*Content warning: mental health*
i just woke up from the worst night of my life. i am twenty years old. i live in a city called Riverside, another city in the west. i am not from here. i come from Africa, the eastern part of Ethiopia, if you must know. i am here for school, attending college. and last night, last night was the darkest of nights for me. i am most certain the devil visited me. it hugged, kissed and did not let me sleep until my whole self gave up to its unsolicited caress. somethings are true. fear, anxiety, devil, evil, these things are true. they are for everyone in some ways, but until they happen to you, it is easy to believe they are not true. some crazed minds made them up to scare others. because until they happen to you for real, the idea of thinking about them is fun, enjoyable, giggly. but not last night. not when my lonely room shrunk to six inches, and in the midst of gasping for breath, in the midst of my extreme exhaustion, i was still keeping a tab on my eyes not to close themselves – because i did not trust them anymore. that i would not wake up if i let them shut. that the devil, in its grotesque gaze, was waiting for me to make this mistake for a split second, so it manifests itself all over my naked body in winter – sweating in winter, in a cold room.
yes. i gave in. my eyes closed. the morning came and i woke up with less fear and cut-off trauma. this is a story of a survivor. i am writing it to me. how i let my eyes down, and they gave me a second chance. how the sun, even if it was still in the clouds, had broken the darkness for me while i was somewhere unknown, asleep. i locked the door at some point. i remember that from the night. it must have been almost 5 am when i decided my very securely guarded apartment complex was not enough. that i should lock the door and hear that clap of a metal rod shoved into a metal hole. a sound of action, a sound of reassurance. Baba used to make these good fires for us when we circle around for dinner. he would pile the sticks in a group of four, making a rising pyramid for the fire to climb. he would say ‘fire is always in need of air, so you have to make sure you don’t block its throat. or else, it will die.’ i would look at him with absolute trust, because Baba knew what he talked about. Baba made fires that never died. he even called me this morning. as much as for the sun, i also woke up to his unusual, missed, international call.
it must have costed a lot for Baba to make my phone move in vibration. he must have felt something. perhaps that i thought of him when i locked the door last night. i could have used some support because i was not sure if locking the door was wise. the devil was hugging around my waist. it was in charge. the least i should have known was not to tamper with the upper hand. yes, locking the door was a fearful hope to make the situation better for me, if only that did not mean i was locking us both in. i worried that i touched the fire while it was in full flames. i know, a touched fire survives, sometimes. Baba says, ‘it forgets you touched it’. but sometimes it slowly comes down because it remembers. the way a single drop of blood on a bleached sink can suck away the vast whiteness. that was it. tampred. the new chapter begins after impurity. i made the change for the best, but it did not mean i necessarily knew what i was up to.
there was no fire in my room last night. it was as cold as a mother’s heart whose dead son’s birthday comes to visit her every year. the room was so cold that i was in the shape of a teardrop, in the middle of the bed, searching for heat, for answers, for calmness, for something to eat, for tears to cry, for great sleep to knock me out, for the devil to stop rubbing my temple, for Baba to shout my name with command so i run to him with a towel, for Mama to scold me for going to bed without having dinner, for my sister to beg me to switch bunk beds, for all the alcohol in me to evaporate like a washing water splashed on to a village dirt road, for the sun to come into bed with me, then illuminate these dark duvets and burn us out of coldness, for a cat to come in and purr beneath my face giving me hope, for my aged friends at the pub not to die yet, for her to come and hold me as small as i was, for my breath to smell less sweaty, for the devil to give up on me. i was so cold, i got up and put on a sweater.
the sweater gave me instant warmth. i thought, oh! things are changing. but my body soon remembered how to be cold. no fabric was going to outsmart the devil. it knew how to slither behind a fabric and breath misty, cold air onto the most sensuous parts of the hu-wo-man body. it even drooled on me. at least, it was in love with me. i was not in love with myself. i was thinking of all sorts of lost cases and relics of a great life at such a young, undiscovered age. it was winning my heart for each memory i pulled back before the hopeless night. tomorrow, when i am gone, when it takes me so we consummate in a new world, there will be people from my inner memories who will defeat time and be here. the lock will be broken. the room will be sprayed with magical fragrance. the windows will be wiped off and sanitized. a few teardrops will fall onto spaces that will not be used for evidence. the duvets will be set free. they will not even go to charity shops. they will be ash and dust because they are criminals for stealing heat through the night.
my pens and pencils will be carefully collected and packed in plastic bags to be posted to Baba and Mama. i am sure they will keep them in a memorabilia jar that will never fill. my sister will eventually steal one of the pens and write someone else’s life as an epitaph to me. the intelligent people will walk around the room trying to visualize me using the photo the university gave them. too young is the farthest they go. but one of these intelligent people will notice a little scribble at the lower edge of the closet. it reads, ‘ i used to sleep on the floor, when the double bed was cold.’ the other intelligent people will write it down and go away to double check if a bed with two duvets can be colder than a wooden floor.
i hope you come too. maybe you will spot the special things in the now sanitized room that could not make it through the morning no matter how it persevered through the night. you will know where to look. perhaps beneath my bed. there, there was a bible with a few folded pages. a kind of folding made by careful close. you touch it. you figure i was holding it. that i even muttered its words, sprinkling small bits of saliva that left damps circles around the verses. you remember i hold things close to my lips and nose when i care for them too deeply, but intuit i will lose them soon. these circles are now the only accurate things left of me. you think of the letter in your rucksack which you wrote to me before the night. three nights before. i know this because the devil came over to your place before you gave it the roadmap to me. you did not give it. it was in the letter. without touching you, the devil was standing right behind your shoulders reading every line until a name, a place, a context leaked from your pen. evil is quite because there is no need to speak. explanations are for the imperfect world. like the one we successfully built. the word that gave us away is ‘missing’. you wrote that halfway through. this is the devil’s reiteration: ‘you missed me so much that there was nothing you could do about it.’ the greedy devil loved your ineptness. it promised me it will caress me for the rest of my life because it can do the impossible. unlike you, who thought there was life far, far away from the very one thing you cared for the most.
you must never think i did not put up a fight. that the devil just said it and i believed it right there. it was a very slow process over a course of a night until the belated morning came by. i reasoned with it. you must know, the devil was inept and unloved. lacked magic. it was just sure of itself and persistent. if it were for your footsteps at the door instead of phantom tantrums which made me lock the door, the devil would have flown like an eagle to its prey, another prey. your presence would have cut down this thorny night. i would not have been poked at every possible spot by it so the devil fitted in me. but i locked the door and that i think gave me away. there was a change in the devil’s anxiety once the latch fell. it knew you were asleep. it was time for us to join you. what a scattered night, really. what a bleeding night. what a cold night. i came into bed and the devil was behind my right ear saying i was beautiful when i was naked, suggesting the center of the bed would be optimal for warming me.
the next morning, the room was pronounced ‘the tired room’. Mama and Baba were contacted by the intelligent people. Baba held the phone tighter and asked how i was doing. he wondered if i was making good fires to keep me warm. they told him that this side of the world does not use fire to heat rooms. there were more advanced ways. Baba shook his head mesmerized. behind the candle light, Mama was roasting coffee beans on the charcoal fire. ‘wow,’ he told Mama. ‘out of this this darkness, my son went so far away they do not even need fire.’
Mama smiled without looking at him.
‘what can you say when you are blessed with a son like that. thank god. thank god.’
searching around for my sister, she did not see Baba was beginning to react differently.
– Birhanu T. Gessese
Featured Image: Original illustration