Maybe, he thought, when his father overturned the deluxe gray sedan near Weliso and died, they
should have all congregated in the cellar. But he didn't even bother proposing. Great-uncles, to be
sure, would not take 14-year-old second sons too seriously. "A wake in the cellar? Nonsense!"
Abiyé Wondiyrad would have retorted. Abiyé, the family's august chief of protocol,
vigilantly and, at times, valiantly crusaded to keep nonsense at bay.
It was no use talking to his mother. Grief and guilt had shaken her into paralysis. She had, in
moments of frustration, repeatedly warned her husband about the excessive number of hours he
spent on the road. At no time had she expected her fears to be realized. As far back as the son
could remember his father had spent more than three days at home only once. It was never
It happened forty years ago this month. December 1960 to be exact. The boy was seven years old.
Plotters and forces loyal to Emperor Haile Selassie were battling in Addis Abeba to take control of the
country. Fearful of mortar, tank and gunfire, residents scrambled and cloistered themselves in their
The boy's father bid the family and the household staff to grab valuables and provisions and
descend into the cellar. Explosions rumbled in the distance and shrapnel
showered their compound, burning one of the two magnificent pines his mother had planted at the
outset of the Italian Occupation. Supervising the evacuation from the living room, the mother
instructed the children and the servants to take blankets, the Grundig short wave with extra
batteries, several spindles and a sack of cotton, as she wept for her absent firstborn son. Neither
her three middle daughters' anxious entreaties, nor her youngest and second son's reassuring clasp
around her waist, managed to subdue her sorrow.
Perched on the right ledge of the cellar stairway with a Belgian Mauser rifle strapped on his
shoulder and a gun belt buckled around his waist, the father barked orders as the nervous group
scrambled up and down the steep cellar stairs, stockpiling the bunker. Leaning against the wall
behind the father, Abiyé flinched as his lanky and youngest grand-niece dashed back
and forth through the narrow doorway, invariably bumping her head against the beam.
Once the household settled in the cellar, the father who had remained outside, called out the eldest son's name and beckoned
the male servant. Wiping the tears from her radiant face, the mother emerged through the cellar door and rushed up the steps, scanning the deserted compound.
When she reached the ground level, the father realized his blunder and turned away from her.
"Where is he?" she asked, in voice that insisted rather than believed in hope. The four younger
siblings strained their ears in the dark cellar. The father didn't respond. She asked again, angrily.
Click, click, click, click...the eldest daughter's high heels echoed as she hurried out of the cellar
and briskly climbed up the granite stairs. She steadied her mother's trembling hands and escorted
her down the stairs. "I meant our youngest," the father whispered. The mother paused by the door.
A bomb exploded several hundred meters away and shook the house, shattering the living room
windowpanes above the cellar entrance. Shards of glass scattered above their heads as the eldest
sister yanked her mother through the narrow doorway. Instinctively, the father removed the
Mauser from his shoulder and pulled on the bolt handle. The second son squeezed past his mother
and his eldest sister and raced up to his father, crunching glass particles with his boots.
"I'm here," the youngest son declared. The father uncocked the rifle and slipped the sling through
his arm. The son ducked, avoiding the Mauser's butt. "I'm here, Baba," the second son repeated,
crouching near his father's legs. The father looked down and stared at his son for several seconds.
"Here you are, my son," the father said. The son stood up as the father squatted.
The father lifted his son in his arms and stood up as the son locked his hands around his father's
neck. The father stroked the back of the son's head with his left hand. The slight forward shift of his left shoulder inadvertently jerked the Mauser's barrel, banging the son's forehead.
Pushing the barrel to the side, the son rubbed his temple and rested his head on his father's right
Bent and blocked by the charred trunk of the once magnificent pine, the front iron gates inched forward,
the jagged bottom rail scrapping against the cobblestone. In an instant, the father lowered the boy
to the ground and cocked the Mauser. He told his son to run to the cellar and aimed his rifle at the
gate. The son stopped halfway down the underground cellar steps and bobbed his head above the
"Identify yourself or I will shoot," the father shouted. The intruder released the gate.
"It's me, my lord. It's Balcha," the gatekeeper, responded. "I was caught in a crossfire and was unable
to return earlier," he continued. The father locked the Mauser's safety pin and slipped his arm
through the sling. "Hold on, let me remove the trunk," the father
said as he walked toward the gate. The son emerged from the stairway and followed his father,
maintaining a safe distance between them.
