Azalech leaned on my outstretched
arm for leverage, kneeled on the back seat and peered through the rear window. I
shifted forward in my seat and turned around.
Mother and Mrs. Aga were advancing
slowly toward the parking area. Mother had one hand on Mrs. Aga's back and
carried the Enrico's box with the other. Smudged with custard and pastry flakes,
the box was clumsily covered with the bakery's torn wrapping paper.
They walked past our car and
stopped out of earshot behind Mrs. Aga's Fiat 132. Mrs. Aga opened the truck
and stretched her arms toward the cake. Mother shook her head and lowered the
box into the trunk.
"You should hear them talk,"
Azalech said. "Mayé speaks to Mrs. Aga in Amharic and French and Mrs. Aga
responds in English and Amharic. Somehow they manage to communicate."
Mrs. Aga peered through our
windshield and smiled. "Good morning, Mrs. Aga," Azalech exclaimed, waving
energetically. Mother and Mrs. Aga kissed on the cheeks several times.
An army jeep advanced up the slope
behind Mrs. Aga.
I got out of the back seat as
mother walked towards us and opened the door. Mrs. Aga navigated her Fiat past
the parked Mercedes, Renaults, Toyotas, Peugeots and Volkswagens and merged into
the wide and winding street adjacent to Emperor Menelik's lofty palace grounds.
A young man in a khaki shirt
stared at us from the jeep's passenger seat. He signaled the uniformed driver
to stop right in front of mother's Peugeot. With as much dignity as she could
muster, mother quickly climbed into her seat and told me to get in. The young
man hopped out of the jeep and leaned on our front fender with his army boot. He
followed me with his eyes as I climbed in the front seat and closed the door.
"Alla Stazione, I presume?"
he shouted. Mother's hand shook as she started the ignition. I turned around
unwittingly and looked at Azalech. She pursed her lips and gave me a knowing
"Azalu," he said in a melodious
voice. Azalech stared impassively.
Aster, how do you do?" he said, bowing sardonically.
Unable to restrain herself any
longer, mother shifted the gear to first and looked up. "Susenyos. How's your
"Very much at peace in her
amnesia. You should visit her more often," he said loudly with a big grin on his
Flustered, mother shifted the gear
back and forth between first and reverse. Susenyos removed his foot from the
fender. "If you don't visit her soon, she may forget you completely."
Mother backed up the car.
"Abayé Aster, I need to
speak to you," Susenyos shouted.
Mother sped past a few parked
"Ciao, Alla Stazione!"
Susenyos said, as we drove past him.
I was baffled. "I am certain I
never met this man before. Do you know why --"
"Parliamone di questo dopo che
abbiamo accompagnato il bambino,"
mother said in a near hostile tone. She pressed the gasoline pedal hard and
swerved into the street, veering dangerously past an oncoming truck.
I was unwilling to be silenced
this time around. " I don't think he knows that Alla Stazione is not a
"Yonatan, per favore. No
I turned away abruptly, unable to
control my tears. I had suddenly recalled her voice from my hazy childhood when
she called my name in Amharic. Yonatan. Yonatan. Yonatan. As far back as I could
remember everyone that I knew had called me Giònata.
"Mayé, do you know that
Gashé Yonatan has a daughter called Aster who looks exactly like Emama
when she was my age?" Azalech interjected.
Mother did not respond. She made a
sharp left and wound down a narrow and steep road. Azalech leaned forward in her
seat and tapped mother's shoulder.
" Mayé. Do you know that
Gashé Yonatan has a daughter called --"
"I heard you the first time,
Azalech," mother interrupted.
"But I want to know what Alla
Stazione means," Azalech persisted. "Why did Gashé Susenyos call
Gashé Yonatan 'Alla --'"
"Azalech!" Mother burst out.
I turned sharply toward Azalech.
"It's not a name!" Mother kept her eyes on the road.
"Alla Stazione simply means
'at the station,' in Italian," I explained.
"At the station? At the station?
Why would Gashé Susenyos look at you funny and say Alla --?"
"Azalech!" Mother yelled.
We drove quietly past the
Ambassador Theatre and merged into Churchill Avenue.
