Chapter One: Meet David Tesfaye
Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Highlands
David Tesfaye turned his head and flashed a quick glance down the road. Three boys followed him through the Addis Ababa neighborhood where he’d grown up. He stopped and put his hands on his hips, tightening his lips, and squinting in an attempt to look mean.
The boys stared at David. One carried a small gasoline container. Then, one by one, they hopped over a waist-high fence into a small park where an acacia tree spread its gnarly limbs. The boys sprawled under the tree. Two hovered over the container, one putting a towel over his head while the other edged close until it was his turn. The third boy, wearing a checkered shirt, looked at David and shrugged. He had light skin, clear eyes, and a small mole to the side of his left eye.
So much had changed since David was a young boy, playing on these same streets. He wasn’t that much older than these boys when he’d been given a rifle and told to be a fearless soldier. When that army had been crushed, he’d been beaten and imprisoned. He’d fled the country, promising never to return.
That was almost thirty years ago.
Two of the boys staggered to their feet and stumbled to the road. The third boy put his hands in his pockets and strolled behind them. Was this the new Ethiopia, homeless boys sniffing gas at dawn? David picked up his pace. It is what it is. Leave it.
He had one goal: fulfill his familial duty in Ethiopia, then return to London, a faceless man under an umbrella, reveling in fog and solitude.
A picture flashed into David’s mind of his mother hugging him at the airport just a few short weeks ago. She’d sobbed and called him Yonathan, his dead brother’s name. Then she’d peered into his eyes. “Oh, oh! It’s not Yonathan. It’s the King!” She’d chuckled. “My King David. Oh, my son. My handsome son.” His mother wept, tears splattering David’s chest, fingers clawing into his back. He held her tightly, a woman he hardly knew, becoming even more elusive as Alzheimer’s erased her past.
He glanced behind him. No boys.
He inhaled the high mountain air, spiced with the sweet scent of acacia flowers. Black-winged lovebirds darted past, diving over a wall and into a compound where mango trees promised a sweet feast. He heard the familiar loud, raucous “haa-haa haa-haa” of a small flock of wattled ibis soaring overhead. Some things never changed. He remembered sitting on his father’s lap, listening to stories. “Those birds are going out for breakfast, but tonight they’ll return to guard Emperor Haile Selassie at the National Palace.” The emperor had been murdered long ago, but the birds kept flying. That tale was one of the few memories he had of his father. His face was a blur, a memory from the family photo album.
David power walked out of his old neighborhood and onto an asphalt road that led to the international airport. Few vehicles disturbed his daily exercise this early in the morning.
He turned and looked back up the road. There they were again. The three boys crossed the road, heads down, stumbling towards a small grove of trees on the edge of a massive field. Was that where they slept?
“Father. Father. One birr. One birr.” A little girl ran up to him, wearing a ragged, dirty dress, her hair in tangles, and eyes sparkling like stars. She smiled and held out her hand for money.
A young woman, wrapped with a dirty country-style shawl, sat with her back against a streetlight pole, a baby at her breast. The little girl’s mother? Put the mother in clean and elegant clothes and she could be a fashion model. They’d probably slept in the field.
“God will provide.” David shook his head, lips pursed. They shouldn’t have fled the countryside, where the food was grown. But many thought they’d find a better life in the city. Others fled horror at home: rape, abuse, enslavement.
“Father. Father. One birr.” The girl laughed, flashing her sparkling eyes.
“God will provide.” He put on his most stern expression. She was too young to understand what she was doing. So beautiful, so innocent. He felt an urge to hug her, hold her. But he kept his expression emotionless.
“Only one birr, Father. One birr.” The girl kept smiling. To David, it seemed she treated begging as a game and getting a coin was like scoring a football goal.
“One birr?” David asked.
“One birr, Father, okay?”
David reached into his pocket and felt a paper bill—a ten birr note. It might buy a banana and a piece of bread. When he was a child, it would have paid for good food for several days. He took the note out and gave it to the girl. “Okay. Give it to your mother.”
She hid the note in her front pocket and ran to her mother, shaking her head.
