The Miniature Boat

Ghirmay could not believe his eyes when he saw the miniature sailboat filled with pieces of paper and on the floor of the sitting room. He looked around if there was anyone in the room. He wanted to let out his anger by hitting somebody. He stood still stranded thinking who could have done that.
He saw the broom that had been used to sweep the floor and a bucket of water ready for mopping it. His youngest sister crossed his mind; she was the only one who did the cleaning in the house. He could not wait until she returned from the kitchen where he saw her cooking when he came in. He called for her with an uncontrollable shout.
“Coming,” Selam answered back.
“Get here quick, you fool!” Ghirmay ordered loudly.
Selam stalled time just stirring the stew cooking on the kerosene stove. She knew that his meekness give way to anger when one of his things was misplaced. Facing him before he calmed down scared her to death. Her mind was roving on the different kinds of items in the sitting room which Ghirmay might be shouting about. She remembered that she was very careful about the books on the shelf; her routine for that day did not include dusting the shelf.
Ghirmay slowly walked to the middle of the living room to pick up the boat from the floor. It looked as if to float on a sea of dirt and trash swept from all over the room. As he picked it up, his anger quickly drowned in his chocking sadness; his eyes brimmed with tears could hardly see the red flag on the mast of the boat. Sitting on the couch, he turned the boat upside down to empty the pieces of paper in it. He breathed deeply and shook his head dusting off the dirt on the colourful patterns of thread from which the hull and deck were made.
As she had wanted, Selam arrived when her brother’s anger subsided. Gazing at him she stood at the doorway of the sitting room. She had never seen him cry; it must be serious, she thought. His tears rolled down his cheeks as if watering his beard. She pressed her knuckles in fear and looked at him expectantly to hear what he would say. The fight of words she was ready for was forgotten as if she had not thought of it.
“Why do you have to destroy it?” Ghirmay asked in broken voice lifting the boat in one hand.
“Is that why you are shouting about?” Selam asked him back calmly trying to control herself. He kept quiet staring at the ceiling. She knitted her brow as she did not get any answer. And she wanted to leave him with his own self till he got himself organized.
“Come back Selam, and sit here,” he spoke composedly.
He had once stormed at her when she removed the plastic sheet with which he covered the boat to protect it from gathering dust. She told him that the plastic was already old and dirty then; she had also promised him that she would get a new one for it. That was months ago; and let alone to keep her word, she did not even spare it from being thrown like any rug.
“How can you do this,” he said slowly drying the tears on his face with his right palm.
“Come on, it’s just wicker and thread,” she carelessly inched to go. “And you can’t even use it to cross a small river.”
She was so harsh on him. He worked and helped his family from young age – he practically raised her; but she treated him just like her age-mate. He quickly ordered her in a stern voice to sit down across him. He knew their difference, but he wanted her to understand him. He began to talk to her slowly as a father to a daughter; and he told her everything about the miniature boat.
*        *        *
Adey Haregu went to visither daughter Hanna at the women’s prison every Thursday. She walked the uphill to Hazhaz prison to deliver a weekly meal to her daughter. She would not have minded to do that every single day as long as it was for her daughter. Ghirmay, the young boy from next door, used to carry her bag halfway to Hazhaz and returned home as he had to go to school in the afternoon shift. He had always wished to carry that bag till the gates of the prison himself.
On their way to Hazhaz, Adey Haregu would tell him many things about Hanna. She would say that Hanna would come out of the jail soon every Thursday. He would then expect to see Hanna at home that evening; first thing he did after coming back from school was visiting Adey Haregu’s.
“Hareguye how was your day, did you come back quickly?” Ghirmay would ask her going to her house. He was not concerned about when she had returned; he only used that question so as to check if Hanna was released from prison or not. He had no need of asking if Hanna came out of prison or not as it was easy for him to survey Adey Haregu’s single room. He would just sit on one of the stools and would stay awhile chatting about things they did that day. He had asked endless questions about Hanna, but he always got around the question why she was in prison. When he exhausted all his questions, he would be tempted to ask that one. He, though, could not say it aloud.
When Ghirmay was on a school break, one Thursday came; he was so happy to accompany Adey Haregu to the prison. As they climbed the uphill to Hazhaz, he unconsciously asked: “Why did the soldiers imprison her?”
