The Tenth Vision (12 August, 2023)

Set in Sandoy, Faroe Islands, the Kingdom of Denmark

This is not the sea. This is not the ocean. This is not even a body of water. There is meadow upon meadow. The grass is a dehydrated green, merging with yellow tulips at bloom. Hills are in the distance. Or are they mountains? Are they cliffs?

It’s impossible to tell because they are so far, and there is mist, and all around her the wind is howling. It is cold but it is also warm, with grass tall enough to hide the distant bodies of cows.

There are giants walking up and down. They lurch towards each other, they disappear into the mist. A witch is cackling but the witch has no body. The witch is a voice.

Soon you will drown again, and you will come across the shadows.

This is not just a spell. This is not just a song. This is a reminder, replaying over and over again. Nothing is eternal. Even this world that has appeared out of nowhere is an illusion.

And yet it feels so real.

The grass nicks against the skin. The wind blows dew into the eardrums. The witches are chanting, and their words blur through the mist. There are ballads being sung, too. A skipari skips through the meadows, fiddle in hand, until he is stomped upon by the giants. They laugh and toss aside the bloodied mess their foot has created as if it is excrement they have stepped on.

All around is meadow. All around is mist. All around is song and spell. And there is no dancing. Why is there not any dancing? In such a wide furry swathe of land there must always be dancing.

Mother remembers a time when she loved dancing.

That was the time before she realised the importance of God.

Then she gave up dancing.

She gave up a lot of habits.

She wonders if it was worth it.

People are chaining themselves together. Where these people came from, no one knows. But they are slipping hand into hand, skipping with each other, singing songs. They look so happy despite the giants reaching out to crush them. They look so connected in a way so few people of this century appear.

Mother is getting old. And the world is changing, the world is moving on, the world is leaving her, as she knows she is beginning to leave this earth.

The earth of this meadow is tearing. The meadow is being torn apart into a chasm. The giants are falling in, the witches are shrieking. The mist is growing wider and wider until it is grey all around, and Mother once more feels like she is standing on water.

Has she returned to the bottom of the ocean?

She feels like she is sitting on top of a horse.

(10): 29th July, 2023 set in Teseney, Eritrea

20 May 1939

The first time Faven fell sick, it was in the spring of the late 1930s, when she was a young girl of the age of five. The illness in question was smallpox. Of course when the scaly and crusty lesions spread all over Faven’s body, the villagers were disturbed. They knew what the disease was, and they knew it was contagious, so no one except Faven’s mother dared to come close to her. Even Faven’s mother was scared, but she stayed by her daughter’s side next to her cot, feeding her genfo by hand until she recovered.

Up until the early 1940s, the land of modern Eritrea was a colony of the Italians. The village of Teseney was of particular importance. Because the fields of the village sat by the Gash River, it became the perfect place to construct a dam, and cotton growth was expansive due to the richness of the land. With the strong Italian presence in the village, Faven received proper medical treatment from the nurses in the army, and she made a full recovery.

Faven grew to be much older. She watched as Italian Eritrea went to the British and then became its own country. The wars of independence destroyed whatever infrastructure the Italians had built up, but Faven always remembered stroking the soft creamy skin of the nurse who tended her back to health; how it pressed against her pustule-covered body, how light blond hairs fell from her bun onto Faven’s body, how Faven would pull them apart, and play with them.

2 April 1955

When Faven was giving birth to her second child, she was unsure if she would make it. The birth attendants told her family that she was most likely going to die. The baby was just too big, and Faven’s womb simply too small. Because the pain was great and Faven’s spirit was dwindling, Faven prayed to God. She made sure to keep her mind on the image of the cross, bathed in golden light. It felt like her body was being torn outwards from the inside of her. It felt like someone had taken a watermelon and was forcing her to pass it through her whole.

Faven heard the sound of the angels. They told her she would be blessed with a beautiful boy. He would be responsible and giving. He would do so much for their village, and for the world. Faven heard what God was telling her and almost cried from the beauty of it.

