The Shape of Edges
Written as an assignment for an MIT class, 21W.755: Reading and Writing Short Stories.
Adunya stands over the forest, on the trail that forms a sort of precipice, one that feels like the edge of the world. Adunya stands, where the hill cuts off into jagged rock, where the summer fog has layered itself into a thick, milky blanket, and only the tree tops are visible. He then turns around and stares toward home, his back facing the edge, and looks to the hills and the forest and the darkening sky. He breathes in the musk of wet air. The fog threatens to encircle him, until he won’t be able to see the edge anymore, until he won’t be able to tell ground from empty space.
Adunya shakes his head and walks back towards the pastures, back towards his brothers. He knows he will get scolded if he waits too long, and the cows need to be led back before the light fails.
He grabs a stick and slowly urges forward the cows–“Hid!”–and tells his brothers to chase down the ones that wander off the path. They are barefooted, thin as rails, strong, wiry children–they are all made that way, here in the countryside of Kafa. It has been a long day, and they are tired; when the road is particularly steep, they barely manage a gasping “Asham” to passers-by.
His mother and sister call them for dinner. The pot boils outside, fragrant with spices, and the smell of the cooking fire wafts over to him. His younger brother brings his mother one of the solar-powered flashlights, so she can cut up a last bit of carrot or onion she needs to finish her stew. By now, it’s dark enough that everyone needs a flashlight. But Adunya continues to stand there without one, shrouded in the curtain of a moonless night, thinking.
“Adunya-O!” Grandmother calls from the living room. Interrupted from his thoughts, he goes to meet her.
“Taa Indee,” he says, “I brought you juice,” and hands her a bottle of mango juice that Sister sent from the town. He gives her, also, two pills to take with the juice.
“You will go back tomorrow morning?” Taa Indee asks him after swallowing, gazing up with grey eyes.
“Are you feeling strong?”
“Don’t worry about me,” she says with a smile, “I am always strong. You need to pass your exam, so you had better go back quickly, and study.”
“With your blessing,” Adunya says, and looks at the concrete floor.
“Don’t worry about me,” Grandmother says again.
“Call me, if you need anything,” Adunya says, “Don’t let the children play too much with your mobile, it drains the battery and then I can’t — ”
“Don’t worry about me, Adunya.” His grandmother smiles up at him.
After dinner, Adunya pulls out his bed and linens, and his brothers pile on either side of him. The littlest one is snoring before they even finish covering him with a blanket. The other one falls off to his own dreams soon after. Curled up against the cold, their silhouettes look like sacks of grain, and not even as heavy.
But Adunya cannot sleep. He lies there, staring at the ceiling, until at last his thoughts become blurred and abstract. He thinks about the precipice, the edge of the world he saw today, how every time he looks over the lip of the earth, he wonders if there’s anything past it.
He falls asleep.
The road back to the town is long on foot. Adunya hikes on muddy trails through particularly thick, aggressive parts of forest until suddenly, after hours of walking, the forest releases him to flat plains and a long winding road that takes him, tired and sweating, toward his aunt’s house. He passes homes that sell bread and coffee to travelers, advertised with broken cups hanging on wooden stakes outside. He passes the church and the sign for Sister’s house: “Home of the Little Sisters of Jesus”. He genuflects to the cross.
Today classes will only be in the afternoon, to give the students time to work in the mornings, at farming or herding or whatever their parents need them for. He has just enough time to take coffee and bread with his aunt, before walking to the school.
“Adunya!” Wondimu sees him from the road, and waves. The two friends clasp hands as they walk together, to the school.
“Who do you think will do best this year?” Wondimu asks, and Adunya’s chest tightens with fear.
“How can I worry who is on top,” he sighs, “when surely I’ll be on the bottom?”
“Come on! Relax! You will do well. God will help you,” Wondimu smiles, “but my bet on highest score is Tesfaye.”
Adunya is not sure — he’s missed too much class already, running back and forth over the forest to Taa Indee, four hours each way.
