I used to have nightmares about this. But they were nightmares: it was understood that they stayed where they belonged, terrors that lived in the dark and faded when my eyes opened. There was always a return to calm, a routine bed check for dampness, a relieved return to unconsciousness since my nightmares do have the decency not to repeat themselves in one night. Isayas thinks I’m crazy and he may be on to something.
“What’s wrong? You are very quiet today. Are you unwell?” Ima is pouring coffee from her favorite clay jebena, the spout hovering high above the dainty, porcelain sini. The rhythmic crunching as she chews kolo in time to the staccato clipping of Aba’s nails is making my stomach rise unpleasantly, though it may also be the smoke curling towards me from the indigo incense urn with the familiar chipped handle. Or it’s the fact that I haven’t really been able to negotiate terms of surrender with my stomach for the last five months, particularly since my doctor shared the test results last week.
Ima manages to keep pouring and chewing as she alternates between glaring at the offending half-moon pieces littering the side table in front of my father and sending looks of concern my way.
“Samuel, that is a disgusting habit. Just go do it in the bathroom!”
Ima’s exasperation does not move my father in the least bit. His gives my mother a filmy stare over the bottle thick glasses that have slid to the tip of his upturned nose, grunts out a “Can’t I just sit in peace in my own house?” then readjusts his threadbare dressing gown (the one we have tried numerous times, and failed, to burn) and resumes cutting his toenails with an unnecessary vehemence.
Predictably, Ima launches into a tirade. I am grateful for her distraction. My mother’s ability to track everything around her at the same time has always fascinated me. I don’t want her to eye me too closely, today of all days. Not when I sit contemplating the end of the grandchild I haven’t told her I am carrying.
Guilt is corrosive, they say. I used to love that description, appreciating the imagery it immediately creates in my mind of acid eating away at rusted metal like a hungry caterpillar until all that’s left is dust. I did not realize until now how that corrosiveness translates in humans. For me, it means everything has started to taste like dust. Each morsel of a savory dish approaches my lips dripping in spice and, while memory insists that the bite should be heavenly (my mother has been plying me with my favorite foods since I returned to Addis Ababa), it simply disintegrates into ash when it hits my tongue. I know I am being punished for what I am considering doing to this baby.
“It’s Ms.” I don’t know why I bother to point this out: it’s not like I am going to launch into an explanation of Ethiopian last names with this woman. What does it matter? “But please call me Lili.”
“Apologies, Ms. Samuel.” She starts again. “Lili. I believe your previous doctors explained the process of pre-natal screening and the options after results are obtained. If I may ask, would you be more comfortable doing this with your regular OBGYN?”
At my husband’s practice? Not bloody likely. But instead I just say, “I’d rather continue the rest of my check-ups and procedures here, Dr. Davis. Yes, the process was explained to me and I came in for the screening last week. I understand you are walking me through the results today?”
“Yes.” She hesitated. I suppose that should have been all the warning I needed to get up and run. Isayas was vehemently against the screening and, as I feel sweat dampen my skin from head to toe, I find myself wishing I had just for once listened.
“First, I will start by saying that while the baby is growing, it could be growing under better circumstances. How has your diet been, Lili?”
Not good. The nightmares began in my first trimester, together with the still persistent nausea. A miracle alone got me through to this second trimester and I know the baby is too small. Isayas has been fretting nonstop.
“I can’t keep anything down, really. I’ve been trying but I am fighting a losing battle with this little one.” I give a nervous laugh and place a hand on my barely-there tummy. I wonder if the doctor can see my hands shaking from where she sits.
She looks right at me, right into my eyes. It is equal parts unnerving and comforting to have someone tell you what is bound to be bad news head on. No looking away, no shuffling of papers. No sound but her voice delivering the death blow.
Ima is right, I am unwell. At this rate, I may not need the medical solutions Dr. Davis listed after sharing the results from the screening. “Just so you have all the information,” she said, as if nothing out of the ordinary had taken place. Though in her profession, it probably was ordinary for her. I’m the one withering away in denial.
I do not know how to answer Ima’s questions when I’ve given her no context to begin with, and for a moment I am grateful my parents have lapsed into their routine bickering. I don’t know why I thought I could do this alone, why I didn’t tell Isayas anything, why I flew all the way here from Atlanta without him. I should probably just leave; get back on that plane before I break their hearts. Whatever is left that watching Misgana has not already broken.
