When disappeared girls are lucky, they go to other places and hook their husbands’ names to theirs like snake cords to clothing sacks. Then they send messages back home, telling us who they are now. Before today, when I was a child, I thought this was what happened to my sister, Azmera. I thought she disappeared to New York and became Azmera Mitslal, a man’s wife, a woman, with a face and a life as new as a baby’s. But Azmera was not lucky. This is what I am learning now.
Before today, my Abeselome would laugh when I talked about my sister’s extra name. “New York must be like Addis Ababa times eight!” he would say, cutting his eyes and smiling. “There must be Azmeras flitting in the New York air like flies. She has to let them know which Azmera she is, so they do not think she is one of the other Azmeras. The singing star Azmera, the woman doctor Azmera. The president.” He would throw his head back and let his teeth spread over his face like the pale stone walls of the churches behind our compound. I would tell him his walls were crumbling, that his teeth would fall like the ruins if he continued to make jokes on my sister. Azmera is as pretty as a singer, I would tell him, and as smart as a president. Her face is slick like the inside of a bee’s hive and her eyes are quick and sharp. But he would just laugh deeper, his face opening wide like a bathing pool, until I could only jump in and laugh with him.
This was our qene, our back-and-forth talk. We kicked words across the air like rocks in a boys’ game, stashed them in each other like playing hide-and-seek. Abeselome’s qene has always been good; he is sixteen, has been growing up and learning things two years longer than me. He goes to the school and gathers new words, a new story-full every week. Then he comes home and kicks the words to me. I stop them with my eyes, turn them around in my head, kick them back. My qene is good, he tells me, and I know. My qene is from my family; they put it in my name: Meraffe, chapter. My qene goes for days and days.
Back when we were children, when Azmera was still here, she joined in the qene. So would Genet, who is Abeselome’s sister, and now my sister, too. The four of us would pass words between us from the time the sun spilled white on the ruins till our mothers called us all home to eat. Now that we are grown and Azmera is gone—and my parents gone too—Genet and I keep the qene up when Abeselome is at the school. We sit with Persinna, their mother, pulling dead roots from the ground and saying they look like feet or ghosts or the mark that used to live between my mother’s eyes. We spice the sebbi for dinner and say it smells like the dirt did when rain seemed always in the air, when we did not have to close our eyes and breathe deep to remember moisture in our mouths. When our talk gets sad, going back to the days of Azmera, Genet touches my face and kicks me pebbles. Genet loves Azmera, feels as dry without her as I do. “They are like us when we were girls,” our mothers used to say, their laughter mixing like the string chords of a lyre. “Friendship is more than friendship to them.” So when Azmera slips into our talk, I rub my cheek against Genet’s palm and we turn our qene quickly back to battle-play, pulling good words from each other’s lips and sticking them to the things around us, seeing who can draw the tighter wince, the thicker laugh.
In between our laughter, I try to forget the story of Azmera’s disappearance. I try instead to hold on to Genet, to keep her from leaving, too. Genet’s body is like Azmera’s was when she was here. It is thin and long and moves quick along the ground, like a shadow after dinnertime. She brushes through our compound, behind the griddles, under the mats, cleaning messes in the kitchen, clearing junk from the road, as though if she stood too still in the light, she would be in someone’s way. Azmera was the same, though it seemed to me then that Genet was just a breath quicker, her qene tumbling just a half-step ahead.
Before she disappeared, Azmera and Genet were always rushing, rushing to take care of things—of Abeselome, of me, of the cats and cows that died because it refused to rain. When the two of them were not rushing, they were gone—I didn’t know to where. I knew only that it felt like a holiday when they came back, when they slowed and stilled and gave some of their time to me. Azmera and Genet were the grown ones, the tall, pretty ones with honeyspill cheeks, who talked with their mouths turned down like women, waving their arms in front of their faces as though swatting tiredness away. I remember looking at them, wanting always to join them in their secret places, to be like them in a friendship like theirs when I got to be their age. Genet was seventeen then, and Azmera, when we knew her, was seventeen too. But that was a year ago; I do not know what Azmera is now, how much older she has grown.