Adey Haregu turned her face towards him slowly. He felt as if he had asked a question he was not supposed to. He looked down as he walked carrying the bag. She understood his uneasiness and wanted to relieve him quickly.
“The soldiers think Hanna cooperates with the fighters; when they came home to arrest her, they turned our room upside down searching for papers. They found nothing….because they didn’t find any paper, she will come out soon.”
“Is she with the fighters?” he was very curious to know.
“No, but the soldiers thought so; now be quiet we are there,” Adey Haregu warned him.
They lined their bag in queue and waited. A soldier in green khaki carrying a Kalashnikov rifle came and stirred every dish with a big spoon. When he was done he ordered the one who brought the dish to taste it. Then three women prisoners took the dishes inside to the prisoners; and on their return they brought back empty ones that were brought in the week before.
Ghirmay expected one of them to be Hanna because his memory about her was very hazy. He repeatedly looked up at Adey Haregu’s face for a clue. It was their turn to hand over the dish to one of the prisoners to take it in. The young woman who received theirs said in half a whisper, “Hareguye, wait for me I’ve a message for you.”
They waited until every visitor cleared off the area. Then the prisoner came accompanied by the earlier soldier. She was carrying three different wicker works and the bag with empty dishes.
“What is it?” asked Adey Haregu.
“Hanna has been transferred to Addis Ababa and she left you these,” said the prisoner as if she was reporting a good news.
Ghirmay couldn’t turn his eyes away once they rested on the prisoner. He tried to picture Hanna in that prisoner’s curly afro hair, khaki trousers and coat that the word ‘Prisoner’ was printed on its back. He saw the prisoner off to the far end of the compound passing the gates. It was later he remembered that Adey Haregu was still with him.
“God will listen to my prayers,” said Adey Haregu repeatedly. Ghirmay did not know what to say; he could not also understand why a prisoner could be transferred to Addis Ababa. He also had many questions he decided to save for later.
At home, once Adey Haregu lied down on the bed, she did not get up for coffee or dinner. He came to check on her but told him to come the next day. He could not just leave. He sat and looked at her. She kept on gazing at the far end of the room. He could not figure out what she particularly stared at. The silence was so heavy that it left him undecided; he did not want to break it. He could not also leave her along while she was like that. He stayed gazing at her diagonally. Hours passed after he sat like that. He then moved one of his feet to cross it over the other. Adey Haregu got noticed that and said, “You’re still her? It’s already after nine; please go home. Come tomorrow, I want you to help me with some work here.”
He was in a deep thought and did not utter a single word. He thought the prisons in Addis might be better than those in Asmara as the former was the capital then. He also turned down the idea thinking that Adey Haregu would not visit Hanna every week. Who will take her weekly meals? he pondered as he took his leave unconsciously.
The next few days, Adey Haregu could not talk to Ghirmay or anybody. She kept quiet and to herself. Weeks later, she called him to write a letter for her to her brother who lived in Addis Ababa. She almost begged him to visit her daughter and tell her how she was doing in his reply. Ghirmay wrote what she dictated him slowly and carefully. When he wrote the letter, he was hoping that Hanna’s uncle would meet Hanna and reply quickly. He wrote the sentence, “I look forward to your reply!” in bold and underlined it.
They both waited anxiously for the reply of the letter. Adey Haregu asked Ghirmay if he wrote the right address on the envelope of the letter many times. Although he was sure that he wrote the right address, he started to feel doubtful about it. After a month the waiting paid off. The letter was from Reesom, Adey Haregu’s brother. He wrote that he was able to meet Hanna and that she was in good health. He also promised to visit her every week and that Adey Haregu should not worry about her.
Ghirmay made it his duty to do both the writing and reading of letters to and fro Addis for over a year. As there was no table on which to write the letters, he would sit on a stool and write on the bed. Writing a letter as always, the mattress felt unusually uncomfortable. He rearranged the blanket and coverlet; but he couldn’t continue to write there.
“What is wrong with this bed?” Ghirmay asked bewildered.
“I made some changes to it this morning,” Adey Haregu explained. “I rotated the foot of the mattress to the head because it was so pressed down on this side.”
“But you can’t sleep on this,” he rose from his seat. “It is so hard.”
“It has been years since I had it remade.”
“It’s not about that, it is still thick but hard.”
Ghirmay continued to check how far it spread by pressing with his fingers into the mattress. This reminded him how Adey Haregu slept: she curled herself almost sticking her knees and breasts close to the edges of the bed away from the wall. This side of the mattress must have been on the side close to the wall, he thought.