There is a mini commotion near the doorway as he walks in: my burden, my love. His jeans are secured in a chokehold high up on his waist, his skinniness making the denim droop to the ground in baggy folds above the double knot ties in his Nikes. He has opted to tuck in his long-sleeved T-shirt, probably to hide from Ima that he has once again unraveled a few hanging threads, forcing the bottom half of the fabric to lose its structure until the fitted top balloons away from his torso. He has destroyed every piece of clothing he wears in this same way until Ima is too ashamed to let anyone see him, in case they think she’s mistreating him. He has that look in his eyes which signals that we may or may not be two seconds away from a massive tantrum.
Ima hasn’t seen the look yet or she would have jumped up off her seat, knocking things over in a flurry of cotton and coffee just to get to him before he starts swinging. Aba stopped jumping up in response a long time ago: age and sadness weighs him down and he barely moves from his corner perch. There is always something different waiting for me whenever I come home for a visit, an irreversible change: the one I see in Aba—this slow leeching of energy from a man who was once vibrant, loud, sucking up all the air in a room—is the most drastic and hits me the hardest.
It wasn’t always like this. With six years separating us, I remember when Misgana was born. Ima chose his name, declining, in her proper way, Aba’s proposed manly names for one that had more meaning to her: Misgana. Gratitude. Thankfulness. As with most traditional Ethiopian names the implied recipient was of course the Almighty. I used to think my parents chose Misgana as a name because he was the child my parents had always wanted and thought they couldn’t get, having been saddled with a girl as firstborn. (I had a lot of drama in me as a child, I think.) It was only as I got older I learned from the aunts that there were others; babies my mother had lost before Misgana. He was their miracle.
And he was a miracle: he was breathtaking. Despite being a child myself, I understood startling beauty when I saw it. A cloud of quiet permanently cloaked his tiny frame for the longest time, his endearingly large head always drooping, as if too heavy for his slender neck. We thought he would never speak, and yet his large, solemn eyes would carry a world of conversation in their depths so we were content to give him the time we believed he needed to break out of his cocoon. He had impossibly long lashes that created a permanent shadow on his cheekbones, made even starker in slumber. His little palm would caress your cheek in a way that made you feel precious beyond words. We would have done anything to see him smile because that smile…
Years later, Isayas dedicated Amel Larrieux’s Make Me Whole to me in the first few months of our young romance. Caught up in a swirl of emotion and first year of college freedom hormones, I used to sing out every line to him when he had me locked in his arms, swaying to the song, with one line always standing out to me as not belonging to Isayas. That line…your smile could heal a million souls…if ever a lyric was written about my brother, that was it. Seeing the slow reveal of his dimples and the simultaneous retreat of his luminous eyes until they disappeared into an old man squint: it was like watching the sun struggle awake at dawn, scattering the dark until the blinding brightness makes you look away.
It changed, of course. Things always do. Aba blamed the nanny (Marta, yematireba, she probably dropped him on his head and never told us, I am sure of it!), Ima to this day oscillates between blaming the teachers at the Montessori school (No one in this country has patience! No one has proper training!) and blaming herself (I must have done something, it is my sin, yene hatiat.). And the aunts, Ethiopian Orthodox hellfire and brimstone down to their marrow, agree with Ima’s self-flagellation, whispering amongst themselves in an all too obvious way (Ye-amlak ikid aytawekim. This is His punishment for some past sin.). Being a child myself, I did not know who to blame, or that blame needed to be assigned.
But I do remember that I was ten and he was four when the noises began. Long, unbroken, droning for days on end, followed by abrupt silence, and then it would begin all over again. I used to sleep with my pillow smothering my head, eyes squeezed shut as if not seeing the sound meant not hearing it, suffocating myself into oblivion. Now, as an adult, I cannot stand anything covering my face—even water closing in over my head is the start of an anxiety attack.
We all walked around the house like zombies during the day, sleep deprived and barely communicating with each other, no room left for extra words in a house already filled with sound. Ima’s rocking and back rubs did nothing to stem the flow from my brother’s still too tiny frame, and Aba, wonderful, funny Aba, was no help. Too impatient to stay in the house longer than he absolutely had to, he left for the office before breakfast and came home just in time for dinner, a quick scan of the day’s gazetta, and bedtime. It took us five nannies, two cleaning ladies, three guards and six months of unbearable clamor to figure out how to soothe Misgana, a purely accidental discovery.
It was 1993 and my best friend Karen (who had never stepped foot in our house even though I took up residence at hers every weekend I could wrangle approval from my parents) had magnanimously made me a mix tape, borrowing songs from her father’s vast collection (and super current collection as she constantly reminded me—until adulthood, I would not have a point of comparison to recognize just how vast and how current it was). Karen and I met on day one of the first grade at the Christian Mission School we both attended.
