Her popularity crested the year she immortalized the celebrated twenty-eight year old elephant hunter and the boisterous fourteen year-old heir to the throne in her infectious and bawdy tune, Gallant Twins. Eager for new heroes and weary of the aging Emperor's crippling ailments, Mother’s young admirers and tavern patrons quickly dubbed 1909 as the "Year of the Brave." It was rumored that when she died that year while giving birth to my brother Hiruy and me, she was mocking her labor pains by belting the refrain of that notorious song.
By the time Hiruy and I turned twenty-one, the Gallant Twins melody had become a standard of minstrels' repertoires in all of Addis Abeba's pubs. With one exception -- while trendy balladeers embellished the old lyrics about the hunter who killed 686 Maji elephants in a single year, while defiant deacons rewrote the doggerels into elegies about the deposed heir who wandered in the Danakil desert, the hunter and the heir's names disappeared from the rhyme scheme. After all, it was September 1930. A new hero, a King, was to be crowned Emperor of Ethiopia in two months time.
Tightly sealed within the palace walls, panic struck government ministers as preparations for the costly coronation festivities nearly emptied the treasury coffers. In the midst of an emergency finance meeting, a very senior and senile personage shocked and appalled his dignified but acrimonious co-participants by whistling and singing the original version of Gallant Twins! But the monarch, pragmatic prince that he was, conveniently ignored the impudent rendition and had the hunter immediately summoned to the royal residence.
Dusty exchequer ledgers confirmed the lore. Ivory exports peaked in 1909 and plummeted in the following two decades. Of the 189,595 pounds of ivory that the primarily Indian owned trading companies shipped in the "Year of the Brave," the hunter's 686 pairs of tusks constituted the lion's share. Dismal current figures–less than 4,400 pounds had been marketed abroad in the first eight months of 1930–compelled the King to take matters into his own hands. He elevated the hunter to the rank of Negadras, making the latter responsible for the collection and exportation of ivory.
Although his burly six foot four frame easily subdued the extra 56 pounds he had gained since his youthful days, Negadras, now well into his 49th year, realized that not even the sturdiest Sululta stallion would be able to withstand 245 pounds on the saddle in addition to the rigors of the hunt in the scorching lowlands. Aggrieved by his enforced retirement, Negadras decided to escort a group of younger hunters on a quick foray into the savanna and then, upon his return, console himself with a young new bride.
At that time, Hiruy and I had already established a name for ourselves as an accomplished hunting duo. We had participated in several royal expeditions that included foreign financiers and dignitaries. It was, thus, natural for us to be asked to join Negadras' elite corps.
The prospect of hunting with the legendary virtuoso excited us both. We were eager to acquire arcane tricks of the trade from a veteran who, in his youth, had killed two elephants daily for an entire year. Nevertheless, after accompanying several foreign visitors in four or five expeditions, it dawned on upon us that the future no longer lay in ivory tusks but in languages. In little more than a decade, the soon-to-be crowned Emperor had burst Ethiopia's doors wide open to foreign investors and speculators. Inexperienced government officials were frantically granting innumerable mining and agricultural concessions. The few young men from modest backgrounds who, early on, had mastered French, English, Italian or German, had now become indispensable aides to these officials. Our prescient peers were handsomely compensated for their services and were appropriately groomed to replace aristocratic administrators. Soon, the battle cry for ambitious but humble young men of our generation had become, in the parlance of the day, "Turjuman!" We all chaotically clambered to find ways to become translators.
I trust then, dear reader, that you will forgive mine and Hiruy's dampened enthusiasm for Negadras' anachronistic invitation. Had it not been for the wise counsel of a Turjuman friend, my brother and I would have both feigned illness and remained in the city.
* * * *
Much to our dismay, Hiruy and I did learn some new tricks from the old master and surpassed our previous record by killing 14 elephants in 28 days. That was one elephant a day, if you don't count the two weeks of travelling. Other members of our team averaged one elephant every two to three days. Although alarmed and distressed by the dramatically diminished elephant population, Negadras was visibly relieved. In a single and short trip, we had outstripped the cumulative harvest of the first eight months of the year. The monarch, undoubtedly, would be pleased with the extraordinary results of this trial expedition.