David watched the girl. She turned and looked at him. He stared back, pointed at her, and touched his pocket. She laughed and handed the ten birr to her mother, still looking at David.
David walked faster down the hill. He took a deep breath just as a truck roared past, and choked on the exhaust fumes. In London, the truck driver would face a big fine for excessive pollution. He laughed. He had to get over it. He’d be home soon enough.
A cry pierced his thoughts. He turned. The three boys hovered around the little girl, her mother, and the baby. David stopped. One boy put his hand on the little girl’s shoulder. Another had his hand out to mother, gesturing.
“No, no!” She cowered away from the boy.
“Stop! Get away!” David yelled.
The boys ignored him.
He strode towards the boys. “Go away. Stop!” One boy had the woman’s money in his hand. He turned and looked at David as he approached, glaring at him with glassy eyes.
Did he even see David? “Stop. Give that money back to the woman!” David drew himself up to his almost six-foot height.
The second boy edged behind David.
The boy in the checkered shirt stood still, a frown on his face.
“Give the money back!” David twisted to keep the second boy in view.
The first boy screamed and clutched his stomach. His eyes started rolling up. He staggered forward, looking as if he might fall on his face. Vomit erupted, shooting out onto David’s pants and shoes.
“Oh my … Unbelievable!” David backed up.
“Sorry, sorry. My brother is so sick.” The second boy approached, holding a rag. “Let me help you.”
The boy’s hands were all over David’s body, wiping him down. He tried to push the boy away.
“No. I’ll help you.” The boy kept wiping David’s pant’ leg with the rag.
The sick boy crawled forward and held David’s leg. “Help me. Please, help me.”
David stepped away from the sick boy and pushed the other boy aside. “You boys! What’s the matter with you?”
A vehicle screeched to a halt behind them, tires squealing. David turned. There was a pickup truck with federal policemen sitting on wooden benches in the truck tray. The policemen sprang out of the truck, rifles pointing at the group.
The little girl screamed and ran to her mother’s arms.
The “sick” boy jumped up and tried to run down the street. A policeman struck him with the end of his rifle. The boy slumped onto the ground like a sack of wheat thrown off a truck.
Another policeman jabbed his rifle into the stomach of the second boy, who bent over in pain.
The boy in the checkered shirt stood still, hands in the air. A policeman kept the end of his gun against the boy’s neck.
David took a step toward a policeman with three stripes on his uniform. Did that mean he was a sergeant? He had the appearance of the man in charge. “Hey, these are sick boys. They need help.”
The policeman glared at David.
“Private Abel, strike him in the stomach again, and show this idiot some reality,” the sergeant shouted, pointing at David.
A policeman jabbed the boy in the stomach again and the boy fell to the ground. The policeman dropped to his knees and riffled through the boy’s pockets. He turned and threw something to the sergeant.
“This is yours, I assume?” The sergeant held out a wallet.
David slapped his back pocket. Empty.
“But he’s so sick …”
“Is he? If you drank a mouthful of gasoline, you’d vomit, too.”
“I’m lucky you happened to be driving by. Thank you.” David reached out his hand for the wallet.
“Yes, you were lucky. Very lucky.” The sergeant opened the wallet. “Looks like two or three thousand here. One thousand will do.” He counted out ten bills and pocketed them. “Next time, don’t be so stupid.”
David opened his mouth, then took the wallet and closed his mouth. Memories came back of soldiers, wearing similar uniforms, imprisoning him in a shipping container. Let it go, David. Just let it go. It’s not important. He nodded.
“We’ll take care of these thieves. You may go on your way.” The sergeant stared, unblinking.
David nodded again, turned, and walked down the road. After about twenty steps, he turned back. The policemen threw the two beaten boys into the back of the pickup truck. One policeman prodded the third boy to climb into the truck, butting him in the back with his rifle.
Behind the truck, the mother waddled past, grasping her baby to her chest, the young girl by her side. They slipped into the pasture and moved toward some trees. The policemen ignored them.
With a squeal of tires, the pickup truck sped onto the asphalt and roared past David. As it passed, the sergeant’s unblinking eyes fixed upon him.
