36, from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Mengiste left Ethiopia at 4, during the communist revolution—a period that’s become the backdrop to her novel-in-progress, excerpted here. As a child, she lived with a host family. And before attending NYU’s graduate program, she says, “I had never written anything about Ethiopia at all. That blank page is scary.” Now represented by an agent, she finds it no less daunting. “I can’t write in public anymore, because I still get emotional.”
In Her Teacher’s Words
“She has a poetic sensibility in the best sense,” says Irini Spanidou. “You feel the immediacy of her thought.”
From Untitled Novel
The human heart, Hailu knew, can stop for many reasons. It is a fragile, hollow muscle the size of a fist, shaped like a cone, divided into four chambers that are separated by a wall. Each chamber has a valve, each valve has a set of flaps as delicate and frail as wings. They open and close, open and close, steady and organized, fluttering against currents of blood. The heart is merely a hand that has closed around empty space, contracting and expanding. What keeps a heart going is the constant, unending act of being pushed, and the relentless, anticipated response of pushing back. Pressure is the life force.
Hailu understood that a change in the heart can stall a beat, it can flood arteries with too much blood and violently throw its owner into pain. A sudden jerk can shift and topple one beat onto another. The heart can attack, it can pound relentlessly on the walls of the sternum, swell and squeeze roughly against lungs until it cripples its owner. He was aware of the power and frailty of this thing he felt thumping now against his chest, loud and fast in his empty living room. A beat, the first push and nudge of pressure in a heart, he knew, was generated by an electrical impulse in a small bundle of cells tucked into one side of the organ. But the pace of the syncopated beats is affected by feeling, and no one, least of all he, could comprehend the impulsive, sudden, lingering control that emotions played on the heart. He had once seen a young patient die from what his mother insisted was a crumbling heart that had finally collapsed on itself. A missing beat can fell a man. A healthy heart can be stilled by nearly anything: hope, anguish, fear, love. A woman’s heart is smaller, even more fragile, than a man’s.
It wouldn’t be so surprising then, that the girl had died. Hailu would simply point to her heart. It’d be enough to explain everything.
He’d been alone in the room, the soldiers smoking under a large streetlamp outside. He could see their long shadows lengthening over the bare and brittle lawn as the sun swung low, then lower, then finally sank under the weight of night. It was easy to imagine that the dark blanket behind him had also swept into the hospital room, even though the lights were on. It was the stillness, the absolute absence of movement, which convinced him they, too, this girl and he, were just an extension of the heaviness that lay beyond the window.
She’d been getting progressively better, had begun to wake for hours at a time and gaze, terrified, at the two soldiers sitting across from her. The soldiers had watched her recovery with relief, then confusion, and eventually, guilt. Hailu could see their shame sitting on their shoulders, keeping them hunched over monotonous card games and continually leaving for smoking breaks.
It hadn’t been so difficult to get the cyanide. He’d simply walked into the supply office behind the pharmacy counter, waved at the bored pharmacist and pulled the cyanide from a drawer that housed a dwindling supply of penicillin. Back in the room, Hailu prayed over the girl and crossed her. Then he opened her mouth and slipped the tiny capsule between her teeth. What happened next happened without the intrusion of words, without the clash of meaning and language. The girl flexed her jaw and tugged at his hand so he was forced to meet her stare. Terror had made a home in this girl and this moment was no exception. She shivered though the night was warm and the room, hotter. Then she pushed her jaw shut and Hailu heard the crisp snap of the capsule and the girl’s muffled groan. The smell of almonds, sticky and sweet, rose from her mouth. She gasped for air, but Hailu knew she was already suffocating from the poison; she was choking from lack of oxygen. She took his hand and moved it to her heart and pressed it down. He wanted to think that last look before she closed her eyes was gratitude.
It was only his nurse, Almaz, who’d recognized the vivid flush of the girl’s face, the hint of bitter almonds, and known what had happened. She’d walked in just as Hailu was explaining to the soldiers how electric shocks had damaged her heart.
“Oh,” Almaz said. “Yes,” she collected herself. “It was too much for her."
The soldiers had been agitated. “We reported she’d be back in a few days. People are expecting her,” one said.
“I’ll explain it all in the death certificate,” Hailu reassured them.
But Hailu had been summoned to jail, only one day after filing the report. His presence was requested in writing, delivered to his office by a skinny soldier with firm steps.
“Arrive by dawn,” the soldier said. “The Colonel starts early.”
“What’s this about?” Hailu looked at the inked signature at the bottom of the letter and tried to imagine the type of man whose hand moved across the page with such jagged sweeps of the pen.
The soldier stared at him and Hailu felt a shiver crawl up his spine. His light brown eyes were crisscrossed with red veins. “It’s just to talk.”
Hailu tried not to think about the fact that no one ever returned from a summons to jail. “Should I pack a suitcase?” Most prisoners were ordered to bring a suitcase under pretext that they’d be released.
“It’s unnecessary,” the soldier said. “Tomorrow,” he added before leaving.
Now, Hailu stared into the dark in his living room, his back straight as a tree, and waited, though for what, he wasn’t sure.