I eyed the curly haired, wild eyed white girl with apprehension and responded with a tentative
“I’m Karen! What’s your name?”
I had forgotten what it was like to be around people who radiated joy. But then, had I ever, really seen that much happiness in one person? It took me the entire first year of our friendship to understand that this is what happiness looks like in a child free of worry. This girl was practically bouncing in place and her energy was sucking all the air from around me, making me feel lightheaded, and a bit tired. It didn’t look like she was going away without a response so I reluctantly gave her my name: “Ililta.”
She tried and failed to pronounce it, a look of complete confusion spreading out across her face. I took pity on her and said, “Everyone just calls me Lili.”
“Hi Lili! We’re going to be best friends! I really like those beads in your hair, did your mom do it that way for you? I want beads in my hair too, wouldn’t that be fun?”
From that moment on, we were inseparable: at least until high school when her family moved to Kenya, to another mission school, for her father’s job. I was fascinated by her boisterousness and too timid to make friends on my own; she was happy to have found a silent sidekick who rarely contradicted her adventurous suggestions and she had a heart big enough to encompass numerous friends. The relationship worked well for both of us.
We spent hours in the room her family used as a home office: wall to wall thick red carpeting, and wall to wall wood paneled shelves bulging with books and music. I rarely uttered a word when we were in that room together. Karen was content to chatter away, requiring no real response from me as she took deep breaths between long, unbroken streams of consciousness and ran her hands over everything with the confidence of ownership. I would listen to her with half an ear, my fingers hovering reverently over the spines of books and vinyl alike, unable to touch for fear it would all disintegrate and I would be sent home as punishment.
I devoured those mix tapes as if tomorrow would not make an appearance. I hungered for music since it had disappeared from our house with the arrival of Misgana’s howling. My parents’ old cassettes were stuffed into the stiff, white, repurposed plastic bags that came home from the grocer’s full of fruit, and sat plump with their new passengers collecting dust in the padlocked storage shed across the yard from our small villa. TV was similarly disallowed.
I missed the old poets, because that’s what music back then was: poetry, who were my conduits, my true access to my native tongue, not taught at the Christian Mission School. The most beautiful rhymes and metaphors and innuendos—I loved the way they made my tongue dance and my jaw lock. Most of all, I loved that it got my parents attention (finally), my laughable attempts to understand old world phrases that came so easily to them. I missed their laughter. I missed the faint smell of mangos that still clung to the cassettes, no matter how many times Alem rinsed out the bags.
But it was too much for my parents to have both the haunted crooning and the incessant din swallowing up every atom of space and silence in that small house. I understood that, so I didn’t ask for the return of music. That was the end of my access to the old Ethiopian songs during my childhood. (Isayas revived it the minute he heard me try to sing an Amharic song from memory. I think he was appalled.) Instead I had Karen’s music, and I had it to myself courtesy of a hand me down Walkman she gifted to me.
I remember the day we discovered the key to Misgana’s calm. At Ima’s insistence (Alem is not your slave. Clean up after yourself please!), I was helping our maid clear away the lunch dishes on a Saturday afternoon with my headphones jammed on my head, the Walkman vibrating against my hip as the cassette whirred and played my favorite Billy Joel song. I sang along under my breath…you should always know / wherever you may go / no matter where you are / I never will be far away.
I remember I finished placing the last dirty dish on my tray, then looked up and across the dining table, clear across the living room and through the French windows to where the late afternoon sunlight filtered through the leaves of the eucalyptus trees dotting our front yard. Alem gave me a nudge to signal that my work was done (it wasn’t, but she always set me free quickly) so I gave her a quick kiss and ran outside to my sanctuary.
Our backyard was broken into two portions: the part you can see to your left as you drive into the compound which is also visible through the living room windows, and then a deeply depressed portion with three stone steps connecting the two, a soldier’s line of trees and foliage edging both. Ever since I discovered that no one could see me from the house if I lay flat on my back in the depressed portion, I loved doing just that, music in my ears and eucalyptus leaves swaying above. To this day, that is the scent of my childhood, pre-mayhem: grass, wet earth and eucalyptus. It would be hours before anyone remembered me.
On this Saturday, when the chaotic noise inside the house had reached a supersonic crescendo pulling everyone out of bed around 5 am, my sanctuary was much needed. I pressed rewind on the Walkman to restart the song, lay back with my arms folded under my head, and drifted.