"Poor Mrs. Aga was devastated,"
mother groaned. "The soldier on duty crushed each layer of Ato Aga's
birthday cake with his baton."
"Why would he do that?" I asked.
"To make sure we don't sneak in
weapons or secret messages to our reactionary relatives," Azalech said without a
trace of irony.
"Reactionary?" mother exclaimed,
braking for the red light. "How dare you call --" Her fury evaporated instantly.
She slumped in her seat and groaned.
We waited for the light to turn
green. She pumped the gasoline pedal impatiently. A young woman in rags
appeared on my side and lifted her tattered blanket, revealing an infant in her
arms. "Mister, please, mister. Change? Change? Change?" She said in English,
almost pressing her face against the glass.
Mother picked up some coins from
the ashtray and handed them to me.
"Here," she sighed. I rolled down
my window and gave the woman the coins.
"Mister, thank you," the beggar
continued in English.
"No, you should thank the lady.
She's the one who gave you the money," I replied in Amharic. Astonished, the
beggar leaned forward and looked directly at mother. "Eregn,
I thought he was a ferenj. He's Ethiopian after all."
Nonplussed, mother shifted the
gear and slammed the gasoline pedal as soon as the light turned green.
We dropped off a reluctant Azalech
back at home and headed out to get some cattle feed for mother's dairy cows.
Since her husband's imprisonment, she has been supporting herself by selling
milk to the neighborhood.
We drove past the university in
silence. A large tank blocked the entrance, it's barrel aimed at the compound.
She turned right into a side
street past a church and came to a complete stop. A large group of young and
teenage girls in burgundy uniforms filled the street. Mother pointed further
down the slope. "Azalu's school is down there," she said wistfully. "But she's
been suspended for a few days," she added, matter-of-factly.
"She's a feisty little girl, isn't
she?" I said.
"That she is. It gets her into
trouble. Frequently. But at the moment, I'd rather deal with her mishaps.
Nobody is going to break her spirit. Do you want to see where you were born?"
I was taken aback.
"It's around the corner. You will
also meet my younger sister, your...aunt," she said as if thinking out aloud.
"I'd like that. I'd like that very
We drove past an Armenian
restaurant on our left and turned right onto a steep cobble-stoned lane. At the
top of the lane, she turned right and navigated past numerous potholes. She
stopped the car in front of a large gate covered with a pair of rusty corrugated
iron sheets. The gate opened as soon as she blew the horn. An elderly woman,
with a black-trimmed shawl wrapped around her head and shoulders, stepped out of
the compound. She bowed at my mother and walked towards her.
"Elfnesh, how do you do," mother
"How do you do, my lady," Elfnesh
"Is he around?" mother said,
looking up at Elfnesh.
"No, he left early this morning.
These days he goes out early in the morning and doesn't return till late at
night. In the last few weeks, he's rarely lunched with her," Elfnesh grumbled.
"Is she up?" Mother said, lowering
"Yes, she's already had her
breakfast. You will find her in the salon, busy with her work."
Bekele," Elfnesh called out. "Ato Bekele!"
A wizened grey-haired man with
almost no wrinkles appeared and opened the gates.
Mother bowed to Ato Bekele
and accelerated into the compound. The charred remains of what must have been an
extremely large tree were piled on the lawn in the middle of the overgrown
garden. We parked next to a cellar entrance.
Elfnesh escorted us into a dark
"My lady, your sister and a guest
are here to see you," she said speaking very slowly. I looked around the
spacious salon and the adjoining dining room but could not locate my aunt.
Unframed posters of Ché Guevara, Sékou Touré, V.I. Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Malcolm
X, Mao Tse-tung and Karl Marx were pinned haphazardly on the walls. A large
black and white framed photograph of a portly middle-aged man in a somber suit
hung above the fireplace. Several framed photographs of austere ancestors in
traditional court attire were stacked against the dining room wall.
Then, I became aware of the
clicking of knitting needles right behind me.
Crouched on a sofa was a woman who
looked 10 or 15 years older than my mother, concealed behind the opened door.
Wrapped in a black shawl, she was knitting what appeared to be a man's sweater
at ferocious speed.
