Early yellow light on the yellow walls of the room. A small room, a just-enough room. Three stories above Kenenisa Street, and I cannot find the edges of myself. I am totally formless, just spirit and not even that–undefined, borderless, in the most disturbing of ways. Unable to stand, as I am lacking legs. Unable to breathe in the exhaust-smeared air, as I have no lungs. I feel myself everywhere and unformed, just an endless web of connections, agonizingly bereft of a nucleus. Just try to walk down the stairs as an immaterial being. Just try to splash water on your face.
Oh, there. Coffee brewing on the hostel patio–that familiar sting at my nostrils–thank god, I have found my nose. This nose, just sprung into being. Created in involuntary response, as are most created things. This one olfactory edge of my being–found, to my great relief, on the front porch.
Mombella (regal hostess of the hostel) had blanketed the porch with foot-long strands of new grass–unbearably green, their sinews still flowing with soil-water. She had just finished roasting and grinding the coffee beans whose crumby evidence could be seen under her legs, and was poking a small open stove, where the beans were stewing to a tarry medication.
Addis Ababa was so beautiful. Part of me winces to remember it, it was so beautiful. After many dark, swirling, haunted months on the Swahili coast, I finally found this thrumming city-of-sunlight where I didn’t know the language, and began breathing quietly. I lost my tongue, found my lungs. The streets of Addis were filled with small tin cars, like toy cars, painted in the colors of schoolroom blocks: sky blue, lemon yellow, apple red.
There was so much smog sometimes that at the end of the day, the insides of my nostrils would be lined with black grease. I wiped it away in front of the bathroom “mirror,” just a square of glass lined by reflective silver paper, and rinsed my fingers under the tap. An American doctor I met said he knew he was taking years off his life by breathing in the Addis atmosphere– “The same as smoking a pack a day, at least.”
One day it rained, and then there were just mud rivers coursing through the city’s street-veins, the fumes washed right out of the sky and down into the packed dirt, the streetside mannequins getting soaked to their plastic skins, their silk magenta dresses bleeding dye in the downpour. Taxi-buses wouldn’t stop for anyone, they just slowed to a gentle roll. Passengers rode with their hands out the bus-door, holding open umbrellas. I sucked a popsicle in my seat, my hair in strings, soaked inside and out.
I cannot help but react hungrily, even violently, to God–sometimes I think I was born in pure reaction, a concavity shaped around God’s good creation. I’m a plaster mask on a face I adore–my contours owed fully to the life forms around which I’ve been molded. Any beauty in me emerged only in response to much greater beauty: this desire, this hurrying-towards, this feeble imitation.