Mommy never got up this early; but today she did, with yawns, to take me to my first day of school. I had my hair in bangs of plaits, swinging on the side of my face even if I didn’t move because of the weight of the green, yellow and red ceramic beads at the tip. That, and I was also wearing my new sequin-infested white shoes, enforced with thin metal bars on the heels to make a thuck thuck sound when I marched. But still, I was afraid. “Will I see you if I look out the classroom window, mommy?” She didn’t answer.
The early rise meant that she needed a serving of Chat with the morning coffee to open her eyes, which meant that we were going to be late. She rushed me to the blue and white old, old Lada taxi waiting for us outside the house gate. Four boys and their backpacks sat in it. After I had entered the back seat, there was no more space left in the car for Wuro, my imaginary friend. I took my lunchbox off of my lap and pushed it down into the inexistent space between me and the boy next to me, and sat Wuro on my lap. Her purple hair flowed to the back. Without a voice, I told her, Don’t be afraid of school today, okay?
Mommy then squeezed in next to me, and pushed me even tighter inward to close the door. “Mommy wait, you’re squashing Wuro!” I began to cry.
“We have no time for the Wuro nonsense Sara! Behave! Or you’ll get a good pinch here.” I felt her fingers inside my thighs. Wriggling, I begged for forgiveness. She closed the door and didn’t react when the boys laughed at me.
The engine of the taxi made to start and died again. The driver was bringing two open electric wires to contact and every time he did, we all jolted into motion and then the engine would die again. Finally, the engine was continuous and we were going. But the gravel road made us shake and sway about until we reached the asphalted main road. Mommy looked out the window, the tip of her curly hair on her back facing me. She held her mobile, regularly checked its screen before resting it back on her mouth and looked out the window again. She said that Daddy would be meeting us there. Maybe Gigi will be with him too. She was always with him.
When we reached the Hayahulet Mazoria crossing and mom was turning her head to check the latest at the Chat shops, her phone rang. She touched a button that quieted it and told me that this taxi driver would be the one to take me to and from school everyday from now on. “Understand? And what did I say his name was?”
“Gima,” I answered, “but won’t you come for me?”
“Girma will come for you,” she said. “Or daddy. Daddy can pick you up from school. If you ask him. Ask him.”
She dialed on her mobile again and put the phone to her ear. “Hi. Sorry. I missed your call…yes, we’re on our way…she wants to talk to you,” she said and stuck the phone to my ear. I asked daddy to pick me up from school and he said only for today. She then hung up but stared into the screen long after too.
At the school gate, where an arch sign read ‘Happy Home Kindergarten,’ teachers wearing white gowns lined the entrance. I so wanted to be like the big girls who excitedly traversed the school grounds and did not cry, but my whole face was swollen with tears. I thuck thucked my way forward behind mommy. Then through the crowd of cars, I saw daddy. I ran to him, my backpack shifting left and right on my back. As soon as he saw me, he stepped out of his car and stretched his arms open. I leaped into them. Gigi began to get off from the passenger seat but stayed put when faced with something behind me – mommy.
My parents greeted with a handshake. Then daddy put me down so that I didn’t hear what he was saying to her. But looking up at him, I picked the words ‘smoke’ and ‘your t-shirt.’ He tugged at her t-shirt. I guessed that he was saying the same things grandma always said to mommy, after which grandma cried and I wiped her tears with her white cotton shawl, which smelled of the kitchen. She begged her to stop smoking, cigarettes and shisha, and not to eat Chat, especially not in front of me. Everyday in the afternoons, mommy was in the service quarter rooms behind the main house, cross-legged on thin sitting mattresses on the floor, eating from a pile of green plant with friends. I was never invited to share from this feast. If grandma was not home to guard me and I crept into the smoke-filled room, mommy glared at me, slapped the plastic-mat-covered floor with a frond and yelled, “Get out of here!”
At the kindergarten, mommy was well audible. “Now you’re all straightened out, what, because of her?” She pointed to Gigi. She looked up and down at daddy before saying, “Like I don’t know you! Didn’t you used to slouch around on the mattress with me?” I didn’t want them fighting. I held Wuro tighter. Mommy began to walk away holding me by the wrist. I waved to Gigi. She smiled and waved back a little.