A touch on my throat startled me moments later and I turned to find him watching me solemnly. I stared in confusion at the lips firmly pressed together, uncomprehending that Misgana was stretched out on the grass beside me, not howling, not wailing, just watching me with those luminous eyes. In his chili-pepper red corduroy overalls and long-sleeved turtleneck with the horizontal stripes that looked like pipe cleaners, he looked adorable, as if the absence of calm in our lives; the reason my parents stopped entertaining, and stopped accepting invitations; the ever-present fatigue in their eyes, was not caused by his little person. And he was quiet. Blessedly, confusingly quiet. He watched me alertly, that smile starting to stretch slowly across his face. He frowned moments later and I realized it was because my tears were choking me, making my voice crack as I sang, and his fingers, gently pressed to my vocal chords, could feel the difference.
So, I looked away from his dear face, looked up at the sky and our canopy of leaves, cleared my throat and started from the top, his small body relaxing beside me in small degrees. Goodnight my angel, time to close your eyes…
That is how Ima and Aba found us hours later, with the sun starting to go down. My Walkman’s batteries had died and I desperately needed water but I was afraid to stop singing. His little finger had not moved from my throat and lying in that grass, I remember hoping I could hold on to that peace forever.
That too did not last. The remedy for one challenge could not solve the other ones that followed. It turned out Misgana at age four, even with the unbroken streams of sound he used to make, was somehow easier to handle than Misgana in the double-digit age bracket. The years that followed our shared moment in the eucalyptus grove had been a revelation to us of just how intelligent my baby brother was, given the chance. But we lived in Ethiopia and it was the 90s. There were no services, schools, mentors or professionals who could explain to us just what was wrong with him, or help us harness and put his intelligence to good use: his love of music, his photographic memory, even his obsessive compulsiveness. It was exhausting watching him hover over a coffee table, moving it infinitesimal inches back and forth in the same spot until it was situated just so—we did not understand him and we did not know enough about what made him the way he was. We were so grateful that we had finally found a way to communicate with him that did not involve his immediate demonstration of disapproval through screaming that we simply gave him the best we could: our love.
Then Misgana turned ten and all hell seemed to break loose. Sometimes the singing worked. But often, it did nothing. On a perfectly peaceful afternoon in May of 1999, I watched my brother’s sweet face contort in a way I had never seen before. I remember it as my last clear memory of what his face used to look like, marking the before and after.
He had been sitting quietly in his favorite overstuffed sofa, sunk deep into its hold since the bottom spring had given out (he wouldn’t let us anywhere near the chair so it sat, unrepaired, year in and year out, sagging closer and closer to the floor). The conversation was floating around both of us: Ima and Aba had invited the aunts to lunch (the only ones allowed over, though I never understood why) and the buzz of harmless gossip encircled us as coffee roasted in a pan over a coal burner in the center of the room. I tried to read my book through the haze that always settled into the sunroom during after-lunch coffee, and Misgana sat in his corner, in his chair, calm one minute, a monster the next.
I remember he vaulted up as if pulled by an invisible puppet master and in the blink of an eye, he had started pummeling his face, his beautiful, beautiful face. His teeth tore at the skin on his forearms, his fists repeatedly hit any part of him they could reach: chest, nose, temple, mouth. Something wet hit my cheek (blood I think) and it released me from the stasis encasing me and everyone else in the room the minute the first punch landed. Everything basically went to absolute shit all at the same time: my aunts were screaming (unhelpful as ever), Alem tried to move the coffee and coals only to cry out as her foot connected with a corner of the burner, my mother’s sobs were getting harsher by the second as she tried and failed to shove the flailing aunts out of her way so she could get to him. My father and I reached Misgana at the same time, trying to still his punishing hands as he tore pieces out of himself. Aba caught a wayward elbow in the ear, his reading glasses flying to land with a ping against the window. I got a fist in the chin, biting my tongue almost in half in the process. And blood just…everywhere.
It’s a day I will never forget, not because there weren’t others that followed (there were plenty), not because of the chip in my front tooth as a constant reminder, but because it was the first. I remember thinking, at the ripe old age of sixteen, that it was the beginning of the end. And it was. It was even worse than the era of the ceaseless sound. Aba’s shoulders stooped in defeat when he walked, Ima’s hair turned white, and I understood in that single moment that this would be me someday: my shoulders, my hair, my life, my future.