At the school there is a crowd of people in their uniform of tattered red blazers, some with safety pins where buttons have fallen off. They are crowded around something, and Adunya cranes his neck to see. He pushes his way through and there at the center, kneeling, is a girl crying, with bruises on her legs and her arms, with cuts on her knees. Her skirt is torn. The small crowd of students stand murmuring to each other, leaving a radius of space around her.
“What are you all doing?!” Adunya shouts, and scans their faces, as their eyes guiltily dart away from his gaze. The crowd falls silent and disperses quickly, in shame: shame for the girl, and shame for themselves, jolted out of their mob-like gawking. Adunya crouches to look at the girl.
“But, Adunya, class…”
It is the last week of classes before the studying period. In three weeks, they will take the national exams, and months later, receive scores that decide futures, determine fates.
Adunya looks at the gate of the school, and then back down at the girl sniffling on the ground.
“Go. One of us has to take notes, after all.”
Wondimu smiles reluctantly and enters the gate.
“Come on,” Adunya says, “can you stand?”
The girl, still sniffling, peers wet eyes up at him and slowly gets to her feet. A coptic cross dangles from her neck. She can’t be older than grade six.
“Come with me, to Sister’s house. You will be safe there.”
She follows him as he walks, back up the road, back toward the forest and the church. He looks, indirectly, at her knobby toes on small, bare feet. He feels a sudden sharp pain in the back of his throat, like he wants to cry, too, at the depravity of human beings. They turn past the church, and he leaves her with Sister, who exclaims and furrows her brow and fusses over the girl. Another sister, wearing their blue habit, leads her inside. He knows some of them are trained nurses, and the girl will be treated well.
No one needs to ask what happened.
Adunya runs back to school and tries, in vain, to quietly enter at the back of the class.
“ADUNYA!” the teacher yells. “Come NOW! Come to the front of the class!”
The teacher’s brow is pressed with rage, his jaw clenched with anger as his eyes fix on Adunya.
“Yes, teacher.” Adunya does not move.
“COME TO THE FRONT!!”
He walks forward, slowly, past Wondimu, who looks concerned and ready to stand.
“You are late, wusha!”
“Yes, teacher.” This teacher seems angrier than he has ever seen him before, though he is known for anger. Because of him, Adunya avoids going home when he has Civics on Monday. His Biology teacher is more reasonable, if you stammer enough about responsibility and no men in the house and sick grandmothers.
“Do you know it is the last day of this class before your examination?”
“And you dare to arrive so late? Explain yourself, now!”
A thought suddenly occurs to Adunya.
A thought so horrible occurs as he stares at the man’s body, up and down. On the forearms is where he sees it: crescent-shaped scratches.
“Disrespectful dog!” the teacher yells at him, in the classroom silent with fear and shock. And then, before Adunya can open his mouth to apologize —
Adunya is on the floor, not so much from the force of the punch, or the hurt — but surprise.
“How many times have I told you?”
Wondimu squints his eyes at the sky in exasperation. The winter heat is sweltering; they sit under the shade of the church’s roof, eating roasted corn kernels as bearded men in their worn linen gabi drink coffee. Adunya has taken off his sandals to feel the tickle of grass on his feet.
“You ought to go and beat him!”
“I’m serious! I could help you. We can go at night and cover his face with an inset leaf, so he won’t know who his attackers are! That one looks good!” Wondimu points to a wide leaf mostly covered in cow dung.
“It’s been two months! He won’t even suspect you at this point!”
“He’s still a big man, for just two of us.”
“I can get Tesfaye too! And Adisu! No one likes this teacher, we’ll be happy to beat him!”
“I’m more worried about getting beaten by Adisu…”
What Wondimu says has some truth to it. It is rare for high school teachers to hit students, simply because the students are now big enough to hit back. But that is not the reason Adunya would beat the man; he has already forgotten the punch, doesn’t even remember what it felt like — all he sees in his mind’s eye of that moment are the crescent-shaped scratches and the small, crying girl. Crescents, like the imprint of small fingernails.