Now, our qene is what keeps me and Genet up, keeps our spirits holding our faces right. Genet and Abeselome learned this trick a long time ago, when their father died in the usual way, air blowing through his stomach like a sandstorm through the ruins, his body laid out like a mat for the mosquito disease. My mother was generous and loved Persinna, and there had been food and rain and a pinch of money then, so she asked my father to make a house for Persinna in our compound. “Your man is a good one,” Persinna would say to my mother when we were all together. “He is kind, and he is here.” My father would smile and kiss my mother’s head, and Persinna would look down at Abeselome to be sure that he was watching, which he always was.
Now Abeselome brings me and Genet words from the school and we eat them quickly like platefuls of thollo balls, sticking them to our names and with Azmera’s to see what meanings we can make. Abeselome is resplendent, we say, bright and happy like a girl’s ashenda dance. Azmera’s jokes are shrewd, we say, tight as a head-full of freshly-done braids. We like this game, because it makes us feel closer to Azmera and my parents and their father. Our families named us in Amharic—not Tigre, not Tigrinya—because our parents wanted good things for us when we became old. Amharic is not the language of power, our mothers would say, but it is a first sound. Persinna reminds me of this when I miss Azmera and our life. “Your parents gave you your futures,” she says. “As long as you both are living, they can’t be gone.”
I did not think so much of names or futures or how the world came to be until Azmera disappeared. Before, when I was a girl, I only listened to church talk and bible stories like they were pretty songs. I already knew my favorite version of how people were made. No magic babies, no big man bringing things in twos, in twos, no room for mismatches. I thought only of Gebre Memfis Qudus, my favorite hero from the saint stories.
When I hear this story, I see Gebre Memfis wrapped in a gabbi as wide as a canyon and as white as a new chick’s hair, the cloth so thick that you cannot tell if Gebre Memfis is a man or a woman or a baby or an ox; you know only that he is kind because you can feel his smile. In my version of the story, Gebre Memfis is walking through the place where our compound is, only it is more years ago than there are hairs on my head. The dirt is always wet, the sky always hangs low with rain. Gebre Memfis is walking and singing his song, and he sees a bird on the ground that is so dry it is going to die. Gebre Memfis is good, and so he cries for the bird. The bird is good too, and smart. He feels Gebre Memfis’ sadness, and so he opens his mouth to give him soft qene. Then the tears splash into his beak and the bird is not dry any more. The bird drinks from Gebre Memfis and is born, and flies away. He is so happy about what he has learned that he tells his family, and they are so happy they chirp and sing and make a world.
I did not think any more of how things came to be until now, now when my parents are dead and my sister is gone and the best thing I have is Abeselome on top of me and Genet singing a one-string song to the pots outside as she makes our supper, alone. Now, with Abeselome laid over me, I am thinking of my sister, of the man who dropped on top of her like a dead hawk and pounded her into nothing. I think of this and I try to make sense of what is happening to me now.
* * *
This is the story Azmera told me: one afternoon, while our parents were out and I was with Abeselome, and Genet was patching clothes in Persinna’s house, Azmera opened the door for Akrham, the big-breasted woman who lives in the compound across the road. Azmera was tired and busy, working in the kitchen, but Akrham said she needed spice for her dinner. Akrham was always nice, with big sad eyes like an old cow’s, and Azmera and I liked to look at her when she came over to gossip with our mother, liked to watch her eyelashes sweep her cheeks when she laughed. And so, Azmera told me, she let the woman in, gave her the spice, talked about the dry air and the neighbors while she made teheni flour for our mother to store away.
Azmera asked Akrham about her family, about her brother, Biserat, who had just come back from two years in Mekele, where he went to weave cloth. Akrham’s father was gone, like Genet’s and Abeselome’s, and people talked bad about Biserat for leaving his mother and his sister to farm alone. Sometimes Azmera would join in the talk, whispering with Genet as they washed the plates at night: what kind of person would leave his people alone? But Azmera was generous like our mother. She did not want Akrham to feel bad. When Akrham came for the spice, she asked about Biserat with a smile, I know, and with only a speck of mischief stuck between her teeth. She offered Akrham some sips of beer and told her she had dreamed Biserat would do great things for his family, which was a lie. When the beer was done and the conversation had foamed away, Azmera went back to cooking and told Akrham she could let herself out.
