The straw that broke the camel’s back

A Short Story

Twice a year, my friend Abebe asks me a favor to accompany him to the Saint Joseph Cemetery, a small serene town of the deceased. We go there to scrape the leeches that thrive on the tombstone of his elder brother, paint the tomb anew, put a bouquet of flowers, light a candle and say a prayer.

The long trees that protect the dead from the scorching sun, the roots of which normally get severed during clearance for burial ground, are prone to fall at any minute when the soil gets saturated with rain water or when a ferocious winter wind throws them off balance. Upon toppling, the trees smash two or three tombstones in a row, making regular attention to the graves mandatory. Some masons will dislodge the photograph frames for another tomb they’ve received orders to make, and adventurous children, as if playing darts, smash the frames with stones.

For such reasons Abebe has befriended a deacon, who lives in one of the old buildings in the cemetery, and persuaded him to look after his brother’s tombstone and report to him anything untoward that may befall it. Once, while Abebe, the deacon and I were painting the tombstone, we were distracted by a sobbing from the corner and all of us turned our eyes to the spot.

A handsome, middle-aged lady, with disheveled hair and attired in full black was giving vent to her pent up grief over the loss of somebody dear to her, kneeling down by a grave, five meters away, kicking her chest with her right hand and pulling locks of hair with her left, shuddering, as if in convulsion.

Noticing that we pitied the woman, the deacon, who seemed to know a lot about people who visit the cemetery, made haste to give us the hearsay he had gathered about her.

“She is a businesswoman. She owns a goldsmith around Luncha. Her son committed suicide eight months back. You see, being her sole child he was the apple of her eye. She was one of those loving mothers who go to the extent of protecting their children from the smallest chance of harm.”

“Did you know him in person?” I interrupted.

“Yeah, he was a gentle, beefy boy, who was older to his age. Whenever she attended mass she never failed to bring him along. He was a student of Sebeste Negesi Secondary School. The boy had a striking girlfriend. She was his classmate from childhood. They had also exchanged words of honor that they would stick together and remain friends till they joined their lives in marriage. But it never occurred to the girl that difference in taste or dissension on certain issues by no means implies a degradation of love. Her mental approach, however, was: ‘A friend is a fulfilled wish, evil or holy alike.’

“Once when she, along with her girlfriends, mobilized the class against a provincial young lady assigned as an English teacher who was prone to brow-beating and admonishing students that showed laxity in actively participating in class, to his girlfriend’s surprise, out of pity and integrity, he defended the teacher and made the class see reason.

“’She is a diligent teacher. What more would a grade eight student, due to sit for a national exam, ask for? As to why she frowns, I think she is doing it for our sake,’ he said. Except for her and her friends, the whole class agreed with him.

“That day the lovebirds spent the whole of the break in the morning arguing, an hour on end. At lunch break, as opposed to their normal habit of eating the food they brought together, she shunned him by way of a punitive measure for disloyalty. On the morrow, unwilling to estrange herself from her friends, she deliberately avoided him let alone exchanged the customary greeting. Even when he pleaded with her for apologies, she rather just chuckled at him.”

“Really, did she take to heart?” I once more interrupted him.

“Yes! Usually whenever the afternoon class wrapped up, and before he saw her off, they would exchange a warm kiss, just like in most movies. Among the student community they went by their nickname Romeo and Juliet. Bickering over trifles was a passing phase in the dictionary of their love. But that day, as she was dead set on giving him a bitter lesson for his failure to echo her stance and to drive home his wholesome rejection, she gave another boy from a class next door a prolonged kiss on the mouth right in the faces of him and his friends. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The punitive measure was too much for the puerile boy. To punish her in turn for her folly, he shot home with fury. Heading straight to his parent’s bedroom, he drew a loaded pistol from a chest of drawers and lodged a bullet in his head, unaware that his death would break his mother’s heart.”

“Oh! What a terrible thing! Does his mother always mourn his death like this ?” I cut in for a third time.

“Yes. Ever since he took his life, his mom ceaselessly cries her soul out by his grave.”

The deacon wrapped up his narration.

To our surprise, a semester later on the same mission to the serene town of the deceased, we found her on the same spot crying in exactly in the same manner.

Her turning old fast is conspicuous. And it is zebra locks she now pulls from her hair while weeping. If you pay a visit to the cemetery, you may witness the tear-jerking life she leads.



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