Chapter Two: Meet Julie Johnson
A police siren shattered the peaceful morning, rising in intensity as it grew closer. Julie Johnson looked up from her desk, cocking her head to the side. Sirens? In the Ethiopian countryside? Seriously? The sirens blasted over the maize, wheat, and teff fields, now brown and dry before the first rains, which could come as early as this month. The nearest police station was in Butajira, several kilometers down the Rift Valley escarpment
The screeching grew louder, coming closer and closer. It sounded like it was right outside. Julie moved to the window as the car roared through the missionary compound gate, screaming past the school full of students, and slid to a stop at the front door of the school’s administration building.
“Julie. Julie!” a woman shouted from the reception area. Julie hurried to the door. Before she could put her hand on the door handle, the door burst open. Senait, the project’s office manager, stood in the door, eyes wide.
Julie put her hand on Senait’s shoulder. She was frightened. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know. Three police cars. I’m sure I saw the mayor stepping out of the lead car. They have guns!”
“Shemsu? I met him briefly at the town hall …”
“Hello! Anybody here?” A loud shout thundered from the front door.
Julie hurried to the reception area
Mayor Shemsu stood with policemen on both sides. There were several more policemen outside.
“We want to see every child you have here, and check it with our records,” Mayor Shemsu said. The Mayor’s stomach seemed overfull, as if he’d swallowed a pumpkin. The image made her chuckle and feel less afraid.
“Of course you may …”
“The federal government believes there is a major child trafficking ring based here in Butajira.”
“Really? That’s terrible.”
“Yes. Terrible.” Mayor Shemsu glared at Julie.
“You know we are completely transparent here. You are always welcome to visit us. Child trafficking? We’d do anything we could to help you stop something evil like that.”
“Sure you would. Where is Mrs. Eden?”
“She’s back in America.”
“And left you in charge? That figures. You’re an American.” The mayor’s scowl turned frightening.
Julie frowned. “I’m simply an English teacher and a volunteer coordinator.”
“Give me your visa and work permit.” The mayor put his hands on his hips and leaned forward.
Julie leaned back. His breath stank like something dead. “They’re in my home, in town. Your office copied them when I first arrived.”
“Bring me the originals. If you are in charge, then we’d must review them again. Your work permit may be invalid.”
Julie shook her head. Best to remain silent.
A man wearing a black beret and dark sunglasses edged inside the door. He carried a black machine gun and looked more like a special forces soldier than a policeman. Julie couldn’t see his eyes. He didn’t say a word.
“Mrs. Eden, the owner. We need to interview her.” The mayor scowled.
“As I said, she’s not here.” He was such a …! Julie took a deep breath, ashamed of her thoughts. “I think she’s planning to be back in a few weeks.”
“Tell her she needs to come now.” Shemsu glowered. “We’re going to search the entire compound, every building, every room.”
“School is in session.”
“Is that a problem?” Shemsu stared at her, unblinking.
“Well, no. I guess not. I’ll go with you.”
“We don’t want you. Stay here.”
“No, I’ll come—we mustn’t scare the students,” Julie said. She crossed her arms.
Mayor Shemsu flashed another scowl at Julie, turned, and walked out the door. The policeman and the man in black followed. Julie looked at Senait and shook her head.”
“Can you try to call Eden in America, Senait?”
Senait looked frightened. She nodded. Julie turned and headed out the door.
The policemen opened every door from classrooms to closets. The went through the kitchen, opening drawers and refrigerators. They had the right.
Inside the last classroom, Julie clenched her lips and put her hands on her hips. The students stood at attention by their desks.
“This pretty girl!” Shemsu put his hand on the head of one of the girls in the front row of the classroom. “Who is she?” he shouted.
Every child in the compound must be able to hear this maniac. They must be petrified.
“Who are her parents?” Shemsu yelled, sounding like a lion. Tears trickled from the girl’s eyes, then turned into a torrent as she shrank back from the mayor.
Shemsu glared at Julie.
