Desta-1-Chapter-One

Abraham Beshaw had no intention of revisiting the painful memories of his childhood when he woke that glorious morning, January 6, 1956. Those memories, in compliance with his mother’s wishes, had been stowed away in the far reaches of his mind for nearly forty years. His mother had been dead for some time, and he would have been free to talk about the events of his bygone days, but Abraham had no reason or opportunity to do so. That morning, however, the rite-of-passage ceremony he had planned to hold later that day for his youngest son, Desta, somehow brought those events of his childhood to the forefront of his mind.

These events were of things that deprived Abraham of a family treasure, paternal love and guidance and denied him his formal inauguration into manhood. These were the same things that caused his mother to gather up her belongings, cattle, and four children and abandon her seven hundred acre farmland estate to come to settle in a valley that the locals simply referred to as Gedel The Hole.

This place was two hundred and fifty miles northwest of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

All his life Abraham had been haunted by memories of his father and an ancient, precious family coin that went missing when he was barely seven years old. These incidents had made Abraham who he was as a man, a husband, a parent, and even a war front fighter.

It was in Kuakura, a place one hundred miles north of where he currently lived, in the district of Agew Mider, on Wednesday January 5, 1916, four days before his own seventh birthday when the events that shaped his life began. That evening, Abraham was standing in the front courtyard, several yards away from the sycamore tree now host to two vultures waiting for his father to return from Dangila where he reportedly had gone to buy his son a birthday gift.

It was then that he saw, some fifty miles away, the sky above the western horizon awash in blood-poured, it seemed to him, by the setting sun. But where the sky met the earth Abraham noticed a larger-than-life man who lay prone, his mouth open, his knees bent, hands raised as if shielding his horror-stricken face. On either side of this giant figure, stood two grotesque men of the same size as the man. These men appeared to be horror-stricken as they watched the sun descend into the man’s cavernous mouth. After a lingering look, Abraham determined that the blood that bathed the sky had actually flowed out of the man who had swallowed the sun.

Soon the sun vanished, leaving behind it a crescent amber afterglow at the horizon. The two vultures rose and flew west, making Abraham wonder if they were going to eat the dead man’s body; the sun, a palate cleanser, capping the meal.

Past the sycamore tree and a row of thorn bushes, the Kilty River flowed silently beneath a horse-mane of verdant grass along its banks. Beyond the river, cattle and sheepherders drove their animals home across the vast fields and pedestrians scurried along footpaths before darkness fell. All were oblivious to the crime committed moments before on the horizon beneath the western sky.

To the boy, the scene was like a dream. After the evening haze had cleared and just before the filmy light from the mountaintop faded, Abraham realized that his eyes had deceived him. What he earlier saw as a vanquished man at the horizon turned out to be the profile of the mountain peaks, the hands and bent knees actually trees on the ridges, and the two standing men to be hanging dark clouds. Nonetheless the imagery made an indelible mark on Abraham’s consciousness. As he turned to go inside, Abraham wondered when his father would return with his gift.

But Abraham’s father did not come home that night.

Having given up waiting for the fathers return, the family of five sat down for their dinner. It was at that moment, the too-familiar but unexpected call of an owl from the sycamore sent shivers down the mother’s spine. She died, so she got buried, the bird hooted repeatedly in its plaintive, human-like tone.

But there is nobody sick in the family the mother said to herself, knowing that the doomsayer usually makes that awful call when someone is about to die. To the children, the owls call proved amusing. They mimicked the bird and giggled right up until they fell asleep. The mother went out twice and threw stones at it, and Kooli, their dog, barked insistently, but the bird was unrelenting. Feeling powerless as an infant, the mother contracted a sickening sensation in her stomach.

The father didn’t come home on the second or the third day, which was the family’s Coptic Christmas. In those two days, the mother was too preoccupied by the mystery of her husband’s absence to do anything. Her hands moved mechanically, touching objects without feeling them. She ate her meals without tasting the flavor or smelling the aroma of the food. She walked through the house and outside into the grounds without feeling the floor or ground beneath her feet. Her eyes saw things yet didn’t register them. Her mind took her to places she had never been. Had her husband been tricked by a harlot and kept in her dominion?

