Mateos’ four-year-old son, Yoel, rides his pink tricycle along the precarious edge where asphalt crumbles into dirt. Shiny with tassels, it looks out of place here in the camp where the eye quickly learns to differentiate between gradations of beige and gray, and a spot of colored paint—even if old and chipping—stands out. Mateos takes care with the tricycle, knowing that it is coveted by many and there are thieves.
He strolls behind Yoel, who gurgles as he rides along the road that heads away from the camp and looks towards the sunset. He sees the land the way he imagines the NGO workers and researchers, who are always visiting, must see it. Their eyes glisten. They shake their heads and mutter, the hushed awe catching in their throats, “So beautiful.” The green expanse of field soon after cleansing rain shimmers gold in the waning light. Cows and sheep meander around boulders and dead tree stumps, and a small boy guides them towards home.
The Simien Mountains loom in the south while a smaller mountain (a hill, really, a hill without a name) rises gently from the other side of the road. Mateos can see a boy and girl scrambling their way to the top, their city shoes slippery on the shale and crumbling earth, their hands intertwined for support.
Two girls, their jackets almost (but not quite) as shiny as the tricycle, perch atop one of the boulders, gazing at the sunset. They share a pair of earbuds; Mateos thinks they are listening to the news, because that is what he would do, but their bobbing heads suggest otherwise. Asmarinas. They have not been here long. Mateos wonders if they know how to guard their cell phone and earbuds.
Yoel has raced several meters ahead and Mateos calls him back, “Time to go home.” Yoel turns and the beaming of his face explodes Mateos’ heart. The sunset glistens from his skin for just a moment before the boy turns and, with determination and a gale of laughter, races down the road. Forced to give chase, Mateos calls out, “Watch out, baby! I’m coming for you.” Yoel’s exultation echoes through the valley, but, in his glee, he does not see a water bottle discarded on the side of the road. It is the two-liter kind, half covered in mud. Only partially empty, it forms an obstacle that catches on the front wheel and tips over the tricycle. The shriek has the same tone as the boy’s laughter. Mateos sprints and plucks the child from the ground, cradling him singing, “Ajoha, ajoha.” Have strength. Find fortitude.
The rented minivan careens— too fast—around the switchbacks.
“Kusbel,” Kennedy orders, as waves of nausea pass through her. The driver turns and smiles at her, laughs, his eyes straying too long from the road. She decides not to tell him to slow down again lest he drive them off the road. Kennedy can feel the heat rising as they descend the escarpment. Huts come into view in front of them. She sees children dressed in rags, their hands caked in mud, racing out of the structures made of crooked logs, mud and thatch, pushing canned soft drinks and packets of gum up towards their open windows. Beyond the passel of children now lining the road, she sees the metal bar, painted white, across the road, and the soldier sleeping in the shade of a shelter made of the same materials as the huts. Beyond the checkpoint she sees the bridge across the Tekeza river.
The vehicle rolls forward, navigating through the children pressing in on all sides. They stop at the checkpoint and honk for the soldier who is slow to wake up. The driver buys a coke while they wait. Kennedy smiles at the children.
“Dongiu,” the driver says. The soldiers are always slow to come out of their hut, late, delayed.
“Dekisu,” Kennedy says. The driver laughs. Kennedy is confused about what is funny about the soldiers sleeping.
Finally, the soldier emerges, checks the driver’s ID card, looks at Kennedy, raises the bar and waves them on.
Kennedy is fascinated by the settlement next to the Tekeza river. She has developed hypotheses about the socioeconomics of the people who live next to the checkpoint. She calls them “river people” inside her head. They have so little, nothing except what they pull from the river. Other than the soldiers, the only adults she sees peer out from the dark doorways of the thatch huts. And yet, in this remote spot, the children somehow manage a supply of soft drinks and chewing gum to sell to people in the cars who pass by.
The children are as poor as any she had ever seen and Kennedy knows poverty. Her research takes her to refugee camps around the world. Gangly, these children barely have clothes to wear, and they always seem to be covered in mud, which she thinks makes sense given that the river was full of mud and the road was made of mud and the houses were made of mud. She would like to study this community, but her successful career has been built on studying refugees. The local poor are a different object of study, a distinct field, kept strictly separate.
The river is brown and fast at this time of year, just after the rainy season. The long bridge gives her ample time to observe children on the banks calling to each other. A group of three points at floating debris, dives into the river, swims with bold strokes and fishes wood from the river. One large piece threatens to take the child down river with it. Kennedy turns to get a better view. Another child dives into the water and helps bring the log to shore.
On the opposite bank, the minivan stops beside a pile of charcoal in burlap sacks. The driver presses a finger to his lips. “Shhh,” he says. Kennedy knows this drill. The charcoal they are selling is illegal.
While she waits for the driver to complete the transaction, she develops her theory. Children fish logs from the river. Logs make charcoal. Charcoal is sold. Profits purchase goods to sell to motorists who also buy illegal charcoal. Symbiotic. Even the soldiers’ checkpoint creating a chokepoint was part of this symbiosis. She has so many questions. Is revenue generated? Is it a poverty trap? Does anyone get out of the cycle?
The driver is back in the vehicle, smiling and humming. They are moving up the escarpment on the opposite side. The hillsides are bare.
