The Gilding on the Goblet: Part I
The following is a transcription of an imaginary conversation between Emperor Haile Selassie and a young aide, held during the former's captivity by the Derg in 1975.
A spare dark room in an unidentified neighborhood in Addis Abeba.
Early morning light shines fiercely through two partially opened heavy brocade curtains. The bright sunlight forms a rectangular band past a floor, over a coffee table and on a wall in the far end of the room, dividing the dark room into two. Numerous dust particles, entranced by the ray and mimicking the clamor on the not-so-distant streets, whirl in a frenzied state, in full defiance of the room's placid mood. Two figures in silhouette, the Emperor and his young aide, are on either side of the coffee table.
The Emperor is reclined in a deep, worn-out leather armchair from the 1940's. To the eye that is accustomed to seeing him seated on the edges of elevated thrones on platforms, he appears vulnerable and frail, yet terribly relaxed. Throughout the following conversation, the Emperor instinctively attempts to sit up, erect, at the edge of the armchair. But his body, now in open rebellion against eight decades of studied regal comportment, forces him to periodically slump back into his seat.
With his arms behind his back, the aide leans forward, waist up, in a deferential stoop. He stands next to the second leather armchair across the coffee table.
On the coffee table separating the two figures, and right on the path of the rectangular shaft of light, lies a single crystal goblet, casting a dazzling array of colored lights in the dim room.
The Emperor leans forward in his seat and looks up straight into the eyes of the aide.
Emperor: She was my first and only love.
The Emperor leans back in his seat. The aide, ill at ease with the cryptic confession, looks down.
Emperor: It is so good to finally say it, aloud. She was my first and only love. She was. Our destiny was cast when my father, His Highness Ras Makonnen, went to Italy to negotiate a treaty after the victory at the Battle of Adwa. Neither of us had yet been born.
Aide: GetoCHu, who was she?
The Emperor continues without acknowledging the interruption.
Emperor: When the soldiers from the garrison--
The Emperor chuckles, holds his jaw and shakes his head. He leans forward in his seat and regains his regal erect posture.
Emperor: The irony had escaped me until this moment. Colonel-- Colonel--
The Emperor snaps his fingers in quick succession.
Emperor: What was the name of the man who is on Our throne?
Aide: Colonel Mengistu.
The Emperor looks up and scowls at his aide.
Emperor: Don't mock me! That was our general who attempted to take control while We were in Brazil around the time of Her Majesty's death. Speak. What is the name of the present usurper?
Agitated, the aide looks around with caution and fear. He leans over the coffee table and whispers.
Aide: Majesty, their names are identical. The first was a general, the second a colonel.
The aide straightens up as the Emperor sighs and slumps.
Emperor: Yes. But of course. Stationed at a garrison in Harrergé to protect Our patrimony, Dagmawi Mengistu schemed his way to Our capital and seized Our son's inheritance.
The Emperor chuckles.
Emperor: Little did he know that he had liberated me to reflect on matters of my own heart. This luxury We have not had since Our exile in Bath during the Italian Occupation.
The aide, earnestly.
Aide: GetoCHu, Bath was where your Majesty gave that famous speech at the League?
Emperor: Bath, young man, is in England. The speech, We delivered in Geneva, Switzerland.
The Emperor shivers and crouches in his seat. The aide scrambles around the coffee table and grabs a cape draped on the back of the Emperor's leather armchair. He then unfurls the cape and wraps it around the Emperor's body.
A few minutes pass. Impatient drivers honk their horns in the distance. The Emperor pulls the loose cape tightly around his body and leans back.
Emperor: I was always amazed by the transformation of Monsignor Jarrseau's-he was my tutor and a Capuchin friar-dour countenance when he talked about the 24 Venetian crystal goblets that were presented to my father. Four or five, I must have been, when I first became aware of the goblets. "Sire," Monsignor liked to say, "these 16th century Venetian crystal goblets are of exquisite craftsmanship! Such artistry! Such refinement! Such elegance! His Highness, your father, must have made a powerful impression on the Italian officials with whom he was negotiating the treaty. It isn't every day that one is presented with objects symbolizing the magnificence of Venice." Trained from an early age to restrain displays of emotional excess, Monsignor's occasional unguarded passionate outbursts made me uncomfortable. And yet, for my father, these goblets were just...goblets. The discrepancy between my father's indifference and Monsignor's ardor toward these goblets made them objects of my scrutiny.