She reprimanded herself for her thoughts. Her husband was a God-fearing, Bible-reading man who wouldn’t allow himself to fall into debauchery. The perverted thoughts came after she had ruled out more conventional possibilities: sickness, robbers, delays to help relatives in town. And then there was that damn bird’s premonition that had chanted ceaselessly in her ears.

She spent much of Christmas day sitting misty-eyed on a bench in the courtyard, her three girls huddled around her. Abraham repeatedly ran to the gate to see if there could be a figure that resembled his father walking the twisted path to their home. The family’s world had cracked but they couldn’t know who or what had broken it.

By the fourth day, news had spread through word of mouth about the missing father and people came out in great numbers. Some were sent to search in Dangila; others combed the woods, fields, rivers and creeks nearby, but their searches turned up nothing.

On the morning of the fifth day, which was Abraham’s seventh birthday, his mother was determined not to allow the misfortune that had befallen her family to interfere with the celebration of her son’s birthday and rite of passage. On this important day, the mother also wanted to acknowledge Abraham as recipient of the family’s ancient coin of magic and fortune, as his father had intended.

She prepared food and drinks for the family of five. Then she retrieved the ancient sandalwood box that housed the coin. When she opened the box, she discovered the coin that had been handed down through several hundred generations, the family’s symbol of pride and identity, their emblem of fortune and prosperity was gone! Her hands shook and terror gripped her brown face and eyes. She gasped, trying to cry out with stricken vocal cords, but no sound came. Abraham and the three girls watched their mother in stark horror. Her hands still clutching the ancient box, she staggered and came crashing down on her husband’s bench in the living room. One hand anchored behind her on the edge of the bench, the other now cradling the box on her lap, she gazed at the fireplace and shook her head slowly, trying to fathom the mystery dealt to her family.

Several minutes later she recovered. Together with the children, they ransacked the house, but the coin was nowhere to be found. The family’s world now felt as if it were shattering in a million pieces. It became clear to the mother: their missing coin was a poignant clue to her missing husband. Whoever had stolen the precious relic might have harmed the father. And it was not difficult to guess the culprits: her neighbors, those two, good-for-nothing, green-eyed brothers who had known that the family’s wealth was linked to the coin.

The mother couldn’t go forward with her son’s birthday ceremonies. There was no gift, and now there was no coin. The shock of the lost treasure blotted out their appetites. To Abraham, the missing coin and uncelebrated birthday were the apex of the long and painful wait, and his mounting anxiety over the father who hadn’t returned with a gift. He felt abandoned, unloved, and robbed of the excitement that he had looked forward to.

Noticing her sons distraught face, the mother was compelled to say something to ease his grief. Only God knows what became of your father and the coin, son, said the mother, holding Abraham by the hand. For now, all we can do is pray for his safe return. As soon as he comes home, well celebrate your birthday and hold your coming-of-age ceremony.

The boy was too disappointed to adequately register his mother’s consoling words. He broke free from her hold and went outside, wishing to deal with his problems on his own.

In the following days and weeks, relatives and friends searched for the father but found nothing, not a murder weapon, skeleton, or witness. A theory took form: the father had probably been given medicine by the evil brothers that caused him to go mad and abandon his family. That was a consolation to the grieving family, because it meant that he could still be alive.

For Abraham, time had stopped moving. No longer did he stroll the springy, green Guendri fields with his father on sunny afternoons, with his dog Kooli trailing behind them. He no longer sat next to his father and listened as he read the Bible, or watched him paint trees, animals, and people. No longer could he look forward to his father’s coming home with stories of the people he had met and the places he had visited. He would no longer have someone at home to call Baba.

Abraham would never accompany his mother, as he had been told he would do after he turned seven, to watch his father compete in the horse races at the yearly Batha Mariam Church festival. There were so many ways he would miss his father. Abraham felt a deep void in his heart. To fill it, he vowed to avenge his missing father and coin once he got old enough and could afford a gun.

