You think once you’ve crossed the desert you will find freedom; your belly will be full; your body will forget hunger and fear. After many months you reach the spot where the airplane will take you to the land and you think it will be like the words spoken by the kahenat on the sabbath, full of milk and honey. You will touch trees and honey will drip into your cup. You will sit by the river and milk will gush toward the banks and you think your body will find its home and that you can finally rest. You want so much to rest, but there are others waiting to come here and you do not forget them, not once in your prayers, not even when you sit with your child on the terrace and smell the sea. You smile, but you do not forget.
When the plane lands, you nearly fall out in your hurry to kiss the ground your ancestors kissed. And the scented air is what you dreamed of when you crossed the Sudan — full of sweet promise. You meet the Israelis who tell you they only speak the holy tongue and that you must learn. They send you to school, like you are a child. But you are old. You point to your gray head to make them understand. The Israelis, who are smarter than you because they went to school and brought you here in their airplanes, believe you know nothing of the world and prod your shoulder to get you to move from one place to another, so that you wonder if crossing the desert has turned you into a goat. They find someone who speaks your language and he takes you to a place where buses shuttle people all over the countryside. You are glad there is a market nearby, but only men sell vegetables there. You do not understand why they would do women’s work. And for the first time you wonder what you will do with your days now that you no longer need to walk across the sand.
The man who speaks Amharic brings you to this place. This is your home, he says. You must show him you can open the door with the key. At night you sleep on a mattress that fights your body, not like the sand in the desert that held you, not like the straw mat you shared with your husband that rustled with each movement. You find you miss the dirt beneath your feet that was home. You try hard not to think of the husband you left behind, but at night when the city dies to a whisper, you remember the feel of his hands drawing you to him.
You ask the man who speaks Amharic if there are spirits here, and should you bring a priest to cleanse the rooms? He tells you there are no spirits in the land, only God. But when you look out the window and see buses spitting clouds of black smoke, vendors shouting and people running, you see spirits everywhere and wonder can this place where nothing ever stops to rest be home?
When she asks, you tell your child you are happy. But inside your body there is a rock pulling you to the ground. So you go to the market. You see a few black faces like your own and you greet each other politely and move on. Everything is rush-rush here and always buying-buying to make up for what you did not have at home.
Because no one speaks your language, you point to what you want: the eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers. You will make a stew for supper and hope your daughter will be home to eat it. Always cooking too much, as if your husband and sons were with you. And as the thought of food and family enter your head, you see the face of your boy before your eyes. You see Mengistu’s men in their gray camouflage fatigues, their rifles cocked as they steal your son. Your husband tries to stop them, but he is sick and old. When he rises up against them, they laugh and slap him down. But you hold on to the boy who is crying your name. A soldier presses his rifle to your head. You think because it is metal it should be cold, but it is a brand against your skin. You remember that your youngest son is hidden in the root cellar, between the baskets of onions and yams, and let go of your first born. And you remember smoke stinging your eyes as huts are burned to the ground, the sound crackling like the keening of old women. In Gondar Province you are no more than straw. The thought of your son in Mengistu’s army turns your feet to lead. The thought of your boy with a gun in his hands squeezes your heart. You ask God to keep him alive. You ask for half a kilo of red lentils and white beans for soup.
Your mind plays tricks because even while you walk through the market that swells with music and shouting and engines running, you are sitting with your husband and children on the carpet upstairs in the room the authorities gave you, a feast before you and all of you eating with your fingers. It is how you prefer to eat, but you have no strength to fight your daughter who tells you the Israeli way is to sit at the table and eat with utensils. Your hands, which embroider stories onto the bodice of a dress, feel like bricks when they hold a knife and fork. Only Arabs sit on the floor, your daughter says. Maybe I am Arab, you tell her. She laughs, then we could have stayed in Wallaka.
The vegetable vendor charges too much money and you shake your head and begin to walk away. He calls you back. You know this game. You have played it since you were a girl carrying a basket of fruit on your head – your body a slim reed swaying down the dirt path. The man who would one day be your husband stares until you feel there are ants crawling over your skin. The vendor calls you Falasha. But the word has no sting. He is right. You are a stranger here just as you were in Gondar Province. He calls you kushi. You nod, yes you are black, blacker than he. But soon he gives you the price you want. You take your basket and place it on your head. People stare. You keep your eyes down so as not to attract the evil eye. You miss the way you could step outside your hut and greet your neighbors and they would ask if you slept well and how were your husband and children and what a pretty robe you have on today.
Certainly, you are happy, you tell your daughter. After all it took to come here, you are finally home.
