July 27 2021
The Gilding on the Goblet, Part II by Feleke
The following is a continuation of an imaginary conversation between Emperor Haile Selassie and a young aide, held during the former's captivity by the Derg in 1975.
For the first part of this article, please click the following link. The Gilding on the Goblet, Part I
Muffled whispers follow a tempered tap on the door. The Aide, irritated by the interruption, scowls at the invisible intruders. Out of the corner of his eye, he steals a quick glance at the Emperor. The King of Kings is drenched in sunlight and lost in reverie. Duty tugs but curiosity, a more formidable opponent, holds her ground. The Aide remains in position. A series of louder yet restrained knocks follow. Indifferent sparrows chirp gaily and flutter near the window, casting darting shadows over the Aide's sullen face.
The door abruptly opens. Former Palace Attendant #1, obscured in the dark corridor, peers through the crack between the door and the doorframe. Obdurate, the Aide stares back. Former Palace Attendant #1 waits for a few seconds. He then slips his threadbare white-gloved hand through the open door and beckons the Aide.
Cowed and browbeaten into submission by hierarchy, seniority and upbringing, the Aide briskly walks toward the door. He grabs the knob, blocks the doorway with his scrawny frame and cranes his head forward through the opening. Hushed admonishments follow. The Aide's shoulders slump. Moments later, he steps back and opens the door wide. Former Palace Attendant #1, flanked by Former Palace Attendants #2 and #3, wheels a cart loaded with several vegetarian dishes, a pile of injera, rolled and stacked neatly, and a carafe of water into the room. The Aide squeezes hard on the knob as the wheels roll over the creaking hardwood floors. The trio pause behind the second leather armchair across from the Emperor. Former Palace Attendant #1 tilts his head back, lifts his eyebrows and points with his chin. His fellow gray-haired subordinates mechanically walk to the far corner of the room.
Former Palace Attendants #2 and #3 lift a small table that successfully had eluded the scorching sun and walk it toward the middle of the room. Former Palace Attendant #3 grabs a starched white tablecloth from the cart's bottom shelf and unfolds it over the small table. Former Palace Attendant #2 stoops next to the bottom of the cart. With his right hand, he picks up a porcelain dinner plate, on top of which lies a set of tarnished silverware for one person, wrapped in an intricately knotted white napkin. With the index finger and thumb of his left hand, he pinches the stem of a crystal water goblet. He rises and sets the dinner plate and the water goblet on the tablecloth. He clutches the napkin, revealing a few chips on the rim and the Emperor's enameled monogram in the center of the dinner plate. He dexterously removes the silverware from the napkin and methodically arranges them above and on each side of the dinner plate. Former Palace Attendant #1 grabs the various vegetarian dishes and the injera from the top of the cart and places them on the table around the Emperor's single plate.
Forming a single line against the window, the trio plunge the room into near darkness. The tip of the Emperor's pointed nose twitches. Resigning himself to the lunch ritual, the Aide releases the knob and shuts the door with his fingertips. He then walks toward the window and stands against the wall next to Former Palace Attendant #3.
Silhouetted against the afternoon sun, Former Palace Attendant #1 murmurs inaudibly. Former Palace Attendant #2 looks at his watch and whispers out the time. It is 1:29:30. Thirty seconds pass.
Former Palace Attendant #1 coughs. The Emperor looks up. Although his eyes do not register the arrival of the newcomers, his body, now a hostage to habit, forces him to stand up and sit on the chair next to the small table. Former Palace Attendant #3 unfolds the starched napkin and drapes it over the Emperor's thighs. Former Palace Attendant #2 grabs the carafe from the cart and pours some water into the goblet. Former Palace Attendant #1, using a pair of tongs, grabs and rolls out a few coiled pieces of injera over the Emperor's plate, recovering the monarch's faded monogram. He then spoons out a moderate amount of food on the dinner plate. The idle Aide fidgets.