When mommy admitted me to one of the teachers at the gate, the woman asked if I was her daughter.
“Yes,” mommy said. “I don’t look it, huh?”
“No way. You’re so tiny! I was sure she was your sister or something,” the woman exclaimed, “but it’s a good thing, children while one is still young,” she said, repeating what I heard whenever mommy went out in public with me.
Daddy came after school and we rode to his house. He was in the kitchen to prepare food when Gigi came home from work. On the dining table adjacent to the mat I was sitting on, my legs spread apart and my doll being hair-saloned in between, she unloaded from her shoulders her handbag and a bag of ice-cream cups she bought for each one of us. She came to hug and kiss me first before daddy. I sniffed at her sweet perfume and fingered her long strands of hair hanging on the side of my face. I wished they were my bangs. “Sari, how was school?” she asked.
“I did not cry. There were children crying. But I did not cry,” I said, “Wuro did not cry too.”
“Bravo!” She raised her palm for a high five and I went for it.
She went into the kitchen, then to their bedroom and returned a little later having changed into house clothes, and sat beside me on the mat. We began to play house. She was combing my doll’s hair now and I was making macaroni for Wuro and my doll. “How shall we style her hair?” Gigi asked, “Braid like yours? Yours is so pretty.” She ran her hand along the plaits, strips from around my head leading to the center, like a light bulb.
“You can’t braid like that!” I said and laughed at her. “Only people at the hair salon can.”
“Why not?” she said laughing after me, her cheeks gathering up under her eyes. “Of course I can. You can too if you work slowly.”
“Grandma can. But I don’t think you can. Mommy can’t braid either.”
“It’s easy. I’ll show you,” she said and began parting the doll’s hair.
I minced the red petals I plucked off of the velvety flower in daddy’s garden to make tomato sauce for the macaroni. Its prickly smell tingled the hairs in my nostrils. “Mommy doesn’t braid my hair. Grandma makes it hurt when she braids. But mommy wouldn’t when I ask her,” I said and looked up at Gigi.
“That’s because it will hurt no matter who does it. At least a little. And she doesn’t want to see you hurting, ” she said and kissed me on my cheek.
When daddy dropped me off at home that evening and handed me to grandma, I saw mommy looking at us through a curtain opening inside the house. I wanted to tell her school was not as bad as I had feared. But she was quickly gone from the window.
Grandma took my backpack and lunch box and went into the kitchen to serve food but I told her that I had eaten. “I’ve had ice-cream too.”
Mommy emerged from the bedroom, slowly dragging her slippers across the floor, and sank in the one-seater sofa in our small living room. Mommy was thin and beautiful and young; much younger than the mothers that were waiting at the school gate after school.
“Here! You little rabbit face,” she said pulling me toward her. I was almost never the object of her complete attention. I neared her, drawn to the opening of her eyes.
“Who bought you ice-cream?”
“Gigi did,” I said and saw as her eyes became all pupil.
I saw her consider where to begin about Gigi. Now I realized who had her complete attention.
Before mommy had even finished her first question, “Does daddy like Gigi?” I had already conjured a long chain of stories that would keep mommy turned to me. It would include a story about how daddy bought Gigi perfume all the time, all the small irregular-shaped bottles on her dressing table. I will say I once saw Gigi trying on a dress, full and white like lather, and also that recently daddy listened with his ears to her belly as if something his was inside. I will tell and tell her stories and mommy won’t leave my side. Maybe she’ll even agree to braid my hair, and I will braid Wuro’s.
Linda Yohannes (@LindaYohannes) is an Ethiopian writer. She has an MA in English Literature from Addis Ababa University. In 2012, she won the Burt Award for African Literature and her short novel for young readers titled The School Newspaper was published. Her short story ‘Abiy’s Day’ has also appeared on jalada.com. She is manager and writer at The Writing Company, her own enterprise, and is currently working on short stories and a novel.
Related country: Ethiopia