Truth, A Modern Ethiopian Short Story

By Tadesse Liben
  In addition to the grain and coffee
harvested from his farms and plantations which kept the family oven continuously
busy, he had an annual income in cash of 50,000 to 60,000 dollars. Of this money
some was used for building modern houses in the town, bearing rents of 500 and
1,000 dollars a month; some was locked in his safe, and some was always
available in plenty in his pockets for the pleasure of it. Whenever Ato
Demissie, grunting, put his hands into any pocket he drew out 10, 50 and 100
dollar notes and whenever Almaz asked him for 20 dollars he gave her 50; and
when she asked for 65 dollars, he gave her 100. In general what one could read
on the face of the master of the household was: "Come, my soul, eat and drink;
my daughter, live in luxury. Care not for tomorrow. If the worst comes to the
worst, I have many modern buildings and those foreigners to pay the

For Admassu Ayele, a sturdy young man,
things were quite different as soon as he left school for employment. The first
month, until he received his salary, he found it difficult to pay 15 dollars
rent, for a room, buy a canvas bed, blankets
and sheets. He had nobody to turn to in
this world. He came through the
first month only because he was able to go to his old school and get food and
shelter for the night, after promising the
administrator to buy him a present as soon as he received his
first pay.

His father, Ato Ayele, died when Admassu
was a four-year-old child. Ato Ayele Aytenfisu did not leave a piece of land or
a small house for his son, not because he was not clever or lacked foresight in
life: on the contrary, he was a diligent worker and a shrewd merchant. However,
as had been the fate of many an unfortunate merchant, Mother Luck had not smiled
upon him. Thus, he was simply destined to lead a hand-to-mouth

Despite these misfortunes, Admassu was
not a simple-minded child. It was true that when he left school life was
difficult for him. But he adapted himself quite quickly to these hard
circumstances. The main thing was that he knew that he could depend only upon
himself. He bowed and scraped until his brow was coated with dust; he called
upon high-ranking gentlemen in order to gain their acquaintance and future
support. Moreover, he led a scrupulous and thrifty existence based upon the very
necessities of life. So much so that saving 2,000 dollars within two years, in
the good old days when prices were low, he bought 4,000 square metres of land at
Kabena at the rate of 50 cents per square metre. In three years the value of
this land had risen to five dollars per square metre. In fact, some people
predicted that the value of
the land would sky-rocket to a record
price of 10 dollars per square metre. Be that as it may, Admassu did not want to
wait for that opportunity. He sold 3,000 square metres of his land for 15,000
dollars and upon the remain­ing piece of land he had a wonderful house built at
a cost of 7,000 dollars. The house consisted of eight rooms and was a
magnificent sight to see. He furnished it with modern furniture that cost him
2,000 dollars. Soon after­wards, he bought a nice little car for 4,200 dollars.
Over and above this he was liked and highly praised by his superiors for his
ability, efficiency and integrity—so much so that he gained consideration for
promotion. His initial salary was 150 dollars but later it was raised to 450
dollars. In fact life for Admassu, at this time appeared not as the "… visitation of the iniquity of the father unto the
child . . ." but rather as " compensation of the child for the
short-comings of the father."

The proper thing to do at this stage for
one who is in his youth and on whom fortune has so generously smiled is to get
married and have a family. Admassu was thus looking for a life partner, and for this reason
went to
girls' schools whenever he had a chance, to have a look, asking
his friends, too, to look out for a wife for him.

However, the way to look for a life
partner is not like going to the sheep market and selecting a fat and gorgeous
sheep to take home, nor is it like picking one from the pen. A life partner may
turn up one day at some unexpected place, perhaps whilst waiting for the bus or
entering a shop; or she may be found in someone else's house.

Having for some time pursued his goal
unsuccessfully, Admassu was one day returning home from work at 6 p.m. when he
encountered Almaz crossing the Ras Makonnen Bridge and heading towards Saba
Dereja. He immediately felt a pang in his heart, for he was instantly captured
by her beauty and bearing. Stopping his car on the curb he followed her at a
distance and found out where she lived. That very evening, he penned a
love-letter and handed it to her the next morning as she was leaving her house.
Within a month they were on kissing terms. Many week-ends they went for rides in
the car and he did not refrain from buying her certain presents. When he became
convinced that he would marry her, he began to introduce her to his friends and
tell them more about her. In spite of all this, there were, among his best
friends, some who were not happy at his coming to know her. The reason was that
many people spoke badly of her. " She is no good. You see her at every party. She has many boy friends.
the one she loves most of all is one called Tessema."

