Wednesday 6 March 2024

Iyasu’s Other Ride by Giovanni Ruffini, Scotch neat

 I wake in Iyasu’s bed confused. Sun comes streaming through old, wood-paned windows. I try to remember where I am, why I’m not in my hotel. I blink, rub the gunk from my eyes. I open one of the windows, get a wave of wood-fueled fires and rain, the one smell from Addis I never forget. Tin roofs outside, greens and reds, rusting their way down the hill outside of his compound, shards of glass glued to the tops of the walls around his house, cheaper than barbed wire. His driveway, slick with rain, his car gone.

            I check my watch. Just after 8:30 in the morning. Where’d he go? I ask myself.

            I can smell the injera stew from the kitchen, realize how hungry I am, remember last night’s dinner. That damn car of his.

            I walk down the hall, look into the living room, see the old TV, the blankets on the couch where Iyasu had slept last night. His mom is in the kitchen and catches my eye. ‘Hello,’ she smiles. ‘You eat?’

            I nod and thank her, sitting down in front of a plate. Last night’s injera, soaked in a mix of sauces from the lamb tibs and the shiro, warmed up just enough to make it work. Coffee on the side. I get to it, smiling at mom, mom smiling back. She offers more, I keep eating. Finally, I ask, ‘Iyasu?’

            She shakes her head. ‘Driving.’

‘Job?’ She nods back at me. Great, I think. Stuck here with mom. Should’ve made him drive all the way back last night.

We had left Addis early enough that morning. ‘One hour and one half,’ he had said, smiling, confident. But the rain had kept coming, and we’d gotten stuck behind a truck broken down on the road to Bishoftu. Took us nearly three hours to get to Ziway, and I should have known. Took us long enough to get to Zuqualla last time I hired him to drive those roads. Ziway was twice as far.

We stopped in Ziway for lunch, fish and pasta, another Orthodox fast day, then headed down to the pier. Ashenafi, Iyasu, and I spent a good twenty minutes arguing over price and itinerary. ‘Gelila Island is better,’ Ashenafi had said. ‘And bird island.’ I wanted Tulu Gudo. The whole point of the trip was Tulu Gudo. ‘Too far,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘Four hours, more.’ After enough of this, we had a price. ‘Four hundred birr. You,’ he insisted, ‘only customer. No one goes Tulu Gudo.’

Half an hour later, Ashenafi, Iyasu, and seven other people hopped on his boat with me.

Tulu Gudo was the closest thing to paradise I’d ever seen. Layers of green sprinkled with darker clumps of green. Fishermen floated by on reed canoes, looked at me, nodded and smiled. It had rained a little on the ride, just enough for a slim rainbow of color to cut its way over the island when we pulled into the dock. Children bathed naked in the hot springs just off the path around the hill.

I asked Ashenafi for the way to the church, to Debre Tsion. He spoke to the locals, and one of them, a teenage boy, ran off, waving for us to follow. The church was locked when we got to the top of the hill, and we lost some time looking for a priest with the key. He gave me a tour, pointed to the church bell. ‘Queen Zewditu,’ he said. Pointed at an old leather-bound manuscript resting on a podium. ‘The Glory of the Kings,’ he said.

I looked at the building, its tin roof, its cinderblock and concrete walls, and shrugged. ‘This is a new church,’ I said to them. ‘Where is the old one?’

The priest looked at Ashenafi and Iyasu, puzzled. The three men chatted back and forth in Amharic, pointing at me, and somewhere further up the hill. The priest shook his head and turned to leave.

‘The Tabot from Saint Mary of Tsion in Aksum was there once,’ Ashenafi said to me. ‘The Ark of the Covenant. But it is not there anymore.’

‘Is it far?’

‘Another hour further inland.’

I looked at Iyasu, who was staring down at his shoes. ‘Fine, let’s go,’ I said, and walked out of the church. I gave the priest a few birr before taking a long look at the path leading into the trees. An hour later, I was back on the boat, eleven other people this time along for the ride to town.

‘You’re just like the other one,’ Iyasu said.

‘Other one?’

‘In the hotel,’ he smiled. ‘The other American. Always looking for something you can never find.’ I kept my mouth shut for the rest of the boat ride, took photos of the fishermen, thought about the kids in the hot springs.

We'd gotten as far back as Bishoftu when the car rolled to a stop. Iyasu was out of gas. We got out and started to walk. Took two minutes before I’d picked up some kids along the way, following me, grabbing my sleeves. ‘You you, money money,’ they said, calling after me for half a mile. We made it to the first gas station in town, found it closed. Iyasu took it up with guys standing around outside, agreed on the price for a liter of gas, argued for three or four minutes over which bottle was a liter and which was too small. Put a hose in some guy’s tank, sucked on it like a straw until the gas came pouring into the bottle.

It was past dinner time by the time we hit the outskirts of Addis. We wouldn’t even make it to Bole before my hotel restaurant would close for the night. He asked me over for dinner, and I’d said yes, angry with hunger. When his mother suggested I stay the night, I was too tired to say no. Watching her feed me more stew the next morning, I wondered what she thought of her son, his life, his rides. Wondered where her husband was, her five other kids.