I spent two more years in that house filled with its unpredictable violence and heartbreak. Ima quit her job at the bank to stay home as caregiver after caregiver came, saw, and quit. Aba poured everything he earned into my education until all their savings were gone—he was trying to give me an escape route, I think, but we both knew there was no leaving, not really.
When I met Isayas my freshman year at UMass Boston, I wanted nothing to do with him. An ache developed in my chest anytime he came near me and I did not think I could afford to dole out extra love when I knew what my future brought with it. My heart could not expand. No room for others.
But clearly, we are well past that tentativeness. What I love most about Isayas is his patience. It wore me down that first year, and then kept me by his side for the thirteen that followed. We send money to our parents every month (my two, and his surviving one) and, given how we were both raised, it’s not something I have to explain, beg for, or negotiate. We fly my parents out every summer, alternating as Misgana cannot be left on his own. Isayas would have flown Misgana out too but I remember the first time we tried. I flew to Ethiopia to get him, settled him in the seat beside me on the flight back to the US, and two hours in, the plane was forced to turn back as my brother’s fists went flying.
Isayas has accepted Misgana, though by some fluke, has never actually been present for one of Misgana’s rages. Every day of those thirteen years has been lived in fear that the day he does is the day he walks. I do not know if it has truly sunk in for him that we are Misgana’s future caregivers: that this is a for the rest of our natural lives situation. I am ashamed to have so little faith in a man who has never broken faith with me, to give him so little credit. Perhaps it’s because I know the horrible truth deep down, that I would walk away myself if I could.
And now this baby. Isayas is ecstatic, especially when we made it this far after losing the last two. My first words when we found out (same words each pregnancy) was “what if it’s like Misgana?” and his response “no matter what, he or she will be ours. Beautiful and ours.” He easily dismissed my panic as being just that: panic. But that day in Dr. Davis’ office proved to me that fear is not always unfounded. This little one growing inside me will come into this world different from all those perfectly normal babies. The tests have proven it: this will be another life that will require 24/7. I don’t know if I can survive two Misganas. I know I cannot survive.
Isayas doesn’t understand that Misgana started out beautiful too, until the years of self-harm took their toll, his perfect nose broken beyond repair, his lips cracked from constant pounding, his teeth misshapen, his arms covered in scars. There is barely anything left of the little angel I remember, with the too big head and the solemn eyes. My parents have not exchanged a word or touch of affection since that day. They’ve become two strangers, cohabitating to continue giving care to their son, trapped with no finances to spare, no options to alleviate their stress except bickering. It will kill me if that is the future in store for me and Isayas. (I made the mistake of voicing that last bit to Ima once and she slapped me. It was the first time she had every laid a hand on me, and I knew I deserved it.)
I look up at Misgana now, knowing the bond we had as children has been marred by time and distance, my visits home growing shorter and shorter. I think I see hurt and accusation in his eyes, but I am probably imagining it, projecting because I am ashamed of myself. My parents continue their back and forth so I stand and walk outside, needing the fresh air. I don’t know what to do, and my window is shrinking. Am I really going to tell Isayas that I can’t go through with this? That I really am a coward?
Without realizing it, I’ve wandered to the yard, to the spot under the trees where I used to lay unnoticed for much of my childhood. It hasn’t changed at all, the one constant, it seems. It feels like the most natural thing to do, lowering myself down, stretching out on my back, and humming softly to myself.
I know I need to get up, tell Ima and Aba what is going on with me, Skype Isayas into the conversation if the WiFi holds (though, for something this important and this confusing, I owe him more than a call). I know this, really, I do. I know, but I cannot make my limbs move. I am weary to my very bones and the familiar scent of childhood is comforting, lethargic—even if it will not last. So, I just let myself sink into the earth beneath me. Time becomes irrelevant.
A familiar touch lands on my throat, making me turn my head. No tantrum today, it seems. I don’t have the energy to wipe my streaming face. So, we just lay there, him smiling, me crooning: Goodnight, my angel / now it’s time to dream / and dream how wonderful your life will be / someday your child may cry / and if you sing this lullaby / then in your heart / there will always be a part of me.
by Y. Marcos
Yabsera (Yabi) Marcos is Ethiopian, a public health specialist, and a budding (hopefully) author. She works on health systems strengthening projects by day and tries to overcome her fear of writing by night. Goodnight My Angel is her first short story—she hopes to continue writing about the intricate, complicated, and beautiful community that raised her. She currently lives in her hometown of Addis Ababa trying to spoil her beautiful nephews rotten and successfully feeding her coffee addiction on an alarmingly frequent basis.
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