The teacher’s stomach area was about the same size as the mayor’s, but she was pregnant and nearly at full term. She looked at the mayor, calm and poised. “Her name is Saron. She is the daughter of Johannes, a farmer near Yetebon village.
“What is she doing here?” The mayor moved closer to Hanna, as if to intimidate her.
Hanna smiled. “She’s learning, of course.”
“How does she come to be here? Why her? Why not some town child?” Shemsu’s mouth turned down into a scowl.
“As you know, Mr. Mayor, the regional government, your superiors, agreed that Eden would hold an annual lottery so children from the countryside have a chance to come to this school.”
“What’s so great about this school?” the mayor shouted. Several students squealed in fright.
“As you know, Mr. Mayor, many countryside children stay home to work on the farms. Nevertheless, schools in the mountains are overcrowded, and without educational materials. Your superiors were excited to find a private school would open here and that they had control over who’d attend.” Hanna said with a calm, sweet smile
The mayor’s eyes grew bug-eyed in anger.
“It’s … It’s … Christian!” The mayor spat out the words like bullets.
“Mr. Mayor, the owner may be Christian, but our children come from all different faiths, as the regional government mandated.”
The mayor sneered, turned, and stalked out of the room.
“Enough of this silliness,” Hanna said with a peaceful smile. “We’ve got to get back to learning.”
Julie shook her head. Maybe these people were used to such behavior. But she had the feeling Hanna would have this peace no matter the circumstances. She had deep faith in God. Julie wished she was more like Hanna.
“I’d better follow the mayor.” Julie reached out and gave Hanna a brief hug, trying to physically grab some of that peace.
The next morning, Julie strode along the path beside the wall enclosing the missionary school compound. Child trafficking? Here? How could Mayor Shemsu and the police think that?
She shook her head. The sun climbed slowly out of the Rift Valley, and now seemed to be taking off as it soared into the sky. She’d awoken early, before sunrise, and arrived at school before dawn. She hadn’t slept well after the police and mayor’s invasion yesterday. That’s what it had seemed like. An invasion.
She took a deep breath. Let it go.
Julie marveled at the way the rising sun lit the gardens, painting the flowers with delicate pastel colors. Mountain silhouettes sharpened out of the darkness. She took a deep breath. Despite yesterday, thank you so much for bringing me here, God.
Then she laughed.
Tim would be proud of her adjustment, from an American professional living in an upscale Tampa suburban home to sleeping in a mud and stick room in the Ethiopian countryside. This morning, when she thought of Tim, she felt at peace. Not like other days, when she raged at God. It had been more than ten years since Tim had been killed in Iraq. She missed him. Sean missed him, too. He’d lost his father when he was nine years old. Together, she and Sean had moved through grief into a time of coping, then a time of thriving, just the two of them.
Now Sean was in his second year at university.
And she was a one-man woman. Obviously. Loving another man, getting married again, was inconceivable.
Julie sighed. Life was full of unexpected changes. Last year she’d been a single-parent empty-nester. At forty! The loneliness had shrouded her, a dark blanket covering her in depression, suffocating her. She’d known she’d have to do something. But what? How? She’d prayed, on her hands and knees, often with tears in her eyes, asking for God’s help. And he’d listened.
Julie laughed, breaking the dawn’s silence, then looked around to make sure no one was watching her. She shook her head. She lifted her eyes to take in the majestic Gurage Mountains, and took a long, deep breath, letting the countryside air fill her.
Lord, thank you for using Eden to bring me here.
Julie turned. A lone figure in a ragged green dress stood by the fence, gazing at the school. Compellingly beautiful, her long hair framed a high forehead and dark eyes. She was tall enough to be a teen but she seemed younger. And she was so thin.
“Good morning. Endemen adersh,” Julie said as the girl approached.
The girl stared at her.
“Good morning. Endemen adersh.” Was Julie’s Amharic even understandable? “How are you? Indet nesh?”
The girl opened her mouth, but no words came out. Tears clouded her beautiful brown eyes, then streamed down her face.
“Are you all right? What’s wrong?” Julie reached her hand out to touch the girl’s cheek.
Like a hunted deer, the girl held up her head, turned, and fled down the country road.