I was in the shrubs with Abeselome, but I can see it like I was a grain of wheat dust on the floor: Akrham leaves and Azmera holds the bowl, stirs the barley, adds the water. She lights a fire under the uton stove, getting ready to roll the mix into dough. But the rolling does not come, and instead comes the man, Biserat, without a knock, or a word, or the quick click of the door latch undone. How could she let him in like that? Azmera said later, looking in my direction but talking to the air. Why? But there he was, Biserat, talking bad qene to my sister, pinching at her legs like dough, then pushing into her as though he is making a pot in her stomach. He tells her he will marry her, take her away and make a family with her. I wasn’t there, but I see it now: Azmera kneeling in our mother’s kitchen, her hands around the ends of the stove our mother built with her hardsoft fingers, the man making Azmera into his own seething griddle.
When I come home, Azmera is rolled up like an onion on the kitchen floor. She tells me the story and she cries. With her eyebrows stitched tight across her face, she says “Don’t tell Genet.” I want to ask her why not, but when I open my mouth she stops me with her eyes and I know I am not supposed to understand. Then she tells me not to tell our parents either, says that if I tell them, they will die.
This is the part of the story I remember when Abeselome comes on top of me. Before today I did not understand why a man would drop himself on my sister, or why knowing this would make my parents die. I knew other things, things about how to mold clay and bend metal for a stove, how to listen to the air for rain, how to tell whether a woman is trustworthy by the way she holds her neck. I knew which names were for power and which were for thankless work. But I did not know why a man would fall on my sister, or why it would make my family disappear.
When I think of this, with Abeselome on top of me, I am scared. I worry that I will curl into an onion and roll away. I smell his breath and I wonder if it smells like Biserat’s, if what happened to Azmera is what is happening to me.
* * *
After the man dropped himself on Azmera, her face became flat and empty as a plastic bag. She began to float around the kitchen, sweeping so limply that, between her and the broom handle, I was not sure who was holding who. Every morning, as soon as our parents had left for the day, she would rush out of the compound and open her mouth to vomit, spilling the last day’s food into the shrubs. When I asked her what was wrong, she would look past my head and say, “I’m fine.” But when Genet or our parents came around, she tried to make herself tall and bright like a cornstalk, pretending that everything was better than fine. She would touch Genet’s face and smile at her as though the meat of her gums could fight memory. Then they would walk together, out of the compound, down the road to wherever they went, touching, laughing. But as soon as Genet had gone home, Azmera would go weaker than before, the light slipping from her face like a puddle into sand.
She faded further and further with each week that passed, each story Abeselome brought home. Six stories after the man dropped on her at the uton stove, Azmera told me about a girl she once heard Genet talk about. The girl lived in a compound near the ruins in Slehleka, an hours walk away. Genet said the girl got sick after a man dropped on her. She said the girl went first to the Family Guidance office in Mekele, where she talked with a woman whose face was white and cracked like a compound’s outer wall, and whose hair was yellow and flat. She had only seen women who looked like that on television, and once in a traveller van in Addis Ababa. But her problem was getting too big for her to manage alone, so she talked to the woman anyway. The woman showed her a machine that would suck the problem away, like poison from a snake bite, the girl had said. But the woman’s strange face and the look of the metal machine scared the girl, and so she went instead to Kassa, the hakym, who tells people what to eat when they are sick and fixes them when their bodies are broken. Azmera felt that she should go to Kassa, too, that he would know what to do. Do about what, I wanted to ask. But her lips were braided tightly together and I knew she did not want to answer questions.
I never liked Kassa, and I hate him now. Before I went with Azmera, I had visited him only once, when our father started coughing so hard I thought a rabbit tail was stuck in his throat. Kassa gave my father a tea to drink every day and said he would be like new in only ten days—ten times faster, he said, than if he had gone to the clinic. He gave a jagged smile that looked like the tread of a tractor wheel and leaned back against the air like a boy who had won a ball game. I did not like how proud he seemed, how sure. My father said the tea tasted terrible, like birds’ leavings, and the mosquito disease took him anyway. He died with the taste of bird dung in his mouth.
