Weizero Zufanishwerq looks in the tiny vanity every morning and traces circles around her eyes. The area underneath her eyes gets a shade darker with each passing day, and she makes a mental note of the day's hue before she heads out of the spacious bathroom in her daughter's Dupont Circle apartment.
Today was Hdar MikaEl. And every year on Hdar MikaEl Weizero Zufanishwerq threw a big luncheon for all the right people in her circle. Her daughter, Seble, calls the circle the "Last Wives Club" as its members were the last wives of past aristocrats.
By any standard, Weizero Zufanishwerq is a very well preserved woman. Her face, except for a healed yet deep gash by her right temple, is almost flawless, right down to the perfect circle of a beauty mark on her left cheek. She still plucked her eyebrows with the meticulousness of a brain surgeon. Her hair, with bold streaks of gray zigzagging among her curiously black locks, always managed to look properly mussed, exuding just the right 'purposefully disheveled' to 'effortless elegance' ratio of a woman with excellent breeding.
Weizero Zufaniswerq slipped into an elegant Hermès dress she had gotten in Paris on one of her numerous trips there in the late sixties. She was still a perfect size 8. She knew it, and she was subtle but brutal about letting others know it as well.
She reached into her jewelry box and opted for a string of Cartier South Sea pearls and matching earrings with which her late husband, a wealthy businessman and high-ranking minister in the Emperor's cabinet, had gifted her on the occasion of the birth of their first son.
On the guest list for her luncheon were her long-time friends Weizero Mannalebish, Weizero Zewditu and Weizero Sebebyelesh. The four women have known each other since childhood, had gone to school in England, and then college in Paris, and had vacationed in Qoqa annually with their families. They all ended up in Washington, DC in the last few years, and resumed their interrupted friendship.
By one o'clock Weizero Zufanishwerq was pacing the living room waiting for the woman who was catering the affair to arrive with the nine different dishes that had been commissioned. Weizero Zufanishwerq tried to tidy up her daughter's living room to distract her from the nervous flitting in her stomach, but was caught short when she saw a menacing piece of string lying underneath the loveseat. She glared at the string hoping that that would somehow make it vanish, and then clucked at it impatiently when it refused to move. She sighed with exasperation... "Mannesh...Sebli..." she called out. But her daughter was in the shower and could not be reached for assistance.
Relief sank into her nerves when Weizero Zufanishwerq heard the doorman buzz their unit to announce the arrival of the caterer.
"We will send her in the freight elevator," the doorman squawked into the intercom.
"But, of course," declared Weizero Zufanishwerq, a little irritated that the doorman would think that she would not know that the building's tenets forbade use of the regular elevator by catering staff.
The caterer, a bewildered young woman named Genet, finally rang the doorbell at Unit 907, and adjusted her hair in nervous anticipation. Weizero Zufanishwerq called on her daughter again... "Sebli.... Ber!"
Seble tiptoed her soaked feet into the foyer and rolled her eyes at the fact that her mother still refused to open doors. "MammiyE, what would happen if I wasn't here? Who'd open the door for you?" she said as she steadied the towel on her head while turning the knob on the door.
"Sebli... your clothes. Please, go and put some on, " her mother said with slight resignation registering in her voice.
The caterer entered the elegant foyer of the apartment and, upon seeing Weizero Zufanishwerq, bent down deeply from the waist and muttered a series of greetings. Weizero Zufanishwerq dismissed the woman's deference with the ease of a woman entitled and focused her attention on the trolley of food behind Genet. Genet, still mesmerized by the woman, was busy bobbing by Weizero Zufanishwerq's side.
"LijE," said Weizero Zufanishwerq with deliberate casualness. "Ij mensat eko... qertuwal silu new mnsemaw."
By two-thirty, Genet had set up the food and was wiping down the last serving bowl when Weizero Zufanishwerq took her by the elbow and marched both of them to the living room. Genet, surprised by the sudden intimacy of her new client, felt flattered that she was now on soto-le-soto meyayaz terms with the great Weizero Zunfanwa.
In the living room, Weizero Zufanishwerq paused by the loveseat and signaled with the slightest movement of her head towards the floor. It took a couple of gestures for Genet to understand that she was being told to look down. When she did, she noticed the string that was lying so casually on the floor. She looked up puzzled at Weizero Zufanishwerq. Weizero Zufanishwerq pursed her lips and her eyes wrinkled as she pointed to the string.
