The city started changing. Sidewalks turned into trenches where soldiers crawled in and out like ants. Every morning, deep throated revolution chant would rumble off like the scary voice of a genie. Red was the color of colors and became Kinglike: Red Youth, Red Terror, Red Guards, red flag, red badge. Dahab grew anxious. The red campaign scared her. And those monotonous military slogans and images and portraits with an arm thrust through in the air, or hammer and sickle, or some other shit posted and painted on public walls bothered her. And that screechy military song too, it would play on and on and on. So fucking annoying. That was why she hated it when her husband turned a radio on—they roared and chanted all day long ‘til their mouths bled.
The lemon tree in the backyard was her safe haven. Every day, when the burning sun shrank its rays and rolled down behind the chained mountains, Dahab would settle under the lemon tree with birds hovering above and brew her coffee on a wood flame. Her neighbour, Jemila, was always waiting for that time; when the aroma of the coffee and scent of incense wafted across, she would come in with a plate full of butter cookies and join the coffee ritual, so they talk, laugh and whisper about their fears while swatting mosquitoes and sipping their coffee.
One day, Jemila didn’t show up, so Dahab wondered. Far down across the asphalt road were children hollering and jumping from one tree to another, imitating monkeys and baboons. All of sudden, fear shot through her as she thought the birds singing above might be telling her something. She bounded across a strip of tomato garden, pulled her long dress up to her knees, climbed on a brick fence and jumped into Jemila’s backyard.
The wooden door was slightly open and the aroma of freshly baked butter cookies was in the air. Dahab dashed into the house without knocking and trotted into the kitchen. A grass broom slipped and fell onto the floor. Her heart leapt and settled back. She glanced. Jemila’s pink shawl was dangling from one of the chairs and a plate full of butter cookies was on a table.
The oven was left open, and a dough-coated spatula and bowl were in the sink. Dahab was sure something happened to Jemila - that the Red Terror guards might have snuck in and dumped her in prison - so, the next day, would they throw her body somewhere? She stood in the middle of the kitchen overwhelmed by fear and pulled her dress up above her knees, her chubby thighs showing. From climbing, jumping and running, her hair was all over the place - some fell across her chest, the rest along her back. Deep in her mind, she was thinking of running away - to somewhere - somewhere in the world where there is no Red Terror Guard, where there is no human hunting, no military chants, military slogans, military-shit! Now, she heard slippers going slap-slap on the corridor, and soon after, Jemila appeared.
“Oh! You worried me women,” Dahab said, freeing her hands and throwing them to the sides.
“Neither coffee, nor scent of incense in the air this afternoon. I was worried too,” Jemila said.
“Get your nose checked, my friend.” Dahab went on resting both hands on her waist and smiling, “I brewed coffee and burned incense.” Jemila flung her shawl about her neck and then fumbled in the drawers for her door key. “Sweet,” Dahab giggled, covering the plate full of cookies with a piece of floral cloth and lifting it from the table. Then both walked to the lemon tree talking about the Derg (the Ethiopian communist military junta), which was pumping more and more Red Terror guards into the Eritrean cities and towns, including Keren.
Wind stirred up – rattled the branches and filled the air with a silky swish of leaves.
“Do you know who the Derg’s friend is these days,” Dahab said.
“Russia.” She bent her knees sitting. Her dress bubbled like a parachute.
“Really?” Jemila said, “I thought it was Cuba.” Her shawl fluttered round her neck. Another gust of wind. Ash whirled about.
“Well yeah, that too. In battle fields,” Dahab went on, “undetonated bombs were found sucked into sand—their make was Russia,.” She lifted the coffee pot.
“Weird.” Jemila tucked her chin in. “Where is that stupid Russia located, anyways.”
Dahab threw bunch of incense into the fire. Smoke curled up. It smelt like frankincense mixed with dry seaweed. Jemila blew a hand fan in the air, spread the smoke and shooed away some buzzing mosquitoes. That week, there was a demonstration of new tanks which glided on both sea and land.
“Those too - they scavenged them from Russia, and some from Cuba,” Dahab said, decanting the coffee into small handless cups. Coffee bubbles rose to the brink. Jemila nodded. “These idiots have lots of friends. Is America with them too?”
“No, no. It’s not,” Dahab said, shaking her head. Confidently. Surely. She referred back to her mental note - one day she heard her husband and a friend talking politics.
“If China has such great philosophy, why so so many of its people leave to US?” Yemane had said, and the other guy said something in reply. They were arguing. Dahab served them a pot full of tea and left, and the thing didn’t make sense to her at that time, but it sunk in later. On another occasion, again her husband and the same friend were talking politics, this time about Mao and his contribution to China. Dahab stopped pouring the tea half way. “Is that Mao guy from China?” she asked. Her husband smiled. Nodded yes. That was how all snatches of insights blossomed in her head - she just overheard the tidbits while setting tea, or going in or out of the living room, and now she was feeding them to Jemila.
