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“Desta!” Mistress Yetty’s imperial voice rang out from the courtyard. A young girl of thirteen ran to find her mistress, who was holding her three-year-old son, Goota, under a fan.
“Yes, ma’am, I am here,” Desta panted hurriedly.
“Really, Desta, you must learn to run faster!” Mistress Yetty’s voice drawled on sluggishly.
“Here, now, take my Goota and entertain him. He really is getting too big to be held now!” Mistress Yetty fanned herself with her delicate hand.
“Yes, ma’am.” Desta grabbed the child’s chubby hand and led him to the cooling waters of the fountain, where she had done most of the parenting his devoted but overindulgent parents had neglected.
“Desta, story!” the little boy crowed.
“Alright then, story,” Desta calmed the rambunctious boy with her soothing voice. “Once upon a time there was a little girl born to an Oromo family in Kalokol, in Kenya, many, many years ago. Her family was very poor, and they could not afford to keep this baby—”
“Abaye says Oromo be bad, Amharic like us be good,” Goota stuck out his little chest and swelled with pride at his great intellect as well as heritage.
“Yes, Goota. When the little girl was a tiny bit older than you, Goota, your Abaye was so generous that he came one day and gave money to this family and took good care of their little girl for them.” Desta choked a little as she lied to her master’s child. Swallowing back the lump in her throat, she continued.
“Your Abaye took the little girl and gave her a new Amharic name. She lives now in Lodwar, here in Kenya, and that’s where Goota lives! When she was grown up enough, your Abaye gave that girl a special job to carry water in jugs with Rhoda, Abeba, and Daraartu every day. She grew big and strong, and guess who she is? Goota’s own Desta!”
“Desta miss her old family?” gurgled Goota as he gave her a big hug, obviously forgetting the distinction between the Oromo and Amharic.
“Sometimes Desta does, but she can’t remember them very much.”
“Desta see her old family lots?”
“Desta doesn’t know where they are.” This too, was mostly a lie.
“Goota find them for Desta!” An unseen tear rolled down Desta’s face as she hugged the child. This innocent young boy reminded her of her own beloved baby brother she hardly remembered. Goota was her only connection to her long-lost home.
“No, Goota stays here like a good boy. You take care of your Emaye,” Desta laughed playfully as she tickled the child.
“Where is my son?” a frantic voice rang out through the silent dawn. Desta drowsily opened her eyes. Was she dreaming?
“Goota, where are you?” It was Master Tavorian! Desta sprang out of her pallet. And why was he calling for Goota? What was going on? Desta dashed the traces of drowsiness out of her eyes with a splash of cold water before running outside.
“Where is he, Tav, where is my son?” In the courtyard, Mistress Yetty was sobbing uncontrollably and clutching onto her husband.
“How should I know?” he unintentionally shoved his weeping wife aside in his haste.
“Search party! All men in the household come with me, now!” The frenzied father stalked off to make the preparations, while Mistress Yetty retreated to her chamber, lonely, hurt, and inconsolable.
“Come, Desta,” a water-girl beckoned the bewildered Desta and handed her an earthenware jug. “Just because the world is ending doesn’t mean there is no water to draw.”
The four water-girls left the house before sunrise, each with a water jug resting on her dark head. Desta walked contemplatively while the three other girls chatted ceaselessly about the morning’s hectic events.
“Everyone was so distracted!” A girl named Rhoda laughed. “Mekelle couldn’t even find her bowl, even though it was sitting right in front of her!”
The other girls giggled, not noticing Desta’s altered expression. Thanks to Rhoda, a priceless idea had popped in her head! With everyone so distracted, no one would notice one missing slave girl until life was set back in order—and that probably would not be soon.
“Girls, I need to run back and get something—no, you needn’t come with me, I’ll be fine.”
Desta trotted back in the direction of the house, but as soon as the other girls disappeared, she leapt to the right branch of the road headed north. The search expedition had left for the opposite direction, thinking a little boy would want to go south to the nearby marketplace rather than north to a vast desert. Heart pounding, Desta felt a twinge of guilt as she abandoned all she knew as home—the water-girls, her master and mistress, and the missing baby Goota. But she reasoned with herself—they had wrenched her from the arms of her weeping mother when she was only five! In a tiny wrestle with conscience, Master Tavorian had tossed a small East African shilling through the door before he left. Desta, remembering the tragic scene vividly, hardened her heart and set out on the road headed north for Lake Turkana, for her family, for her true home.
Desta was still walking through the dry desert as the sun began rising high into the cloudless, blue sky. Finally free! The words seemed to echo through her ears. An exultant grin spread across her face as she thought about her mother, father, and baby brother, all of whom she had not seen for over eight years. In her joyful eagerness, Desta galloped down the long, lonely path like a free, untamed horse.
“Bilisee!” Desta squealed blissfully. “My name is Bilisee! My name is Freedom!”
Suddenly Desta stopped short and gaped at a strange sight before her. A small boy of three was walking down the road very slowly and wearily. Desta’s mouth went dry—it was Goota!
“Goota!” Desta called the child. Turning around, Goota recognized his favorite storyteller.
“Desta!” Goota toddled to the shocked girl. “I’m tired! Wanna go home!”
Desta received her little one with welcoming arms.
“What were you doing out here, Goota?”
“Goota was finding Desta’s family,” the little boy announced. “But wanna go home now.”
Just before Desta turned around, a small voice needled her. Are you really going to lose all those miles just to return your master’s son to his parents? What about your family and your home? But Desta ignored the voice.
“Come, Goota,” Desta did not hesitate to offer a loving hand to the weary child. “Let’s go home.”
Night had just fallen as Desta carried Goota to the gate of the house. Exhausted beyond comprehension, Desta deposited the sleeping child beside her and pounded on the door with what little strength she had left.
“Who’s there?” Rhoda’s cranky voice called from inside.
“Desta with Goota!” came the reply.
“Everyone, wake up! Wake up!” Rhoda’s now-excited voice seemed to fade away into the house. Desta slumped against the wall and fell into a peaceful slumber. She never saw the bright, cheerful lights brought outside, or feel the welcoming hands pull her into the house, or hear Master Tavorian’s words of gratitude that granted her freedom. In her dream, however, she saw an even more beautiful sight—the smiling faces of her mother, father, and young brother, and their arms reaching to embrace her. She heard their loving words, “You have a family. You have returned at home.”