"Zewditu, how are you feeling
today?" Mother inquired, leaning back and kissing her sister on the cheek.
Abayé Zewditu smiled and nodded, all the while looping the yarn around her
"I better go to the pharmacy
before they close. We're running low on her medication," Elfnesh said.
"I'll instruct Malefya to serve
tea. She should be here shortly," Elfnesh said. She bowed and exited, closing
the door behind her. We were now shrouded in near darkness.
Mother grabbed a stool from across
the room and placed it next to her sister. I sat on the sofa next to my aunt.
She then caressed Abayé
Zewditu's serene face, searching for any kind of recognition.
I've brought my firstborn to visit you. He had just turned four when we last saw
him. He's here to meet us. You remember him, don't you?"
Zewditu coiled some thread on her index finger and continued to knit.
"How many times did we secretly
talk about this day, you and I? Please try. Please remember. Grandfather is
long gone. He would have been the only other person who could have shared this
with us. Of course, Yonatan didn't come during the best of times but no matter.
Even if he came before all of this mess, I don't think there ever would have
been a right time. After 32 years of marriage, how would Bekerie have reacted if
he discovered that I had had another child? That I had a whole other life
before our marriage; that I had kept him in the dark about my child and former
life. He was a good and loving husband. He would have been extremely hurt. Would
have been? As long as he doesn't share our brother's fate, Zewdie, he's bound
to find out, in or out of prison. I'm sure there'll be a busybody or two who
will pass the news on to him in no time.
Zewditu leaned forward and grabbed a glass of water from the coffee table. She
took a sip and licked her lips with her wet tongue in quick and successive
strokes. Refusing mother's assistance, Abayé Zewditu replaced the glass
and resumed her knitting.
"It's of no use. She's no longer
with us," mother said, ruefully.
Ambient light dawdled through the
opening dining room door, shedding luster on the silver frames of the stacked
family portraits. The muted afternoon glow softened the grimace of the
patriarch who appeared to be guarding his forlorn kin huddled behind him.
Malefya emerged through the door carrying an ornately engraved Middle Eastern
copper tray with a teapot, two cups and some qateña
on it. . She set the tray down in front of us but Abayé Zewditu kept her
eyes glued on her needles. Mother tapped the tray with her long fingernails and
made exaggerated gestures as Malefya smiled and walked out of the room, closing
the door behind her. Once again, we were entombed in near darkness.
"Poor Malefya," mother said, "she
contracted meningitis while she was in her village a few years ago. By the time
her family brought her for treatment to the city she had already lost all of her
"It's too dark in here. I don't
know how Zewdie manages to knit. Yonatan, please turn on the table lamp next to
I pulled the cord dangling under
the dusty oval lampshade but the dim bulb illuminated only my immediate
"Now that Zewdie is no longer
aware of things, her whole household has turned topsy-turvy. See this tray?"
Mother chuckled, tracing the curved edge with her fingers, "it used to be on
that stand on the mantle up there. Right below her husband's photograph."
I turned and looked up at the
folded stand leaning against the chimney.
"She bought it in Jerusalem seven
years ago when she went on a pilgrimage several months right after the Six Day
War," mother explained.
Suddenly, Abayé Zewditu
flung her knitting needles on the coffee table and screamed, "Carabiniere!
Carabiniere!" looking straight at me. Mother quickly caught the teacup rolling
off the tray and put her free arm around her sister.
"Shhhhhhh. Zewdie, he's not
a carabiniere. He's your nephew. He's my son. Don't you remember him? Do you
think your own nephew, my son, could be a carabiniere? Shhhhhh!"
Zewditu clasped her hands tightly and began to rock in her chair. Mother set
the teacup down on the tray and handed Abayé Zewditu her knitting
needles. My aunt re-inserted the needle into a few stray loops.
"Emama," I said, choked
"Shhhhhhh! Come on, Zewdie don't
say that. He might think you mean it," mother pleaded.
"Emama, why did you abandon
me on the train? Why didn't you come with me to Italy?"
"Yes, why didn't you keep me or
come with me at the end of the war."
"Go with you." mother repeated.
"So that's how your father explained what happened."
