by Abraham T. Zere, translated by Muna Nassir
Duqa had come from work exhausted and dropped into a chair. The moment his shift came to an end, he made his way straight to Brzaf’s Swa Shop. He trudged inside, throwing the whole weight of his body with each step. It had been a long day. He immediately sat down with a self-served goblet of swa in hand.
With the goblet in one hand and the other hand resting on his knee, he glared at his swa mates, who were chatting. His mind, however, was elsewhere.
“Don’t you want to join in the banter Duqa? You seem unusually quiet,” asked one of the men playing dominoes. Everyone called him “Duqa.” Very few knew his real name, “Woldegabr.”
“Those damned women broke my back. Why they never take out the bins before they get too full is beyond me,” Duqa explained, flashing his bright red gums in an effort to look his usual upbeat self despite his exhaustion. The missing front teeth made him look like a child when he smiled.
“Women are like that,” his mate affirmed, calling a number as it was his turn at the dominoes. He turned to face Duqa, adding, “It is these two here that are yours.”
Duqa nodded gulping down his swa. He knew what the young man was referring to. They had a house rule, “The first two rounds of swa of the dominoes go to Duqa.” This rule was unanimously upheld and it was unheard of for anyone to play in the swa shop and then leave without paying for Duqa’s mandated two rounds of swa.
He did not pay much attention to those playing the board game. He emptied his goblets, sending silent prayers to the woman who discovered swa. Apart from his usual bean sprouts, he had had nothing to eat that day. Soon enough, the effect of the swa started to get to his head. The fact that he had spent the whole day under the blaring sun did not help. Even though his vision had begun to blur, he did not want to stop drinking.
Every time he expressed his love and gratitude for swa, Duqa remembered what a young man had once told him about how the ferenji did not know swa, and ever since he felt awfully sorry for them. Duqa would often say, “swa is life.”
“I heard the ignorant Italians live without swa. The poor wretches! Nothing to do if God has not willed it! Unless they taste our swa and try to make something similar… Oh the Italians! The wretched bums!’ stuttered a now intoxicated Duqa. “Ahh, swa is a cure for every problem,” he added lifting the goblet to his mouth.
“Duqa! Duqa!” came a hurried voice from outside. “Someone has passed away! You need to announce their death in the town!”
“Why won’t these people give me a moment’s respite?’ muttered Duqa after the man had turned on his heels. He did not ask for the deceased’s name. For Duqa, death was a common occurrence that put everyone on equal footing.
Duqa stood up to do the man’s bidding but intoxicated he staggered and swore as he leaned on a nearby table. He did not have any family or friends. Swa was his truest friend. The fact that he was nicknamed after a type of swa brought him an immense sense of pride.
“I better get going then,” Duqa said glancing at the men still playing dominoes. In his late sixties, his back was bent so low that it took the shape of the number seven. He threw his work overalls, which were draped over his shoulder, on the floor. He stomped the swa-soaked floor with his boots. Why he did this every time he stood up, no one seemed to know.
“Off you go then, you damned old devil, you have wiped out the whole town with your announcements,” joked one of the men playing the game.
Duqa, who liked good humour said, “Have no worry, young man. I will make sure everyone hears when you die. Good grief, I will make sure the whole town is present for the burial.”
“No, you might die long before me,” the man replied.
“So, what if my time comes before yours?” Duqa asked. “Do you think I fear death like the lot of you here? I am not like Sheqa Berhe, who was taut with arrogance. He spent thousands on his treatments… but you see the angel Michael is the protector of the meek like me. Poor Sheqa Berhe! For all his arrogance, he is food for worms now. And have you already forgotten Haregu’s daughter, whom we buried the other day in the prime of her youth? As for Deacon Shimondi, for all his knowledge, he is now buried in Saint Michael’s church. Getting medical treatments won’t spare anyone. When the time is up, it is up.”