Then after hours upon hours of hard work the baby came out. The attendants ululated with happiness, showing the child off. The birth of the boy was successful, with no damage to Faven’s body. The women went house to house passing titiqo. A few hours later, women came with jugs of milk from the goats as gifts for the home. In passing they asked curiously for the boy’s name, and Faven said, “Anbessa.” This was the Amharic word for lion, which Faven had chosen because of how loudly the voice of God had roared out his destiny while she was giving birth.

18 September 1961

By the 1960s Faven had birthed three children. This was a small number compared to what was normal in Eritrea, and the people of the village often teased her for her lack of fertility. It was a known fact that her husband was going about sleeping with other women and often impregnating them. Nonetheless Faven did not care. She was happy seeing her children playing outside with the goats and sheep, helping the other family members tend to the sorghum. In far off places like Asmara, coalitions were forming, trying to find ways for Eritrea to break off as a territory from Ethiopia.

But for Faven such things were as far from her as the news of the construction of a Berlin Wall. She lived her life in the fields sweeping the dust in her small hut, cooking meals for her family, and passing the time away talking to her various cousins and siblings.

10 June 1984

The war of independence was brutal. During the thirty-year period, Teseney and its villages were constantly bombed and bombarded. The village’s proximity to the border of Sudan had been its great commercial strength for most of Faven’s life, but now it resulted in so much upheaval.

But in the first month of 1984, the EPLF came to liberate the town of Teseney from the Ethiopians, and in the following months the Ethiopians came back with a vengeance. Faven and her loved ones would hide under the tables and the mattresses. Glass would randomly shatter from the mortars. People would go to the market to buy vegetables and never come back.

It was in those days that the sound of shattering glass and the whooshing of airplanes around them became imprinted in Faven’s mind. She would wake up in the middle of the night covered in sweat and shouting her children’s names. She would be peeling vegetables in the middle of the day and ducking under something, afraid that the sound she was hearing was of an army coming to attack them again.

And it was also during those days that Anbessa’s thinking began to change. Unlike his brothers he had never really liked their village, but because of the war Faven could see that he was really starting to despise it. She knew that in the back of her son’s mind, he was growing a disgust for this country. She could feel it in the tips of her hairs and in the emotions he never took the time to announce, but she could detect.

She wanted to talk about it but never knew how to bring it up. She had never talked profoundly about such topics with her children while they were growing up; the idea of raising emotionally challenging subjects was not in her realm of practice.

8 September 1984

And then Anbessa found placement in a good hospital in Asmara. He decided to stay with her brother as he settled in the city to work there, and he hardly visited.

9 October, 2007 

It was just like how her grandson from Asmara was eventually accepted into the school of his dreams in a country Faven did not know how to pronounce, let alone imagine, and after that Faven never saw him again.

15 March 2018

When did Faven start to lose her mind? Truthfully, she had never been encouraged to think or question in her entire life, and so thinking for her was routinely confined to what would be best for her children, what would be best for her mother, and how to manage a husband who had little interest in her well-being. Her husband was long dead, and she was surrounded by grandchildren who loved her. And yet she kept forgetting their names. Her hands would twitch for no reason. She would have trouble holding things, but when her daughters-in-law tried to help, she scolded them. She hurled insults at anyone who passed by. She was angry to find herself in one room at one moment, only to realise in the next that many hours had passed since she had gone outside.

Her son from Asmara would come to visit, but only once in a while. He wore fancy clothes from Europe and rarely liked to sleep in his old cot in the hut, trying to limit his time spent to a day trip. Whenever he left, the relatives made fun of him, and Faven felt sad. She wished she knew how to actually talk to her son, but instead she found herself nagging at him for never bringing her grandson home and asking why he wasn’t married yet.

Faven found herself becoming uncontrollably angry. Faven found herself falling into fears. She found herself hating everything about life, and she didn’t understand why.

She found herself wishing she could relive the last eighty-four years of her life all over again.

29 July, 2023

« Why is she reacting like this? » Father shouted. He was squatting on the ground, facing his mother on the cot in their familial hut. Their mother lay completely immobile with fear in her eyes. No matter how much Father tried to grab her attention, it was like he wasn’t there. She was trembling, stuttering to make a word.