I disliked Kassa from then on, but this was Azmera, my older sister, who only told me no when saying yes would harm me. And so, when she asked me to go with her, I tried to press her fingers together in mine to slow her shaking, and we walked down the road, past the children and the dogs, past the brittle fields, to Kassa’s house.
When we got there, Azmera broke off parts of the story for him like chips from a block of salt. I did not understand then why she told it that way. She said nothing about the falling man or the uton stove in her belly. She said only that she was not feeling well, that she had had a very bad headache for six weeks now—the worst kind a girl could have, she said—and she needed a tea to make it go away. Kassa gave Azmera his bent smile and a package of a frilly herb that he called abewela.
“It’s not tea you need,” he said, lighting a fire under a pot of water. “It’s steam.” He told her to cut the root of the abewela and heat it over a tall fire until the steam made her teeth draw tight. Then he told her to take her pants down and squat over the fire as though she were peeing in the shrubs. He held his gabbi to his legs and bent over the pot to show her what he meant.
“Ten minutes,” he said, “and it will clean the problem away.” Then he clapped his hands together as though putting a final letter on a sentence he did not want to hear. Azmera gave him a fistful of birr, enough to buy a tower of books, I thought, and we left. I don’t know where she got the money from. Some things I am glad I don’t understand, and this is one.
One story later, our mother went to town to sell our weakest cow. I was sad about it, but my mother put her hand on my head and told me not to worry. “She is old and thirsty and tired of working,” she said. “Someone can eat her. She won’t mind.”
Once she had left, Azmera put a pot on the fire and followed Kassa’s instructions. When the steam hit between her legs, her breath made a sound like a busted tire and her head rolled back so quickly I worried it would snap. When she brought her head forward again, her cheeks were sliding in water, her face curled around itself like a handful of metal scraps. She stood there for ten minutes, like Kassa told her, her shoulders jerking quickly back and forth like two flies trapped under a glass. I remember this moment clearly now: soon I am crying too, begging her to move from the fire. But she sews her toes into the floor and closes her eyes to me.
Only now, under Abeselome, do I recognize the smell that soaked from Azmera into the floor that day. I smell Abeselome, notice how his sweat is different from mine—his is sour and sharp like gasoline, mine mild and gritty like meal. As he moves over me I notice our smells mixing, making something new. Now I understand what was in Azmera’s blood, why it was thick as red lentils left too long on the fire, why she had me bury the cleaning rags deep in the dirt far outside the compound. Why I can still smell her when I walk by that spot, my favorite spot now that she’s gone.
Now I recognize that smell as the same smell that has started to come from me every month, with every fourth story Abeselome brings home. But I still wonder why this happens, why my body does this, why Azmera’s body did what it did, how Abeselome’s body can do the things it is doing now, right now. Now I understand that there are too many stories I have not heard, too many things I do not know, more things than there are names for. Or, if there are names, I do not know them either.
* * *
Three stories after we visited Kassa, Azmera came to tell me that the abewela steam was not enough. She said this with her voice slung so low to the ground that I imagined it growing white and heavy with clay dirt. When our mother went to visit Persinna that afternoon, we darted through the house like moths, looking for a solution to Azmera’s problem, the problem that had no name.
Eventually I had the idea to look under our mother’s mat for the sack where she kept her private things. For me, this was the place where adulthood’s answers lived. It was my own private joy, before, to sneak to the mat when no one was watching and pick up the sack and run my fingers through its contents: my mother’s money, my grandmother’s chain necklace, the little wire dolls Azmera and I used to make, back when we were girls. The sack was the color of an overripe plum, wrapped in a gold braid that had always been old, had always been shedding bright strings like a gold cat’s tail. That gold braid, for me, was a promise—that there could be worlds of treasure inside of any small thing. I had not been inside the sack in a while, but I was sure that Azmera’s answer was bound up beneath that rope.