The former palace attendants step back and stand in line against the window, blocking again the sun they had momentarily unveiled during the orderly bustle.
The Emperor slides the water goblet to his right and moves the dinner plate to his left. He then lowers his elbows on the table, cups his ears and tilts his head down.
An errant beam, shining over Former Palace Attendant #1's shoulder, illuminates the Emperor's dense and unruly more-salt-than-pepper Afro. Former Palace Attendants #2 and #3 nervously look at Former Palace Attendant #1. Instinctively, the Aide steps forward, ready to cajole. Former Palace Attendant #1 frowns as the Aide freezes in his tracks. Former Palace Attendants #2 and #3 exchange knowing glances. The Aide retreats to his preordained position next to Former Palace Attendant #3.
Former Palace Attendant #1 entreats in a clear and audible voice.
"Your Majesty…please eat."
The Emperor does not respond. Former Palace Attendant #1 repeats the plea. Vibrations, followed by the rumble of a convoy of military vehicles moving in the distance, slosh the water in the goblet. Several minutes pass.
Former Palace Attendant #1 coughs. Former Palace Attendant #2 looks at his watch and whispers out the time. It is 1:59:30. Thirty seconds pass.
Former Palace Attendant #1signals his colleagues and clears the various dishes off the dining table. Former Palace Attendant #2 grabs the dinner plate and the cutlery and piles them on the bottom shelf of the cart. Former Palace Attendant #3 glances at the napkin draped over the Emperor's thighs, partially concealed by the former sovereign's dangling coat hem. Former Palace Attendant #3 squats, stares intently at the napkin and stretches his arm toward it. Former Palace Attendant #1 coughs. Former Palace Attendant #3 looks up to meet Former Palace Attendant #1's vexed and astonished gaze. Sheepishly, Former Palace Attendant #3 lowers his arm and stands up. All three meticulously arrange the dishes on the cart. Former Palace Attendant #1 orders the Aide to remove the carafe and the goblet, fold the tablecloth and replace the dining table to the corner once the Emperor returns to his armchair.
Former Palace Attendant #1, flanked by Former Palace Attendants #2 and #3, wheels out the cart and quietly exits the room. Former Palace Attendant #3 closes the door behind him. The Emperor, now directly in the path of the afternoon sun, glows. He leans back in his seat and lazily stretches out his arms. He opens his eyes and looks around reorienting himself with his surroundings. Then, he picks up the goblet and calmly drinks all of the water in it. He slides the empty goblet over the tablecloth to his right and stops. His fingers remain on the stem. The Aide rushes to the table and grabs the carafe. He stands behind the Emperor's right shoulder and pours some water into the goblet. The Emperor speaks.
Emperor: 74 years ago today, crouched on several layers of Persian rugs at the feet of the enthroned Janhoy Menelik, I witnessed my father's tezkar held in an enormous tent pitched on what were then the empty plains of Fil Wu'ha. All the monks, priests, deacons and hermits of the six churches of Addis Abeba prayed for my father's absolution before they arrived at the memorial banquet.
Getochu did not spare any expense. His lieutenants, many of whom were my father's relatives and colleagues, personally made sure that all who attended—be they prince or pauper—were treated lavishly. Addis Abeba has yet to witness a funeral of such magnificence, magnitude and sorrow.
Forty days of wailing had not depleted my eyes of tears. A day after the tezkar, as custom dictates, the wake resumed de novo. A seemingly endless procession of mourners passed in front of the makeshift imperial dais. Leading the cortège, in double file, were a group of warriors that had garnered glory in the Battle of Adwa and in numerous expeditionary wars serving under my father's regiment. Many of them, with the black embroidered borders of their shemmas wrapped around their shoulders in a manner dictated by mourning etiquette and with their arms clasped around their heads, roared "Getayé! Getayé!" as they walked past.