“Countries are like women,” Dahab went on, drawing a glob in the air with both hands. “All those who have the same view gang up together.”
Jemila made sucking sound through her teeth, both confused and amazed. She swivelled around, glanced to her back. A dog was crossing the lawn, its ears flapping, tennis ball in mouth. It was of the purest white fur, puffy and curly. Senay followed, giggling, and then more children. Hiccupping and giggling, they said the dog stole the ball. Jemila and Dahab looked at each other and smiled. It could be that, or something else, that triggered it: As soon as the clamor thinned away, Jemila frowned, sipping her coffee. A painful story came alive in her mind and scorched her insides before on the way up out of her mouth.
“What? Need more sugar?” Dahab asked, putting her cup back on a tray.
“No. No. It isn’t the coffee,” Jemila shook her head. It took her mind some seconds to paint the scene, so she would be able to tell it in a vivid and detailed way.
“Twenty children,” she went on, “were taken by the Red Terror guards, right from basketball court.”
“Oh, Dear God!" Dahab held the top of her head. “Who are these kids?”
“It’s in Asmara - you don’t know them,” Jemila said. “Poor guys. Poor parents. Ah!”
Details followed. Fire smoldered. A gentle breeze kept blowing across the yard. Ash continued rising from the brazier and spiraling up. The coffee cups were blanketed, gray. Eeeing....eeeing...mosquitoes buzzed and skittered all over the small coffee table and tray. Both women waved their hands in the air, in the effort of clearing the rising ash and the buzzing mosquitoes, while still one was talking and the other listening wholeheartedly. Finally, they ended up talking of the so-called guerrilla fighters, fighting to get their country back, stumbles and struggles and successes all along the way. Whatever corner of conversation they went to, there was fear and anxiety entangled with it.
Later that night when all her family slept, Dahab hopped to the kitchen. It was past ten, so all the city lights were out except for some bars and hotels which were running on generators. This was one of the changes that came about when tons of soldiers swarmed into the city. Anyway, in the dim light of a lantern, Dahab started beating the rising sour dough, her shadow sliding on the walls. She rushed to finish quickly through the tense quiet of the dark night. Now, while patting the finished dough on a large baking pan, she heard the scream of a young woman, followed by the roaring laughter of young men. It came from across street. Dahab perked her earsand sat upright with one hand on the dough and the other under her chin. Someone was getting looted, or killed, or dragged into the Red Terror guards’ Jeep? Then the screaming changed to shrill laughter: So could that be the prostitutes from across the street playing around and having fun with those soldiers? Anyway, Dahab continued working on the dough and slid it into the charcoal oven. She paced around, cleaning and straightening things out. Baking aroma wafted through the room. The fire dwindled, ash covered the glowing charcoal, and the bread turned sparkly brown.
Finally, she crept into her bed beside her husband, muttering prayers under her breath. Again, the screaming of the young woman came to her ears, low, falling and raising. She tossed around, fixed her pillow, jabbed her snoring husband to stop. This time, the screaming was real; it didn’t change into laughter. With that ringing in the back of her mind, Dahab drifted into a pool of agonizing memories, when she lost her brother to Red Terror guards’ abductions and killings in the capital city, Asmara. Now, she feared that might be repeated - on her ten-year-old son, Senay, or her husband. She didn’t think so much about herself.
The next morning, she woke up with a splitting headache and got out of bed sluggishly, yawning, stretching and mumbling prayers. The sun was rising, birds were chirping, singing, criss-crossing from the eaves to the trees and roaming in the air. Dahab walked to the chicken coop with pot full of grain in hand, freed the chickens and scattered the grain on the ground. The chickens swarmed, head down, with some roosters among them flapping and crowing - all rushed shoving into each other and racing. Dahab started cleaning the coop while the chickens were eating, fighting, attacking each other. Now, she got annoyed by the roosters, which kept hitting their beaks on the heads of the weaker hens. “Why life has to be all about fighting?!” she yelled, and kicked those roosters out of her face; she even turned around and gave them dirty looks as they scattered about. Rage ignited in her, and then settled down.
After the chickens were fed, Dahab served breakfast to her family, laid out her husband’s gray suit, white shirt and tie. Made sure his black shoes were polished, sparkling. “Have a lovely day,” she said passing him a freshly ironed and crisply folded handkerchief that would go with his suit.
“Starting with a lovely wife,” he said, face lit with a mile wide smile, standing slender and tall. He was about to leave, clutching his briefcase. He kissed her on the head, eyes closed, savoring the smell of her hair, and then tapped her back as they split. Before stepping out, he stopped and glanced in her direction, looking at her intently, from her back, wondering what he would do without her. Senay smiled, still nibbling on his breakfast. Now her husband turned his attention to his son, gave him a squeeze on the shoulder and a wink, before he left.
