Gentlemen, at the time the anecdote I am going to relate to you took place, my aunt W/ro Almaz, a mother of two daughters, Sisay and Tsedey, was a widow. Sisay, the eldest at twenty-one, was a tall, handsome girl. She had the peculiar habit of undulating to one side when walking.
On the other hand, Tseday was short, hideous and dexterous. But at eighteen, she was slender and witty. The personalities of the two sisters were as diametrically opposite as their physiques, yet they were close friends. Sisay was an introvert, while Tseday was an extrovert. Whenever bickering surfaced between the two, it was their custom to run to their mother, their arbiter since childhood. Interceding and making them see reason made up an overwhelming portion of the home administration that fully engaged W/ro Almaz’s attention. The presence of differing characters in the house had spared them a banal life. All in all, they lived happily.
Sisay’s boyfriend, Samson, was short and grotesque, but a well-known sportsman. After asking for Sisay’s hand, Samson was looking forward to their wedding day. When Sisay and Samson broke the good news to my aunt, she would have given Sisay her wedding ring as a gift out of her delight, had she not misplaced it and been unable to track it down. To make up for this, she was willing to bend over backwards to throw a fantasy wedding ceremony for them.
Helen, a religious girl, was a friend of Sisay. As she was close to her, she visited daily, and so had become a member of the family. As I was interested in Helen, I never failed to seek opportunities under numerous pretexts to chat with her and twist her to my favour. If Helen was not there when I happened to visit, I would talk too much to conceal my disappointment and distract their attention. Whenever I arrived at their two-room old house, be it at day or night, I would find Samson lying on a bed in the lounge, the two sisters by his right and left, making them split their sides laughing.
One Saturday morning, seeking my advice, my aunt and Helen descended on my one-room lodging while I was still in bed. I was confounded, for I was not prepared for a casual visit and hadn’t properly arranged and cleaned my home. My humiliation at Helen seeing the degrading fact that I was no better than a pauper could not have been worse.
“You see, Sisay has not been well of late. She needs treatment. She needs divine intervention,” Helen said hastily, trying to deflect my anxiety and convey that she hadn’t seen anything unbecoming about my rat hole.
“We believe Sisay is possessed by an evil spirit. She has become a scatterbrain. She just stares at one spot, as if spellbound, and never diverts her eyes even if prodded. She loathes to be looked at. She eats nothing. She snoozes the whole day.
“She doesn’t want to talk to anyone, even to Samson. She cuts him short with ‘yes!’ or ‘no!’. Late at night, when all is quiet, she opens the door, goes out and talks to herself on the veranda.
“Before things take a turn for the worse, we think it’s imperative to take her to the Kindane Meheret Church, where the holy water is reputed to be effective, and have a prayer said over her. We need someone strong who can grab her when the demon that is possessing her confesses and displays his physical might. That’s why we seek your help. We intend to take her there tomorrow. Samson failed us, claiming he’s fighting in a boxing championship. Besides, he assured us nothing is wrong with Sisay, she’s pretty good. He asked if we were seeing things. But we believe her problem is nothing less than the effect of a spell.”
As they related the situation to me, dramatising incidents which they claimed they had witnessed, I was left with little room for doubt.
The next day, at dawn, W/ro Almaz, her two daughters, Helen and I took a contract taxi to the Kidane Meheret Church on the hilltop in the northeastern corner of Addis. In the backyard of the church, a spring that gushed out of a cliff was diverted by a reed-like bamboo pipe to fall somewhere below a slimy rock sporting silver-green algae. Most of those claimed to be possessed would wail, like a goat being dragged for slaughter, when the holy water fell on their heads, splashing over their nudity as the priest touched them with a big silver cross. After a while, as if the devil himself was speaking, they would lay bare what haunted their subconscious. Often, defiant, they would throw aside anyone that held them under the holy waterfall. Even the priest who laboured to rebuke the evil spirit that possessed the demented was not immune from attack. Surprisingly, depending on the type of the demon that had taken control of them, when asked their desires the possessed would at times look for and gobble down either the scum of the alcoholic drink “terla” or a pile of ashes, which were normally hidden in a corner.
“You who possess him, in the name of the holy virgin Saint Mary and her son Jesus Christ, I command you to leave and be cast into the wilderness,” the priest would say. More often than not, he would succeed in exorcising the evil spirit.
When we made Sisay crouch under the waterfall, she got to her feet. When the priest began to dab her body with the silver cross, she kept silent, undulating to one side as usual, proving to us she was not possessed, but depressed.
Suddenly, to our surprise, Tseday began to howl and whirl in circles. The priest dismissed Sisay and pointed to Tseday, commanding us to bring her forth with the obvious belief that she was the one possessed. W/ro Almaz and Helen exchanged glances and then stared at me with confused eyes. We followed the priest’s order, however, and dragged Tseday to the fall of holy water and forced her to crouch beneath it with her clothes still on. No sooner had the priest touched her with the cross, than Tseday began to lay bare the sins she had committed.
“It was I who stole and sold my mother’s wedding ring!” she said.
“That imp! How dare she sell the ring her father put on my finger when we said our vows? Is that why I couldn’t find it in my chest of drawers?” grumbled my aunt, and was about to prod Tseday with her umbrella, but I stopped her knee-jerk response.
“What else have you forced her to do, you damned evil spirit?” cried the tiny priest with vigour, crowing like a victor.
“I secretly sleep with Samson, Sisay’s boyfriend,” added Tseday.
My aunt, Helen and I once more exchanged glances of disbelief, while Sisay stopped undulating and stood still as if welded to the spot, her eyes fixed on the slimy rock. It was then that it dawned on us we had wronged Sisay. She had already discovered the secretive affair of Tseday and Samson; we simply mistook her depression for a spell. As Tseday carried on confessing each and every crime she had committed, and the demon that possessed her was unwilling to be driven out, the priest declared she should stay within the vicinity of the church so she could receive further help. Discussing the matter for a while, my aunt, Helen and I decided to rent lodgings for Tseday somewhere in the church’s vicinity. The four of us, including Sisay, unanimously agreed Samson should no longer be allowed to come near either of the girls. Helen and I volunteered to stay by Tseday’s side and look after her. We also persuaded my aunt that she was the person best-placed to look after Sisay at home. Calling Samson to the house, we told him point-blank of the annulment of his engagement to Sisay as he had proved to be irresponsible and unfaithful. Seeking a scapegoat, he tried to blame Tseday for enticing him to indulge in a transgression he had never dreamed of. But my aunt cut him short with a frown. “Please relieve us of your demonic face before I call your relatives and friends and tell them the trouble you’ve caused.”
And so, Samson was ignominiously ejected. After a stay at the church of exactly a week, the demon that possessed Tseday was exorcised, and we resumed our happy lives as before.
The dust Samson had kicked up, however, proved favourable for me, for during our stay at the church to look after Tseday, Helen consented to be my fiancee provided that I behaved myself.
“You men are crazy creatures! When a girl thinks herself comfortable that a guy is hers, he proves to be somebody else’s!” she chuckled.
“Not me, Helen. Besides, you mustn’t turn one instance into a general truth. There are as many good men as there are despicable ones,” I said.