One afternoon, on the journey back to Addis Abeba, Negadras told his senior aides within our earshot about his delight in "discovering" a superior hunting pair. Later at dusk, Hiruy and I helped pitch Negadras' tent and hurled whispered insults at one another. We each blamed the other for listening to the accursed Turjuman friend's advice. Our plans to pursue a career in translation had clearly been derailed. The next morning, the expedition's designated minstrel approached us on horseback and began to earnestly sing a heroic rendition of Gallant Twins. Hiruy kicked the minstrel's leg and galloped ahead. Baffled, the minstrel pulled on the reins of his mule and waited for the less accomplished but more appreciative hunters to overtake him.
* * * *
Had it not been for the permanent smirk affixed on our Turjuman friend's face, we would have at least enjoyed our first audience with the sovereign in the throne room. While the Negadras graciously narrated our exploits, I looked up and stole glances at the King's retinue. A few splendid old courtiers and several overexerted middle-aged functionaries formed the first half-circle around him. Our young Turjuman friend and his associates fashioned the second and wider crescent.
As I bowed low to receive an engraved watch from the King, a door opened in the back of the room behind our Turjuman friend. Two eyes, vertically aligned to the doorframe, peered through the crack. I stumbled back into my original position, my eyes glued on the concealed observer. Annoyed at my clumsy comportment, Negadras grunted and turned to look in the same direction. The door abruptly closed.
* * * *
Neither her imported chiffon veil, nor her demure bridesmaids' blockade, prevented her from peeking in my direction throughout her wedding banquet. I instantly recognized the eyes. Blood surged through my temples as my heart pumped with alarming frequency. In spite of the ensuing headache, I decided to conduct the test. I wanted to be sure that she did not mistake me for my identical twin. I looked up toward the dais but was not able to see her. Several well-wishers that had just arrived surrounded her and Negadras.
I stood up and climbed over the bench. Hiruy, who was sitting next to me, grabbed my arm. The pounding in my chest drowned the sounds of merriment in the hall. Hiruy's lips moved, but I did not hear him. I wrenched my arm free and stumbled past an agitated usher and a few tipsy guests. Several female servants had removed large urns from their backs and were filling a vat with more Tej as I walked along the receptacle. Whiffs redolent of fermented hops and honey increased my dizziness. I hastened out of the large tent as the well-wishers began to take their leave of the bride and bridegroom.
Awash in a brilliant late September afternoon sun, I was immediately beset by a throng of beggars and lepers. I tried intimidating them with a scowl and all the haughty demeanor my weakened state could muster. Armed guards, au courant of the esteem in which I was held by the King and the Negadras, fortunately came to my rescue and escorted me back to the tent. Negatwa Tessema's raunchy interpretation of a traditional wedding song, accompanied by an impromptu chorus of gleeful and ardent young men, drowned the aggressive pleas for alms.
I stood behind a post and gazed, mesmerized, at Negadras' young bride. While she was not greeting an elderly guest or fearfully averting Negadras' blatant salacious stares, she searched the banquet hall. My twin brother and Negatwa were engaged in a frenzied eskista duel. Startled, her eyes momentarily rested on Hiruy. Sharp pangs in my chest forced me to crouch and stagger. I loosened the swaddling neTela around my neck and coughed. Her expression remained steady: she was perplexed.
Curious guests encircled Hiruy and Negatwa and obstructed her view. She resumed her search and cautiously scanned past numerous faces. I leaned on the post and stood erect. I gulped in some air and began to breathe normally. And then, our eyes locked. An insubordinate smile surfaced and broke on her face.
Wary of the unauthorized and unabashed radiance on his young wife's face, Negadras grabbed and squeezed her fingers. She winced and gingerly turned toward her middle-aged husband who confronted her with a grimace. Gesturing coyly at Negatwa and Hiruy, she gently tugged her left hand. He tightened his grip and kneaded her palm with his clammy thumb.
As I turned away, I saw Ato Arega, Negadras' elderly steward next to the dais. Although he had kept his distance, we had met during the hunting expedition. He was looking at me intently, though his face betrayed no emotion or recognition. I bowed. He did not stir. I was not sure whether to ascribe his discourtesy to hostility or poor eyesight.
* * * *
After a few confidential conversations with two mid-level bureaucrats, Hiruy and I realized that unless we received Negadras' approval and release, no other senior government official would meet with us let alone consider sponsoring our education overseas. Thus, our short-lived career as petitioners to the King's Master Huntsman was launched.