“Besides,” Adunya sighs, coming out of his thoughts, “I would wait until after we get our results.”
Wondimu is finally quiet at this. All the students have been tense and bothered, waiting for the day that the national exam results come. Adunya fears the worst — he had especially struggled with civics. During the study period, between the end of classes and the exam date, he had run back and forth once more to his grandmother’s house, despite her protests, while Wondimu studied late by flashlight at his home on the edge of the town. Both are nervous; both sit in silence, while the chattering happens around them, until Sister says if you’re going to sit there looking like someone has died, you may as well help me wash this jebena, and they sheepishly gather the dishes from the post-mass coffee ceremony.
A small girl chases her playmates around the field. Adunya looks out at them, and as he looks a dispute seems to be brewing about whatever game they were playing. Some children stand with arms crossed or on their hips, arguing. They look to be in grade six, such an awkward age, where some of the students are big but still act like children, and some of them are small and act like adults. The girl, waiting for judgement to pass, turns to see Adunya. Then, she runs toward him.
As she comes closer, Adunya recognizes her, a coptic cross still dangling around her neck. She has grown a little bit taller in these two months, and the pants she wears beneath her dress are rather short now, ending just above her ankles.
She stops an arm’s length from him, and looks down at the ground.
“My mother told me to say thank you,” she barely whispers, shyly looking at her feet.
No one needs to ask what for.
Adunya knows, that her mother would have wept that day, when Sister would have arrived with a bandaged child at their home. Adunya knows, that her father would have thrown his ax violently into a log, cursed, shouted, but in the end done nothing else. There would be an uncle who would say something crass, something like this is what happens, when you send girls to school. Adunya knows; she may have missed class for several days, and no one would have asked anything when she returned. If she returned. Adunya knows, what countryside teachers sometimes do to girls, before they even begin to grow up. But he does not know why no one does anything. Why people accept this, even though the town has evolved past so much, with first the water lines, then the new high school, then even some electricity; this town should not behave that way anymore.
The girl has already run back, the cross bouncing on her chest, before Adunya can respond.
“Hey!” Wondimu splashes Adunya with water from the faucet, and puts on Sister’s scolding voice, “don’t stand there, looking like someone has died.”
He must not have seen.
Adunya’s cell phone has rung five times before he awakens at his aunt’s house and answers it. Before he can say ‘hello?’ Wondimu shouts into his ear.
“I MADE IT!”
“I MADE IT! I made it! The cutoff is 380! I got 450! I made it!”
Adunya gasps as he realizes what Wondimu is saying.
“My brother, this score — ” Wondimu’s relatives shout in the background, “ — with this score, I can enter university for medicine. I’m going to be a doctor!”
Adunya says nothing.
“Wait!” Wondimu exclaims, “Have you checked yours? Check!”
Adunya, shaking, types in the web address on his phone, puts in his name and ID number, waits for it to load…
He is silent.
“Adunya, can you hear me?”
“I got…I got 370…” Adunya barely manages to speak. His voice is shaking. “It’s ten points below the cutoff.”
They are silent for a few seconds. Adunya hears his friend’s breathing, crackling through the phone. He feels a tightness in his chest, a hand squeezing his heart.
“Go, celebrate with your family,” he says, and ends the call.
Adunya walks outside. He sees that it’s early; his friend called him almost before daybreak. Adunya’s aunt lives in a valley. You look up from the valley, and see the hillside, with the church on top. If the fog comes, it obscures the hill; you look up and see only that you are the lowest thing. In the pit of the world. In its stomach.
But there is no fog today, in their hot winter, only the hint of the heat to come as the sun rises. The sharp smell of the morning, of dew and sap, permeates the valley. The air is already filling with sounds, of twittering birds and insects.
The church bell rings, to signal dawn. Adunya crosses himself. With his palms together and fingers to his face, he closes his eyes and thinks a prayer, a wordless one. Just a feeling in his heart. The bell keeps ringing.
It is the start of a new day.