A short story set in Lalibela, Ethiopia:
By Abdulhafez Maryoud
Translated by Nassir Al Sayeid
That evening, the wind bellowed fiercely over the Lasata mountain’s heights. A girl named Hayat was making coffee. Quickly, she hurried up, avoiding the scorching of the cold, strong wind as she served me coffee, crossing the distance between the corner that was designated for coffee-making and the spot where l leaned against the wall, protected from the wind. In this restaurant, which was owned by an American woman, Hayat was dressed lightly, in clothes that weren’t heavy enough to protect her from the cold wind, especially at sunrise and after night fell. They were clothes for working in the daytime: black trousers and an almost sheer blouse, made of cheap Thai cotton.
Smiling, she set the coffee in front of me. It’s time, I thought. As she was about to leave, I said, “Hayat, I want you.” She gazed into my eyes, giving me an ambiguous look. Her smile neither widened nor narrowed. Her face appeared shapeless in response to my short, stumbling request. She turned her back on me and quickly went back into the source of the cold wind, then to the coffee corner. Then something began to threaten me, a bundle of obsessions hovering over my head. Perhaps I was in too much of a hurry, or perhaps I’d lost my touch. This plump dark girl with well-developed breasts would cause my death before its appointed time. I would never leave her.
From her corner, as she was busy with customers’ orders, she glanced at me with her vague, obtuse smile. I found myself scattered across all possibilities; nothing annoyed me more than equal possibilities. If she would change her obtuse look, I might somehow trust it. I might have been able to rest. Alas, she intended to be so obtuse. Perhaps it was a position, one that forced you into the rift of clarity.
In my mouth, I felt the coffee’s bitter taste. I added another spoon of sugar, yet it was still bitter. There was an Australian and his wife facing me; they were pampering their adopted Abyssinian child. She accidentally knocked over her things, which fell, and one of them had to pick them up. The man looked old. They seemed happy to help the orphan child. There must have been a surplus of compassion that had not yet been exercised; it was stored somewhere in a dark area, accumulated during their lifetimes, which I knew nothing about. It extended to saving an orphan or bastard child. Anyhow, I shouldn’t worry about this thing that wasn’t my business. The Ethiopian girl here was my only point, the one I should focus on.
The first time she caught my attention was when we were fixing a car tire in front of the clinic. She had been outside, looking for taxi to bring her mother back home. I told the driver, “Tell her we’ll take her, she just needs to wait a few minutes until the tire is fixed.” The driver turned to her, and she looked at me in gratitude before she went back into the clinic. She was dressed in tight black trousers and a white blouse. Her fatty back was in rolls, her tender back rolling in that cotton blouse. The bra was engraved into the blouse, her hair was in shiny curls, paved up her neck to show its appeal. In silence, we passed the church, the antiques and ornament shops, and, in front of the hotel where I lived, we turned. Her mother thanked me in Amharic, and we exchanged smiles. With the few Amharic words I knew, I wished her a quick recovery. She stepped out of the car in silence, gazing at me ambiguously, unsmiling. But my heart told me there was something behind the silence and the ambiguity, and I listen to none but my heart.
Almost two weeks passed before I went to see her at the American restaurant where she worked. On the fourth night that I eagerly strolled around, she knew I wanted her. She also knew I would leave whenever my mission was done, but I wasn’t sure whether she sensed my cruel passion.
I smoked, but the taste of the coffee grew more bitter. I had never been subjugated. Now, I was nothing but weak. There was a hidden meaning in all my waiting. As she served coffee to the Australians, she paused for a moment and asked me: When will you leave for Addis Ababa? My eyes fixed on her, I spoke as if waiting for a decision from the courts: “Next week.” I gave no specific day. She said: “Tomorrow at midnight, at my mother’s shop, I’ll leave the door ajar.” Then she proceeded to her corner.
The wind was strong, a cold conversation between the mountain and the night. At midnight, I asked the driver to take me to Hayat’s mother’s shop. He gave a mocking, meaningful smile, but I didn’t care. My only care was to be with her, near her, through her, or colliding with her. Let Jamal the Tigrayan think what he liked. As a Muslim, he wouldn’t allow his consciousness to enter into my situation, anyway.
Like market guardsmen, the night worried me, dark and cold. Jamal dropped me down in front of the shop, at the corner where the public library stood. He’d once told me that the town was a small one. Everybody knows each other, and she cares about keeping things confidential. This is not Addis Ababa. Don’t think you’re so protected as if you were there. I listened to Jamal as if he were talking to somebody else. I knew that, later on, he would ask me not to take risks, tell me that I had to use a condom. These days, nobody was safe. I would tell him yes, I had brought one from Germany, and he should just drop me at the shop and leave. You’ll get a call when I need you to come and take me back to the hotel. I knew he wouldn’t leave; he would come back with the car’s lights off. He would let the car slide into the abyss where the shop was located, downtown. He would wait like an ambush in the darkness for my call.
I went in. There was a creak from the lower door; the shop was narrow and dark, and it was a mess. I might have crashed into something and made a ruckus, but I had seen it in the daytime. Hayat?? I whispered in a scratchy voice, like a predator. She was stretched out on a light cotton mattress along the narrow corridor. She stood up, quickly embracing me, trying to get around me me to the door. When her body in the nightgown rubbed against mine, the space was so narrow I was lifeless twice and alive twice. Calmly, she latched the door, and then she sat me down on the narrow mattress, starting to undress me in silence.
In the morning, I told Jamal that I would never go back to Addis Ababa. His eyes went slow with surprise; his lips dried up. “What do you want to do?” he asked.
“I don’t know yet. But I need to stay for years, maybe several years.”
“Your sons, your wife? Your family?”
“I’ll never go back to Sudan,” I said. I went to collect my things. We would share the space, sleeping in her mother’s shop, until God finished what was already destined.
Short-story writer Abdulhafez Maryood was born in 1969 in Nyala, located in southern Darfur. He has published short-stories nationally and internationally and also written the scripts for films aired by Al Jazeera, BBC, and TV5, including a film about Tayeb Salih. He has won various prizes for his writings and documentaries, and his publications include the short-story collection Habashiyat (2018). Currently, he lives in Khartoum and works with a variety of research, translation, and cultural projects.
Nassir Al-Sayeid Al-Nour is a critic, author, and translator.