The Supper of the Lamb
By Patrick Cook - Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA - 1 March 2014
Yahanes Gebremariam came into the office on the Monday after Easter. I offered him coffee, inquired about his health. "Thank you, Mistor Eedward. I am not coughing today."
"Ah. You will be used to this weather in no time." This was a lie, of course. I've lived in Michigan all my life and I've never gotten used to the weather.
"Yess. I am sure. Now, Mistor Eedward. Istar is coming. We must have celebrate. We need a big dinner."
"Yahanes. Easter was yesterday. We can't celebrate…"
"Not for us. We are Orthodox." I had forgotten that the date of Easter is different in the Eastern churches.
Yahanes explained that they needed a ship to celebrate properly. Once I figured out that he meant a sheep, I gladly agreed. The Ethiopians had been coming to our city for two years now, and there were about twenty-five families. Time for some community building.
I don't have access to a butcher who handles whole sheep, so I had to find one. I found a farmer who would sell and butcher one of his own flock. I arranged with Fr. Guilano the use of St. Anthony's kitchen and dining room. On Friday morning at eight o'clock I picked up Yahanes, Alem, Membrahtu and Gabriel, all judges of mutton on the hoof, and we set out for Farmer Oudbeek's.
I believe my little car was designed to hold two adults in the front buckets and two children in the back. Small children. Unfortunately I was asking it to hold five adult men. It was crowded. Well, it was crowded by my standards; the other four were not complaining.
We drove out of town on the gray April day, over the full creeks and the fields full of standing water. It was cold and misty, 40 degrees at best. We got onto a gravel road and drove through a swamp and up a driveway. Wrong. This was not the place of the mutton butcher, but the place of three hard-featured men working on a black truck in the driveway. Their features grew even harder when they saw my Japanese car carrying one white man (myself) and four black men. I backed out quickly.
I didn't want to try explaining that I worked with a charitable agency that resettled political refugees, that my passengers were Eritrean secessionists who had been prisoners of war in Ethiopia, nor that we were looking for a whole sheep to butcher. I could see these men holding all of us at gunpoint until the sheriff could come and check us out. I didn't have time for that.
After a few more false moves we found Mr. Oudbeek's farm, where indeed there were sheep for sale. Unfortunately, there were no sheep for sale today. We were going to have to get our sheep half mile up the road at Mr. Hanema's, and bring it back to Mr. Oudbeek, who would then butcher it. Back we piled into the car, the five of us fogging the windows beyond the capacity of the Datsun's defroster. Apparently it had also been designed to handle two adults and two children.
Mr. Hanema was in town "to coffee" as the phrase goes in our part of the world. We hung around in his driveway and talked to his children, who were impressed that my companions were all the way from Africa, and from a country they couldn't find on their globe. Alem showed them where Eritrea was , or would be once the war was won, and its capital, Asmara. On a recent globe it is a red spot on the northern edge of Ethiopia, with the rough boundaries of the old Italian enclave on the Horn of Africa.
Farmer Hanema was at coffee for quite a long time. His children ran into the house and brought out crossbows they had made themselves, to shoot carp in the pond behind the house. They bragged about their catch.
It began to threaten rain, and then cleared up. Good thing, too. The Hanema fields were sodden from spring rains and snowmelt, stretching out in acres of mud and puddles mixed with last years cornstalks. He wasn't going to get in there to plant for weeks, in my city-boy judgment.
The boys began talking about what had happened the weekend before, after their church service. Their sister had come over to dinner with her husband, Billy. They spoke his name as though he were a particularly dumb dog. Billy. Billy had gotten fairly drunk after Easter dinner, and then drank even more when he and their sister got home.
They had thrown each other out of the house. I don't quite see how that is possible, but that's what they said. Billy must have ended up on the outside, because he then decided to have a yard sale of all the things his wife threw out the door after him, and began arranging it in front of their house. He hung clothes on a clothesline, set tools on a table. His wife called her father and his father, to see if the older men could make him see reason, and they did, but his father had to use a broom handle to do it.
They were just telling us that Billy had walked down the road into the darkness and hadn't been seen since, when Mr. Hanema came back. He seemed to know that five men in his driveway meant a sheep sale, so he led us to a pen where there were several. After some consultation, my passengers agreed on one, a likely looking brown specimen with a powdery nose from a recent visit to the grain trough. Alem and Yahanes climbed over the fence and cornered the big fellow, who didn't want to play. We wrestled him into my trunk, tied the lid down, and settled up with Farmer Hanema. Thirty dollars.
Mr. Oudbeek was waiting for us in his barn. He had a room set aside for slaughtering, with a winch to lift the carcass and a hose and drain in the floor. We led the sheep up to him and wrestled it down on its side on the cement floor right under the chain lift. Oudbeek knelt on the sheep's neck and twisted its head up from the floor. Then he stabbed a knife into the underside of its neck and pulled up sharply.
I had never seen a large animal slaughtered in my life. I was shocked by the amount of blood, gushing and spattering from the opened neck and spurting from the artery. It was a fountain, a streamlet of blood. It splashed on my pant-leg and shoes. I moved away from the little circle and sat down in a corner.