A group of Sidamo dinkey players in triple file followed the woeful warriors. Holding upright their remarkable twenty-foot-long wind instruments, the minstrels repeatedly blew three sharp notes followed by a rumbling bass note. The rams' horns, perched on the tip of their bamboo instruments, reverberated the disturbing notes. A sudden shudder surged from within and overtook my sobs.
Thirty-four pairs of drummers—that being the maximum number allowed for officials as 44 were reserved for ruling sovereigns—with the straps of their negarits looped around their shoulders, shocked me out of my convulsions as they struck their percussion instruments with full force, in unison and in andante tempo. Boom! Boom! Boom! Pause. Boom! Boom! Boom! Pause. Boom! Boom! Boom! Pause. Boom! Boom! Boom!
An eerie procession followed. Hundreds of women who had carried provisions, had prepared and cooked meals, and had cared for the infirm, the wounded and the despondent during many of Father's campaigns walked past–in silence.
My eyes wandered past the Emperor. Amazed, they remained fixed on the Empress' dry eyes and unperturbed countenance. She instinctively turned in my direction. Immediately, I cast my eyes down lest she detect my profound shock.
Lamentations of the multitude crescendoed and echoed back and forth between Entoto Mar'yam and Ye-Zuqwala Abo when Abba Kagnew, my father's celebrated chestnut, resplendent in his golden harness and led by the most senior steward, solemnly walked past, parading my father's ceremonial robe, battle arms, gem-studded coronet and medals.
Janhoy rocked in his throne as he openly wailed and howled, "my right hand, my right hand, I've lost my right hand. Lijén, lijén, I've lost my son!"
At age 13, one can be excused for being lulled into delusion by such manifestations of royal and public favor. For a whole week following the tezkar, I did not doubt that I was going to succeed my father as the next governor of Harer. Had I not been inculcated with heavy doses of reserve and caution early in my childhood, I would not have been able to conceal my delight when, two days after the tezkar, Ligaba Beyene arrived at my camp with the Emperor's summons. I was commanded to leave my father's troops at the encampment and pitch my tent in the palace grounds. I ordered the servants to pack my belongings posthaste and send them to the palace later in the day. Accompanied by Dejazmatch Abba Tabor and Fitawrari Haile Selassie Abayneh, my father's most loyal officers, I rode behind Ligaba Beyene, cantering out of the camp with glee.
I was soon to learn my first important political lesson: one does not inherit but earns a position of power. In the murky corridors adjoining their Majesties' throne room, foxes skulked, hyenas lurked, panthers darted, lions prowled, bees hovered, rhinoceroses charged, hawks swooped and snakes slithered. A bleating lamb in such a fold would have been spurned fodder.
It soon became clear that the politically nimble Empress—mind you, Itegé Taitu had never forgiven my father for refusing to consummate a marriage she had engineered between her obedient juvenile niece and my defiant middle-aged father—had other plans in motion for the prized province. A few years ago, my older brother, Dejazmach Yilma, had married another niece of the Empress. A proclamation was soon issued. My brother was granted the governorship of Harer; I was given the governorship of Selalé, a district formerly administered by the late Ras Dargé, the Emperor's uncle and my father's, too. Only my father's most loyal lieutenants were discontent; the Shoan elite believed these appointments to be judicious.
"After all," a court wag had declared, "Harer is our most cherished possession and Teferi is barely in his breeches!"
"To be sure," a noblewoman suspected of being in league with the Empress had added. "And let us not forget—although Teferi's father, God bless his soul, seems to have done so—that at Gargambar, during the battle of Adwa, it was Yilma who had valiantly saved the good Ras Makonnen from mortal danger."
It was probably the Empress—for I was soon learning to track the imprints of her exquisite maneuvers—who had had me summoned to the palace a week before the announcements were made public. With this act of "hospitality" and "familial solicitude," she accomplished two things: First, by removing me from my father's army, encamped in the outskirts of town since our arrival, she denied them a leader through whom they could express their anticipated frustration and fury; Second, by keeping me within the confines of the palace, I could easily be monitored by her spies.
