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Olive Tree at Sunset by Kate Fereday Eshete

© Kate Fereday Eshete

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‘Olive Tree at Sunset’ by Kate Fereday Eshete (updated 26 November 2012)

The black kite soared over the sun-scorched highlands of northern Ethiopia, gliding on the afternoon's thermals. The bird circled high above a round hut where a cat had three kittens. They were playing in the shade of the thatch and the kite had it in mind to snatch one if the boldest ventured out under the butterfly-blue sky.

She coasted round and round. An old woman took a bundle of branches into the hut. In a thicket nearby, a hen with chicks clucked, scraped and pecked. The bird knew they were there. Round and round she went, silently surfing the air waves, cruising like a shark over a coral reef.

A man appeared on the footpath from the south. He was running, not the way the old woman ran at monkeys stealing her maize crop, waving her hands and shrieking and throwing stones, but like a donkey fleeing a pack of hyenas.

A kitten darted into the sunshine. Down the kite plummeted. Sensing something, the kitten bolted. Talons snatched at air and the bird swooped up low over the thatch, flapped its wings and climbed.

When he rushed at the hut, the man flashed a look over his shoulder, the veins on his temples pulsing. The cat and her kittens shot into the undergrowth. He plunged through the doorway and the kite flew westwards, towards the Tekeze River.

The old woman was squatting next to the fire, feeding it branches. She glanced up at him through the smoke and said, "Oh, it's you." She worked with both hands, arranging the wood so as to position the hottest flames under the pot that was wedged on three stones over the blaze.

"Emahoy, you must help me." He spoke breathlessly and wiped his face with his shirt-sleeve.

"What's happened this time?" she asked, standing up stiffly and reaching for a spoon. She lifted the lid and stirred the dark red sauce.

"The militiamen are after me," he said. "It's all lies - I didn't do anything."

"Where are they now?"

"They're not far behind - they'll be here soon."

The old woman lifted the top off the large grain container that stood near the middle of the hut. "Get in."

He peered inside: it was empty. Gripping a beam overhead, he swung himself up, hooked his legs over the rim, and wriggled in.

"Keep very quiet," said Emahoy, replacing the lid.

"Wait, I'm starving." His voice was muffled. "Give me some bread."

Tearing a portion from the barley bread she had baked that morning, she lifted the lid and passed it to him. The food was snatched by bony fingers with nails that were long, thick and black like a baboon’s.

After closing the lid, she threw a pile of goatskins on top and wiped her hands on her dress.

She had made the grain store several years ago. Three layers of mud mixed with straw she had flung against the rush-matting frame, smoothing it into the shape of a large barrel.

Returning to the pot, she bent to stir the sauce and to fan the fire beneath. She shuffled the branches and fanned the fire again. The wood smoke wafted up through the thatch. Dabbing her watery eyes with the back of her hand, she went to the doorway.

The sun was in the west but had not yet reached the treetops. For fifty years she had known this view, since coming here to live with her husband when she was a girl of fourteen. The land spread out below, dropping away gently and broadening into a wide valley. To the east she could see the shiny corrugated roof of her neighbour's new house beyond the old wanza tree. On the western side of the valley was Giorgis Church, hidden by trees. To the south, farmland was cut by streams, copses of eucalyptus, and farmsteads, and the footpath to Lalibela.

A carpenter bee droned as it flew heavily past. How unlike a pebble flung from a slingshot it was, its big black body being dragged ponderously through the air by wings as flimsy as cobwebs. Emahoy raised her eyes from the bee to the sky. The amora bird that had been making rings above the hut earlier had flown off. She ran her fingers over the wooden prayer beads hanging around her neck and looked along the footpath.

The two militiamen walked purposefully, their automatic rifles slung over their shoulders. The leading man was lean and muscular. As they came near, she could see his handsome, coffee-coloured face, and the keen eyes of a hunter, a leopard. The second man’s charcoal-black skin glistened with sweat. He had thick lips, a wide nose with flared nostrils, deep frown folds etched into his face, and the bristly jowls of a wild boar.

"Good afternoon," Emahoy called. "You look as though you're in a hurry.”

"We're tracking an escaped prisoner," said the leopard, coming towards her. "Has anyone passed this way?"

"No, only the usual folk."

He stood close, his forehead glistening. "He's a young man, quite tall.” When he spoke, she could see that he had one front tooth missing.

"And he has a face like a baboon,” added the boar, joining them.

Emahoy laughed. "You could be describing half the men-folk here!"

The leopard smiled with his eyes.

"He's a murderer,” said the boar, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. “He killed his wife.”

"Virgin Mary!" Emahoy covered her mouth. "That's terrible."

She paused before asking, "Boys, you look hot and tired and hungry - why not come in for a while? Have a bite to eat."