Some friends of Admassu's came and told
him these things. Amongst them was one—Debebe, who was a very close friend of
Admassu. One day while sitting together at
home with Admassu, Debebe brought the matter up
in the course of a

" Listen to me, Admassu," said Debebe,
" I advise you to forget this girl. I agree
she is beautiful and has a
wealthy father. But what good is the wealth a
woman brings you ? I am telling you, if you don't believe what I am saying, you
will regret it later. She has a lover named Tessema for whom she has the deepest

   Admassu listened silently but later he began to speak.

"Debebe, don't
give ear to all that rubbish," said Admassu
standing up and beginning to pace up and down
the room. " It is all a lie. She loves only me.
And I
asked her at the beginning
whether she had promised to
anybody else, or if she had a lover, and she told
me she had none."

Debebe was incredulous. " Do you think
that she would admit that she had a lover," he remarked wryly, and added: " Is she that much of a fool ?

Admassu was very much agitated.

" I did not compel her," Admassu said. "
Why shouldn't she tell me the truth ? And if she did not tell me the truth only
God knows about it. But as for me I can only accept and believe what I hear from
the woman I love and expect to have as my legitimate wife."

That was a sincere statement on the part
of Admassu. Never in his life had he entertained any suspicion about a person's
honesty nor had he ever questioned anyone about another person's integrity. He
only accepted what people told him about themselves. Thus, what he believed
about Almaz was what Almaz personally had told him. How­ever, it was in
Admassu's nature to make irrevocable decisions if some hidden truth emerged. If
he found a person committing an act he never expected him to commit, he would
there and then decide never to have anything further to do with him. He always
wanted to believe not hearsay, but what he could see and hear directly from the
very lips of the person concerned. Almaz always fulfilled his requests promptly.
She was there whenever and where-ever he wanted her, and if he wished her to
wait for him at a certain place and time,
she was there 10 minutes
before him. From the day they first knew each
other, he never saw her going or talking with anybody he did not know. Hence he
could not believe a word of what Debebe was telling him concerning Almaz. In
spite of Admassu's reluctance to believe such stories, Debebe continued to bring
him scandalous rumours. Ten days after their tete-a-tete, Debebe came again and
started talking about Almaz with special stress upon her unfaithfulness and bad
character, advising Admassu to give her up completely. Admassu, however,
stubbornly refused to heed Debebe's words. At last Debebe got up angrily and,
walking up and down the room, said:

" So you mean to say, she has never
departed from your words and never will. And she does not have a lover called
Tessema. Isn't that what you are saying ? "

   " Yes," answered Admassu.

" All right, be it as you say," said
Debebe impatiently. " But would you do me one last favour if I asked you ?

Debebe and Admassu had a very close
friendship that was bound by mutual respect and affection. It was not a new bond
of casual acquaintance. It was a friendship nurtured during their childhood and
strengthened while they both attended the same elementary school learning the
first stages of reading and writing side by side. They were together for six
years in the elementary school and five years in the high school and after
school five years in the same job. All in all, they had known each other for 16
years and eaten off the same plate, so to speak. It was true that Debebe did not
have the affluence that Admassu had. He was a person who believed in the
present, who lived for the hour. He never had any care or thought

for what was to come and, therefore, he
did not have a car or a house that he could
call his own. However,
Debebe never envied those who, because of their
thrifty living, had earned and owned a fortune. He was pleased with Admassu's
financial success and considered it as his own success in life. Therefore
Admassu, knowing all this about Debebe, did not want to disappoint him by
refusing to hear his request, although Debebe was meddling with his own private
life. After weighing all this Admassu turned to Debebe and said:

" All right, Debebe, tell me what it is
you require and I will do it."

  Then Debebe began to speak.

" Next Saturday, a dinner-dance is being
given by Almaz's school. The party will be
held at the Itegue

Admassu was surprised and said: " She
has told me about it but how did you come to
know about it ?"

" Never mind about that," answered
Debebe, " She must have told you about the party in order that you two might go
there together ? "

" Yes," said Admassu, " but I have not
made up my mind yet."

" Well then, don't go, and tell her not
to go either." " But why ? " asked Admassu confused.

" I am coming to that," said Debebe.' "
You first tell her not to go there. Then you go by yourself to Itegue Hotel and
hide near the entrance. Then you will see that Almaz will come there, as sure as
death, escorted by none other than Tessema."

