In whispers, two figures meet early, as darkness fades into the morning light. Except for the hyenas, whose whine and howl near the dump cascade the morning’s call, all is quiet in Korah. Faint and far away along the main road, vomiting diesel spews from the exhaust of lurching trucks in black, poisonous bursts.
“Salam, greetings. How are you?” Whispers. The children sleep yet.
“Thanks be to God, I am fine. How are you?”
“I am fine. Thanks be to God.
“Will we go to the mountain today?”
“Aye. We will fetch branches for burning.”
“I will go with you. I will go fetch branches for burning as well. Perhaps Mary will answer our prayers today.”
“Perhaps. We are weak women, and the trek is hard.”
The two figures stand in the midst of a courtyard. A fence of small mud homes creates this open area. Giant, cracked tubs full of muddy water and sewn together with wooden planks sit open-mouthed underneath stretches of twine. On the twine, American clothes with cartoon figures, sports teams, and cheap name brands hang over head like the flags of war-torn countries. A lone, dirty basketball is caught between two, protruding shards of sharp rock. It stands like a trophy, held up by beaten hands.
“We are weak, but we are not old yet.”
“It is because we have the sickness. Lines carved in a tree. These are our faces.”
“But our eyes are still young,” she says with a smile. Some hope…
“Aye,” the other looks down. Changing the subject, “I was hoping the good dump truck would come today. The one from the fine hotel.”
“Yes, the good truck. Maybe we should go up the hill tomorrow? Our children will eat better today if we catch the good truck.”
“Yes, but if we have no wood for burning, how will we cook it?”
“The food from the dump is already cooked. We don’t need to cook it.”
“This is true. But cooking it kills the sickness in the food.”
“Yes,” she says, looking down. “You are right. We must get wood from the forest on the hill.”
“Let us first make a meal for the children.”
They mustn’t go to the dump alone. Not without their mothers. It’s too dangerous. It’s dangerous for women....
“The saints will hear our prayers and protect our children today.”
They enter the small home built with sticks and mud. A picture of a Nordic Jesus stares down diagonally toward the ground, his face a supple innocence bereft of the hardness of human experience. Angelic divinity ensconces the facial pictograph, illuminating a being transcendent, and far, far beyond this meager existence in mud huts. Beams of radiant light emanate in rays of glory as the picture, with all the colors of the rainbow, floats above the bed in careful watch. Wasn't he a homeless man at one time?
“We will pray that the saints will intercede for us,” says the observer, looking at the picture. Eyes squinting a glimmer of hope, she cracks a slight smile from the side. Trusting...
The picture continues to look downward, saying nothing.
Kneeling down on the dirt floor, the one woman grabs a dried bag of seasoning, berbere: dried onions, garlic, herbs and spices. It is the standard. She mixes the berbere with some grains from the dump. No meat. We fast of meat. But rotten meat is of no value? The other woman sits on a low-riding bench, a makeshift castoff of someone’s something from somewhere. It came from the dump, too. There are a few burning coals left from the night before. She sleeps next to the small, iron pot to add the eucalyptus wood throughout the night.
“It’s good the church gives us the berbere and injera,” replies the second woman.
Nodding “yes,” the first woman keeps at it, her thin, bony knees pointing at the wall.
“At least we are not eating meat during the Fast,” says the second woman. “That way we know we are forgiven of our sins.” Her attempt at a joke.
“Ha!” says the first woman, working. Meat. If ever? Besides, who can keep track of all the church's ritual fasts? These holy days no meat, those holy days yes, this festival yes, that vigil no.... But, in case they ever do get meat? The priest knows. He can remind them. Is it ok to eat meat today? We don't want our sins to be unforgiven.
The injera, the spongy, brown, flat-bread is teff, a flour made from highlands grain. She mixes the teff with water. The water comes from the common pipe from the landlord’s home. It's at the back and drips droplets of scant relief like sap from a tree. Kneading and mixing, she works at making the huge pancake, the injera. She grunts a bit and her elbows flail around pointing in all directions. A hot plate sits atop a stove. The stove is shaped like a trophy: it's like the ball outside. It stands like a sentinel, one foot off the ground on a barren dirt floor. No furniture to adorn its presence. Pungent, musky oils saturate the air from the eucalyptus. It begins to rain. Like an opened valve, water from the sky gushes a deluge swamping the laundry and wash area with an inch of rain in the amount of time it takes to walk to her neighbor's house. Sigh. The rainy season.
The first woman mixes some water with the berbere. Now a stew, it’s called wat. The pasty wat is plopped on the injera bread. It will be at least warm when the children awake. They look to see other women coming out for their trips, too. They stand alone and silent, like the little stoves in their little homes; the morning wind tufts at their head coverings. Some of them have plastic to protect themselves from the rain. Let us go now.