The father kicked the trunk a few times but it did not budge. Chunks of bark covered with soot
broke off and scattered on the ground. The father lifted the Mauser strap off his shoulder and
stepped toward the gatepost when he noticed his son. "Come here," he said. Uncertain about the
nature of the command, the son gingerly walked toward his father. "Hold it upright and stand over
there," the father said as he pointed at Balcha's shack. "Remember, don't touch or move anything,
okay?" the father said. Beaming, the son nodded vigorously and held the Mauser. He inserted his arm through the sling and tried to carry the rifle on his back. The father suppressed a smile
and instructed the son to carry the weapon with both hands. Dejected, the son held the Mauser as instructed and stationed himself next to Balcha's cot.
"You should come. It's not safe out there," Abiyé shouted from the cellar stairway.
"At least send the boy," he added. Abiyé turned toward the boy and directed him to give the
Mauser back to the father and return to the cellar. The son looked up at his father. Without
glancing toward his son, the father told Abiyé not to worry. Abiyé, we'll all be there shortly.
Please console their mother for me." The old man shook his head, muttered and disappeared
into the cellar. The son grinned.
Crouching behind the trunk, the father realized that several spikes on the top rail had impaled the
pine. Balcha peeked through the narrow opening between the gates and told the father that he
could climb over without any trouble.
"Don't! Neighbors will think you're a looter and shoot at you," the father said.
He told his son not to fool around with the Mauser and walked to the garage. He backed up the
deluxe gray sedan all to way to the gate and grabbed some rope from the trunk. Dexterously, he
tied a knot and flung it over the gate, wrapping it around the charred trunk. He tightened the knot
around the pine and tied the other end of the rope on the deluxe gray sedan's hitch. He told his son and Balcha to move away from the gate as he stepped into the driver's seat.
After a brief tug between sedan and pine, the father managed to dislodge the trunk from the spikes on the gate.
Tumbling off the top rail, the trunk broke into two and rolled on the cobblestone. The father
packed the rope in the trunk as Balcha shoved the gate open and entered the compound.
The son walked toward his father. "Give me the rifle and hop in the front seat," the father said.
The son ecstatically complied as he secured a spot that had always been claimed by his older
brother and sisters when his mother was not around. His legs dangled on the edge of the brown
Laying the rifle on the back seat, the father closed the passenger door and told Balcha to join the
rest of the family in the cellar. Balcha kicked and rolled the charred trunk away from the gate. The
father stepped into the driver's seat of the deluxe gray sedan and asked his son if he'd like to learn
how to drive. The son nodded, immediately climbed, and sat on his father's lap. The father kissed
the back of his son's head and started the engine. The son grabbed the steering wheel as the deluxe
gray sedan slowly moved toward the garage. They stopped once they reached
their destination but the son did not release the steering wheel. The father enveloped his son's hands. He backed up the deluxe gray sedan all the way to the gate. On the way back, Balcha waved
at the boy and walked down the cellar stairs. Father and son parked the
deluxe gray sedan and exited through the driver's door. The son held his father's
hand as the father opened the back passenger door and picked up the Mauser.
Suddenly, the son violently pulled his father's arm. The father looked up,
following his son's gaze. A man in an Imperial Guard uniform was climbing over the main gates.
The man atop the gate saw the father and the son. The father ordered his son to lie on the ground.
The man atop the gate awkwardly straddled the spikes as he removed a pistol from
his gun belt. The father cocked the Belgian Mauser. The son watched the man atop the gate as he
leaned forward and pointed his pistol in their direction.
Eleleleleleleleleleleleleleleelelelele! The mother's jubilant ululation resounded from the cellar as
the man atop the gate slouched and tumbled on the cobblestone, into the compound. The driver's
side mirror of the deluxe gray sedan shattered and crashed behind the son's feet.
Father and son glanced at one another as the mother sprinted out of the cellar calling out her
husband's name. Sobbing violently, the mother ran toward her husband and embraced him. "He
has spared him for us! He has spared him for us!" the mother exclaimed as she pressed her face
against her husband's chest. Perplexed, the husband put his arm around his wife and asked for an
explanation. "Spared!" the mother repeated. Abruptly, she released her husband and kneeled on
the cobblestone. As she bent forward, the mother blankly stared at her second son in front of her but did not notice him. The mother kissed the ground and began to pray. "Lord, you
are compassionate! Lord, you are benevolent! Lord, you are merciful!" the mother whispered.