A week after the wedding, Hiruy and I began a routine of going to Negadras' house after early morning mass and taking leave at dusk. We would wait in the windowless anteroom with six to ten other people seeking favors until he left for work at 9:00 o'clock sharp. At 8:55, Negadras, followed by Ato Arega, would step into the anteroom. Immediately, we would all stand up, bow and greet him. Ato Arega would then lean toward Negadras, and, in a stage whisper, briefly narrate the predicament of one of the people in the room. Negadras would knit his eyebrows, stretch his arm patronizingly and wait. The jubilant person would block our desperate efforts to establish eye contact and rush toward Negadras. Negadras would wrap his gigantic arm around the person's shoulder and stroll through the front door. At 9:00 o'clock, we would hear the back passenger door of Negadras' automobile close. Only at that time would we sit down.
When Negadras returned for lunch, a high-ranking official would more often than not accompany him. Of course, we would all stand up when we heard the chauffeur open the back passenger door. We would bow as Negadras and his guest, followed by Ato Arega, walked past us into the drawing room. If the dignitary were Negadras' superior in rank, Negadras would not acknowledge our presence.
According to a friendly footman assigned to bring in our meals, legend has it that a poor fellow had once been summarily evicted when he bypassed Ato Arega, attempting to appeal directly to Negadras. Consequently, none of us dared to disrupt Negadras when he crossed the anteroom, with or without guests.
Hiruy and I waited on Negadras for six days. And yet, she had not once appeared.
Dear reader, with your "post-modern" sensibility, I would not be surprised if you wondered how we managed to ward off boredom, frustration and anger, seated in a dark anteroom with a group of unfamiliar rivals-in-waiting. On the contrary, we looked forward to these visits. Granted, there were the short-lived anxiety attacks beset by his timely appearances and disappearances before our breakfast, lunch and dinner. But you see the people assembled in the anteroom had survived several cycles of favor and disfavor. Their riveting anecdotes and oftentimes hilarious tales kept us absorbed and entertained.
A short and stocky fellow told us how he had rescued the pilot of N'sre Teferi, Ethiopia's first airplane, during an air show at Jan Meda several years ago. The hapless–or as the liberator declared, inexperienced–pilot had entangled himself and the plane when he landed on the canopy of eucalyptus grove that bordered the field.
A buxom middle-aged lady told us how she single-handedly nursed and extricated thirty-two people from the jaws of Ye Hidar Beshita, the most devastating epidemic in living memory. I vaguely remember our aunt temporarily losing her mind to grief as her parents and all of her surviving siblings succumbed to the pestilence.
A gaunt, bald man told us how he had fought alongside his master, Dejazmatch Abba Weqaw, barricaded inside Emperor Menelik and Empress Taitu's mausoleum against a division of the present King's uniformed and well-trained army. Sixty-three years earlier Dejazmatch's grandfather and great-grandfather had rescued young Menelik from Emperor Tewodros' mountain fortress at Maqdala, carrying the prince on their backs. Dejazmatch in turn saw his opportunity for an entry in the annals when the authority of Empress Zewditu, Menelik's daughter, had became imperiled. Our raconteur, whose eyes curiously never blinked, claimed that Dejazmatch, caught in the cruelest of ironies, would not have surrendered were it not for the appearance of the Italian-made tank. He did not want the sacred remains of his late master and mistress, heroes of Adwa, annihilated by Italian projectile while he fought to preserve the daughter's throne.
* * * *
On the seventh day, Hiruy and I finally had our turn. Negadras put his arms around our shoulders and glanced blithely left to right then right to left unable to tell us apart while Ato Arega informed him about our wish to stop hunting and desire to learn languages overseas. His condescending joviality evaporated, instantly. Ato Arega started to walk out of the anteroom. Looking directly at his steward, Negadras herded us out of the house and down the front steps, murmuring his displeasure. He rhetorically asked how any robust young hunter–handpicked, for heavens sake, by Negadras himself–would, after demonstrating his marksmanship on the field, prefer to dillydally indoors behind a desk?! The chauffeur opened the back passenger door. Negadras removed his arms from our shoulders and, with one sweep, draped his cape over his left shoulder. He then turned to me and mournfully asked: "Does not hunting satiate all of your yearnings?"