Aide: Was the goblet on the coffee table here part of the set of 24?
The Emperor smiles, looks down, and speaks as if by rote.
Emperor: The Emperor should always remind himself. Youth and Impatience, Impatience and Youth. Forever inseparable.
A fly makes its presence known, buzzing and crisscrossing the shaft of light. The Emperor follows the fly in its erratic trajectory as it disappears into darkness.
Emperor: I am not sure that I remember her in person or if I simply recall the idea of my mother. You see, I must have been two or three when she died. And yet, I am certain that I saw her refracted image once when I drank out of one of the 24 Venetian goblets.
The Emperor notices the aide's perplexed expression.
Emperor: Let me explain. Although I had an older brother, it was clear from the start that I was my father's favorite. He indulged my every whim. Whenever there was a banquet, he permitted me to eat with him and his guests in the same dining hall. I sat only a few mesobs away from my father. Until they reached young adulthood, children in those days were not allowed to take their meals with their elders. At that time, I must have been six or seven so my presence was an anomaly.
In honor of his return from a year's governorship of Tigray, my father's lieutenants held a banquet in the Palace dining hall. While others were deep in conversation or dipping morsels of the celebrated raw Harrar beef in awaze, I threw furtive glances to make sure that I was not being noticed. I then raised my goblet in the direction of my father, held the base and rotated the 16th century chalice. The drink inside the goblet-I don't remember what I was allowed to drink-swirled violently as numerous reflections of my father's image at the head mesob appeared on the enameled crystal surface. Comforted by his multiple presences, I examined his composed countenance with solitary glee and pride. First, the muffled chatter in the dining hall, then the whispers of my dinner mates-my cousin Imru and our playmate Tefera Belew-faded out. Neither the monks of Gishen Maryam nor the hermits of Waldeba, I am sure, had ever experienced this silence, this tranquility that had engulfed my entire being that day.
When the liquid in the goblet settled, my mother's luminous face emerged through the crystal, framed in garlands of gilt festoonery as my father's reflections dissolved. I hungrily devoured her image. The five or six strands of dubious memories that flashed through my head at the speed of a Wello stallion offered no hints of my mother's overall disposition. I did not know how long she would stay with me. Fearful of losing her, I held the goblet still above my head and stared into it. Unbeknownst to me, Imru and Tefera had noticed my peculiar preoccupation with the goblet.
"Can't handle the barley, eh?" Tefera boisterously interjected, as he leaned over the mesob and snatched the goblet from my hand. My eyes did not waver from the goblet as the liquid sloshed from side to side, spilling over the rim. Tefera gulped a mouthful and grinned provocatively. He was a head taller than both Imru and me. Early on, because of my stature, I had learnt to use my wit to fight my battles. I understood the value of masking my emotions from my adversaries. However, I have never been as close to losing my self-control as I was that day. I was about to hurl insults at Tefera when I felt Imru's hand holding my wrist under the mesob. I breathed in deeply and calmly turned toward Imru. Oblivious to Tefera's goads, Imru and I talked about the jars of honey that my father had brought from Tigray for a few minutes. Tefera soon became bored and offered to return my goblet. Once I finished telling a long-winded explanation of a rather dull incident at the train station in Dire Dawa, I grabbed the goblet from Tefera while my eyes remained focused on Imru. My composure did not betray the turmoil within. Moments later, Tefera struck a conversation with a server holding a tray of meat.
I immediately raised and looked into the goblet. My mother's radiant face shimmered until we finished our meal.
And then, one day, four months shy of my fourteenth year, my father became fatally ill. He had fallen ill on his way to Addis Abeba and was being treated by a doctor in Kulibi. I was told, in his delirium, he whispered but only a single word: Teferi. I was, of course, immediately summoned. For the first time....
