My life has changed so much since I last saw you. I wish that I could speak with you, to tell you all that has happened. But I don’t know where you are. Have you returned to Ethiopia? Are you still alive?
I do not miss Zewedu. I know that I should, but I do not. My memories of our village are haunted – yes, haunted, like the ghost they said I was.
I heard the whispers everywhere I went. “There she is! There’s the Ghost!” Shopkeepers refused to serve me. Mothers told their children, “Do not play with her. She will bring bad luck to our family.” Bad luck? Ha! Didn’t they know that my name, Tadelech, means Fortunate One? (I learned a new word for this – ironic).
The Oromo people – even my own family, have dark eyes that shine like the moonlit night sky. Their skin is like cocoa, like deep, rich earth, like the bark of the acacia tree, like cumin. But when I was born, the midwife took one look at my wriggling body, with skin as pale as the underbelly of a fish, and told my mother to let me die. Something had gone terribly wrong. Bad spirits had leached the color from my skin and drained my eyes of sight.
My mother was furious. She threw the midwife from our house, then raised me as though nothing were wrong. And really, other than the way my skin blistered and burned in the sun, nothing was wrong. My eyes, though light, could see just fine. I was healthy in every way. Still, the people of our village treated me like a monstrosity.
To protect me, my parents did not send me to school. For years, I stayed home and helped with the cows and chickens, and cared for my baby brother, Fisha. But it was lonely sometimes, especially when I saw the village children run past in their matching uniforms. I wanted so much to go to school, to make friends, to be accepted.
Then one afternoon, my mother surprised me with a new school uniform. This was it! At last, I could go to school like all the other children. Eagerly, I pulled on my new clothes, then went to visit the schoolyard, where the village children were still playing.
“What are you doing here?” said one of the girls in an unfriendly voice as I approached.
“You don’t belong here,” said another girl, sneering. “You should leave. Go home!” She made shooing motions, as if I were a stray animal.
I kept swallowing, fists clenched in a tight ball, trying not to cry. I wanted to run away from the scowling group of kids. I wanted to tear off my strange, stiff new uniform and bury it in the dirt. But I couldn’t. I was frozen there – an unmoving target for a group of hunters.
Then you stepped forward. “Leave her alone,” you told the other kids. Just like that, the group dissolved, and everyone went back to their games. I stared, wondering who was this brave boy with the odd straight hair. Like you read my mind, you spoke to me. “My name is Aurelio,” he said. “Aurelio Fernando de Leon Cruz.”
I burst into giggles. I couldn’t help it. That was the longest name I had ever heard! The Oromo people all had one name – a given name. You had four. “My name is Tadelech,” I said.
You rolled my name a few times over your tongue. “How about if I call you Tadi, for short?” you asked.
“Okay.” I smiled. Any name was better than The Ghost. You repeated your name a few times for me, but it was very hard to pronounce. “I will give you a nickname, too,” I said. You waited. I thought about how part of your name sounded like the English word for lion. I thought about how, when you spoke to the other children, they all responded to your authority, as though you were the leader of the pack. “I will call you Leon,” I said.
A huge grin spread across your face. Then you lifted your head and growled, lion-like, at the sky.
You became a lion. And I was no longer a ghost. And from that day forward, we were the best of friends.