Were it not for the appeasement and counsel of Dejazmatch Abba Tabor and Fitawrari Haile Selassie Abayneh, the news of my extreme displeasure with the appointments would have meandered its way to the Sovereigns' ears in an instant. Since it was not my intention to wither away in oblivion—after all, my great-uncle, Ras Dargé, had administered the sleepy district late in his retirement!—I decided, that is with the Emperor's permission, to send a plenipotentiary to Selalé while I remained in attendance at court.
One morning, a couple of weeks after my arrival, and on my way back from early morning mass at Bahita, I saw Lij Iyasu, the Emperor's grandson, with his entourage that included Lij Getachew, son of Dejazmatch Abate, hero of Adwa. As Imru and Tefera Belew, my cousins and childhood friends, had not yet arrived from Harer, I was naturally seeking the companionship of my age-mates. Having seen me, Iyasu and Getachew pulled on the reins of their horses and waited by Fit Ber, blocking some of the incoming and outgoing traffic. Excited at the prospect of joining them, I zigzagged my way past the bustling crowd.
As they were about to dismount, Fitawrari Tilahun, Iyasu's guardian, seated on spirited stallion, spoke.
"Young men, it is not wise to make the Egyptian instructors wait on your first day of school. Herr Ilg is probably still at home. Leave it to him to report your tardiness to his Majesty."
He turned towards me as Iyasu and Getachew re-inserted their feet in their stirrups.
"Good morning, Lij Teferi," Fitawrari Tilahun said, with a hint of condescension.
I bowed, miffed at being referred to as "Lij." Six months had elapsed since my father had elevated my rank. I was now a Dejazmach.
"Good morning, Fitawrari." I replied, suppressing my irritation.
Unable to contain his excitement, Iyasu told me that the Emperor had enrolled them in school at Herr Alfred Ilg's house in the heart of Iri Bekentu. They were going to attend classes at the residence of the Swiss engineer until the construction of the Dagmawi Menelik School was completed. Iyasu invited me to join them. Although our temperaments have at best been dissimilar, in those days Iyasu and I enjoyed each other's company. Iyasu had yet to be declared heir apparent. His much older half-brother, Dejazmach Wosen-Seged was then still alive.
I declined Iyasu's spontaneous offer as I bowed and bid them farewell. Iyasu spurred his horse and, followed by his entourage, galloped through the main arch of Fit Ber. Several pedestrians stepped aside and bowed as Iyasu and his entourage rode past them. Only Getachew remained.
"Teferi, go and speak to the Emperor. My father did, that's how I enrolled," Getachew emphatically declared.
I was moved by Getachew's concern and suddenly remembered my father's terrified look at his deathbed. The certainty of a future that did not include a powerful father safeguarding his son's interest felt almost unendurable. I felt utterly alone.
"Janhoy is now your surrogate father," interjected Getachew, as if reading my thoughts.
Startled, I looked up at him and mumbled.
"The Emperor, he is like your father. You shouldn't be afraid. Ask him," he urged.
Fitawrari Tilahun, with a disapproving look on his face, trotted his horse toward us.
"Getachew, you had better leave," I said.
Getachew tugged the right rein of his good-natured mare and galloped toward the gate. Appeased, Fitawrari Tilahun reversed his direction and struck his horse with a whip.
I began my ascent toward my tent when I heard Getachew call out my name in the distance. I looked back and saw him mouthing one word: "Ask."
I smiled, watching him ride out of the palace compound and down the incline, disappearing into a eucalyptus grove that shrouded Herr Ilg's neighborhood.
Since I did not have much to do, I decided to tour the palace grounds. During the last week and a half, I had spent my days cooped up in my older half-brother's house receiving hundreds of our father's relatives, colleagues and acquaintances. In spite of the bereaved visitors' vigorous shrieks and wails of anguish, I had become unable to shed another tear. Exhaustion, for the moment, had purged grief out of my system.