Genet hesitantly bent down and picked up the string and Weizero Zufanishwerq sighed in relief and gratitude. "LiTalew?" Genet asked with hesitation.
Weizero Zufanishwerq pursed her lips again and nodded softly. Genet hurried back into the kitchen, the string tightly secured in the palm of her hand.
First to arrive was Weizero Zewditu, a stately looking woman, tall and elegant in a two-piece pantsuit that hid beautifully her stout stomach.
"ZufaniyE," she said, kissing her friend on the cheeks while handing her shawl to Genet. "ZufaniyE, lemindinew mitlefiew? ...." She scanned the buffet with approval, "YihE hulu sra. Mn boTash."
Weizero Zufanishwerq smiled ruefully and motioned her friend into the sitting area. The French doors that led to the verandah were open, and Weizero Zewditu headed outside to take in the breathtaking view. Seble hurried in from her bedroom and squealed with delight upon seeing Weizero Zewditu. "ItiyE ZewdiyE!"
"WeyE, yenE hod. AbEt qonjoooo... nei esti." The two women hugged and kissed while Weizero Zufanishwerq looked on with obvious discomfort. She wished her daughter were a little bit more restrained when it came to physical contact with people... especially her friends.
Weizero Zewditu and Seble settled into idle chatter and soon the doorbell rang again. Weizero Zufanishwerq looked at her daughter, who tried to pretend that she did not notice the distinct chime of the doorbell.
Weizero Zufanishwerq cleared and throat and impatiently gestured to her daughter. "Sebli... ber. Beru, Seble."
Seble laughed and loudly whispered to Weizero Zewditu with mock indignation, "My mother still doesn't open doors, ItiyE ZewdiyE."
Weizero Zewditu stared back blankly at Seble. "IndE. Tadiya, zebeNa aydelech!" Weizero Zewditu shot back, before shooing her friend's daughter away. Seble laughed out loud, this time with genuine amusement and strode to the foyer.
It was Weizero Sebebyelesh who arrived with her daughter-in-law, a policy wonk at the World Bank who was from a solidly middle class family. Weizero Sebebyelesh liked her daughter-in-law as a person, but did not care much for her politics or her intellectual prowess in general. But she was kind to her son, and Weizero Sebebyelesh had managed to convince herself that that was enough.
Soon guests arrived with their various spouses and better halves, as did Dejazmach Kibru and his friends, Dr. Belete and Lij Asfaw. By four o'clock everybody was sitting in assigned seating at Seble's long dining room table. The conversation was muted although amiable, and Lij Asfaw rose to pray.
All the matrons rolled their eyes subtly at what they considered Lij Asfaw's presumptuousness. Lij Asfaw, after all, was a reformed teramaj, and even though he was accepted back into the fold after supporting the coup led by the Neway brothers, he has always been held in disdain, particularly by Weizero Zewditu.
Lij Asfaw cleared his throat and let out a deep breath before bowing his head... "Besemeab... we-weld... we menfess qidusssssssssssss," he said, his voice assuming an authoritative timbre. He went on for a good amount of time, mixing Ge'ez with Amharic, praising MikaEl and Kidane Mhret and GebriEl and SillasE.
Weizero Zewditu had finally had enough. Just as Lij Asfaw's was about to open a new paragraph of what promised to be a long widasE of Medhaine Alem, she interrupted with a loud, "Amen... Belu.. inibla". Lij Asfaw stopped mid-sentence, and out of the corner of his eye, caught Weizero Zewditu passing the tray with injera to Weizero Zufanishwerq. "Amen," said Weizero Sebebyelesh siding with her friend. "Amen," chanted everybody else one by one, and Lij Asfaw very reluctantly sat down, his face expressionless. Someone let out a muffled giggle.
Seble was talking to Lij Asfaw's son, Dejinne, who was telling her about his recent trip back to Ethiopia. The pleasant chatter of luncheon conversation echoed throughout the high ceilings of Seble's duplex. She loved her mother's get-togethers. It reminded her of life back home when her parents entertained. Her mother had stopped talking about Ethiopia a long time ago. She never talked about her memories of raising her children in Addis Abeba, or of her friendship with ItiyE Zewditu et al. The only glimpses that Seble got into her mother's life were at these intimate luncheons. Even then, her mother rarely said much. She was content with listening to her friends talk about their children. They, too, very rarely talked about anything in the past unless someone mentioned an incident requiring faint references to the past.
