Ayalnesh is a mother. She has called her son Mekasha because God has taken her firstborn, a daughter. She was a puny little thing born a month too soon. During her brief existence, she tugged feebly, halfheartedly, at her mother's shriveled breasts without a whimper. Then she came down with a fever on the third week of her premature birth. Two days later, Ayalnesh had woken up from her fatigued slumber to find her daughter lying still by her side, an inert lump of her own flesh already having lived and died before she ought to have been born. Jolted out of his Tej-sodden stupor by her scream, her husband Liben had wrested from her obdurate clutches the stiffening body of the infant, washed and wrapped it up in an old neTela and sat next to his wailing wife as a few neighbors trickled in, their faces shrouded in a mask of simulated grief. To the bereaved couple, the funeral was the only occasion in their wedded life that had brought together two-dozen people on their account. Liben had refused to let anyone else carry the weensy corpse of his daughter. Weeping quietly, he shuffled at the head of the procession with his distraught wife at his heels.
That is why Ayalnesh had called her second child, a boy, Mekasha. He is meant to be her consolation, a solace to dry the fountain of tears she had been shedding since she lost her firstborn. When her belly swelled like a taut balloon and she felt the nudges and kicks of the fetus, she stopped weeping and made up her mind to call the baby Mekasha if it is a boy, Masresha if it is a girl. The bleary eyed, stooped hag of a midwife who had lugged the wailing newborn out of her and severed the umbilical cord with an old razor announced its gender by rasping, "baleQaCHil!" Ayalnesh, sprawled on her back, panting, bleeding and sweat-drenched, had gasped "Mekasha!" before sinking into an exhausted sleep.
Mekasha has grown to be a lanky, goggle-eyed, knobby-kneed boy with a scraggy neck and a drooling mouth. Although he is fifteen, his mother doesn't let him out of her sight for longer than a few minutes because his mind has remained as that of a two year old. In other words, he is what you might call an idiot.
Having seen his dream of fatherhood come to naught with the death of his daughter and the birth of the severely retarded Mekasha, Liben had, without warning, fled his cursed marriage and the ill-fated womb of his wife one quiet morning to try his luck elsewhere and to sire, before it is too late, a strapping boy that would be his succor in old age.
That was when Ayalnesh began scraping a living doing other people's laundry. She wanders from house to house dragging her idiot son by the hand, asking if folks need her help. The homes where her service is needed often being those of large families with a houseful of kids, a mountain of dirty clothes and linen is brought out for her to wrestle with all day long. Standing hunched at the metal washtub placed atop a pile of discarded tires, she scours an endless stream of soiled garments humming the tune of an old song she had learned in her girlhood. Her son Mekasha squats on the ground beside her, spittle raining down on his shirt, giggling at the sporadic hilarious spectacles of the autistic universe in his head, swatting flies on his face and squelching them on his cheeks. At times, some mean neighborhood kids egg him on to put the mangled carcasses of the flies in his mouth, and he does. Whenever his mother catches the cruel tramps in the act, she abandons her washing and charges at them, infuriated like a nursing tigress. On rare occasions, when a clumsy urchin falls behind his fleet-footed buddies, she grabs his wrist with wrinkled, soap-slippery hands and smacks him till he bawls. The boy scampers yowling and Mekasha's mother returns to her chore, her eyes brimming with tears.
If the punished happens to belong to one of those bilious women ever on the lookout for a chance to vent the pent up grief of a rotten marriage and a dismal kitchen, a foul-tempered woman comes lunging at Ayalnesh to give her a taste of her tongue.
"You miserable good-for-nothing! How dare you? Who do you think you are, beating up my son as if it is his fault your son is what he is? You shameless monkey! As if my son has a hand in your fate! Curse your stars, your lot of forty days. Do you understand? What does my son have to do with it? You have the nerve, walloping my child with your callous-gloved hands, you thick hided brute! If you ever so much as touch the hair on his head again, I know what I will do. I won't lift a finger at you. I will pay a coolie to come to your shack one night and give you a good thrashing. Mark my words!"
The raving woman, having appeased the ireful demon that dwells in her, gives Ayalnesh one last withering look before she departs, and Ayalnesh begins humming as soon as her reviler is out of earshot. Dislodging the filth in the clothes of strangers, soaking, scouring, rinsing, wringing them out and stringing them on the clothesline, she sings:
"Yabatihin aTir jib yeferawin
Sizorew adere libe bichawin."
She fell in love with these lines over twenty years ago, at fifteen, when she first heard them from the lips of a shepherd while she was out gathering wood. She has latched on to them since then, sung them countless times that they have long since come to mean nothing. And they never fail to spring to her lips whenever she is happy or sad. The tears trickle down her chin and mingle with the lathery gray water in the washtub; tears that burned in her eyes while the demented woman pelted her with thorny words. A fleeting sob, wrenched out of her bosom, escapes through the lump in her throat because she is wondering for the umpteenth time what would happen to Mekasha if her maker calls her first.
Mekasha crouches slobbering, stealing glances at her, vaguely aware that she is upset. Dejected, he wobbles, scraping crusted gunk out of his nostrils with his forefinger and putting it in his mouth. She halts her washing and turns to him, tenderness triumphing over the despair in her eyes. She darts to him and squats by his side. With the hem of her dress, she wipes the mucus and saliva together with the crushed flies off his face, and holding him tight against her breasts, kisses him greedily before returning to the washtub.
"Ga ga ga chirrrrrut! he he he he gagli gagaligligli!" he gurgle joyfully flailing his arms. He beams drooling afresh, the two year old in a fifteen year old body. Mekasha, Ayalnesh's consolation, is happy because he has sensed foggily that the woman who has just kissed him is his mother, and that she loves him.