Turning around, Duqa looked everyone in the eye. They all had a serious look. “Rich or poor, wise or fool, I will call on my trumpet for every death just the same,” he grinned as he made his way to the centre of the swa house. He then called on his trumpet thrice. The men who had stopped playing to listen to him talk all smiled at the same time.
“Indeed Duqa! When you come back from announcing this death, you will have a round on me!” declared a young man. “You’re absolutely right. Who fears death? Death despises us the poor anyway. It would never come anywhere near here. As for the pubs where all the rich go…” The young man looked around. All he saw was grim faces. No one was allowed to joke about death except Duqa.
Ignoring the young man, Duqa made his way to the record player, which was on low volume because of the dying battery. Everyone’s favourite song was playing.
Yohannes son of Zomo
whose mantle is from Wulamo
and his footwear from Kutmo
from the fields of Hazomo.
What to do! Where to go!
Ahh this life! Ahh this world!
Yohannes my beacon,
Yohannes my light,
Don’t shoot, stop please!
I don’t want you to go.
I don’t want you to perish,
The record player continued labouring the words. Duqa’s face lit up. He was so filled with pride for Zomo’s son’s bravery that he started to sing along.
I have cocked my gun
and closed one eye.
I have bent my knees
in an embrace with the land,
I am donned in green….
“Pity! The brave who used to sing these songs are long gone! We are left with ninnies,” he muttered as he made his way to the door. “See you all when you die.”
Duqa had first arrived in the town when he was barely six. Even though no one knew where he hailed from, everyone knew that he was not from the neighbouring villages. Soon after his arrival, he was hired by a family who looked after him as one of their own. Once he became an adolescent, Duqa left this family to find another job. He drifted from one odd job to another until the local authority employed him as a town cleaner, where he stayed to work to the end of his days. And of course it was Duqa who announced whenever there was a death in the town.
The idea of marriage never appealed to him. Since his work involved rubbish collection, no woman in the town seemed to want to marry him. Nor did it ever cross his mind to marry any of the townswomen. Every time someone suggested that he marry, he would tease, “There is only my swa for me.” The real reason, however, was that no family would allow to mix their blood with someone whose lineage remained unknown.
Duqa was homeless. Whenever he got drunk and started to wobble, Brzaf, who owned the swa house, would take him into her house and put hessian rugs on the floor for him to sleep on. On the days the swa ran out before Duqa got fully drunk, he would go to the town hall and spend the night next to the night guard on duty there.
He never saved any money. He would hand his monthly pay to Brzaf, who would tell him how much he still owed. Brzaf’s customers would then chip in to repay the remainder of the debt. The house rule calling for the first two rounds of swa during the dominoes games going to Duqa helped significantly. Brzaf for her part showed a singular generosity when it came to him.
Every day was the same. He would leave for work in the early hours of the morning, and he would spend his afternoons at Brzaf’s Swa House. He never missed a day’s work. He would drive around in the rubbish truck, calling on his trumpet, waking up the townspeople before daybreak. Women and children would often trail behind his truck carrying rubbish bins. Thanks to his poor diet, he was so weak that he would start to whinge after emptying only two bins of rubbish.
“You should take out the rubbish before it gets backbreaking full,” he would shout.
“Just empty it. Come on, it’s not that heavy,” some would yell back.
“I swear I will get down and beat the…,” Duqa would feign to threaten. He would continue to yell until the people turned their backs to him. He would not get so upset if the rubbish came in bins made of cardboard since he would not need to empty them. He would remain equally cheerful if the women did not keep him waiting for too long after he had called on his trumpet or of course if they brought out half-full rubbish bins.
“Hurry up, you clumsy lot,” he would say perched on the edge of the truck, with his gloved hands making a faint clapping sound .“Why don’t you take out the bins before they get too full?” he would ask with scorn. He would repeat this so much that no one seemed to find it funny anymore.