Dahab swept and waxed the rooms in the house and washed the veranda floors. Finally, she got herself ready to go shopping - she had some list in the head.
“Jemila!” She shouted over the low brick fence. Jemila appeared from her yard, tree branches swaying up and down above her.
“I’m going shopping…..do you want something from the market?” Dahab asked, putting her hands on the fence, her shawl flying over her shoulder in a mild wind.
“Get me kilo of onions,” Jemila called out, braiding her hair in one long braid.
“Ok. Keep eye on Senay. He is home alone.” Then she walked off in her long chiffon dress with her straw basket in hand.
As she passed the teachers club and walked down towards the grain market, her ears filled with all sorts of noises: laughter, shouts, screaming, music. All the bars lining the street were crowded and discos were blaring. Soldiers and bartenders were dancing to the hit song of Cheblow, swaying their hips and clapping their hands. Dahab pushed through with her head bent, averting eye contact with all of them, jumping and hopping and screaming. Deep inside, she felt pity for the young women, as she knew they would cry for help when the soldiers got back to them with a knife or a gun in hand late at night.
The asphalt road devolved into dusty paths which branched to the grain- and clay pot markets. Now the noises were friendly - people bargaining, camels moaning from under their heavy loads, donkeys braying. In the weave of the market, Dahab met her childhood friend, Samia. Initially, she didn't recognize her - not 'til she smiled and the gap in her front teeth appeared.
“Samia!” Dahab yelled out. Arms stretched. Then they embraced in a hug. It had been so long since Samia left the city for a different district.
They walked to a small island of cold drink stores, through a smoke cloud and procession of sizzling by stalls where men in tank-tops were grilling fish on hot stones, wire-barbecuing lambchops on charcoal stoves and serving raw red meat with hot seasonings. Here and there were knots of soldiers in civilian clothing - all in bright and floral shirts, with their hair grouped in tight curls. They were munching, chitchatting and winking at any female who passed by.
“Someone is whistling behind us,” Dahab said.
“Don’t look,” Samia whispered. “Could be one of the soldiers.”
“Of course, who else?” They continued walking, looking out the corners of their eyes and whispering to one another.
They settled under a tree in the shade, across from a livestock market, chugging on a bottle of Coke. Goats, cows, oxen passed by in groups, dirt puffing from underneath their hooves and swirling up.
“So, how old is your son now?” Dahab asked, waving her hand in the air, clearing away the rising dust.
Samia shook her head over and over, fiddling with the Coke bottle and staring at the ground. Her body language, the way she hummed and breathed, suggested that she was in pain. Dahab had scratched a raw wound - she was scared to dig further into Samia’s life. Silence crept in.
“Uh….hmmm,” Samia groaned a little later, flinging her shawl over her shoulder and taking her eyes off the ground, turning her gaze to Dahab.
Dahab observed a brown skin patch on Samia’s left cheek, and then on the forehead branching down to the other side of the face, forming like a geographic image of Africa. Dahab continued looking at her intently, as if she never saw her before. Samia looked away, discomforted.
“Kemey,” she said, again turning back, a cloud of grief in her eyes; her hair spun gray, made her look a lot older than her age. Dahab tried to bring up their childhood memories. Along the way, they stumbled into talking of their families. Then Samia’s eyes started to well up with tears. Again, Dahab’s gaze fixed on her. She almost knew what Samia experienced without a word slipping from her mouth. Now, Samia’s voice cracked. Her emotions broke.
“I lost my son…he was ten,” she said, turning her eyes back to the ground. "He was killed by a landmine.”
“Oh! No!” Dahab cracked her knuckles and the world started spinning ‘round her.
“This can happen to you…sooner or later….sooner or later,” said a blurry voice running through her head, over and over.
When Dahab got home, she felt sick to her stomach, nauseated, so scared of being pregnant.
Pregnant. She stood with both hands holding the veranda railing, catching her breath, scanning around, but the fear wouldn't go. No way! Hell no! Bringing another human being into this suffering world? She even wished that she was able to swallow Senay back into her womb so that he would stay safe wthin. She missed one menstrual cycle, but her doctor confirmed that it was due to the malaria shots. But why sick now? Her mind couldn’t stop worrying, so she'd headed out to the hospital to find out the cause...