Balcha, followed by the three sisters, emerged out of the cellar. Abiyé's bass voice
boomed as he sternly commanded his great-nieces to return. The eldest daughter
snatched and pulled the hand of the youngest sister as all three descended and disappeared.
Distressed, Balcha looked down and blurted, "Sir, I thought you knew! I would have told you! I
would have told you!"
"Told me what!? Know what!?" the father shouted.
"Madame had sent me on an errand to your mother's house before the disturbance started. I was
"Balcha!" the father violently interrupted. "Just tell me why Madame is crying," the father said.
"It's about your son, sir," Balcha murmured.
The father immediately turned and looked down. Father and son locked eyes.
"I meant your eldest," Balcha said. The father turned sharply and looked up at Balcha.
"As I was leaving your mother's house, I saw him with a group of other university students chanting and demonstrating on the street. He was waving a placard with a several other students and did not see me. Immediately after I told your mother, she and the chauffeur followed the
students in her Volkswagen. Your son didn't look very happy but he was in the back of the car with your mother
when they returned. He is now at her house. I would have told you but I assumed they had
telephoned to let you know," Balcha continued.
The husband crouched next to his wife and stroked her face. "He is indeed compassionate, dear,"
the husband said. He closed his eyes and offered a silent prayer. Opening his eyes, he gently lifted
his wife off the ground and led her to the cellar, blocking her view of the gate. They stopped next
to the stoop. Balcha walked a couple of steps down, turned toward the couple and stretched out
his hand. The mother leaned on Balcha's forearm and walked down the stairs as the middle
daughter emerged through the cellar door holding a hammer and a radio antenna cable.
"The telephone lines have been cut," the father said quietly, as if he were talking to himself.
Pinching a nail from her lips, the middle daughter hammered it into the doorjamb and bent it over
the antenna cable. The father waited until she finished fastening the end of the cable. He then
walked down the steps, cupped his middle daughter's face with both hands and kissed her
forehead. She looked up toward the garage searching for her younger brother but was unable to
see him from the underground entrance. The daughter asked if she could be outside with her
father and younger brother.
"We'll be right back," the father said. The middle daughter cast her eyes down. "Why don't you
finish setting up the short-wave for me in the meantime?" the father asked. She smiled and
skittered back into the cellar.
The youngest son stood up as the father emerged from the underground stairway. The father
signaled with his hand, ordering the youngest son not to move. He then cocked the Mauser and
discreetly walked toward the man atop the gate. He did not breathe, lying supine in a pool of
blood, overwhelmed by his mismatched and oversized uniform and boots. The father crouched
next to the man atop the gate and extricated the pistol from the dead man's iron grasp.
The mid-morning sun cast a tiny shadow obscuring the youthful face of the man atop the gate.
Startled, the father looked up and saw his youngest son mesmerized by the sight of the corpse.
"Didn't I tell you--" the father stopped, alarmed by the boy's agitation. His son was shuffling
backwards, frantically wiping blood off his boots on scrawny weeds outlining the cobblestone.
The father quickly got up, hunched behind his son and embraced him. He leaned over the lad's
shoulders and whispered into his ears. The son calmed down and nodded.
The son walked away from the father, gazing abstractly at the red footprints trailing behind him.
He squatted next to a spigot and a coiled garden hose, located behind Balcha's cabin, and turned
on the water. Enthralled by the speed of the water racing through the hose the boy tracked the flow. All at once, he seized a limp section of the hose and folded it. He felt the pressure
of the water building up on one end of the hose. Suddenly, water burst through the adapter and
sprayed the boy's face. The kid chuckled.
Then, the boy remembered. He turned around and looked over his shoulder. The limp legs of the
man atop the gate were disappearing through the gate. The boy jumped up and
ran toward the gate. He clutched the bolt and cautiously peered through the narrow opening. Across the
street, slumped casually against a telephone pole, a corpse in a disheveled army uniform stared at
him. The boy shrunk back behind the corrugated metal sheet covering the top half of the metal
gate. Leaning his forehead against the rail, the boy tilted his head slowly to the right and surveyed
the street with one eye.