There are days when you forget where you are. Not even the sounds and smells of the market remind you. All you remember is sand – a river of it beneath your feet and waves of people, hundreds, maybe more marching in one direction. The journey begins with crying children. Mothers sob. Fathers shout. You tell your son and daughter to keep their heads covered. After the first twenty kilometers, everyone is too tired and too hungry to protest what they cannot change. They simply walk. There are two stops before nightfall, to eat, drink and relieve yourself. The quiet surprises you. At first, you find it peaceful. But then you recognize it for what it is – the sound of your fear. Everyone carries their precious bits on their backs, some even bring their goats, believing they will be a boon on the journey. But soon the goats lie in the sand, and before they die, their masters slaughter them and dry their meat and eat well for a month. You used to think it was merciful to kill a suffering animal. Now you wonder if what it really wanted was to be saved. You still have your precious bits. There is the picture of your husband, your sons and daughter. Next to them you place the gold bracelet your husband gave you as a wedding gift, a goatskin your father added to your dowry and a small book of prayer that belonged to your aunt. You tied these bits in a cloth and dragged them across the desert. You wish now you could have brought something else here. When you crossed the desert you made sure to hold your son’s hand. You love this boy. You knew he could be strong in this land; you made the journey. Mengistu took your older boy, so you thought, now I will thwart that man and take my son from this place. He is mine, you said, forgetting he belonged to God. Even at night you see sand. You feel it shift under your feet and are drawn back into the desert with your son and daughter. You lift your son onto your back. Your knees buckle at his weight. He is a big boy. Your daughter looks at you with pity. She knows what you refuse to see and walks ahead, her back straight, then bowing into the wind. When you stop to rest, you do not meet the hunger in her eyes, and take care not to look at your son’s gray face. You are a master at not seeing. Your eyes travel the familiar past. They gaze into the future, and are shut to the present. You wonder if you have always been this way — sand blind. You make your way to the refrigerator in the dark and want to weep at the sight of all the food. You take out the butter and bread, the cheese and tomatoes, the milk and hot peppers and and sit on the floor in front of the open refrigerator, the light sharp in your eyes and you eat, though you are not hungry. You eat for the boy you saved from Mengistu’s gun.
You watch your daughter cross the room and think she wears the clothes of Israel real good – the blue jeans, the tricot shirt. She is a western miss now. And though you smile at her happy face, you miss the girl you brought here – the skinny, angry child who thought you loved her brothers more, who helped you make injera, who poured the dough thin, and watched the pan while it cooked, who smiled when you weren’t looking and cast dark looks when you were.
She is a beauty and you worry about the business of marriage. With no man around, who will take care of the dowry? Here we are scattered from Tel Aviv to Beersheva. How will she find a husband? You tell her you won’t live in Beersheva – a city built on sand. No more deserts, the voice inside you shouts. She tells you, don’t worry Ma. I’m Israeli now. No need to marry quick.
These matters were simpler in Wallaka. Her father would have found her a boy to marry and the families would have built them a hut. Sometimes you miss the village so much your bones ache. You miss the cluster of huts, the sound of the loom, the thump of a mallet on tin. You miss the women of your village. You miss the walks to the river, the way you sat braiding each other’s hair and rubbing nut oil into each other’s feet, and the talk, how you joked about young brides and about aging husbands. In your heart you wished for a younger man, but this one made you happy – sometimes.
At sunset you sit with your daughter on the verandah. “It’s beautiful,” she points to Tel Aviv. You nod your head. Yes it is beautiful, the white box buildings, the rooftop antennas like black arms stretching into the sky, but your mind is far away. It is with the river that winds around the village. It is on the path to the bathing spot. You know each tree and bush on this path. Your feet curl into the mud. You take off your robe and feel the morning air crisp on your skin. You belong there, hidden by those trees, walking into that river. Your body sinks under the water. On this day you will be washed clean. You open your eyes and see the wavering sky above you. The prayer rises from your lips like threads to the green surface. You rise all at once and stand pure before God and your village.
The children greet you with fierce hugs and chirp like birds. It was a long week, they say. For me too, you say. Your husband nods his head and tells you he will be back by sundown. You know he is going to the river. At night when he comes to you he smells of the grasses that grow near the banks.
You watch your daughter cross the room and wonder what she will do without the river to cleanse her, without the women of the village to ease her. Who will rub nut oil into her skin? Who will braid her hair when you are gone?
Today they give your daughter a new name. You watch her step up to the podium in the auditorium at the agricultural school where she has learned to be a bookkeeper. Her head is full of numbers now and ideas about money, how much she will need to buy a car, an apartment, a dress she has seen in the mall that will make her look eser – a “10.” Another number. You tell her, your future husband will buy these things for you, and she rolls her eyes. Lately, you feel foolish talking to this child.
She sits with her friends. All the girls and boys are glowing in their best clothes, their short skirts, and tall shoes, their black slacks and white shirts. They are happy to shed their Ethiopian names for Israeli ones. A teacher announces that from this day forth these children of Israel will be known by their new Hebrew names. The teacher calls your daughter Tali. She tells you the meaning of this name is morning dew. Your heart shouts for her to stop, but you are a stone in that seat, you and the other parents whose children are being reborn. And of course, you cannot help thinking of the day she was born, how she struggled to be free of you even then. Your mother said to you, this one is lively, call her Nikahywot, source of life. She will rejuvenate you in your old age.
