The Carnival in Ethiopia began at one in the morning. The Ghost of the Emperor Haile Selassie climbed onto the stage, dragging his iron chains, and declared the proceedings under way. He seemed larger than in real life, though more transparent. I was watching from the upper branch of a baobob tree. I had with me a thermos of tea and a notebook. Below me, one of the Princesses—Vernanne—squirmed on another branch. She kicked her feet back and forth. She clapped her hands and squealed with delight as the Emperor, swinging open his royal robes, revealed his erect penis with the Ethiopian flag attached to it.
Woodwinds wailed. Cymbals clashed.
It was a grand moment.
I was the first Westerner to visit Ethiopia since the revolution. For years I had studied the records, knowing they were sadly out of date. Even the topography, it was rumored, had changed: the deserts had become grassy plains, lions had returned to hunt the wildebeest, and a new range of mountains had emerged in the central valley.
The invitation to visit Ethiopia came from the Ambassador himself. He appeared first in New York, where he gave a slide show on palace architecture. He was a tall, thin man, very black. In Cincinnati he talked of, and briefly demonstrated, Ethiopian folk dances. Three men, two middle-aged ladies who knitted constantly, and one fidgeting child attended the lecture. I journeyed to Denver to hear him speak on the Ethiopian position on the then-being-negotiated European Monetary Reforms. No one except me showed any interest, Ethiopian currency having long vanished from the open market. A week later, in Portland, Oregon, I watched him step out of a taxi during a driving rainstorm. He glanced up at the sky — I wondered if rain were common in Ethiopia — winced, and hurried into the auditorium, where he delivered another slide show, this one on the coffee harvest in the Ethiopian valley of Shaun. After the presentation I went backstage.
"Yes," he said, "my lectures are not well attended.
It is, I'm afraid, an insoluble problem. Advertising might help—who can say?—but I'm afraid television time, or newspaper space, would be simply inappropriate. Stylistically."
His thin hands moved in the air.
"How can I say it?" he mused. "It is not that we condemn your marketplace approach to life—not at all. But we are not, I think, a commodity—we are not an item, you see. And in Ethiopia, appropriateness is all."
He leaned forward, frowning.
"Not propriety—I dont mean that. Ah, how I mistrust language. I dont mean to imply that in Ethiopia everything must be in its proper place, that kind of nonsense—we are not a proper people—but there is a kind of—"
The hands moved again, agitated.
"A kind of?" I prompted.
"A kind of inner relevance—does that make sense?"
"I'm not sure."
"I am very much afraid explanations are not my strong suite. Sherry?"
Eyebrows raised, he lifted the bottle.
"Why dont you," he said smoothly, "come and see for yourself? I suspect the only way to convey anything of our quality of life is for you to experience it."
He sipped at the sherry.
"I'm sure," he said, "it can be arranged."
I arrived in Ethiopia in a DC-3 with silver wings and a red tail.
The Ambassador and I were the only passengers. We passed the time—it was a long flight—playing Parcheesi and discussing the batting averages of that year's Red Sox team. On the tarmac, awaiting us, were the seven Princesses. They stood in a row, hands clasped in front of them, eyes downcast. All wore black patent shoes with high heels. They giggled over my name, and then ran, teetering, arms akimbo, to the green bus which transported us to the palace. We passed gardens, great displays of fuschia, citrus trees drooping with oranges, and swarms of children, black and naked, who cheered our passage.
I was given a room in the east wing. It contained a marble wash basin, a sunken tub beneath stained-glass windows, a narrow bed, rather hard, and a desk for my studies. An enormous chandelier, full of candles—for there was no electricity in Ethiopia—hung from an arched ceiling. The toilet, unfortunately, was down the hall, a tiny cubicle with a round hole in the floor and flat stones on either side, on which you placed your feet while squatting. Though uncomfortable at first, I would soon become accustomed to it. With the windows opened, a scented breeze filled my room.
How nice, I wrote in my diary, to be in Ethiopia at last.
There are no cars here, I wrote, no smog, none of that incessant whine and clash of machines. If an earthly paradise exists, then this surely is it.
I walked down stone streets, nodding and smiling at old women, admiring murals and carved lintels and the unexpected sight of a tree growing out of an upper window. When the Ambassador saw me he waved. I joined him at the table. He was wearing a long robe with a collar of the royal purple. He smiled, and I saw gold teeth.
"How delightful," I said, "your country is."
"You are too kind," he said. "Please—some coffee?"
An ebony girl in white muslin—I could see the shadow of her body through the cloth—poured from a silver pot.
"I can understand," I said, "why you have partitioned yourself off from the rest of the world."
"Thank you. How important it must be to preserve this—this splendor—this tranquility, from the dissonance of the West—from that awful pall of smoke we call civilization—"
He dabbed with a napkin at the dribble of brown coffee which escaped his mouth.
"How nicely," he said, "you put it."