"I don’t think we’re far behind him," said the leopard, looking west. “We must go as fast as we can before nightfall.”

The smell of Emahoy’s spicy pea sauce wafted out of the hut.

The boar licked his lips. "Couldn’t we just have a rest for five minutes?"

The leopard stooped to step into the hut. At first the men sat with their rifles propped between their knees, but when Emahoy brought water to wash their hands, they laid the weapons down on the earth floor. She placed a small table in front of them and put a circular metal platter on it. On this she spread round injera bread and ladled sauce into the middle of it.

After making the sign of the cross over the food, the boar tore off a strip of injera and used it to scoop the sauce into his mouth. "Very good," he grunted.

"Yes, delicious.” The leopard’s eyes flicked over to the goatskins.

“You might have a rat in there – I heard something.” The boar gestured at the grain store.

“Emebetitu,” murmured Emahoy.

“Emebetitu.” The leopard nodded his head.

Emahoy filled two battered tins with homemade beer and placed them at her guests’ feet.

“You have a cat.” The boar jerked his head in the direction of the doorway. “Why don’t you bring her in? She’ll catch the rat.”

Emahoy said nothing. She straightened her yellow nun’s hat before turning away to fetch a pot of yoghurt from the back of the hut. The leopard drank his beer.

“Pilfering my grain and nibbling my wife’s hair at night,” muttered the boar. “I won’t have rats in my house!”

That provoked a growl: “Talk about something else.”

“Superstition – pah!” snorted the boar. “When Mrs Rat comes snooping around my house, I kill her.” He made a swipe with an imaginary stick. “I don’t ignore her and avoid talking about her. You think that by doing that she’ll go away of her own accord, but she won’t!”

“We have bigger prey to catch,” snarled the leopard. “Now eat up. We must be quick.”

Emahoy spooned yoghurt on to the injera. The men ate in silence while she tended the fire. When she was satisfied that the remaining sauce would simmer but not burn, she took her spindle and a handful of white cotton bolls from a bag hanging from a nail, sat down with her back against the grain store, and began to spin.

"So why did he murder his wife?" she asked, pulling gently at the cotton and twirling the spindle.

"He claimed she was unfaithful, but by all accounts she was loyal and hardworking," said the leopard, reaching for some yoghurt.

The boar was poised to stuff a large helping of injera and sauce into his mouth, but waited until he had said his piece. "He was paranoid. If she went to market to buy lentils, he'd presume she planned to meet a lover. And if she visited her sister's family, he'd suspect her of sleeping with her brother-in-law." With that he pushed the food between his teeth.

While the boar chomped, the leopard sighed and spoke. "One day he bought a grenade for fifteen birr. And that night, while she was asleep, he primed it, put it next to her heart and left the room."

Emahoy twirled her spindle faster.

Nobody spoke.

The boar swallowed quickly. "The explosion blew away half her torso –“

“No need to go into that,” the leopard snapped, leaning down to move the beer further from his foot.

“A friend of mine was at the hospital when they brought her in," the boar said, resting his right arm on his knee, "but she was already dead. There was a lot of blood, he said."

"Virgin Mary!" Emahoy stopped spinning. After a moment she asked, "Did they have any children?"

"No, but she was five months pregnant," said the leopard. “He must have been possessed by the devil himself, to kill his own unborn child.”

Emahoy drew her breath in sharply. She held the cotton high up. Turning the spindle to draw out the thread, she twisted it on to the spindle shaft.

"But couldn't someone else have done it?" she suggested. "Are you sure you've got the right man?"

"The police caught him and he denied doing it, but everyone knew he'd been tormenting her for months." With his wrist, the boar rubbed beer froth from his lips. "The neighbours often heard him shouting threats that he'd kill her, her sister, her brother-in-law, the egg seller, the blind beggar outside Mariam Church - anyone she spoke to."

"He was found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years.” The leopard drew breath in between clenched teeth. "Too little for such a gruesome murder, if you ask me. But that's the law.”

"The girl's relatives protested to the judge that it wasn't enough," said the boar, holding a portion of injera and yoghurt in his fingers, "but the murderer complained that it was too long, and that because he suffers from high blood pressure the sentence should be reduced."

"Unbelievable," gasped Emahoy.

"He escaped from Lalibela prison yesterday," said the leopard, picking up his beer. "We've had several reports of sightings in this direction. It seems logical that he should seek help from his kinsmen."

"You mean that he's from these parts?" asked Emahoy.

"Yes," said the boar and leopard together.

"What's his name?"

"Getachew Worku Damtew.” The leopard took a long swig of beer.

"Worku's boy! I knew him as a child," cried Emahoy, dropping the spindle into her lap. "A wild one, he was." She put her hands to her head and sang a long, mournful "ayeeeeee".