Nikahywot, you whisper to the walls of your empty apartment. When she comes home for dinner you call her by her birth name. At first she doesn’t answer and then she sighs.
Do you know what this street is called, she asks.
There is a sign on the corner, you tell her.
Not the name the municipality gave it, she says, but the one it’s known by.
You shake your head.
They call it the street of shoes.
But there are no shoes here.
Not anymore, she says, but there used to be. Everything changes fast here, Ma, but underneath it is still the same.
Late at night you peer out the window and imagine yourself as a young woman on this street. You smell the leather and glue in the air. It is the smell of prosperity. You see shoe stores and shoe factories. The street is busy with shoppers. Everyone here wears shoes. You look down at your bare feet and remember them sinking into mud and sand, and small rocks cutting your soles. You put on your daughter’s shoes. The heels are high. You sway like a leaf falling off a bough. You straighten your back and look at your long legs and then you sit on the window ledge. For the first time, you are really here, in this place, in your daughter’s shoes. Tali, you whisper, trying on the name. She is asleep, your newborn child. The street of shoes murmurs its goodnight and, like your village that held onto its ghosts, you hear the ghosts of this place calling
Because you are new to this land, they take you to Jerusalem. The authorities hire a driver and a guide who speaks Amharic. You sit on a bus with the other women. Some are from your village and though you might not have liked them in Wallaka, you love them here. Today they come from as far as Dimona and Beersheva. You have not seen them for so long that you fall into each other’s arms. Your voices reach the treetops when you greet one another and you realize with a start that you are happy.
When you are together you remember home and the people you left behind. You talk of your children and when the words are too painful, you whisper their fate. The guide points out the sights. “These are our monuments – here since 1948.” You see a rusted tank, an upended jeep, a pine forest. “Today,” the guide says, “you can pray for your family and God will listen.” He gives out scraps of paper for you to write the names of your ancestors on, your husband, your children. “Roll them until they are no bigger than a pebble and press them between the stones of the wall. God will read them.”
You write the name of your husband and ask God to heal him and bring him here soon. You write the name of your daughter and wish for her a good man and many children. Then you write the names of your sons, the boy you carried in the desert, the boy you gave up to war and you wonder again for the hundredth time if you could have saved them. You stare out the window, the rolled bits of paper crushed in your hand.
There are days now when you forget Wallaka. You forget the cluster of huts, the river, your children’s laughter, your mother braiding your hair, the mat where you slept beside your husband, the heat of his body, the smell of burning straw, the blacksmith’s ring, the clack clack of the loom. You forget the way night descended all at once, as if the day were swallowed whole. You forget everything when you see Jerusalem.
Your friends sing the song, “BaShana HaBa’ah, Next year you will see how good it will be.” You clap with them and wave to the pedestrians on the street as you ascend to the holy city. Your eyes well at the sight. This is King David’s city, the guide tells you. When you stand before the Wall squeezing your life between its stones, you weep. It has taken all your days to get here. Now I am happy, you say. But inside, where your thoughts are dark, you think if my boys were here then this would truly be a holy place.
The guide takes you to the Machane Yehuda market where you buy fresh bread and sweet dates rolled in coconut. He takes you to a restaurant where the menu is in Hebrew and Amharic. You eat injera and stew. You talk with your women friends about your daughters and how different they are from you. “These are not our daughters,” someone calls out. “These are Israeli girls.” The woman parades down the aisle, twitching her hips. All of you laugh. It is a good day.
The apartment is empty when you get home. You don’t bother turning on the light until you reach the main room. You know these walls by now; they guide you. “Tali,” you call, knowing she isn’t there. She has left a note on the table. “Ma, be home at 10,” it says.
What freedom these daughters have. This is what comes of having no man. Your thoughts stray to the hours you spent with your women friends. You are free too, you tell yourself. No cooking, no cleaning, no man.
You rip the scrap of paper in two. On one piece you write the name of the son you lost in the desert. On the other, the name of the son in Mengistu’s army. You write their names in Hebrew, so God will recognize them. You roll the bits of paper into a tight scroll. These are your chosen ones, you tell Him. You chisel a small hole in the wall, big enough for your pinky to slip into, and push the scroll inside it. You pray for the soul of your boy in heaven. You pray God is watching your son — your soldier. Don’t let him die, you beg, don’t let him kill, don’t let him hurt, or be hurt. You pray these words until every bit of your flesh feels stretched like a drum skin.
Night falls slowly. You step out onto the verandah, stare at the quiet street below and feel the presence of all those who came and went. The lights of Tel Aviv shine like eyes in the dark. You sit in your chair and wait for your daughter to come home.
Zeeva Bukai is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn. Most recently, her work has appeared in Calyx and The Jewish Quarterly.