Before my brother and I had time to reflect upon Negadras' at once furious and melancholic outburst, a messenger from the Palace interrupted us and handed our chastiser an envelope. Negadras opened it and read the enclosed single-page letter twice. He folded the note back into the envelope, slipped it into his fob pocket and told Hiruy to get into the car. The chauffeur rushed around the hood and opened the front passenger door. Negadras stepped into the car as Ato Arega closed the back passenger door. Negadras rolled down the window and ordered me to stay. Hiruy sat in the front passenger seat and closed the door as the car sped out of the compound.
* * * *
France's envoy to the coronation, Marshal Franchet d'Espery, hero of the first Battle of the Marne, had arrived in Addis Abeba a month in advance to hunt lions and elephants. Later, I learnt that the King had commanded Negadras to have "one of the twins" accompany Paris' decorated guardian.
On the morrow, Hiruy left with the Marshal. I sat in darkest corner of the anteroom. The bald man told the group how he had accompanied Dejazmatch Abba Weqaw into banishment, but this time around, I did not listen. I was wallowing in despair and self-pity. Were it not for the savior of the thirty-two souls, I would not have even stood up from my chair to greet Negadras when he crossed the anteroom. Before the Master Huntsman stepped into the room, the buxom saint would whisper in my ear and shake my arm. She and I would then stand up together.
One day, an hour or two after Negadras had lunched and left the house, she crossed the anteroom. Her unexpected and unique appearance caught all of us by surprise. We stumbled out of our seats and bowed. She bowed very low in both directions. Her eyes lingered in on me a split second longer than on the rest of the group. When she disappeared, the group admired her grace and good manners. My not-so-secret admiration, noticed by my kind savior, lay elsewhere.
The next day, about fifteen minutes after Negadras had breakfasted and left for work, Ato Arega crossed the anteroom mouthing obscenities. Then, the front gates opened and closed behind him.
Sometime later Worqé, the lady's maid, appeared. Worqé walked toward the buxom lady and me, and asked us to follow her into the drawing room. When we stood up, the rest of the group ceased their conversation and cast their eyes down to the bare hardwood floor. Worqé closed the drawing room door behind her, asked me to sit on a sofa and led my partner into the private quarters. I sat in the middle of a large sofa with the window behind me, partially blocking the light. Magnified seven-fold, my shadow looked menacing, even to me. I began to look around the room.
To my right, unopened wedding presents were piled high in a corner next to a phonograph. Across the room, their almost life-sized framed wedding photograph was reclined against a bare wall. Seated on armchairs next to one another in the Boyadjian photography studio, Negadras stared sternly into the lens. His hand dangled on her ornately carved armrest. Her hands, however, were ensconced behind her velvet cape, embroidered in gold thread.
I stood up, walked around the coffee table and turned around. Through the window, halfway down the hill, I could see the sprawling French Legation compound on the right, the imposing villa of the King's older brother and the elegant two-story residence of an erstwhile minister of justice on the left. Numerous shacks, roofed with rusty corrugated sheets, skirted the river at bottom of the hill. In the foreground, a team of stonemasons, intermittently screened by a jalousie that swung back and forth, was busy erecting a stone wall around Negadras' compound.
She called out my name in a clear voice. I turned around, startled. She was standing right behind me. I glanced around the room to see if we were alone. Worqé and the middle-aged lady were across the room, obscuring the framed wedding photograph. Ambling around the coffee table, she knelt on the sofa and grabbed the window handle. She turned, and with eyes twinkling with mischief, implored me in a mock-serious tone to identify the city prey that had captivated the hunter with the proven marksmanship. I slid my hands in my pockets lest they revealed their unsteadiness. Before I responded, she twisted the handle and yanked the windows open. Injecting gravity into her facial expression, she repeated the question as she flung back the jalousie against the wall. Her dark skin glowed in the diffused morning light.
All at once, she grabbed my arm, pulled herself up and, before I knew it, let go. I was too self-conscious to look but I was certain that her two-second grip had emblazoned a ring around my wrist. She stood right next to me in the narrow space between the coffee table and the sofa. Her linen dress brushed against the crease of my heavily starched trousers. I wanted to tightly wrap my arms around her waist and nuzzle against her nape but Worqé and the middle-aged woman jutted out in my line of vision. She looked up and gazed at my lips impatiently waiting for a reply.