‘Thank you. I go now,’ I said finally. ‘My hotel.’

She shook her head. ‘Too far,’ she whispered. ‘You wait.’

I looked out the window, watched the rain fall, said nothing. Later that day, when Iyasu came back home, I asked him where he’d been. He looked upset at something, annoyed. He shook his head, told me about the other man at my hotel, the American. Had wanted an early pickup from the hotel and a roundtrip to Entoto.

‘The park?’ I asked. ‘Why?’

‘Mushrooms,’ he whispered, staring at his shoes.

We tossed my stuff back in the car and drove off. I figured it was better to skip the hotel and head right to the next stop, keep it local this time. Washa Mikael, an old rock-cut church up in Yekka, close enough to downtown Addis that I’d be back in my hotel in time for dinner. Ethiopian Orthodox say it was built in the fourth century, just after Abuna Selama had converted the kings. Most of us didn’t think that date worked. Must have been later, maybe thirteenth or fourteenth century, before Ahmed Gragn had taken the southern parts of the country. I wanted to look for inscriptions on the walls, graffiti, anything that would help date the place.

Iyasu had never heard of it. When we got into the hills, we must have missed a sign, taken a turn too soon, something. We came to a dead end in the road, tires sunk in rain-filled craters in the mud. The sun had come up, the grass and trees glowing on the hilltop. Iyasu and I looked at the map, at the hill, shrugged at each other, and started climbing up on foot. We clambered over some kind of thorny weeds covering slippery gaps in the hill. He missed a step, slipped, twisted his ankle and ripped a gash in his jeans.

‘I’m sorry, man,’ I said to him. ‘I should’ve had a better idea where I was going.’

He waved me off, shook his head, kept walking up the hill. ‘No, no. My fault. I am the driver, I am the guide.’ He was quiet for a minute, a strange look on his face. ‘I pass exams, you know, for university. Four years ago. The fees, too much money. My family, they do not have any, so I drive.’ He shrugged.

The closer we got to the top, the harder the summer sun hit us, and I was drenched with sweat by the time we cleared the ridge. Some kids were playing nearby. Iyasu got directions to the church and asked for water. They point to a pump pulling water out of the ground. Iyasu filled his bottle, drank nearly half of it, filled it again, and handed it to me. I poured some on my hand, rinsed my face with it, and poured some over my head. I looked up and saw him laughing at me.

‘You think it’s dirty,’ he said.

I shrugged, handed the bottle back, and kept walking. We found the church cut into the hillside, overgrown with vines and creepers, trees blocking the path. The outer walls had collapsed years ago. The Italian bombs in the 1930s? Ahmed Gragn in the 1530s? I thought of the old quote. Ethiopia slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world by whom it was forgotten.       

        We got back to my hotel early this time, little to show but a few more photos. The TV in the lobby had Ethiopian news on mute, a split screen showing the broadcaster on the left and George Bush, the second one, on the right. ‘How do you like him?’ Iyasu asked me, pointing at the TV. ‘The new one?’ I noticed a man in a dark suit sitting in a chair next to the TV, lowering his newspaper, looking at me. I felt a little dizzy, had to lean against the counter by the receptionist. I thought about my malaria meds and tried to remember the side-effects.

       ‘There he is!’ A booming voice called across the lobby, and an old bear of a man headed for Iyasu and gave him a hug. He smiled, looking at me. ‘You must be the other one,’ he said, grabbing my hand. ‘I’ve heard about you. Lou Cramer.’ Tall, fat, blue jeans and a white undershirt, sparkling blue eyes, a grin barely hidden under a mustache and pure white beard draped down to his belly button, a scraggly ponytail dangling off the back of his head.

        I noticed the man in the chair check his watch, get up, walk out of the hotel. I wondered who he was reporting to. Dammit, I thought. The lariam is getting to me.
    The three of us had dinner and drinks at the hotel restaurant. Lou picked up the tab. Halfway through dinner, another man with a dark suit and this morning’s paper came in and sat down, drank some coffee, stared at us. Lou asked about my work. I gave something vague about trying to interpret the prophecies of the holy women at Zuqualla, the ones they called the Oromo Sibyls. He nodded, said something about the divine goddess hidden in all of us. I smiled and ordered another beer.

        After dinner, he invited us back to his room. ‘There’s something I’d like to share with you.’

         Iyasu looked annoyed, but was too polite to leave. When we got upstairs, he ducked into Lou’s bathroom. I sat in a lounge chair, some green cushions from the early 80s still hanging on. Lou had some scotch in his luggage, poured us a couple of fingers. He took a strong sip and sat on another lounge chair, facing me, pulled his legs up crisscross under his belly. He stared at me smiling, smoothing out his beard, and suddenly, just as Iyasu came out of the bathroom behind him, he launched into a deep, guttural ‘Om,’ his chest heaving and his palms open to the ceiling.