The line at the hospital wound along the long corridors and twisted all the way to the front hospital yard - and then spilled into the main street. It got so hot! It was as if the sun was born that day - umbrellas were floating, and some of the waiting women were fanning their faces with the tips of their shawls. All the patients were young women, many dressed in VERY short skirts with lustrous black eyeliner drawn up to their temples. No shame at all - they shouted vulgar words, sexual words, signaled with their middle fingers to each other as they fought in the line. Some were smoking, some were chewing gum with their mouths open ear to ear and blowing bubbles like school children. Dahab realized it was Monday, which is dedicated for the licensed prostitutes to get checked against venereal diseases. O’ Lord! The city was turning into a land of sluts and soldiers. Dahab returned home shaking her head with the blistering sun burning her back. She decided to pass by Jemila's to let out her frustrations over a cup of mint tea. Jemila was a master of all those herbal drinks that soothe the soul and cleanse the body. She had a way of seasoning and brewing them in a clay kettle, under a hot sun with smoldering charcoal underneath. Dahab never bothered taking the recipes: Whenever she was in a need, she would ask Jemila, but now Jemila wasn’t home.
A couple of strides later, she stepped into her house, kicked off her open-toed sandals and walked on the cool floor. Dumped her wicker bag on the dining table and shuffled to her bedroom. She opened the window and watched the cathedral bell tolling, nuns working on the churchyard garden and some beggars crouched under tree shades. The morning-shift students had already been dismissed and were streaming down the street bouncing and throwing a ball amongst themselves, and the afternoon-shifters were on their way to school. City workers in their blue uniforms were planting trees on both sides of the street, which stretched from the downtown to the district office. Gradually, Dahab pulled her thoughts together and rolled her eyes back to the cathedral. It could be her faith, somehow - seeing that building, that tolling bell, or the big engraved cloak - that gave her relief. Worrying about being pregnant slipped to the back of her mind.
Finally, as she bowed her head towards the church, she heard a big bang! Bang! Followed by bzzzz…… bzz ..bzzz …bang! Gun shots popped from every corner of the city. Pedestrians ran aimlessly, ducking their heads. Owners of food stores, breakfast bars and restaurants set to rolling down their metal shutters. Vehicles sped on the rough, rocky roads, bouncing and jumping like frogs. In some streets, traffic jammed as several cars slammed into trees and poles and were abandoned. Military trucks filled with soldiers carrying guns kept crisscrossing the city.
Senay had just left for school. Heedless of the shooting and shelling, he ran forward through the chaos and crowd carrying his school bag, his curly hair flying against the mild wind.
Dahab realized he had already set out, so she rushed to find him on his way. She ran along a dusty path sided with mim trees, glancing left and right, but there was no sign of Senay.
Yemane was heading home running, ducking his head from time to time - he left his car somewhere. As he reached his house, he noticed a short, chubby lady in a red dress running towards him. Then group of young men, herding their loaded donkeys - yelling “Cha! Cha!” - came across his path diagonally and blocked his view. No matter how loud the men shouted “Cha!”, the donkeys wouldn’t run. Yemane cut through them. Now, as he got closer to a row of mim trees, he realized that the lady in red dress was his wife.
He wondered where she was running to.
“Dahab! Put your head down! Bullets are still flyyyying!” He yelled.
She struggled to see, blinded by the glare from the sun. She shaded her eyes with one hand - now she realized it was her husband.
“Senay is not home. Let’s go and find him," she shouted back.
Boom! A bomb went off - about one block from them. Rising dust spread and curled up to the sky. Dahab fell down flat right under a mim tree. Screaming voices echoed as the dust kept spiraling up, shrapnel flying in the air. Yemane feared the bomb landed on his wife; he continued running towards her through the foggy dust and he slammed into a brick wall. A little later, Dahab cracked her eyes a bit and closed them right away, avoiding the sight of army trucks rumbling and soldiers in their helmets with guns slung on their shoulders lurking around corners.
In the other side of the town, Senay continued running, his heart pounding out of his chest. Finally, he squatted against an old car which was left on the sidewalk. The driver side door was left open. It seemed that it jumped off the street during a massive explosion. He expected things to get better - until he saw a heavy tank with a revolving machine gun shooting left and right coming towards him. Gripped with a fresh wave of terror, he ran again - running and running with the others, huffing and puffing. Again, he faced an open military Land Cruiser bouncing up and down on a hilly road, soldiers jumping off it, chanting and roaring.
Senay panicked and turned to his left, avoiding the gunmen. Then he climbed over a hedge of stones onto private property, one leg dangling, bleeding. A big black dog bounded through the yard, barking and barking. Again, he jumped out and ran aimlessly, blood streaming down his legs and hands. The dog kept chasing him, a severed chain rattling on his neck.
Senay's legs twisted along like weak stems, and then he tumbled-- He opted not to get up - put his schoolbag on his head, hoping to block the sight of the blazing guns and the crazy, barking dog.
Alganesh Embaye was born and raised in Eritrea. She is a mother, wife and computer analyst currently living in Canada. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.