I quickly formulated a repartee but my vocal chords, without any advance warning, defied my command. I heaved and moved my lips furiously hoping to overwhelm the mutiny. All I was able to marshal were inappropriate grunts that hinted at embarrassing exertions of a bodily–albeit solitary–function. Fortunately, the cacophonic chorus of the stonemasons' chisels chipping granite blocks in the front yard came to my rescue. Annoyed at the discordant clamor that had interrupted her maneuvering, she knelt on the cushion and drew back the curtains. As she raised and stretched her arms to close the window, her watch slid from her wrist down to her forearm. The silver band sparkled in the shadow. The hour and the minute hands indicated that it was almost 10:00 o'clock but the sun was still behind the house. And then, our eyes met. Thus began the most gratifying thirteen days of my entire life.
* * * *
Our course of action immediately fell into place. Negadras would leave for work; she would send sullen old Ato Arega on an errand; Worqé would summon the buxom lady and myself into the drawing room; our savior, may she rapture before the Second Coming, would be on the lookout in front of the window while I would dash to their bedroom.
We knew that we had embarked upon a treacherous path. But neither of us had the will or the desire to nurture the remnants of our survival instincts. In the first few days, our fellow petitioners in the anteroom–none of them had ever been admitted into the drawing room–showered us with stolen glances of admiration. Soon some of that evolved into envy, then hostility. At the beginning of the second week, the runt that claimed to have rescued the pilot from the eucalyptus trees made a sneering remark as we entered the living room. The middle-aged lady had the good sense to put an end to that when we returned to the anteroom before Ato Arega's return and Negadras' lunch hour. Any action that I may have taken would have confirmed their suspicions. She stood in front of the cowering fellow–rumor had it that she had connections to the underworld–and raised her forefinger at him for an uncomfortably long time. Subsequently, he never dared to look at either of us in the eyes. But I knew that he was only biding his time.
Later in the week, Ato Arega ignored the middle-aged lady and I when we arrived in the morning. At that point, the middle-aged lady became very nervous; I imagined Negadras exerted more power than her connections. On the Twelfth Day, she withdrew her services. After lunch, Negadras uncharacteristically broke his routine and granted the buxom saint first an audience and then her request. I never saw the lady again.
We did not know how to proceed. But we both knew that we were going to, that we had to, continue.
That night, Hiruy returned from the hunting expedition. He was not in good humor. Apparently, Marshal d'Espery's valet had died suddenly from a snakebite, and Hiruy had been forced to fill in for the deceased servant. The old Marshal's fastidiousness did not sit well with Hiruy's carefree disposition but my brother knew better than not to oblige. I told my incredulous twin what had transpired in his absence. We had both veered far from our original course.
* * * *
The next morning, Hiruy and I were aghast when Worqé, with a worried look on her face, asked us to follow her into the drawing room. We heard the runt rant and leave the house as Worqé closed the drawing room door behind her. "You know what to do," Worqé shakily exclaimed, and exited through the dining room door. Neither of us dared to articulate the sense of doom that loomed over us. I opened the window and instructed Hiruy to keep vigil there before I ran to her bedroom.
We gave in to a reckless abandon that neither of us ever regretted.
As she lay on my shoulder and gently stroked my neck, Hiruy rushed into the bedroom. Negadras, accompanied by Ato Arega and the Runt, had just been motored into the compound. The trio, followed by a few retainers, walked into the bedroom before I had buckled my belt. Negadras grabbed her by the hair and locked her inside an adjoining room. He ordered Ato Arega to get the whip and some rope to bind my arms to a post. She banged on the door as she cried out in between sobs.
* * * *
What of Hiruy? Immediately after he had warned us of Negadras’ arrival, he had jumped out of the window, over the granite blocks, and ran into the French Legation. Marshal d'Espery had hired him on the spot and took him to France when the coronation festivities had ended. Once Hiruy had mastered the language, the good Marshal helped my brother to register at a renowned military academy where he specialized in artillery.
A few months before Italy's invasion, Hiruy returned home and became our Turjuman friend's boss. My brother fought alongside Negadras on the eastern front where they both lost their lives.
Once I had received my forty lashes and was tossed out of the compound, Negadras dragged her out of the locked room. He personally shaved her hair off and sent her packing, back to the Palace. Shortly thereafter, she was re-married, this time around to a much younger man with whom she had fallen in love. They both made a name for themselves as members of the Resistance during the Occupation.
After the war, I ended up working at an Italian-owned restaurant in Sebeta. I managed the BB guns on the target range where well-to-do young Ethiopian boys and girls who peppered their Amharic with French, English, Italian or German expressions struck the bull's-eye on the target board with harmless pellets.