"He didn't. That's the problem. I
only know that I was born in this country…"
"Over there, in the bedroom behind
that Chinese man," mother said dryly, pointing at Mao Tse-tung's poster on the
"I only know," I continued
emphatically, "that I was born in this country and that I ended up in Italy
without a mother!"
carabiniere, vaffanculo!" Abayé Zewditu shrilled, tossing the ball
of yarn across the room.
Mother grabbed and restrained
Abayé Zewditu's hands.
"He should have told you how we
separated," mother said and got up to retrieve the yarn.
Zewditu's nimble fingers raced up to speed and clicked the needles at their
"Two days before the last Italian
train left Addis Ababa," mother said, pacing by the bedroom wall, "Apollonio's
friend, Colonel Dacomo, brought a message from your father an hour or two after
the dusk curfew. At the time, Apollonio was out somewhere in the north on a
bombing sortie. In the letter, your father said that he had secured a seat for
you on the last train and that he and I would leave together as soon as he
returned. He thought it best to send you to his parents in Rome, ahead of us, in
case we encountered difficulties by the time he returned. I did not want to
separate from you but I also knew that I couldn't accompany you without
Apollonio's protection, in a train full of angry and defeated Italian families
on the run.
"And don't forget, there were a
lot of Ethiopians who were bidding their time to avenge themselves, especially
after losing thousands of family members at the warfront and at various
massacres during the Occupation. Because of your complexion, I knew that you
had to leave the country before the collapse of the colonial administration."
Suddenly, Abayé Zewditu
whimpered and looked up at mother.. "They're coming! They're coming! Please
don't let them enter," she begged. Mother rushed back to her stool.
Several dogs barked in the front
yard as the gates opened.
"I know it. I know it. They're
going to kill my son. They're going to kill him," she howled.
I turned around and pulled aside
the curtain behind me. Susenyos and his uniformed driver sped into the compound
in the army jeep. The driver parked the vehicle as Susenyos leapt out of his
I turned and looked at mother.
"It's Susenyos and his driver. Why is he here?"
Mother put her arms around
Abayé Zewditu and rocked her in her seat.
"Why is he here? This is his
house; Zewdie is his unfortunate mother; I'm his accursed aunt. That's why he's
here," mother replied bitterly.
"It's no use. It's no use. The
carabinieri are going to catch him. They're going to catch him. Poor, poor
grandfather," Abayé Zewditu said, weeping uncontrollably.
"Zewdie, please don't cry.
Grandfather is gone. He's been gone for many, many years. Please don't do this
Susenyos ran up the front steps
and flung the door open. Abayé Zewditu flinched, attempting to hide under
He walked into the room and closed
the door behind him. His eyes narrowed, noticing his mother's alarm.
"Welcome, Alla Stazione. I
see that Abayé Aster finally got the guts to introduce you to the
family." Susenyos said in Amharic, chuckling heartily.
He casually leaned over the
sisters' heads and outstretched his hand. Since we had not spoken earlier, I
wondered how he assumed I knew the language.
I stood up and shook his hand.
"I don't know why you insist on
calling me Alla Stazione. My name is Giònata Fioravante.... Or, Yonatan,"
I said, releasing his hand.
"I'll be right back. Please sit
down," Susenyos said graciously and exited the room through the door next to the
"Shameless!" Mother swore under
her breath. "Shameless," she repeated. "Did you see that? Forget about saying
hello to me. That's secondary. He didn't even have the decency to greet his
mother. Lord, you are merciful. Thank you for sparing my poor sister from the
embarrassment of this disgraceful aberration of a son," she huffed.
A faucet opened in the distance.
"His father," mother continued,
glancing at the photograph above the mantle, "God rest his soul, would have
thrashed the impudence out him. As if it weren't enough for him to have
ruined…. Let's go right now. I purposely brought you here at this time to
avoid an encounter with this traitor," she said, removing her arm her sister's
"I'm not going anywhere just yet,"
I said, emphatically. "I came home to find out --"
Susenyos reentered the room. He
had a towel draped over his shoulder and carried a green plastic bowl filled
He set the bowl on the coffee
table. "Abayé Aster, did Emama recognize you or your son? I hope
she did. After forgetting about him for so many years, we owe Gashé
Yonatan a hearty homecoming at the very least."