The Emperor's slim body shakes violently as he breaks down and weeps. His tears languidly flow over his wrinkled cheeks and retreat into his thick gray beard. His aide remains immobile. Several minutes pass. A few dogs snarl nearby.
Emperor: For the first time in my life-I suppose it was also for the last-I was allowed to enter his bedchambers. The heels of my brand new calfskin boots echoed on the tiled floors of the anteroom as I briskly walked past several crafty courtiers struggling out of their seats to realign their loyalties. For a moment, I stood at my father's bedroom doorway, ready to bow. But then, I did not recognize the person who was feverishly tossing in his bed. What I saw was not the renowned hero of Adwa but a frail middle-aged man, propped up by several pillows, scrambling to appeal a sentence passed on him by his Creator. I was completely detached.
I was examining him from a distance when his most senior aide tried to nudge me through the doorway. I did not budge. Irritated, the senior aide commanded me to enter. I stirred not.
And then, he whispered my name. Turning my back on court etiquette, I ran, without bowing at the doorway, and knelt next to his bed. I grabbed his warm hand, leant my face against his arm, and wept uncontrollably. I drenched his arm and bed sheets with my tears. He then slowly turned in my direction and opened his eyes. He was terrified. We both realized that he was about to die but I instinctively knew that the fear in his eyes was not for what his Creator lay in store for him, but for what awaited his soon-to-be-orphaned son. I was at once engulfed with two contradictory feelings: love and isolation. My father's unconditional love electrified my entire being as he weakly stroked my forehead. I also realized how vulnerable I was going to be once the blood stopped flowing through his reassuring hand.
"Benediction," bellowed the senior aide. "There is no time left. You must receive your benediction," the senior aide repeated as he attempted to wrest my hand from my father's arm. My fingers obstinately clamped around my father's wrist. And then, he flinched. Alarmed at my father's reaction, I was about to release his arm when I heard his command. "Leave him," he said in a clear resounding voice. Muttering familiar accusations of leniency and indulgence, the senior aide stepped back.
My father cupped my cheek and smiled weakly. I wiped my tears with my sleeve and gently removed his hand from my face. I knelt on the floor on both knees, back erect, and waited.
He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He then put his right hand on my right shoulder and opened his eyes. His lips moved for a long time. I could not hear or understand a single word. It did not matter. I was beginning to relish my first and last private and intimate moment with my father.
When he finished, he gestured toward the chair next to his bed. I stood up and commanded all of his attendants, including the senior aide, to leave the room. The senior aide grumbled and, followed by the attendants, walked out of the room. They huddled in the corridor outside the bedroom and stood vigil. Hitherto, I had never dared to order any them. However, with this act, I had unknowingly taken a giant leap into adulthood. The senior aide and attendants' compliance launched the transition of power in the household.
I sat on the chair next to his bed and held his hand. We both soon fell into a deep slumber.
Anxiety, that night, burst through the doors of the household and inundated the compound. In the back yard, the rooster crowed a full hour before its usual time. I woke up, enveloped in darkness, and panicked. Instinctively, I turned toward my father's bed and groped for his face trying to locate his nose. I roughly shoved my index finger under his nostrils. He was still breathing.
Through the bedroom doorway and down the corridor a kerosene lamp shone dimly. Fearful of waking up my father, I removed my calfskin boots and walked down the corridor, past several relatives and attendants sleeping on chairs and sprawled on the floor along the wall. I grabbed the kerosene lamp, returned to my father's bedchamber and placed the lamp on the nightstand between his Bible and his fob. Positioning my chair between the nightstand and my father's bed, I blocked the light off his face.
Stroking the worn out monogram engraved on the lid of my father's fob, I hesitated before I carefully opened it. The second hand grazed past the large Roman numerals on the dial, its frenzied rotation reverberating in the room. Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. It was exactly 1:05 am. I snapped shut the gold-leafed lid, replaced the fob on the nightstand and picked up my father's Bible. I held it close to my face and flipped through several pages. Frrrrrrm. Frrrrrrm. Frrrrrrm. Cold, fresh air blew on my face, a momentary respite from the dank and oppressive stillness. I tiptoed and raised my knees, balancing the Bible on my thighs. I opened the Book. Job commanded my attention. I placed my finger randomly in the middle of the page and whispered out a passage.