We had a late supper. Gathered in the formal dining room were the Ambassador, the seven Princesses, a Professor Carlsbad from the University, and several dignitaries from the College of Surgeons. I answered their questions as best I could, but found explaining the Western way of life difficult. I talked about the Yacht Club at Balboa, ladies with blue rinses in their hair; I described the recent elections, our system of delegating responsibility, and the elegance of Parisian fashion. We have a network of Greyhound buses, I said, which connect all our major cities, and many of our minor ones as well. The dignitaries nudged each other—beards dipped alarmingly towards the soup. There are trains, I said, jet airplanes and private automobiles and ships of every size and type—we are a people traveling all over the country, every day and every night as well. Princess Vernanne, a brunette with pale skin, giggled, and in the corner, legs spread, a black retainer snored lustily. Deserts and mountains, I said, rivers and lakes—all constantly being traversed, seen through glass windows, experienced as a green or gray blur rushing by at great speed. I leaned forward. "It's a way of life, gentlemen, a style of being—how can I say it—"
"Come," said Vernanne. "Let's have our coffee in the garden."
She and I were the only ones left awake. I wiped beads of sweat from my face.
"I'm not usually this verbose," I said. "I don't know what happened—the wine must have gone to my head."
"That was pomegranate juice."
She stopped beneath a bush of night-blooming jasmine.
"Paris," she whispered. "Tell me about Paris."
She lifted one foot. I heard the hiss of silk as her calves rubbed together.
Midnight came. Princess Vernanne slipped through the wooden gate at the east end of the palace. She had changed her black patent shoes for a pair of alligator pumps. She leaned on my arm as we passed through the crowds of people. Faces smiled, bodies moved aside. Vernanne nodded graciously, then giggled against my shoulder. When I lifted her onto the lower branch of a baobob tree, she cried out and wrapped her ankles around my neck. For a long moment I looked up her skirt. Then she patted my cheek, removed her legs, and took out her make-up kit. I watched her paint her lips scarlet, then cover them with a clear gel. With a black pencil she outlined her eyes, first her left, then her right, and brushed a silver liquid onto the lids. Thick mascara lengthened and darkened her lashes. With special powders she contoured her cheeks, shading one color into another. To each ear lobe she attached dangling jewels, silver filigree studded with emeralds and amethyst. Seven chains went around her neck. She unbuttoned two buttons of her blouse and arranged the lapel so a bit of each breast showed. Then she shook out her hair and put everything away.
"There," she said. She smiled happily at me. "I'm ready now."
The ghost of the Emperor Haile Selassie dragged his way across the field.
Vernanne, her painted face intact, leaned on my arm. When we came to the garden, the Emperor was already in place atop his marble pedestal, one hand placed over his genitals and the other tipping his hat. The Ambassador, Professor Carlsbad, and a giant lion — his mane rather moth-eaten—stood to one side. The Ambassador very courteously showed me to my seat. Vernanne perched on my leg. She wiggled against my bony knee.
"An unwarranted excursion into the Grand Canyon," said Professor Carlsbad, "in 1857, resulted in the premature birth, and unsanctified burial, of an Indian child whose name would have been—"
He peered over his spectacles at me.
"Whose name would have been," he repeated, "Eagle-in-the-Sky."
"Hear, hear," said the Ambassador.
"Rain fell heavily that day," said the Professor. "We are speaking now, of course, of a certain well-known Tuesday in June in the early years of the seventeenth century. A swan, lingering after dusk, bent his graceful neck into an arch. The tanner—a large man with black hair—bowed his head in reply."
"Well done," said the Ambassador.
"Shall I continue?" asked the Professor. "Or perhaps you would prefer—a game of charades?"
Vernanne squeezed her thighs against my knee. Her throat and cheeks flushed. She put a hand on her breast.
"Ah," she said. "My cunt is like a swollen river."
I watched her long red fingernails curve into her own flesh.
"The midday sun—the heat of my own fever—and your face, cool as moonlight."
The lion rose to his feet.
"Enough of this," he growled. "Pronounce sentence."
The change in temperature was marked. A wind came off the river, and even Vernanne, fleshy Vernanne, shivered. I accepted the judgement without a murmur. In several languages people bid good-bye. "I will miss you forever," Vernanne said, a tear at the corner of her eye. Her legs, sheathed in black nylon, slid together, hissing once more. I acknowledged her sentiments. My ticket, green and black and gold, dragged behind me over the tarmac. The airplane moved into position, one propeller already turning. The Ambassador gripped my shoulder. The six remaining Princesses, giggling behind their hands, stood in a row. A dowager sternly fixed her gaze on them. When all was quiet, the lion paraded past. He reviewed the scene. Discretely he added a touch of red to the sunset, and with great delicacy, his paw hardly moving, allowed a roll of thunder to descend from the hills. I stood stalwart as ever, brave to the last. The lion gave me a nod. I finished the last paragraph, the last sentence, the last word, and appropriately, with great sadness, placed a period at the end. The end—the end—the end of it all.
NOTES: Journey to Ethiopia was written
in about 1985,
one of three "Ethiopian" themed stories, some poems,
and finally a novel, The Ethiopian Exhibition.
This story was published
in Flashpoint in 2001 .