The slaughterer made cuts in the sheep's legs and exposed the tendons. He worked a couple of little hooks in behind the tendons and clipped them onto the chains of his hoist. Then he raised the carcass, still bleeding, off the floor. The neck hung by only the spine, wobbling and dripping. He worked the skin off quickly, making a few cuts where necessary, and soon had a small pile of soaked wool on the floor.
He then started asking questions as he cut. He asked whether they wanted the head. Yahanes said they did. They wanted the heart, too, and the liver, kidneys and pancreas. They wanted all of the slithery intestines, the tongue and brains. All these went into black garbage bags, well-tied, and then into the Datsun's trunk. Now we had a gutted carcass, without the disturbing head, and the lungs added to the skin on the floor. They didn't want the lungs.
Farmer Oudbeek made short work of the carcass, dividing it into six large pieces which went into separate bags. Thirty dollars for him too. We drove to St. Anthony's and put the meat into their freezer. I took the rest of the day off.
Next day I dabbled around in my paperwork, which I could never keep straight, made a few calls (trying to get Yahanes a job), and then got a call from St. Anthony's. Mrs. Woldemariam, Gabriel's wife, needed a ride to the church.
I knew why they wanted her. She was the matriarch of the group, a woman with seven children of her own, the mistress of tradition. Tall, almost gaunt, she was nearly incapable of negotiating a revolving door or a busy street. Put her in front of a stove, though, and she was a goddess. She made the best sour bread, the spiciest stew. Her coffee would grow hair on the soles of your feet. She had to be in charge of the cooking.
I went and got her. We drove up to St. Anthony's and brought in her little packages of spices. Fortunately the church had a play room for her four youngest children, who joined three others already there, under the supervision of one of the teenagers.
The kitchen was crowded. Yahanes and three other men had the pieces of meat on a stainless-steel table, cutting it from the bones and then chopping it fine with the kitchen knives. The whole place smelled yeasty and spicy, as though India and Mexico had combined cuisines. Mrs. Woldemariam dove into the preparation of the sour bread -- the staple of Ethiopian food, called injera. They had already mixed the batter and let it ferment for three days, so it was a matter of pouring it into a hot frying pan and cooking it into big white pancakes, done on one side only.
Others were turning the intestines inside out and scrubbing them with a brush. They ended up chopped, too, along with the liver, tongue, brains, kidneys and pancreas. This was highly spiced and stewed, making one of the Easter dishes -- dulot. The meat, also peppered within an inch of its life, made another. Finally they boiled the bones, including the head, to make mutton broth. It was disconcerting to see the jawbones, teeth intact, come rolling up and sinking in the stew. They boiled potatoes and cabbage in the mutton broth and fed the bones to Father Guilano's dogs. It was quite a performance. They wasted nothing.
When Easter came, they went to mass at the Greek church and then came over to St. Anthony's. A good forty people were there, and the sheep made a feast for us all. They showed us how to eat: right hand only, tear off a piece of the bread, use it to pick up the meat and vegetables. Someone had brought along a tape of folk songs, sung in a high whine with some kind of wind instrument. Gabriel explained to me that these were sad songs about the turmoil in their country.
Then they put on something a little peppier and started dancing. The men had a kind of scarf-dance they did and the children ran around between them heedless of danger. There was a collision between one of Alem's boys and Membrahtu. I could hardly believe what happened next.
Alem was sitting down with a bottle of cola and saw his son go down. Before anyone could move he was up, broke the bottle on the back of his chair and attacked Membrahtu. They both did some damage before the other men dragged them apart. I'd seen the whole thing. Believe me, it was not Membrahtu's fault. It was a minor accident, did little damage to the boy, and shouldn't have caused any trouble. Alem had just snapped. Prison reflexes, probably.
They got him out of there. The party was almost over anyway. Gabriel Woldemariam came over to me and asked if he could use my office later that afternoon. He wanted to get everybody over there and discuss what happened. I was hesitant. It wasn't really "my" office in the first place. I worked for an agency, and it was their office. I didn't think I could explain why forty people including small children were in there on a Sunday afternoon. Certainly I couldn't explain it in any way that would be convincing to my boss. I got Gabriel down to fifteen people including his children and handed over the key.
I stopped by to check up on them late in the day. They were just winding up after a good three hour discussion, cleaning up coffee cups and cookie crumbs. I pulled Yahanes aside. "What's up?" I asked, "How did the discussion go?"
"Ah. It went very well, I think. We discussed many things. Membrahtu is satisfied, Alem is satisfied, Gabriel is satisfied. It was good discussion."
"Gabriel? Gabriel wasn't part of the fight. Why…"
"Gabriel is a kind of leader for us. He is a smart man."
"Well. Yes he is."
To tell you the truth, I wasn't surprised he came out as a leader. Gabriel is a smart man. But to form a village council, call in the parties to a quarrel and get them all reconciled in the space of three hours -- that was surprising. Lord. It would take my family a couple of hours to decide who was going to do the dishes, and we'd be lucky if the decision didn't cause years of resentment.
Yahanes said something else. "Mistor Eedward. We are all thanking you for your help. Is mean a lot to us. You know, back home, on Easter, even a poor man have blood in his house. Even it's a chicken. You know, Jesus -- He is risen. He is risen up from his grave."
NotA bene: This short story first appeared in the magazine About Such Things (Fall 2000) and is republished here by permission of the author.