"Do you know where he's likely to go?" asked the leopard, watching her closely with his hunter's eyes.

"He has family from here to the Tekeze," replied Emahoy. "You're bound to hear word of him, but not from his relatives, I think."

“Anyone who hides him or helps him will end up in Lalibela Prison too.” The boar pressed his wrists together as though they were bound.

“If you continue west, you’ll find Mr Alemu’s farm two hours’ walk beyond Giorgis,” said Emahoy. “He has always hated Getachew and Worku, so he’ll be pleased to help you. You could spend the night there.”

"Do you live here alone?" asked the leopard, sitting back.

“My children all left for Addis Ababa,” said Emahoy. “My husband was very hard on them – they felt the lick of his belt too often.” She absent-mindedly ran her index finger along a scar across her cheekbone. “Later he went to Metema to look for work and didn’t come back. So now the children come with their families sometimes and help me with the farm.”

The men had finished eating. Emahoy brought water and they washed their hands.

“Thank you.” The boar stood up. “I’ll catch and kill that rat for you before we go.”

He pulled the topmost goatskin off the pile on the grain store and threw it to the floor.

“There are bottles of holy water hanging all around the hut,” said Emahoy hastily, her hat tumbling off as she bent to pick up the goatskin and return it to the heap.

“In that case, she’ll move on within a week even if the cat doesn’t catch her,” said the leopard, slinging his rifle over his shoulder and stepping outside. “Let’s go.”

“The food was delicious.” The boar lifted up two goatskins. “We should return the favour with a kind deed. Killing the rat won’t take long but I’ll need a stick.”

“I made that grain store myself – it’s very strong,” said Emahoy, snatching the goatskins from him and throwing them back.

“But she might have gnawed through the lid.” He picked up Emahoy’s hat and gave it a shake.

“Oh, there she goes!” cried Emahoy, pointing up at the wall behind him. “So fast, she was just a blur.”

“You’ll never find her in the thatch,” called the leopard. “Come on.”

The boar handed Emahoy her hat and reached for his rifle.

“Your cat has kittens to feed so perhaps she’ll kill the rat tonight.”

Emahoy walked with the militiamen for a short distance.

"I hope you catch him soon," she said. "I don't feel safe with a murderer on the loose."

On returning to the hut, she reached for a jar wedged in a scooped-out shelf high up in the mud wall and tipped the sickly green contents into the remaining sauce in the pan. She replaced the jar on the shelf and stirred the sauce until its consistency and colour were even. After glancing outside, she lifted the lid off the grain store.

"It's all clear," she said. "You can come out now."

"Emahoy, they told you a crock of lies, I swear," said Getachew as he climbed out of the container, sweating. "Someone else put that grenade next to Almaz - probably a disgruntled lover. She was unfaithful to me, I know. She lived like a prostitute."

"Yes, people tell the most terrible lies," sympathized Emahoy. "Your father would be furious to hear what they accused you of. He'd kill them with his bare hands. He's a man with a temper if ever there was one. I wish he hadn't beaten my sister so, and then run off with that slut from Ayena. We need him here now."

"Yes, Auntie," said Getachew. "He would know what to do. It's all a big mistake."

"I know, I know," cooed Emahoy. "Now sit down. Let's think. You must eat heartily - you've far to go tonight."

“Couldn’t I stay here?” Getachew sat down, pulling on his finger joints.

"Stop that," said Emahoy. “Here, let me bring water.”

After he had washed his hands, she said, “It’s too risky to stay here. Mr Alemu might let slip that I’m your relative and those militiamen will come straight back in the morning. You must go east and get on a bus to Addis Ababa – nobody will find you there."

She served him, pouring all the remaining sauce on to the injera.

"Eat up, Getch," she said. "Keep your strength up."

"Yes, Auntie," he said, gobbling the food down.

Emahoy filled a rusty tin with beer and put it next to his foot. "Drink.”

She watched him for a moment before saying, “I’ll fetch some more wood.”

Lowering her eyes, she left the hut and walked round to the back where she sat on a boulder and waited. The sun had dropped behind the trees and the light was fading. The cat came and rubbed against her legs, mewing. The kittens climbed up her dress, their claws snagging on the embroidered crosses along the hem.

When she heard choking and a crash from inside the hut, she picked up the spade that was propped against the wall and carried it up the hillside, one hand pressed against her back.

“I’ll put him in alongside the others,” she said to herself. “Between his father and his uncle would be nice. I’ll drag him up after dark. Not looking forward to that – getting too old for such heavy work. Later, when the moon has risen, I’ll go to Church.”

The black kite flew out of the sunset and over the hut. She saw the old woman digging near the olive tree. The hen had taken her chicks inside for the night. The cat sat guarding her kittens, the tip of her tail flicking this way and that. After circling once, the bird turned east and followed the golden light to the mountains.

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