Phillip Ernest lived on Toronto’s skid row until he was twenty-eight. He learned Sanskrit from the book Teach Yourself Sanskrit, and later earned a BA in South Asian Studies from the University of Toronto and a PhD in Sanskrit from Cambridge University. The Vetala is his first novel.
Fire Walkers, by Bethlehem Terrefe Gebreyohannes13 July 2017
Those who don’t know the desert will curse their journey through it.—Afar proverb
It was decided quickly that one of the guides, named Ali, would go back to the abandoned car and take it to a garage, supposedly for repair, while we waited for his return where we were, in the middle of the desert. The second guide, Hussein, was thin but muscular. He seemed to be in his forties and was wearing a torn T-shirt and a grey shirit. The third stranger, in a suit without a tie, was introduced to us more formally. “This is Mr Lema, the chairman of the Peasant Association of Dire Dawa,” Abba said. “It was because of him that we didn’t get caught,” he stated matter-of-factly.
“I wish you a safe journey. May God be with you and guide you always. I suppose I’d better return before I change my mind and escape with you,” Mr Lema said with a smile.
Abba shook his hand in gratitude. “I will never forget your help, Lema. You are a dear friend.”
“You know there is nothing I wouldn’t do for you, and this is the least I can do considering all that you have done for me and the people of Assayita,” Lema replied. “But as I said, I’d better leave now.”
Mr Lema began walking back with Ali.
“When will we have our car back?” Yared asked.
“We won’t be travelling by car anymore. Don’t worry, I have something better,” my father replied.
Confused and angry, Yared asked, “What?”
“For now, on foot, but that won’t be for long,” Abba explained calmly.
The thought of walking on foot seemed unbearable. What was this secret means of transportation Abba had in mind? I wished it were a helicopter so the pain of losing our country would not drag on for days.
“Yes, on foot. We have no choice. You all have to be strong. If everything works out according to plan, we should be in Djibouti in three days.” Abba rolled his sleeves up. “We cannot wait for Ali here, we are too close to the checkpoint.”
The stink of the dead camel was still with us. Asrat’s face was calm, without a trace of fear or anxiety. Yared was still frowning. If things hadn’t happened so fast, he probably would have chosen to stay in Ethiopia to continue the life he knew.
Asrat looked at me kindly. “Don’t worry, I will help you all the way. Three days is not all that long, you’ll see.”
I took in a deep breath of the wretched air. My thoughts raced out of control, fearing the unknown. If we had finished five litres of water in just a few hours, how much more water would we need for the entire journey? If we stumbled onto soldiers, would they let us go? Looking down, next to my shoes, I saw a sharp white bone jutting out from the sand. I bent over and reached for it.
I thought of my mother, Tetye. How would she learn of our escape? She would be devastated.
I thought of our dog Metew. My father had got her in Kaffa when I was six, to keep all of us, especially my mother, company. When she was a puppy, my brothers and I used to hide from her in the cornfield and we loved it when she came looking for us. We would go further and further into the field to see if she was still able to sniff us out. But she always did. Our arms would be cut by the sharp edges of the corn leaves, but the pleasure of being found by Metew was worth it. She would jump all over us and we would rub her fur, telling her what a good dog she was to have found us in the deepest part of the field.
We found out that Meskerem had arranged for her sister, Mimi, to look after the house while we were “on vacation.” Would she take care of Metew?
Bethlehem Terrefe Gebreyohannes
Photo credit: Asrat Gebreyohannes
Beth Gebreyohannes was born in Addis Ababa, a direct descendent of Emperor S Menelik II and Haile Selassie. After her family’s escape and arrival in Canada in 1981, they settled first in Lethbridge, Alberta, where she finished high school. She lives in Toronto with her family.