   Admassu was grieved to hear Debebe's low
opinion of Almaz. However, he had agreed to Debebe's request and therefore he
told Almaz that they would not be going to the party, asking her not to go herself under any
circumstances. Then, as planned, on Saturday evening at approximately
seven o'clock he went secretly to Itegue Hotel and, as Debebe had told him, made
himself in­conspicuous near the entrance. At 8 p.m. the guests began to arrive
and, after 10 or 20 minutes, many girls escorted by many young men, some in cars
and others on foot started to arrive and enter the hotel lounge where the party
was to be held. Admassu waited for Almaz to show up until 10 p.m. However, she
was not among the throng of young ladies and gentlemen who were passing by the
minute through the entrance into the hall that never seemed to be filled by
their presence. At 10-15 p.m., after all guests had arrived and half an hour had
passed without the appearance of further guests, Admassu went home. He spent a
sleepless night of self-reproach: he felt a guilty conscience for believing and
doing what Debebe had told him and suspecting Almaz. There and then Admassu
decided to tell Debebe, when he would next meet him, that Almaz had not come to
the party and that she was not what he thought she was and, moreover, to warn
him not to mention her name again in such a connection.

   He did not have to wait long to tell him this.

Next morning before he was out of bed
there was a knock on his door. It was Debebe
and as soon as he
entered he said, " Now, then. You did go yesterday,

you ? "

   Slowly and pensively Admassu answered. "Yes, I went, but Almaz did not come, as you had predicted."

   Debebe, in a pose that showed defiance,
stared at the ceiling. Admassu did not like Debebe's attitude and, staring at
him asked: " What are you driving at ? What do you mean by that ? "

Debebe was undaunted and in a stern
voice he answered, " Almaz was there yesterday ! "

Upon hearing these words, Admassu could
not hold back his anger. He was furious. He was shaking and swaying with

" You are a black liar," said Admassu
with a voice of fury. " Just because I did not want such things to come to pass,
I made it a point to stay watching up to 10-15 p.m. Let me tell you, in short,
that Almaz is not the type of girl you think she is, and she was not there !

   " I am telling you she was there," insisted

At this time, Admassu, who had been
nursing a secret anger at Debebe's insinuations, answered him: "That is quite
enough. I have already heard too much."

Debebe was not disturbed by Admassu's
sudden outburst of anger and continued:

"At 9-15 p.m. there appeared a young
lady dressed in a very fine evening dress spreading down to her ankles; crowning
her head was a specially made black hat from which a veil descended covering her
face. Didn't you notice this same young lady arriving at the party escorted by a
good-looking young man who was attired in a dark evening suit?"

Admassu had certainly seen such a young
lady and in answer to Debebe's question, he turned his face toward him in silent
acceptance of what he was saying.

At this point, Debebe got up and, with a
flourish said: " That young lady was Almaz in person ! I knew that all this
would come to pass and was waiting secretly inside the hall where the party was
held. I recognized her after she lifted her hat and veil, and the dashing young
man on whose arm she came was none other than Tessema ! "

Admassu did not utter a word. He only
got up, opened the door and asked Debebe to leave the house at

Debebe did not
leave but stood where he was and in a clear
voice, said: " I have told you Admassu, and what I told you was nothing but the
truth. She is not the type
of girl
that would suit you. She is nothing but an immoral
girl. If she were a good girl I would not have
so much. On the contrary
would I not be pleased if you were married to her, if she were a good girl ?

" Yes, now I am beginning to understand
that you would not be pleased with my marriage to her. From now on you are nothing to me. You are not my friend at
Let me tell you this for the last time," said Admassu, controlling
his anger but with a decisive gesture, "Almaz is not the kind of girl that you
are trying to convince me she is. All this time, who knows what your designs
were concerning Almaz. Perhaps you want to marry her your­self by creating
friction between her and me."

    Debebe was aghast when he heard this
point-blank denunciation and, with an awed stare, he asked Admassu: "Me, Debebe?"
Admassu without changing his countenance,
retorted: " Yes, you."

   Debebe was aroused, and in a desperate
tone said: " Are you really saying that to me, Admassu ? "

Admassu without changing his countenance,
retorted: " Yes, you."

Debebe was aroused, and in a desperate
tone said: " Are you really saying that to me  Admassu ? "

   Admassu was in the same mood and
answered: " Yes, I say that to you, Debebe."

That was the end of their friendship
and the breaking-point of the relationship between Admassu and Debebe. They
ceased greeting each other when they met on the street and behaved as if they
had never been friends. A few days later, Admassu sent some elders to Almaz's
house and formally asked for her hand in
marriage. He paid
400 dollars for the clothes Almaz had chosen for the
engagement. He also paid 40 dollars for a pair of shoes, and 47 for a silk
shawl; for 180 he purchased gold jewelry, including his own engagement ring His
own outfit, including shoes and dark wedding clothes, amounted to 400 dollars. The total expenses for the
amounted roughly to 500 dollars.

