was a time when her father and mother believed in that system. That our country played a violent game of who’s the most communist. That almost every adult who helped raise her was involved in this game. That we fought for it in our country and we held on in exile until defeats beat it out of us. I could have told her how her uncle and aunt really died.
Instead I told her to eat, that she was looking thin and tired.
I’ll tell her those stories another time.
The restaurant is closing down. It stands on the corner of the street like a skeleton, bare bones and a “for rent” sign taped to the window. I never went back after you died. Whenever I drove by there, I would slow down and look inside. Everything was the same. The cracks on the white walls were visible even from the car. The waitresses wore the same uniforms, a pink dress and a white apron, and the wooden chairs with their worn out green and brown upholstery were still there and were mostly empty. The same three paintings decorated the walls, the little girl in a field of grass, icy mountain tops alongside a lake, and a portrait of Frank Sinatra. This was the place we came to when we wanted to talk away from people who speak our language.
Every time I passed it, I was hoping that the waitresses would be different. I imagined that I would walk in and be greeted by people who didn’t know us. I would sit at our table and order your lunch.
Hello. Yes I’m ready. I would like black coffee and a cheese omelet. I know it’s not breakfast time, but I only like eggs, everything else is too heavy. I need the coffee to be fresh and hot, very fresh and extra hot. And I don’t need the potatoes that come with the omelet, too much food on one plate. Please, don’t bring me the potatoes.
But the waitresses who served us were always there. And I never went back.
I always knew that we would die here.
I remember when you came back from Ethiopia after being away for thirty-two years. I recognized that look on your face because it’s what I saw in the mirror five years before that, when I went back. Do you remember what you said when we were at the restaurant? You ran into a woman who lived in your neighborhood when you were growing up. She said you would have been killed like the others if you had stayed. That it was good that you left. As she walked away, you heard her whisper, “but then again, at least you would have died in your country.” We talked about everything in great detail. But of that trip, you didn’t say much.
It’s different, the city is different, everything is different.
I knew what you meant. It’s not ours anymore. It’s not what we remember.
You realized what I discovered when I went back. The memories of the place that sustained us all of these years exist only in our minds. We didn’t talk about going back after that. We had to fight even harder to reclaim our memories after that.
I’m sick. The doctor says that I have six months to live. She actually gave me a timeline for the rest of my days on this earth. That was three months ago.
Selam wants us to go to Debre Libanos and get tsebel. She had a dream that we were at the monastery where you come to live and to die. She said that we sat with the monks, surrounded by a quiet interrupted only by echoing prayer chants. My eyes were closed and my lips moved in silence to prayer. She believes that her dream is a sign that we must go there for holy water.
The kids want us to stay here. They’re worried that I’ll die there without them, and that the distance will prevent them from visiting my grave.
I can plan my death now. I can die in my country if I choose to. Or I can stay here and die in the land where I grew old, where we waited for change, where death came instead. There’s no room for my body in Addis and this land has never been mine. But then again, it wasn’t yours either.
Where do immigrants go when they die?
I should get going. The sun is beginning to set and the clouds are coming in. It looks like it may rain. I don’t know if I’ll be able to come here after today. I think we’ll see each other soon. Maybe we’ll meet in the city we knew, in the country that bore us. Maybe we’ll meet back home through the memories of the land that sustained us.
*Gash is a title given to older men as a sign of both respect and endearment in Amharic.
Agazit Abate is the daughter of immigrants and storytellers. "Gash Wondimu" is inspired by the men and women who raised her, the country they left behind, and the lives they built with the memories they took with them. Agazit received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in International Development Studies and Masters Degree in African Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. She works on projects related to cultural production and environmental sustainability.