When we opened the sack and let the loose strings flutter to the floor, we found the dolls, and the birr, and the necklace. There was also a silent, silver-colored watch that Azmera and our mother had once found on the side of the road one day, along with a few strange coins. There were pages of writing I could not read, pieces of broken jewelry I had never seen, and a package of dried sererie leaf.
I recognized the sererie right away; Abeselome and I had had good qene about its shape. The leaves reach out and up at first, then bend over themselves, their tips grazing their roots like a bouquet of closing hands. Our mother used to grow this plant in a small plot at the edge of our part of the farm. I did not know what the plant was for, but I knew that it was important, because she pulled its roots every month; every four stories the hands would disappear. Sometimes, too, I saw her pull the sererie between stories and share them with other women who lived nearby. When I asked her what it was, she said “It helps women keep families small enough to feed.” Then she sent me a sharp look and said “But you’re not a woman, so these questions aren’t for you. Go and spice the sebbi.”
I didn’t know what she meant then—I only knew to stop asking. But later, from the scraps of the story fluttering around me, I started to put things together. If this was a problem women had, perhaps we needed help from a woman. We couldn’t talk to our mother, that was clear. And Azmera wouldn’t even let Genet know, let alone Persinna. We sifted back through all our names and stories and thought of the Family Guidance woman again. Mekele was three hours away, across a patchwork of roads, busses, and footpaths. We would need a day to ourselves to get there and back.
A day seemed like a luxury then—though now that Azmera is gone, the days grow like weeds and stretch on forever. Looking at the dried sererie, its leaves curled under our the frayed gold rope, I though maybe it could help us. I didn’t know yet what it was, but I knew it was important, and I knew it was almost gone. We had heard our mother talk about making the trip to Mekele to buy seeds so she could plant more, but with the pitiful harvests and the cost of the trip, we couldn’t know if she would really go, or when. Though there wasn’t enough sererie for all the women anymore, there seemed to be just enough for her, for now. And that was too much for us.
So, holding the shriveled plant together, Azmera and I began to bake a plan. We would help the sererie disappear, we said. Sererie was strong—we knew we could not eat it or we’d get sick. We did not know how, and we did not want to know. Instead, we decided, we would grind it up and feed it to Akrham’s cows. We would fold the leaves into squares and hide them under our mats, in our shoes. We would stuff it in the pockets of our pants and carry it out to the edge of the compound to bury it with the red-soaked rags. Then, when our mother went looking for the plant, two or three weeks from that day, we would open our eyes as wide as the camels’ and say we didn’t know, maybe Biserat stole it. We would offer to go to the market to buy the seeds for her, and then we would go to the Family Guidance Clinic, where they fixed problems like ours, whatever our problem might have been.
We gathered the sererie, prepared our plans. But Abeselome’s stories came and the weeks passed and our mother did not ask about the sererie. She and my father began to look as dry as the dirt. They began to wilt like the plants and thin like the cows and grew quiet as the stranger’s old tickless watch.
* * *
My Abeselome had brought twelve new stories home by the time I opened my mouth to Genet. I told her early one morning, while Azmera was still asleep and Abeselome was on his way to the school. Our mothers were out in the field, weeding for the harvest, laughing about the neighbors, wishing for rain, and our father was far away, plowing at the field’s horizon. I looked at Genet’s pretty cheeks, which sat beneath her eyes like two shiny coffee beans, her chin that pointed down to her neck like the beak of a sad bird. I thought of Azmera, how she was draining to nothing, soaking like the blood smell into her mat, and I opened my mouth.
I told Genet about everything—about the hakym and the steam bath and what Biserat dropping himself on Azmera. Genet’s face went flat as a sheet of bread while I told her this, and water spread over her cheeks. But when I told her about the sererie, her face drew sharp and mean as a bele pear thorn.
“Stupid,” she said. “Sererie is what she needs.”
When we woke Azmera up, she knew right away that I had told her secret. While Genet cried and yelled over her, she looked at me, her eyes whittled to a point. But soon, Genet was done yelling. She pulled Azmera from the mat, kissed her face and held her shoulders still. “Get the sererie,” she told me. And Genet was wise and I knew nothing, so I picked up the sheet from my mat and went all through the compound and out to the shrubs collecting the sererie, retracing my steps like hide-and-seek in reverse.