The mother, afraid more misfortune could befall them if they stayed, decided to abandon her estate and move to the valley where her beloved cousins, Adamu and Kind, lived near her younger brother and an uncle. She thought that the mountains would serve as barriers to her past, and that she and her children would be with relatives who would protect them.

To this end, they walked the hundred miles, driving their animals and carrying their possessions on their backs and heads. And it was during this journey, when they rested under the seamless shadow of the gottem tree that the mother gathered the children around her and said, You promise me that as long as I am alive, you will never share with strangers we meet in the new place what has happened to your father. She looked into the eyes of each child and waited until each answered with her or his verbal oath of Yes, Mama. Only Abraham had to be cajoled and begged before he complied with his mother’s request.

They settled in the hills of Avinevra, east of the Davola River, on a property owned by their relatives.

THE BRILLIANT RED AND GOLDEN yellow rays of the sun that greeted Abraham’s eyes this morning were reminiscent of that childhood day so many years ago, when nothing was more important than the thoughts of what his birthday gift would be.

For a brief moment, Abraham even allowed himself a smile, as he reached for the bowl of face water his daughter, Hibist, had left him. He felt the cold, rough rim of the pottery and was uneasy about dipping his fingers into its contents. Abraham clenched his teeth and splashed the water on his face and dab-dried it with edge of his gabi. Afterwards, he gazed down at the leftover liquid, using it as a mirror. His father’s eyes gazed back at him and the splendid joys of a short-lived childhood dripped down his face and fell into the folds of his gabi.

The cold fact that Abraham had lost his father before he was seven years old gripped at his heart yet again. The possibilities of his life were forever to be unknown. He would never be able to pass along to his own children the love and possessions he had never received from his father. Abraham buried his face in the soft white fabric of his gabi, making sure there was no trace of that which unmasked the burden of his soul.

He uncovered his face and thought. Just as his mother died without knowing what had exactly happened to her beloved husband, so Abraham feared that he, too, might pass away without discovering what had become of his father and the precious family heirloom. For Abraham, this was a greater shame than the gossip mill his mother had dreaded that their father had taken the coin and abandoned them! His own wife and children!

As the now older Abraham grappled with these distant childhood memories, a tantalizing notion rushed into his mind. If he had had the good fortune to receive the coin, as his mother had promised, he would have passed it on to Desta, his son, the fragile, precocious boy who was treated as an outcast by his family, because of the circumstances of his birth. Abraham felt closer to Desta than his other children, because of experiences that linked them together. Giving Desta the precious coin for his birthday would have made him feel wonderful, and he would have been happy to give it to him.

Abraham was tempted to even give Desta the empty coin box, which he had placed next to him on the bench. In recent years, he used it to store a gold pocket watch he had collected from an Italian soldier he had killed in the war. Ironically, the watch, too, had been missing for two years. The box had been a symbol of his own fatherless childhood, and he had grown to treasure it over the years. He picked it up and studied the many mystic illustrations of birds, plants, serpents, people, and cryptic writings carved on its exterior and the magical cross on its lid.

It was from the birds he studied on this box as a boy that Abraham had developed an interest in their language. He had hoped that someday one of the birds would open its beak and tell him either in dream or wakefulness the story of the coin.

Abraham soon abandoned the idea of giving the empty box to Desta. Surely it would have no value, and would only evoke interminable questions from the boy and the rest of the family. None of the relatives had any knowledge of their grandfather’s fate, or of the ancient coin.

All of these sentiments and contemplations were only fancies of his mind. What the family had lost so long ago would hardly turn up suddenly at their door, or fall from heaven in response to Abraham’s longings. Abraham brought his thoughts back down to reality. He had to prepare Desta for the things he must do in the months and years ahead, and engage him with Debtera Tay the Sorcerer to solve the family’s present problem. They must find out why Saba, Abraham’s daughter from his first marriage, had suffered a string of miscarriages.

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  • Desta is a tale of impossibility and inextinguishable dreams. In fact, Read more
  • Many of us who grew up in the 1960s and `70s had coming-of-age epipha Read more
  • Desta's journey continues to inspire us. His unwillingness to accept failure Read more