"Family? Of all people, you,
Susenyos, have the nerve to talk about 'the family'?" Mother said, indignantly.
"Abayé Aster, get down from
your high horse," he said, walking towards the dining table.
"We all make difficult choices
that inadvertently affect our family. You don't need further elaboration on that
point, do you?"
Susenyos grabbed the saltshaker
from the dining table and stopped next to mother.
"I'm going to need your seat,
please," he said.
Mother got up immediately and
started pacing to and fro between the living room and the dining room.
Susenyos unscrewed the saltshaker
and poured a generous amount in the plastic bowl.
"She obviously didn't tell you
about me, Susenyos. How did you find out? Why did you call me 'Alla Stazione'?"
I asked rapidly.
"One at a time, Gashé, one
at a time," he said, stirring the salt with his finger. He held his mother's
hands and lowered them into the warm water.
"Emama knits at such speed
that she frequently pokes and stabs her fingers with the knitting needles. Since
I can't stop her, I try to give her hands a rest at least once a day."
"Gashé Yonatan," Susenyos
continued, with much animation, "your entire childhood in Ethiopia has been
documented meticulously in an astonishing photo album. Not to mention your baby
clothes, toys, furniture and Abayé Aster's paraphernalia. The last
photograph in the album is of you, Gashé, surrounded by piles of luggage
and panic-stricken Italian women and children. The words, 'Alla Stazione'
are scribbled on the border. That's why I call you Alla Stazione."
"How do you know about the photo
album? His father took everything with him when he left," mother snapped.
"Apparently not. I found
Gashé's treasures sealed in a secret alcove down in the cellar a few days
funeral," Susenyos said.
why didn't he tell me?" mother murmured."
"On a more serious note, Abayé
Aster, I was looking for you all morning. You shouldn't have left abruptly. I
Elfnesh by chance coming out of the pharmacy. That's how I knew you were here.
"Late last night, a highly placed
source tipped me of a top-secret resolution passed by the new government. They
are about to arrest the wives of all the former government officials. My source
has confirmed that you're definitely on the list. You need to go into hiding
Mother sunk into a chair under the
Chairman Mao poster and stared blankly.
Susenyos stood up and walked
across the room toward her.
"In his prime. They shot my son.
In his prime," Abayé Zewditu groaned, lowering her head over the plastic
bowl. I stood up and gently lifted her face.
"Get your hands off me!" Mother
shouted, shoving Susenyos away. "Highly placed source indeed! What are you doing
hobnobbing with people who've killed your brother, killed your uncle, arrested
my husband and destroyed your own mother's health?!"
I could ask, 'what were you doing hobnobbing with a man who was bombing your
people with mustard gas?' but I wouldn't be here if you hadn't done that, would
Her eyes flashed at me but she
nevertheless managed to restrain herself.
I held my aunt's head against my
"Ababa, Ababa," Abayé
Zewditu said looking up at me. "Ababa, they're coming to kill my son.
Finish off the carabinieri and save my son. His father can't do it. He is long
gone. Ababa, please save my son."
"Oh, my God, now she now takes you
for our grandfather, " mother sighed."
"I'll take Azalech with me to
Italy and send her to her parents if, Susenyos, you can help me get her out of
the country. Can you find a secure place for mother until I find a way to also
get her out?"
"That's a great plan, Gashé
Yonatan. But what about Abraha?
"Who's Abraha?" I asked.
"Your nephew. Azalu's older
brother," mother said. "He's in Asmara with his other grandmother."
"I'll take care of him," Susenyos
said. "But let's first deal with the problem on our hands. Abayé Aster
can hide in the cellar's secret partition where all of your belongings were
hidden. No one will suspect me of harboring a.... Abayé Aster, I'll also
make sure Gashé Bekerie receives his meals at prison. We'll begin all of
that once it gets dark. In the meantime, I'll go to the cellar and fetch
Gashé's photo album."
Mother grabbed her nephew's arm.
I followed his gaze to the
photograph above the mantle.
"I'm doing it for him," he said
enigmatically and exited.
Susenyos' footsteps echoed as he
ran down the steep cellar stairs.