The Funeral Tent

How do you tell the story of a child dying? How do you make sense of an accident, freaky and real?  Where do you place the blame of life?

Two nights ago, I was sitting in Ababeya’s house.  I was going to watch MTV with Hanuk, but the electricity went out.  So we ate bread and drank coffee instead.  The cat prowled beneath the darkness under our chairs.  I flashed my headlamp off and on until Ezra squealed in delight, pawing to grab the device from my brow.  And then: a scream.

Hush, Ababeya said. Ezra went silent.  Jahred’s lips curled inwards.  The servant set down the clay pot of boiling coffee.  Henok whispered, is it a thief?  Another cry.  Sounds of shuffling.  Minutes of silence.

Yes, Ababeya resolved.  Yes.  It must be, a thief in the dark.  Someone lost a mobile phone tonight.

I know what that sound is now.  That sound was not a victim of a robbery.  It was the sound a child makes, when she first begins to die.

They say that one week ago today, she was spinning around on the playground equipment at the school.  She was whirling too fast, fell out of the seat that held her, dropped to the ground, and broke a rib.  She was five years old.

She did not die immediately.  Her family took her to a local healer, who resets bones.  The healer made a mistake though, and instead of joining together the child’s split rib, she pressed a piece of bone into the little girl’s kidney.  I imagine the child’s eyes engorging, her body bending forward like a rag doll.  I can hear the screams, screams so painful and shrill they evoked in their listeners, a crime.

 From there the girl was rushed to a neighboring town with operating facilities where she was over drugged with anesthesia.  The grandmother who was raising her was told point-blank, there’s no hope here.  So that old lady, and the entourage of whatever sons or grandsons accompanied her, took the limp child in their arms, and packed into a minibus for the capital.

Others on the bus must have mistaken the still girl as a sleeping angel: obedient, sweet.  I want to inject myself into that moment, shake the observers into knowing the truth, sip the venom from the little girl’s veins.  The fault falls someplace unseen.

She died on the way.  Life slipped out.  The doctors at the hospital in Addis could do nothing.  In the capital, there were little wooden coffins with crosses laid on top.  I guess that’s what the family did next—gathered their relatives, purchased an eternal resting place, cradled the dead child and carried her home.

The funeral tent for this girl is two blocks from my house.  People have been there all week—to cry and show support for the family.  I avoid the route past the tent.  When I have a bad day, I have no problem blaming the big systems of inequality and injustice in Ethiopia.  But still, it hurts to see the casualties.

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