When I came back to the compound, Genet and Azmera were in Persinna’s house, sitting on Genet’s mat with a big meat knife, an empty water bottle, and the metal stick from an umbrella. A pot of water was boiling on the stove. Azmera was crumpled like an old shirt, part of her draped on Genet’s shoulder, the rest of her trailing into the floor. Genet motioned for me to pass her my folded sheet, but I hesitated.
“What are we going to do now?” I asked. “What if someone comes?”
Genet looked at me, annoyed again, and told me our mothers would be weeding all day, and that if Persinna did come home she would not be angry, would not tell our parents. “Anyway,” she said, “we have to do something. This is the best thing we can do.”
With her legs curved and opened wide, Azmera lay down on the mat. She held her breath while Genet gathered the sererie hands and broke the umbrella stick to a finger length. Then she pierced the cap of the bottle with the knife and stuck the metal tube in. She chopped the leaves until they lay in soft mounds on the floor like piles of sheep’s hair, then put them in the water and let them boil. “Hold her hand,” she told me, and I did, remembering how it felt when we walked to Kassa’s house. Her hand was warm then, and it buzzed inside of mine. But now it was still and soft and hot and cool at once, and I almost didn’t recognize it as hers.
Genet poured the water into the bottle, blowing on the water to cool it a little. “It has to be hot,” she said to Azmera. “I’m sorry.” When the bottle was full, she ran the tips of her fingers along Azmera’s legs as though she were tracing a familiar route on a map. Then she pressed down on Azmera’s knee, passed the umbrella past her hips, and squeezed the bottle. She talked sweet qene the whole time, telling Azmera how she was the prettiest girl in the world, how we all loved her as much as we loved days and songs, how soon she would be better and soon there would be rain and soon everything really would be better than fine. When Genet squeezed the bottle again, Azmera drew a deep breath like the low chord of a bow lute, as though she were trying to suck in all the room’s air through the little hole of her mouth. Then Genet climbed gently over her and curled up, like for sleep. She pushed her hands hard three times below Azmera’s belly button, then waited, and pushed and pushed again. Each time, Azmera’s mouth popped open, and I thought she would scream, but Genet reached up and laid her palm on her lips so that no sound came out. Instead, Azmera shook like a dying fly and leaked water through her eyes, waving her head back and forth while the lentil mush spread beneath her.
When it was over, Genet packed Azmera’s legs with sheets and old cloth and gave her a wide, dark gabbi to cover the bulk. While I cleaned the floor, Genet touched Azmera’s face and kissed her shoulders and traced trails of butter under her braids. Azmera leaked and shook while Genet dressed her, breathing heavily over Genet’s arms, never looking at me. When the cleaning was done and it was time for Azmera and me to go back to our compound, Azmera made herself tall and straight again, flattening her face and her eyes, trying to make herself look okay. Genet touched Azmera’s shoulder and Azmera looked at her for two seconds’ tics, her eyes cloudy with words, her mouth quiet as dust. Then she turned out of the room and walked to our compound, not even checking to see if I was behind her.
Two days later, Azmera was gone. First to Mekele, where she lived a life I do not know about, and then to New York, where she is the wife of a man named Mitslal, a two-name woman, with another life I do not know. When I ask Persinna to tell me the chapters of Azmera’s disappearance—the parts of the story that I don’t know—she says she does not know either, but I’m not sure if I believe her. Still, I am afraid to ask, afraid of what I don’t know, which, I am now learning, is so, so much.
Now, with Azmera gone, Genet tells me that she has been afraid, too. She tells me she was afraid on the day of the sererie. She worried that Abeselome would come home early from the school, that my father would stop in for a clean sweat rag, or that one of our mothers would come looking for us, to see how far we had come with dinner. Then she tells me she has lived a long time with fears like those, fears of being found doing something forbidden. She says those fears are old for her now, as old as her name, so old that she has learned not to think about them, but just to live. She is used to hiding, she says, and Azmera was too. When she tells me this she looks like Azmera did the whole time she was disappearing—like she is was hiding a story in her mouth, something important that she will never say.