« Bo-bo, bo-bo… »

His elder brother, Massawa, scolded him for all the dirt he had brought into the hut with his shoes, while his younger brother, Robel, mused on why the medicines weren’t working. Father took a moment to turn away from his mother. The weather in the village was hot, and Father wasn’t used to being without constant air-conditioning inside of a home. He looked at the sanded land and the small shrubs growing around the rocks. He thought about going for a walk.

When he looked back towards his mother, she was pointing her palms towards the sky as if afraid of someone striking her. Father remembered the roughness of his own father and winced. He hoped that was not what she was remembering in the moment.

Suddenly his mother’s glance dashed towards the cups. His mother was always so diligent in cleaning, spending most of her time crouched by the bucket after a meal was done and plates and utensils needed to be washed. It was one of the closest things she had to a hobby, but now she was so weak that even standing to do something like that would be difficult. Father could not help but let out a sigh.

Massawa heard the sigh. « Anbassa has become like a woman » he joked. « Look at how he holds his body. Look at how he talks. » Robel and Massawa laughed.

Father crossed his arms around his chest. He thought of taking one last look at his mother for a small health examination. He crouched beside her once again, taking a long look at her face. The lighting in the last half hour had changed. Some of the clouds had disappeared, and more sunlight was streaming into the hut. It made Father hotter, and he really thought about taking off his shirt.

Suddenly his mother lifted up his hand up to the sky. It was like she was grabbing at something but nothing was above her except air. Father shouted out with concern. « Inati, what is it? »

His mother looked into his eyes. And in that moment, a wide smile came to her face. Father could not help but smile back. He cooed, as he would to a baby. « Inati, do you recognise me? Do you know it is your son? »

As the light glinted up and around Father, his mother started reaching for his hair and pulling at it. It was like she was trying to uncurl a piece of wool, or how a kid for the first time might pull on the horns of a goat. Father started laughing because it was such an odd way to be touched by his mother. « Inati, why are you doing this? It is like you have never touched my hair before. »

Yet his mother smiled so fondly, with a pure and unadulterated joy that Father wished he could have seen in his mother when he was younger.

Read at Substack

14 July, 2023: Meeting on the Hills

This time Father chose to gather the doctors not at his home in his swanky upscale apartment in San Benito, but at one of the hillside cafes overlooking the city. It would be more relaxing to meet outside, he thought, and he wanted to impress the doctors with the view. At this table with just a black rail separating them from a sharp decline and tumble, they could look down and see all the dilapidated colonial buildings, all the skyscrapers popping up, and, most importantly, the greenery—the crochet of tall effervescent trees and sloping green hills that made San Salvador feel more verdant than it actually was. Certainly, Dr Sánchez was impressed.

“Por fin una parte de la ciudad que vale la pena conocer,” he proclaimed out loud, raising his glass of wine for all of the doctors to toast.

Dr Nuñez turned and smiled at Father. On first impression, Father had thought that her smile conveyed politeness as it had a kind aura. Over the months, as Father got to know Dr Nuñez, however, he realised that this was the smile she gave whenever she was annoyed at someone. She would only voice her doubts until after everyone had left except Father. He was glad that he had grown close enough to Dr Nuñez to see this side of herself, but he also dreaded having to spend another hour alone with Dr Nuñez, listening to her complain after the tapas were cleared and the bills were settled.

“I think there are a lot of places in San Salvador that are worth visiting,” Dr Ayala said quite quietly, snivelling as if his nose was stuffed.

“¿Like what?” Dr Sánchez said. Dr Ayala opened his mouth to reply, but Dr Sánchez spoke over him. “We have so many beautiful barrios, and in them all you see is people shooting themselves. Yes, it is so beautiful. Claro.”

Dr Sánchez put his finger to the side of his head and mimicked shooting a gun. Dr Ayala looked down at the bread on his plate, morose. Dr Nuñez gave that smile again to Father, only this time she rolled up her eyebrows more than once. This meant Father would have a whole lot of complaints to listen to after they were all done.

Dr Sánchez went on:

“It is no mystery Bukele is having trouble cleaning this country up. But he will do it, this is certain.”