Duqa often laughed at his own jokes. When he was in the mood, he would lower his kerchief and bare his gums. The town’s children would interrupt his mirth and tease him. “Mr. Duqa, have you got no deaths to announce today? Mr .Duqa, when is it going to be your turn?” They would run quickly as he would lob pieces of rubbish at them.
Duqa was not the only one who worked at the rubbish collection truck. He was, however, the only one the whole town knew. He was also the one in charge. The trucks worked only in the mornings. Thus, unless a death needed to be announced, afternoons were Duqa’s time off. If the trumpet was heard outside the rubbish collection hours, it always meant someone in the town had died.
“Toot! Toot! Toot!,” the trumpet sounded three times. Duqa made it sound like a bell if he had had his fill of swa. The whole town showed up.
“Gherezghier, Sheqa Berhe’s son
has passed away.
You are requested to attend
his burial tomorrow
at St. Michael’s church
at the crack of day”
Thus, Duqa announced the death in his formulaic lament. No one seemed to know who arranged the words for him in a rhyming order. He only needed to change the names of the deceased. The announcement remained the same. As everyone knew it by heart, no one really listened to the words that came after the deceased’s name.
He continued on his way and called on his trumpet for the second time. The townspeople held their breath, muttering, “whose death is Duqa going to announce next?” Duqa repeated the same death announcement in the same lamenting melody.
“Oh, you women who never clean their homes. Come to the burial; it is the kind-hearted Gherezgheir who has passed away” he called laughingly. Because he made the announcements while drunk, he never held back.
The small town was surrounded by hills on all sides. It looked like a well when viewed from above. The small terraced houses could be seen clustered around the town centre. Duqa could reach almost every corner of the town on his truck. Some parts on the periphery, however, he often walked to, to make his announcements. This never bothered him. He would climb to the crest of the highest hill, call on his trumpet thrice, make the announcement, and leave the moment the mourners began to gather in their netsela. He felt relieved when he reached the top of the hill, which was the last part of his death announcement itinerary. The only small difficulty for Duqa was the climb to the top. Once done with the announcement, all that awaited him was another good time at Birzaf’s swa shop.
Another call on the trumpet was heard an hour later. The townspeople found it strange that Duqa had returned for yet another announcement. When the sound of the calling trumpet came near, it sounded eerily different. It called out a short muffled “toot,” followed by an even shorter “toot.”
“Is Duqa’s trumpet no longer working properly?” some asked.
The problem was not with the trumpet but with the trumpeter. For the first timeanother person was blowing Duqa’s horn.
“Who are you calling on the trumpet? And where is Duqa?” a mother asked. The man looked down, unable to utter a word. When the woman asked again, the new death announcer could not help but reply, “Duqa passed away an hour ago.” He threw the trumpet to the floor, which left a tinkling sound trailing behind. “He fell to his death from the hilltop he climbed to announce Mr. Gherezghier’s death.”
The townswomen appeared in their netsela to mourn. But they had no inkling as to where to hold the funeral. Duqa had no home, no family, no children, no one.
“Let’s mourn Duqa at the town hall,” one of the women suggested.
“Duqa is pure, sinless like the angel Michael. We will mourn his death at the church,” another suggested. And because they all agreed on this, the townspeople made their way to the church to mourn Duqa.
About the Author
Abraham T. Zere is Voice of America’s Tigrigna program chief editor whose short stories have appeared in Dissent Magazine, Index on Censorship Magazine, and previously Berfrois. This short story was taken from his debut collection of his short stories— ካልእ ስለ ዘየሎ (Kalie sle Zeyelo, Emkulu, 2020)– in Tigrigna.
About the Translator
Muna Nassir is a UK-based writer and translator, who is currently doing her MA in creative writing with the New Writing Centre at the University of Manchester.
Note on the Translation
Translated from Tigrinya by Nassir.
Photograph by Yonatan Tewelde. Published with the photographer’s permission.