At first Admassu was grieved that Debebe
did not participate in all this gaiety and festivity. Later, however, he
consoled himself by simply shrugging it off: it was all Debebe's doing and only
Debebe himself was to blame. The wedding was to take place six months after the
engagement. Admassu had ample time to prepare for the great day that was to be
the beginning of a happy period in his life He bought a double-bed, spacious
enough for a couple, a partitioned wardrobe which went well with the bed and all
the equipment in which his future wife, the gorgeous and ravishingly beautiful
Almaz could keep her cosmetics and other aids to beauty. He furnished this room
in such a way that it would have graced a queen's boudoir. He was also laying
aside money monthly, to buy grain and butter for the wedding occasion. While all
this prepara­tion was going on, Almaz, one unfortunate Tuesday morning, was
walking from her father's hall to the kitchen and all of a sudden tripped and
fell. She developed strong pains and when her family took her to a hospital her
trouble was diagnosed as appendicitis. This catastrophe, alas! took place only
20 days before the date fixed for the wedding.

Admassu asked the doctor if she could
take drugs for the time being and postpone the operation until after the wedding
But the doctor answered that her sickness was not something that could be postponed; it needed
immediate operation. Hence, it was of necessity decided that Almaz should
have the operation before the wedding date
Almaz was thoroughly frightened at the prospect
of undergoing such an
operation and told Admassu about her fears One day she looked at him wistfully
and said, "Admassuye I don't know why, but I am afraid. Even when I
am well my weak heart makes me afraid of death, let alone when I have to be operated on under an

Admassu never left her bedside,
assuring and reassuring her that no harm would come of it. He tried to calm her
by telling her that he himself had undergone the same operation

   " Don't you worry Almaz," he was saying. " They don't  just operate without precautions. The
injection and its anaesthetic effect is all calculated according to your
strength. Apart from the surgeon, there is an expert responsible just for this.
Besides, appendicitis has nowa­days ceased to be regarded as a major ailment.
The opera­tion that removes it has become like ridding cattle of ticks. Without
going into all these details, I have already told you that I underwent the same
operation for the same sick­ness six years
ago. Look at me. I am hale and sound
and as healthy as a bull. Nothing
happened to me and I left the hospital after eight days. You will regain your
consciousness three or four hours after the operation. All that happens is that
for 20 or 30 minutes after the opera­tion you may rave and talk unconsciously.
But you will not know what you said unless the people who were standing beside
you tell you about it later.

" For instance, when I had my operation,
I was in the first football team of my school, playing left-wing. The week I was
admitted to the hospital and expecting to under­go the operation, my team was
playing against another school for the cup that used to be awarded to the
winning team in the Inter-Schools Annual Sports Competition. During that week
some members of my team came to visit me at the hospital and I was discussing
with them our strategy on the football field. I was worried about my team's
performance as I badly wanted our team to be victorious. So the day I was
operated on I was told that I had been unconsciously shouting: ' We must not
lose! We must not lose ! We must win the cup !'"

On the day that was fixed for Almaz's
operation, Admassu absented himself from his work and stayed at the hospital.
Before she was taken to the operation room, Admassu slipped into her room and
comforted her for the last time, and as they came to take her to the operation
room on the trolley, he approached her and whispered: ' Cheer up darling." Then, he kissed her and left

The operation took 40 minutes, during
which Admassu walked restlessly up and down the corridor, praying for her safety
as fervently as a saint prays for a sinner. " Dear God," he was praying,
"please, don't call her to Thee today and help her to endure this day's trial.
Give her strength. Mayest Thou help us to fulfil what was started by Thy Good
Grace and save me from being called a bad omen."

After the operation they carried her on
the same trolley back to her room. Admassu was walking up and down in her room
waiting for Almaz to regain consciousness. Her parents too were there, waiting.
Some 20 minutes later Almaz began to move. Admassu, overwhelmed with joy, and
shedding idle tears caused only by his ecstasy, approached the bed and knelt
beside her. Then Almaz's voice was heard:

   " Tessema ! . . . Tessema ! . . . Tessemieye! "

THE AUTHOR — Tadesse Liben
(translated by Kebede Tedla)

His first book of short stories was published in 1957 under
the title "Maskaram" (the first month of the Ethiopian year, which begins in
September). The second collection,
from which this
story is taken, is called " Lelau Menged " (The
Other Way, or the Alternative) and appeared in


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