Now, with Abeselome on top of me, talking sweet qene and trying to make me feel good, this is when I start to understand. This is when I see that Azmera could not stay here, that she could not stay Azmera. This is when I know that it was not luck that sent her over the ocean and strapped her down to another name. This is when I know that it was love.
* * *
Everyone says that our parents died in the usual way, of the mosquito disease, going narrow as cats, their faces fading to the color of millet. Some tell the story that they missed my sister, and were ashamed to have her run to the city and across the ocean with a man they never met. Persinna says they did not die at all, that they are still here, swimming inside of me, in my spirit, in my blood. I wonder if they are waiting to come out again.
Genet’s story is that she did not tell Persinna about the sererie. But when I talk to Persinna now, I see her avoiding words, swerving her tongue around them like bad pepper seeds in her stew. She looks at me and I think she knows what happened, that she told my parents about Biserat, and that they could not take it. I worry that, by opening my mouth, I made them die.
I think about all this now with Abeselome on top of me, sliding past my hips like Genet’s fingers, like the water bottle, like the abewela steam. I smell the smells and feel the push and I am glad that I do not want to swallow everyone’s air like Azmera did. That what I am feeling is not quite pain. I look at Abeselome, see his lips curve up timidly, and I think that he is not like Kassa, not like Biserat. With him my breath is bright and calm. But he makes a grunting noise and his chest fills quickly like a cat’s belly, and I wonder if these are the noises Biserat made. He sees my confusion and asks if we should go outside and do something else, but I do not know what to say. I look past him at the ceiling like Azmera and say “I’m fine.”
He tickles me, runs his fingers along my neck and wrists, blowing on my skin as though I were a flute. I ask my skin to sing for him, but it is quiet. I try to think of good things, Azmera’s face and deep, slow voice, the way she looked with Genet lacing butter along the shoreline of her braids. But I can’t think of these things. All I can think of is the smell of my sister drunk into the floor, the long, low sound of her last real breath, and the lonely walk back from Persinna’s home to ours, a walk that did not ever end.
It has been only a year since she disappeared, but it feels to me like so much time—a whole ocean of chapters, a skyfull of stories. It is only now that I feel I have learned them—the stories of Azmera, of Genet’s friend from Slehleka, of who-knows-how-many-else. It is only right now, under Abeselome, that I know what their stories are about. And now, understanding, I feel that I am grown.
While Abeselome sprays his breath on my forehead I try to think of Gebre Memfis. But he is a different kind of story, I know now. A made-up tale like any other, pretty and silly as a holiday song. What happened to Azmera—that is how things are, how people come to be.
Abeselome talks his best qene, words thick and sweet dripping over me, but I am dry. I try to smile, to kick words back, but my lips are pinned together and my mind is blank. I look up at the ceiling, down at the floor, at Abeselome. He kisses my nose, his eyes two heavy clouds sagging with rain, but still I am afraid. I will not open like the dry bird’s beak. My fingers, my lips, my limbs are folded over like the sererie, and I am closed.
∗ This story first appeared in Callaloo Vol 33. No. 1.
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, Ph.D., is the author of the forthcoming short story collection, Blue Talk and Love. In her fiction, she explores the intellectual, emotional, and bodily lives of young women of color, through voice, music, and hip-hop-inflected magical realism. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Best New Writing, American Fiction: Best New Stories by Emerging Writers, Prairie Schooner, Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Robert Olen Butler Fiction Prize Stories, BLOOM: Queer Fiction, Art, Poetry and More, TriQuarterly, All About Skin: Short Stories by Award-Winning Women Writers, Baobab: South African Journal of New Writing and many others. She is the winner of the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, the James Baldwin Memorial Playwriting Award, and other honors from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Yaddo Colony, the Hedgebrook Writers’ Retreat, and the Center for Fiction in New York City, where she received a 2011 Emerging Writers Fellowship. She is Associate Editor for Arts & Culture at The Feminist Wire, and her critical essays on blackness and sexuality in contemporary culture have appeared on Ebony.com, The Scholar & Feminist, Public Books, TheRoot.com, and others. She earned her Doctorate degree in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania and is an Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at UMass Amherst. Twitter: @mecca_jamilah