Not a bird chirped, not a dog stirred, not a car chugged. In the silence, the heels of the man atop
the gate's oversized boots tapped irregularly against sharp granite stones embedded in the gravel
road as the father dragged the corpse. The boy looked down, retracing the red imprints all the way
back to the gate.
Halting at a crossroad, the father glanced stealthily in all four directions before he hauled the man
atop the gate to the side and gently laid him face down on a footpath. The father hurried back past
his son, grabbed the garden hose and dissolved the blood tracks within a hundred meters radius
from the gate. He then stepped back into the compound, handed the garden hose to his son, and
bolted the gate. The son hosed the blood on the cobblestone, forcing the swelling puddle to flow
into the grass.
Hand-in-hand, father and son quietly strolled to the back of the house and released the two
watchdogs chained next to the storeroom. The dogs barked and raced to the front of the house.
The father led the son into the house through the kitchen door. He told his son to change the
bloodstained clothes and meet him in the living room right away.
Later, father and son squatted next to the fireplace in clean and ironed clothes as large flames
crackled and engulfed their stained garments. Heavy and continuous shelling resumed in the
distance. Fighter planes flying low crisscrossed above their heads.
The mother called out her son and husband's names and ran out of the cellar. The husband rushed
to the window and looked past the sash bars lined with broken and jagged windowpanes.
Hundreds of leaflets, falling from the sky encircled the mother as the dogs barked and leapt in the
air attempting to bite some of the leaflets in mid-air.
The father slung the Mauser on his shoulder and held his son's hand before they walked out of the
house. He picked up a leaflet from the ground and led his son and wife back to the cellar. The
mother embraced and kissed her son as they walked through the narrow doorway. The father
leaned on the beam above the door and examined the leaflet. It was a decree from Abune Basilios,
the Patriarch. The prelate was excommunicating the plotters and admonished the people not to
waver in their loyalty.
Torrential water gushes under a single row of sandstone lined across the mouth of an enormous
river. Leaping off the bank the boy balances himself on the first sandstone. Encouraged, he
continues until he lands on the eighth sandstone. All at once, red footprints appear on top of each
sandstone. Instantly, the footprints coagulate and transform themselves into links. A bomb
explodes nearby as the links levitate above the boy's head. The boy teeters. A garden hose
wrapped around a charred trunk unwinds at great speed, looping through the red links. The boy
covers his head with his hands and closes his eyes. The links coil tightly around his feet, across his
limbs, over his stomach, and on his neck.
In the dark, the father lifted his son off the mattress and held him in his arms. The son woke up
and immediately wrapped his arms around his father. The father stroked his son's back.
Carefully, the father sat on the floor and leaned back against the wall. He took his son's hand and
placed it flat against the wall.
"Knock on the wall," the father whispered. The son tapped. "What do you hear?" the father asked.
The son struck harder.
"What is it?" the son murmured quizzically.
"Listen," the father whispered as he gently tapped the wall.
"It's hollow," the son exclaimed as he sat bolt upright on his father's lap.
"Shhhh! You'll wake them up," the father said very softly. "Do you know when this cellar was
constructed?" the father asked. "Abiyé told me the Italians built it after they had taken
the house from Mama during the war" the son said. "That's all he said," the son continued.
The father groped in the dark and pressed his lips against his son's ear and murmured, "They hid
their treasures behind this wall hours before they surrendered." The son asked if they could knock
the wall down at daybreak. "When it's time, together, you and I will come down here and
sledgehammer the wall. Until then, don't talk about the treasure to anyone," the father said.
"I won't," the son said. Soon he began to snore.
Balcha had closed all the wooden shutters in the morning before the bearer of the news arrived and
had the mother summoned to the living room. The adolescent second son wanted to mourn for his
father in the cellar. But the rest of the family would not understand. Abiyé made sure
the wake, comme il faut, took place in the somber living room. Seated on the mattress with his
mother, his paternal grandmother and his siblings, the second son glanced past the empty hearth
and craned his neck back to look up at the window that was directly above the cellar. Now
replaced, the windowpanes reflected the doleful faces of the mourners. He looked out through the
door at the inelegant eucalyptus tree that had rapidly supplanted the magnificent pine. He was not
Once the Emperor had returned from Brazil and the plotters had been hung, imprisoned or set
free, the crisis was over. The industrious father resumed his frenetic shuttling between Addis
Abeba and the fledgling coffee plantation near Jimma and did not have much time for the children,
least of all the second son who was considered too young to travel with him.