I stopped at the bottom staircase of the relatively new elfign adarash and marveled at the size of the edifice. It was the largest building I had ever seen. Stern, overlapping commands of "let him pass!" diverted my attention. I turned around and noticed a man, in European attire, driving a horse and buggy hastily toward the elfign adarash.
The instant I recognized the rider, he pulled on the reins of his horse and called out my name, addressing me in French.
"Ah, finalement! Bonjour, Lidj Teferi. Pardon, I forgot, you've been a Dedjazmatch for a few months now, non? Congratulations! Hop in, I'm on my way to His Majesty's elfign," he said, continuing in French.
I responded in my elementary French as I climbed up and sat next to him. It was Dr. Joseph Vitalien, a physician from the French colony of Guadeloupe. My father had invited him to be the resident doctor of the hospital that he had established in Harer about four years ago. Dr. Vitalien had remained in Harer for two years during which time he had taught me French for an hour a day. He was now Janhoy Menelik's personal physician.
Dr. Vitalien struck his horse with a whip as the buggy jerked and moved forward. After the required exchange of greetings, I told him about my desire to continue my education here in Addis Abeba. Dr. Vitalien encouraged me to talk to the Emperor about my wishes.
"I'm sure he feels responsible for your welfare and well-being. Let us not forget that your father, Ras Mekonnen, was one of His Majesty's most able and most respected administrators. May I take this opportunity to extend my condolences and express my most sincere and heartfelt sorrow at the loss of your father?" he concluded. I bowed as I responded in the affirmative.
Dr. Vitalien parked his buggy next to inQulal bet, stepped out and grabbed his doctor's bag from the storage area behind the seat. I leapt out and followed the doctor as he ran up the stairs toward the Emperor's quarters. The chamberlain, Azaj Metaferya, appeared in the vestibule, much distressed.
"Good morning, Hakim Vitalien. Please follow me to His Majesty's bedchambers. Dejazmatch Teferi, wait here," he ordered. I was surprised to learn that the doctor understood Amharic.
Dr. Vitalien waved back at me and disappeared into a long hallway, a few paces behind Azaj Metaferia.
Valets, chambermaids, and lackeys bustled in and out of the vestibule. A woman's stifled sobs resounded in the distance. Invisible stewards and housekeepers decreed muted commands as numerous doors and windows opened and closed in the Emperor's chambers. Chaos reigned in the imperial household.
Baffled, I cautiously navigated past a few agitated retainers scurrying in all directions. I then sat on the edge of a high-backed chair next to a doorway that led to an anteroom. A manservant, carrying a few liqueur glasses and an empty bottle of Fernet Branca on a tray, appeared out of the long hallway, walking briskly in my direction. I gestured toward him before he disappeared into the anteroom. He must have recognized me for he paused and bowed.
"How do you do, my lord" he whispered.
He took a step forward but stopped when he heard my voice.
"What has happened? What is all this activity?" I asked.
He eyes darted furtively before he lowered the tray and leaned toward me.
"It's His Majesty. He's gravely ill," he murmured.
Before I had a chance to ask him another question, he stood erect, bowed, and rushed through the doorway, disappearing into the anteroom. I nervously wondered how I was going to enroll in school if the Emperor became an invalid, or, God forbid, passed away.
Suddenly, I began to chuckle uncontrollably and covered my mouth, attempting to squash this most indecorous outburst. I glimpsed the faint outlines of the custom blueprint God had designed for me. I had just experienced an epiphany. It was then that I realized that I had to marshal my wits to tackle a future mined with obstacles and devoid of serendipity. And yet, I was not despondent. On the contrary, the challenge invigorated me. I began to contemplate the benefits of becoming a self-made man.
Camouflaged by the unusually heavy and menacing clouds of mid-March, and weakened by its intimate alliance with the horizon, the sun no longer threw vibrant rays from lofty angles. The Emperor and his Aide are now obscured in near darkness. The Emperor picks up the goblet and gulps down some water. The Aide walks across the room to turn on the lights.
To be continued.