"Wherefore then hast thou brought me forth out of the womb? Oh that I had given up the ghost, and no eye had seen me! I should have been as though I had not been; I should have been carried from the womb to the grave."
A shudder ran through my body as my father's cold hand grasped my left wrist. I turned around expecting the worst. As I could not see his face in the darkness, I bent forward and rested my chin on the bed near his shoulder. Awash in the soft kerosene light, my father's composed face glowed. He was sleeping soundly.
I was, for the first time that I can remember, able to examine my father's face at close range and at leisure. I was comforted by the reflection. My eyes were his eyes, my nose was his nose, and my lips were his lips.
His Bible began to close and slide between my thighs. Mindful of his grip, I locked my knees, grabbed the Bible with my right hand and stuck my index finger to retain the page. Relieved, I leant back in my seat. My father's face was now obscured in darkness. I continued where I had stopped.
Are not my days few? Cease then, and let me alone, that I may take comfort a little. Before I go whence I shall not return, even to the land of darkness and the shadow of death; A land of darkness, as darkness itself; and of the shadow of death, without any order, and where the light is as darkness.
End of chapter. A hyena laughed in the distance as a chorus of dogs in the compound drowned his merriment with furious barks. An attendant lying on a brittle rattan mat in the pitch-dark corridor grunted and rolled as the crackling sound of his makeshift mattress echoed in the hallway.
I was turning over chunks of pages when I discovered a stack of photographs wedged in the spine. Excited at the prospect of finding a photograph of my mother, I shuffled past a few familiar photographs of myself alone and with my father, and, an autographed photograph of Janhoy Menelik. The handwriting was difficult to decipher. I held up the picture against the light and read the writing scrawled over GetoCHu's dark ceremonial robe. "To Makonnen, my beloved brother, trusted confidante and esteemed advisor. Menelik."
Disappointed at not being able to find my mother's picture, I decided to put the photographs away. With my right hand, I picked up the small pile of photographs and shut my father's Bible. Attempting to arrange the pictures in an orderly manner, I gently tapped their jumbled corners against the cover of the Bible. The backyard rooster crowed thrice in quick succession. I imagined it to be 2:00 am.
I stuck the photographs in my father's Bible and replaced the Book on the nightstand. My father was still holding on to my arm. I stroked his hand and slumped in my seat. Weary of standing on tiptoe, I slid my legs forward and lowered my heels. I felt something under my bare feet. Glancing below, I noticed a picture camouflaged by the intertwined motifs on the Persian rug next to my father's slippers. It must have strayed while I was looking at the stack of photographs. I leant forward and stretched my right hand. It was beyond my reach.
Gently, I removed my father's hand from my forearm and laid it across his chest. He mumbled inaudibly. The kerosene lamp flickered. We were soon going to be without light. I got up and picked up the photograph.
I lifted the kerosene lamp and held it close against the photograph. And then, I saw her face. She was standing next to her father who was seated on a Victorian Gothic chair. Her sorrowful eyes were in sharp contrast to her defiant puckered lips and upright carriage. I turned the photograph over and read the handwriting. January 1899. The photograph was taken a few months after my father and Janhoy Menelik had marched against her rebellious father and a month before he had submitted to the Emperor in Dessie. I turned the photograph over and smiled, marveling at her defiant expression. The sense of loss and isolation that nearly crushed me a few hours ago had evaporated. I was smitten and had fallen in love. The kerosene lamp burned out. I stood in the darkness, giddy with excitement.
The Emperor sits up into the bright shaft of light. The sun shines not on a melancholic eighty-two year old monarch but on the optimistic face of an adolescent.
Emperor: That was the first time I saw her...that was the first time I saw Aster Mengesha.
To be continued...