Now Dr Nuñez couldn’t help but speak up.

“¿And how is he going to do it? ¿By paying off the matones with Bitcoin?”

That was a good one. Father couldn’t help but laugh. Dr Ayala joined along. But Dr Sánchez kept on going on as if he hadn’t heard her.

“He is going to clean up crime because he has been cleaning up crime. ¿Are you all blind? ¿Are you all bats? That is the only way you cannot see it. It is happening in front of us. And soon El Salvador will be a great country.”

“I will drink to that,” Dr Nuñez said, and she put up her wine glass, toasting with Father and Dr Ayala. But despite their chuckling and teasing, Dr Sánchez was not deterred.

“¿And what will happen when Buckle makes El Salvador is a great country? I know that he will take the people who have doubted and destroyed them like you and he will make them people with nothing. ¿And then who will be there to pay for your children’s retirements? Certainly not Bukele. He should send people like you all to Venezuela. There you will learn what happens when a leader doesn’t work hard to take care of his people.”

Some of the tapas were coming out as Dr Sánchez was shouting. The waiter made a slightly bemused face at Father. It seemed the conversation was veering off in a different direction that had nothing to do with what they were supposed to be talking about. Father had invited the doctors here because they had agreed to work together to bring some key reforms to the hospital earlier this year, but so far nothing had been implemented. He wanted to unite them one last time so that they could get their creative juices flowing and plan out some hard-hitting actions.

Father said, “Everyone, calm down. I think this is now the time to start talking about—”

But Dr Nuñez was still laughing at Dr Sánchez. “¡You called us bats! ¡To you, it’s like all us women are little creatures of the night and not human beings!”

She had drunk a good deal of wine and was starting to loosen up. Dr Sánchez responded defensively as if she were incredibly serious. “No, no, claro que no. ¿How could I imply such a thing? I love women far too much. I love my wife, I love my sisters, I love my mother.”

Dr Nuñez laughed even louder.

“¡Incredible! You can think of three women. That’s very impressive.” She turned to Father and said quite loudly, “It’s impressive because when anyone comes to the hospital to have an abortion, he is the first one to call them curse words. And he thinks no one hears it because he’s that narcissistic. ¡Incredible!”

Dr Sánchez shouted, “¡You woman!”

Dr Nuñez pointed her wine glass at him and said, “Mira how he speaks.”

They started jabbering, in the way they always did every single time Father tried to hold a meeting among the four of them. Father gave a knowing look towards Dr Ayala. He knew exactly what his colleague was thinking.

Why am I doing this? Why am I here?

Father had a mother who was getting closer and closer to the end of her life. She was in their village suffering through a horrible bout of dementia, barely able to remember common words and unable to stand without help from her relatives. When Father thought about her condition and how deplorable it was, he hit with guilt. He wanted to dedicate all of his time and attention to her, but he also knew he had to reserve part of his energy to engage with the rest of the world. His attempt to modernise their hospital was a part of that. Earlier in the year he had thought it would take just a few months to get his ideas up and running. It was obvious that the hospital needed new equipment, and with a little convincing, he thought it would be easy for him to get the hospital administration to put their money towards that cause.

And yet Father couldn’t even get a team of four doctors to stand each other, let alone stand up for what their hospital needed.

It had been almost half a year since their first talks, and not much had progressed. And in that half year his mother’s health had devolved significantly. How much longer before she wasn’t even going to be around? Would his brothers chastise him, angry at his absence at a time the family needed him the most?

Father sighed so deeply. He didn’t realise how loud he was until he noticed that Dr Nuñez and Dr Sánchez had shut up, and both of them were looking at him. Are we doing something wrong? they said with their eyes. Should we get on with the agenda? 

Father held their gaze. He finally had their attention. He could get on with the meeting. But now he had forgotten what he had been planning to say.

His instinct was that he wanted to disband this group of doctors, shelve all meetings related to the hospital, and plan his next visit to his home village. He would spend a full weekend there to observe his mother and her health. He would not think about the hospital. After half a year of trying to make things right at his place of work, he would have to respect that it was not going the way he wanted, and that he would have to let go of it.