My uncle’s house was on the top of a hill overlooking the town of Wukro from the north, right at the beginning of the road to Adigrat. Under that rise there was a soccer field where, since the early morning hours, the children used to gather to improvise some matches. I watched them from a distance, wrapped in a blanket, waiting for breakfast to be ready — some loaves baked in the oven in the yard and a cup of tea with cinnamon and cloves.
Uncle Keros was the only one of the brothers to have stayed in Wukro. There were also two sisters of my father, who occasionally visited us on those days, but, since his brothers had left to go to Makalle, Addis Ababa, or elsewhere, my uncle had taken over the family. He represented continuity and seemed to know it well. He used to say that someone had to take care of the house and the land but, in reality, he was the glue of the family in its purest sense, what always remains, despite the changes all around. He embodied the link with the past that reminds us who we are even when everything seems to be lost out there. Uncle Keros was like the great sycamore in his fields, with its deep roots that marked the ground, ready to welcome you under its umbrella, to defend you from the blazing sun in the days of the season of Fasika or to give you shelter when the rains of July swelled the rivers.
He had married a local woman, aunt Abrhet. She wasn’t a really talkative person, but she could give thoughtful glances wherever she saw the need. Aunt Abrhet often took me on her knees holding me with one hand so that I would not fall, and with the other she turned the ladle in the cauldron, while it boiled on the fire in front of the house. At other times she taught me the spinning of sheep’s wool, for me then little more than a game. I watched her hands move swiftly between the spindle and the bobbin and that thread becoming a ball, with a wisdom and a lightness that could only be the daughters of tradition and exercise. The smell of berberé impregnated her hair. Then, when she held me tighter, I could feel her smooth skin down her cheeks or neck. If I concentrate I can still feel her warmth.
My uncle had a perky look, he was the one who always kept the talk at the table and used to keep himself busy doing any activity outside the walls of the house. He went out early to work, at the time they were expanding the courtyard. Some other times he worked in the fields. I remembered I used to watch him attentively. For example, when sitting near the fire, or in the evening when, tired from work, he sat in the wicker chair. It was clear that it was his chair, as no one seemed to approach it. Uncle Keros, noticing how I was focused on his every move, one day asked me if I wanted to go out. In fact, he said: “Let’s go see dad, would you like to?”
I found that question a bit out of place, weird. I knew that dad had not been buried there, that his body had to stay in Axum. Nevertheless I agreed to go out with him. We passed a couple of terraced fields to find ourselves again in the presence of that great sycamore under which we had stopped shortly after we arrived.
“See, Maryam,” my uncle began, “this place, contains the origins of our family.”
I listened to him trying to understand what he wanted to tell me.
“It’s exactly the way I say it, Maryam.”
Still, I looked at him in disbelief, as one would stare at a fool. But uncle Keros went on: “for generations, when a child arrived in the family, the placenta was buried on the ground on which the tree grew. Even when your dad was born his placenta had been buried in the shade of the sycamore tree.”
Then he said something that made me shiver and that I will never forget: “’it’s as if, through this place, he still lives with us.”
I did not even know what a placenta was, but I did not dare to ask. It was something important, I imagined. I remember that the idea that something that had belonged to my father was there in the neighborhood, put tears in my eyes, and I swore that even the placentas of my children, if God had given me the fortune to have them, one day would join that of my father.
Many years later, when I was pregnant with Tekle, that feeling came back to me. At that point, however, I had become a city girl, educated, with my circle of friends, my driving license, a degree and the idea of burying the placenta under a tree at that point seemed far from normal.
When the first contractions started, however, something snapped inside me. It was as if my body wanted to give me a signal. I had to move and I had to do it right away. The first thought, anyway, was not the hospital, but Wukro and the sycamore in the land of my family. That image hit me like a stone. It was an order that deprived me of any alternative, an impetus that came from a past that I had relegated to a corner of memory. It forced me to go, but did not say either how or where. I thought of taking a plane to Makalle: once there I would find any means to go where I had to go. It did not take me long to understand that, in those conditions, I would have not be able to catch a plane. All I knew was that I had to leave the house and find a way to restore the link with my land. Clinging to that idea, I got in the car and turned the key. I took the national road from Addis Ababa going north to Shewa and Wello. Further north was the Tigray, the region of my family, then Eritrea. Wukro was a two-day trip, maybe more. Too far, I would never have made it. Yet I went ahead. I saw the sun descending to my left as the road continued straight, cutting through nothing, or perhaps nothingness was what I saw, projected as I was towards the only place that mattered at that moment.
I found myself driving in the evening twilight and then, caught in the darkness, I went straight, until the petrol ran out, until the engine went off. I left the car on the side of the road and, holding my crotch, I began to walk with only a bottle of water and a knife. I felt the cold air that swirled around me, I listened to the animals that moved in the nature. Above me, the sky was full of stars, like many years before when I had left Asmara for the first time. When the forces were about to abound, I glimpsed a huge silhouette stretching out of the ground. I took a few more steps until I reached it. It was a giant tree: I leaned on its trunk and then let my body slip to the ground. The waters broke and I wet the ground all around, as if already with that gesture I wanted to reaffirm the bond that united us. The labor pains arrived, then came the light of day. The cold dissolved little by little, I felt the heat take over. The sun hit me on the head, but the heat seemed to reach me much more intense from below, from that belly that writhed under me, despite me. I drank a little water from the bottle, then lay down and at the top I saw those branches reaching out in every direction. They shielded me from the rays of light, but I knew that, if necessary, they would also protect me from the difficulties of life. Like in a cradle, among the roots of an immense sycamore, I thought of the distant, enchanted place that had attracted me there. An increasing pain gripped me and then it became devastating. Something I had never experienced before.
Finally I heard Tekle’s first cry. I looked at him and realized it was the best thing that had happened to me. It was the testimony that life would continue to flow through me at least until the two of us stayed close. I held him for a long time. With the water remaining in the bottle, I tried to wash him from the blood that covered him. I found the knife next to me and used it to cut the umbilical cord. With my hands I removed the greyish membrane that hung from the vagina, I placed it on the ground between my legs and, after having dug with my nails, I kneaded it with the earth.
We were one thing.