          Iyasu put a long, thin hand to his mouth, stifling a laugh. The om kept coming from deeper and deeper in that belly, and between the lariam and the beer and the scotch, Lou’s beard started to shimmer and quake in my mind, a bolt of white lightning shot out of his face. He paused for a breath. I saw Iyasu cock his head, check to see what Lou was doing. I was about to cut in, say something, when he started again, another bottomless om I could almost feel in my bones. This time, he started patting himself, drumming, like a grade-school playground game: left hand, right knee; right hand, left knee; left hand, right shoulder; right hand, left shoulder; back again, faster and faster, his head rocking, new breaths sending new waves out from his belly.

         Iyasu leaned back against the wall, shaking his head, staring at his shoes.

        A minute of this and I had started to sweat. When he stopped, Lou looked at me and smiled. ‘Your holy women are listening, even now,’ he said. ‘Last week, with Iyasu, I went to Gish Abbay, in Gojjam.’

      I nodded, trying to remember what I’d read. ‘The source of the Blue Nile, right? At least, that’s what some people thought.’

    Lou smiled, his eyes wide, unblinking. ‘A home of the goddess Isis.’

I froze, like if I didn’t move, he wouldn’t see me. Then reached for the scotch, took a pull, breathed in the fumes, coughed. ‘She lives there?’ I was trying not to smirk.

 ‘She lives there,’ he nodded. ‘And in the streams of the Garden of Eden in eastern Turkey. And in the forests of Kashmir.’

 ‘You’ve been to Kashmir?’ I asked. Iyasu came around, sat in a third chair, stared at Lou.

‘I have.’ And again, he opened his hands to the ceiling. ‘Then Abbottabad, Islamabad, Jalalabad. Looking for Soma.’

  His eyes lost focus, his head started to roll back and forth. I thought I heard him humming. ‘Soma in the Rig Veda. Fly’s milk in Germany. Fool’s cap in France. The devil’s hat in Italy. Amanita muscaria, the magic mushroom of immortality,’ the last words coming with a belly full of boom, his hands all the way in the air.

‘I’m sorry. What?’ I could have tried all night and not come up with anything better.

‘Revelation 12:3,’ he said. ‘You know it?’ I shook my head. He turned to Iyasu, got nothing from him either. ‘Another sign appeared in the heavens: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads, ten horns, and on each head seven diadems. That mushroom, the dragon. Its red cap, the crown.’
    ‘And you found it in Kashmir? Tried it there?’

 Lou shook his head, his whole body sagging, deflated. ‘Couldn’t find it in Kashmir. Kept going. Pakistan. Afghanistan. One night last year, in the hills outside of Jalalabad, I found it at the base of the trees it spoke to. I sat and ate. I closed my eyes. My mind left my body and entered the heart of the universe. I could hear it speak to me, feel the universal om.’ And his body perked up again, lifted with the memory of it, filling the room with another wave of vibrations.

I sipped the last of my scotch, watered from what was left of the ice. I looked at Iyasu, whose head was in his hand.

  ‘When I woke up, I was a prisoner. The militia found me in the forest, tied me up, marched me into the mountains. It was that night, as the mushroom moved through me, that I learned the truth.’

‘The truth?’

Suddenly, he uncrossed his legs, leaned forward in his chair, waved his hand at me. ‘You live in New York, right?’ I nodded, trying to remember when I’d told him that. ‘I escaped that night. Broke three ribs falling off the hill. I made it. But I heard what they said.’ He was stabbing the air with his finger now, pointing right at me. ‘The United States government will not see the light until we lose New York City.’

 I put my drink down and stared at him.

 ‘Manhattan will explode, this fall. This is what Jesus told John, what the Revelator saw in the demon with the red crown. Manhattan, giving birth to a new world in the light of its own explosion. Don’t you see? It is written in the very name of the place, Manhattan. It’s from native Lenape, manahahtaan.’ And here, Lou inched to the edge of his chair and put his hands out to mime his words: ‘Man,’ he said, pointing to his head, ‘the true word for the mind. Ahah! The lights go on!’ And here, popping his fingers out in a flash. ‘Taan,’ both hands now pulling apart. ‘Stretched through thunder, with the force of a ten-megaton bomb.’

Before I left, I told Iyasu I would see him in the morning. I staggered to my room, thinking I was going to be sick, nearly choked trying to get the lariam pill down my throat. I got out my journal, scribbled some notes, shook my head and laughed. Om. I giggled and tried to hum the sound, holding my hands to the heavens.

            The next morning, the dark suit from yesterday was back in the lobby, sitting next to the TV, still reading the day’s paper. I got out the envelope I’d stashed in my luggage full of traveler’s checks from my bank back home, settled the rest of the bill, sat down to wait. When Iyasu came, twenty minutes later, the suit got up, looked at me, took a slow walk out the door. I looked at Iyasu and smiled. ‘Can you get me to the airport?’

            He nodded and grabbed my bags.


About the author

Giovanni Ruffini is a college history professor specializing in Greco-Roman and Nubian history. This is his first published piece of fiction.

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