“Give me a razor,” he asked.
Adey Haregu did not take time to find the razor in one of the drawers of her cabinet. He carefully cut the strings with which the mattress was sewn. He put his right hand to bring out the hard thing inside. He pulled out a thick metal rod of about ten centimetres. He again sent his hand into the cotton mattress; when it came out he could not believe that he was holding a gun – small and light Uzi. He then checked the other metal rod which he found out to be a magazine full of bullets. He turned to Adey Haregu who was more dumfounded than him.
He sat back on the stool and stared at the doorway as if expecting for someone to come. Adey Haregu sat crouched resting her head on her right palm and her left hand on her lap. Ghirmay had to think very hard before doing anything. They had nothing to talk about in that situation.
Adey Haregu felt to have been betrayed by her daughter for not telling her what she had hidden in the mattress. Still she could not blame her daughter for not telling her too. She doubted herself if she would have helped Hanna to hide her things. She was so scared of the soldiers that she knew she would not have anything to do with guns or things like that. Ghirmay, a boy in his mid-teens by then, was aware of the fighters and had taken no time to put things together and understand why Hanna was imprisoned. His question, which rang in his mind non-stop for a long time, got a clear picture for an answer.
He decided instantly after thinking hard for some time. There was no way of handing over the gun to the Ethiopian authorities. They could not even tell his family members or neighbours lest the secret leaks somehow. However, he had to reassure Adey Haregu that he would take care of it and had nothing to worry about.
“I know what to do,” he rose from his seat. “Give me some plastic bag and the bag you bring your groceries.”
Adey Haregu said nothing but calmly walked across the room to the rickety kitchen cabinet and produced what was demanded of her. Ghirmay put the gun and magazine in the plastic bag and then into the bag which was made from grain sack. He strode briskly to his home and quickly dug a hole on a corner of the compound. Putting the bag with its contents in the hole he covered it with the soil and some stones.
He then went straight to the sitting room and picked up one of the wicker works he and Adey Haregu brought from Hazhaz prison on their last visit. After they had returned home then, he kept the items with him. As the mother showed no interest on the things they brought, he put the vase of flowers made with wicker and colourful thread on a dinning table. As he had never seen a boat made from a wicker and thread, he had kept it in his bedroom. He placed the one that looked like a small bowl on Adey Haregu’s bedside cabinet.
Sitting at home he looked at the flag which he had not given much thought before. He had heard that the fighters have a red flag. He thought as if Hanna was telling him that she was fighting for that flag. She had marked the boat with a year 1986 in the Gregorian calendar instead of the Geez which was in use by the Ethiopian authorities those days. He could only think that she meant to symbolize something with that boat.
He tried to picture what kind of person she was. A number of ideas came to his mind. Did she participate in the famous time bomb explosion that burned down tens of trucks in Asmara? Was she active in killings of many of the traitors shot in the streets? How did the Ethiopians find out about her activities? Was she only a suspect? He poured these and many other questions to himself.Whatever her job was, she was a heroine, he concluded.
More than half a decade had passed before Adey Haregu’s hope and Ghirmay’s numberless questions were answered. Although they breathed the fresh air of freedom in the last few weeks, they looked forward to Hanna’s return anxiously. The war and political prisoners returned from Ethiopia the day before. So Adey Haregu cooked the best dish ever, wore her best Tilfi and headed to where they returnees rested accompanied by Ghirmay.
Everyone they asked happily answered that she could be in the other blocks of bedrooms. They could not find a single person who knew Hanna. Many things went in their minds, but they did not want call their search off. They spent the whole day there creating many speculations. But no one could tell them a single fact about her. As it was a fruitless day, they had to go home and wait until she herself came home.
*        *        *
Ghirmay finished what he looked straight into Selam’s eyes. She returned his look intensely; he had to finish what he was telling her. He had said it all but he wanted to be very clear. He continued: “Hanna didn’t breathe after leaving this boat at Hazhaz. She never got transferred to Addis. She got martyred for Eritrean independence. Reesom was writing the letters so as Adey Haregu – may her soul rest in peace – wouldn’t spend her time shuttling between prisons in vain.”
So, if Ghirmay got angry when something happened to the miniature boat – which might be unimportant to many – it was only because he could cross many rivers of memories that never die.

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