Forty days after the father had died, early in the morning, family and extended family members,
friends, neighbors and colleagues attended the inauguration of the father's tombstone at the
cemetery and came to the house for the final memorial banquet of the year. The next day, the
eldest brother and his wife arrived at the house to pick up the mother and the three sisters. They
were all going to the plantation. The night before, the second son had insisted on staying home and had stolen the
key to the cellar door from his mother's purse after she had gone to sleep.
Before she stepped into the back seat of her eldest son's car, the mother made her youngest son
promise to obey Abiyé during her absence. The youngest sister knelt on the passenger
seat and suspiciously looked at her younger brother through the back window all the way until the
car turned at the crossroad and disappeared. Balcha closed the gate as the boy ran to the garage
and grabbed a sledgehammer.
The boy ran down the cellar stairway and opened the lock on the bolt. He stepped into the cellar
as Abiyé called out from the verandah. Quickly, he locked the door from the inside
and turned on the lights that his mother had had installed a few months after the coup d'état. He
walked past a few barrels of grain and cereal and several sacks of coal and coffee. Leaning over a
few large brewing jars, he tapped on the wall with his fingers. Abiyé struck the cellar door with
his cane and shouted, "Open the door this instant! You will be in a lot of trouble. Hear me, boy?
Open the door!" The boy slid the empty jars on the tiled floor and cleared the wall.
He raised the sledgehammer over his head as Abiyé's rebukes and raps on the door intensified.
Replacing the sledgehammer on the floor, the boy spat on each hand and rubbed them for a few
"I'm sorry, Baba. It was never time," the son said and pounded the wall. A section the size of
soccer ball broke off and disappeared through the dark hole. The boy continued to strike until he created an opening that was large enough for him to squeeze through. He placed the
sledgehammer against a barrel and peered through the opening as Abiyé's footsteps faded in the
The boy grabbed a flashlight off a ledge next to the main door, turned it on and shone it into the
treasure room. Several layers of cobwebs suspended from the ceiling and from the wall diffused
the beam, obscuring objects in the background. With one stroke, the boy cut through the web with a broom and
walked into the dark room. Numerous articles, covered in sheets, were heaped in the back of the
room. The boy yanked the sheets. A bassinet, a perambulator, a crib, a wooden walker, a rocking
horse, a high chair, several tiny shoes, a few chests filled with cotton diapers and infant and
toddler's clothes were neatly stacked and piled in the corner. He coughed as he directed his
flashlight on other corners of the room: they were all bare. The boy brushed off the dust from his
face and hands and knelt on the floor. He shone the light under the crib and noticed a metal box.
Crawling under the crib, he dragged the box out as the two padlocks on it banged against the
metal. He broke each padlock with the sledgehammer and opened the lid. Several mildewed
dÄcolletÄ gowns and silk wraps, neatly folded and pressed and separated by wax paper, were
packed in the box. The boy tossed the gowns and the wraps into the crib.
At the bottom of the box lay a photograph album. The boy grappled the album spine with one
hand but was unable to lift it. He placed the flashlight on the floor and lifted the album, in the
dark, out of the metal box. Eagerly, the boy clutched the flashlight and pointed it at the album's
ornate cover. An extremely light-skinned baby in a long white christening gown framed in an
oval-shaped relief stared at him.
The boy sat on the floor, placed the heavy book on his lap and flipped through the album carefully
examining each photograph. A nervous looking Ethiopian teenage girl in the arms of a tall Italian
officer with thick black hair; the girl and the officer holding the branches of the pine tree that was the
same height as the girl; the young woman on the verandah covering her extended belly; the young
woman in bed carrying a wrapped infant in her arms.
"That's G*****'s mother! G***** has a brother that's half-Italian?!" the boy exclaimed.
He continued to flip through the album. The officer holding the infant in the living room; the baby
boy seated on a high chair; the officer lying on the grass and holding the baby boy up in the air; the
toddler standing between the officer and the young woman.
The boy turned several pages at once and looked at the last photograph. It was the toddler who
now looked about four. He was standing teary-eyed in front of the railway station, surrounded by
numerous panick-stricken Italian women and children and piles of luggage. The boy realized that this was the only
photograph in the album that was taken outside the compound.
He closed the album. "I'll hide this until the boy returns to reclaim his treasure," the boy said.