Seble had tried often to ask her mother about her family history, and almost always Weizero Zufanishwerq managed to torpedo the conversation and move on to something else.
Genet was busy clearing the plates when the doorbell rang. Seble looked at her watch and furrowed her brows.
"Sebli... ber," Weizero Zufanishwerq said instinctively.
"Who could that be?" Seble said as she absentmindedly pushed her chair back and laid her napkin on the table.
The conversation went back to pleasant chatter, but dissipated on cue when Seble came back to the dinning room with her friend, SerkAddis, and SerkAddis' new boyfriend, Melaku. SerkAddis, in the tradition of aristocratic ij mensant bowed deeply in the direction of the table and went to kiss her mother, Weizero Zewditu first, and then each of her mother's friends. The women greeted SerkAddis with the slightest of nods and practical kisses without really looking at her. Melaku was poignantly ignored, but he hardly seemed to notice. Either that or he was preternaturally used to being treated this way by his girlfriend's family. The women did a final size up of SerkAddis and looked away in silence. The men tried to fill the silence with exaggerated pleasantness.
"SerikiyE.... Ye tSadqan qeTero, le buna deresh..." They, too, never address Melaku directly.
SerkAddis nodded with restrained deference and flashed everyone the quickest of smiles. Seble signaled for people to make room for the two new guests and Lij Asfaw gestured his son to bring two more chairs from the living room.
Seble looked at her mother and noticed the shutters in her eyes that clicked shut whenever an "outsider" like Melaku invaded her space. Weizero Mannalebish, a half smile frozen on her lips, attended to a phantom stain on the white damask tablecloth. Weizero Zewditu stared icily at Seble first, then SerkAddis, then back at Seble before reaching for her water goblet.
The two guests squeezed themselves in between Seble and Dejinne. Seble, in a valiant effort to drown out the discomforting silence that had suddenly taken over the dining room, instructed Genet to bring two more plates.
"No, no. We've eaten," SerkAddis said. "We just thought we'd have coffee."
The clinking of coffee cups was a welcome distraction. Seble again quickly glanced at her mother and her friends. Their eyes remained expressionless.
"Serki and MelE just came back from Ghana," Seble said with undue joy. "How was your trip, guys?"
SerkAddis looked at Seble with gratitude for trying to slice through the glacier that seemed to have followed them into the room. The more she tried not looking at her mother's eyes, though, the more they happened to fall victim to the invisible arrows that were darting from Weizero Zewditu's eyes. "ItiyE ZufanE, dehna nesh," she finally let out.
Weizero Zufanishwerq carefully and very slightly bowed her head in the direction of SerkAddis. "Yimesgenw," she said softly before she looked away and stared directly at nothing in particular.
Melaku was oblivious to all this. He looked longingly at the serving dish half-full of kitfo being carted away. He leaned back on his chair and slipped a well-used toothpick in his mouth and crossed his arms.
Eventually, the conversation at the table started to pick up. The elder women remained silent. Melaku happily chatted loudly with Seble and SerkAddis, even occasionally directing some phrases at Lij Asfaw and Dejazmach Kibru. He had tried to volley a little joke at the women, but their steely looks had slapped the very words back at him. He made sure not to look in their general direction.
SerkAddis, who was keenly aware that her every move was being registered by her mother and Co., started on a story about her work assignment in Ghana. Dejinne asked her if there was an Ethiopian population in Ghana.
"There is. But... yeNa sew tawqewaleh, ye sew hager hono.. t'ibit alen aydel..."
Melaku, clueless of the thick layers of double entendre in his girlfriend's sentence, chimed in.
"The Abeshas there are unwelcoming of new people," he said, all of a sudden sounding very anthropological. "They very much suspect all newcomers. Very wary bunch. Very cliquish."
"Very paranoid," added SerkAddis letting the words drip heavily in the air. "They are unforgiving of past mistakes, and hold grudges forever."
"Ummmm. Paranoid," mouthed Melaku slowly. He leaned abruptly into the table and grew serious for a moment. "What is it with us ETs and this congenital paranoia and distrust? Ke yet meTa?"
Seble and SerkAddis' eyes lit up-half in triumph and half in amazement at what Melaku had just said. These were thoughts that had always gusted through their minds, and it was often the topic of conversation among their group in the privacy of bars. Long, protracted sociological analysis of their parents was a favorite pastime of Seble, SerkAddis and their friends. They'd never been able to summon up the necessary courage to "confront" (a favorite word in the heated discussions) the pathos of paranoia and distrust that remained a badge of honor in the older generation. The very words they were able to construct in rapid-fire succession among themselves froze in their throats when faced with the intensity of the icicles in their mother's eyes.
And now... now here was Melaku busting open the vacuum-sealed jar with such impossible ease. Seble and SerkAddis looked in the direction of the women, ready to be defended by the shield of Melaku's child-like innocence that was not present in the psyche of the children of CHewa lijoch.
Weizero Zewditu slowly turned to look at Melaku for the first time since his arrival. She arched her right eyebrow to such an improbable height that her eyes threatened to pop off their sockets, fall on the floor intact, and roll across the hardwood floors.
Weizero Zufanishwerq sharply turned to look at her daughter, her eyes clearly reflecting a series of emotions, none of them legible, but all lethal and doled out as if projected by an overworked teleprompter.
Melaku tried to hold Weizero Zewditu's gaze but he quickly turned to the rest of the table for reinforcement. But like a lonely general on the last battlefront, he was left alone to contemplate the sight of his fleeing troops.
Weizero Zewditu looked at Melaku even more closely, smelling his fear and languishing in it. How much he looks like his father, she said to herself. His father, she guessed, might have been the same age Melaku is now when their paths crossed in Addis Abeba at the infamous SosteNa Poliss Tabiya in 1974. It was Melaku's father, a wiry man with too-bright eyes and an angry smile, who had told her and her friend Weizero Sebebyelesh that their husbands had been executed. He had said it with a little bit of pride and with the duty of an obedient boy soldier.
It was pouring rain that day when Weizero Zewditu had gone to the station to inquire about her husband. She had met Sebebyelesh at the gate as she too tried to talk the teenage guard into letting her in. They were made to stay out in the rain for a long time before they were summoned to Melaku's father's dingy little office.
"Balish Abiyotawi irmija tewesdobetal," he had said, looking at Weizero Zewditu in the eyes. He turned his attention to her friend. "Yanchim."
It took a while for the women to fully understand what that phrase meant. The two friends, horrified into morbid silence, had made their way to their cars, and finally back to their homes with strict instructions not to have a leqso. A few days later they again met up with Melaku's father at Zufanishwerq's house. This time he was in their friend's living room, lecturing her about the sins of her family's excess and the manner in which her husband was killed-shot and buried... somewhere. He had then thrown a pair of sunglasses that belonged to Weizero Zufanishwerq's husband on the coffee table. "Kefelegish meneSirun qiberi."
Weizero Zufanishwerq had listened to the man in stoic silence, sometimes catching her breath sharply because she had forgotten to breath. Melaku's father had then stretched his legs on the coffee table and ordered her to being him and his colleagues water. Weizero Zufanishwerq rose up to go to the kitchen but fainted on her way and hit the right side of her head on the corner of her dining room buffet.
The next day, in bed and still in shock, she learnt that her two brothers were also killed, and that her first-born son, Girma, was missing. Her newborn daughter, Seble Wengail, who was sleeping in a crib in the far corner of the bedroom, cried with hunger, but Weizero Zunfanishwerq did not hear her.
Weizero Zewditu, upon meeting her daughter's latest boyfriend, had frozen momentarily. So had her friends. They had registered the flushed excitement in SerkAddis' face when she had introduced him as "the love of my life", and they remained silent, not even talking about it amongst themselves. It was one of those things that went directly to the vault of silence.
Now, Melaku shifted uncomfortably and leaned back again on his chair. The toothpick slipped from his mouth and fell on the floor. He eyed it, but did not reach out to retrieve it.
Finally, Weizero Zufanishwerq let out a long sigh and broke what had been an interminable stillness.
"Paranoid?" asked Weizero Zufanishwerq quietly, looking directly at SerkAddis, and then at Melaku.
"Demmo yeNa sew paranoid y'nessew?"
She rose up and dropped her napkin on the floor and headed to the verandah.
Her friends followed her one by one.