Mateos watches the researcher pull up and knock on the door to his office, a corrugated tin building about three meters square. She walks past a long line of people and into the small structure without being invited. She stands next to Mateos’ desk. He does not look up from his work. A woman comes in and hands him some worn documents. He pens a quick note which he hands back to her. A man follows her and he does the same. Then a teenaged girl. He pens a few more quick notes before looking up.
“Kennedy,” he greets her, thinking that he is not hiding his irritation very well. “Welcome back.” He tries to soften his voice, but her arrival is inconvenient.
They smile at each other, but both smiles are labored.
“Nice to see you, Mateos.”
She is in the camp to assess livelihoods. Again. This is not the first time she has been here. Mateos is the Refugee Coordinating Committee Representative. He would rather do many things other than host her, but he is compelled by the Ethiopian Camp Manager to do so. She cannot be left alone. Hosting her is not usually unpleasant. He just has too many other things to do.
He turns to Kennedy. “Shall we?” he says gesturing towards the door. There is still a long line of people outside.
“Are you finished?”
“Never, but it is time for lunch.” He decides he should compensate for his unwelcoming tone. “Can I invite you to our home?”
Kennedy planned to use the lunch time to write up notes. She cannot refuse, however, as awkward as this lunch will be. She will make small talk and try to eat as little as possible so as to not deplete food supplies. She will have to figure out how to compensate Mateos for this later on. It is against regulations for her to pay him properly for his help but understood that she should give him some kind of gift. Sorting out these nuances occupies mental space that she wishes it wouldn’t.
As they pass the line of people waiting, there is a quiet grumbling, but not the outcry she’d expected. “What do they all want?” Kennedy asks, gesturing to the people.
“Some of them lost their ration card. Some need a new ration card with a new family member on it. Some of them want permission to leave the camp.”
“And you can say yes to all these things?”
“I can say yes to none of these things. All I can do is write them a note. Maybe one of them will get what they want.”
“You have no power.”
Sensing an opening to do so, Kennedy asks what she has long wanted to ask, “In the other camps, people say the only way to get anything is to bribe the refugee representative.”
Mateos pauses quelling the flush of anger that rises in him. Who is she to ask these questions? Have I ever asked her if she takes bribes? Or gives them? He settles his voice before answering, his speech punctuated. “I have heard that. Here we do not have power.”
Kennedy has seen no evidence that Mateos or any of the others in this camp are taking payment for doing favors, but it would be logical, Kennedy hypothesizes, for them to take bribes, to transform any opportunity into profit. It would be less logical for them to work this hard for nothing. She plans to keep observing.
They duck their heads to enter his one room home. “Baba!” the child races over to him. He picks up Yoel and introduces him to Kennedy.
As they blink to see in the dark room, Mateos indicates that she should sit on a low concrete bed covered in a scratchy wool blanket. He introduces her to his wife and two teenage girls who he has been caring for since they arrived unaccompanied in the camp. Food on a large platter is placed on a stool in front of them.
As she picks at the food, trying not to eat too much, Kennedy is trying to work out what questions she can ask that would better help her understand how a family like his makes ends meet. She wants to know more about his work as the refugee committee representative. She also wants to ask if he has made any progress on his resettlement case. But she knows from previous visits that this is a sore subject. He has been here for fifteen years. He has watched all of his friends leave the camp. As she is pondering the right topic to broach, Kennedy spies the pink tricycle in the entryway of their home. It is hanging near the door. It stands out because it is shiny. She cannot help wondering how Mateos could afford the tricycle.
Mateos’ son toddles over and points at Kennedy. He smiles and nestles his head into his father’s leg.
“Is that your tricycle?” Kennedy asks instinctively, cooing as one does when conversing with a young child. Mateos nods. “What a great tricycle,” she croons. “What a lucky boy you are! What a lucky, lucky boy.”
She expects Mateos to translate for her so that she can continue her conversation with the boy, certain that he would love to tell her all about this prized possession. Children always do. But there is a pause, silence. She glances at Mateos. His mouth hangs open as if he is about to say something, but his expression is inscrutable to her.
The anger that is so often just under Mateos’ skin rises to the surface for the second time since Kennedy arrived. The mandate that he maintain a polite façade fades away. “He is not a lucky boy,” Mateos spits out, “to be growing up in a refugee camp.”
Kennedy places her nephew on the tricycle that her sister bought him at a yard sale. As he wobbles alongside the rows of shiny SUVs towards the mouth of their cul de sac, she wonders why he loves the dingy thing. Her phone rings. She glances at the number and answers while jogging to catch up with him.
“Hello? Yes. The report will be done early if you stop bothering me. I’m babysitting for my nephew. My sister is in labor. But I’ll get it done.”
She trips on a crack in the otherwise even sidewalk and glares at the house beside it, thinking, these people should fix these things.
“No, I hadn’t heard that news from Ethiopia yet. I can’t guarantee I can work in these new developments to the report. I’m not a journalist.”
A wail tears Kennedy from her phone. “I’ve got to go,” she says, hanging up.
Her nephews’ body heaves beside the tipped over tricycle, one leg twisted beneath it, blood pooling at the corner of his mouth.
“You’ve got to slow down,” she scolds as she pulls him out and plops him on his feet, scanning him for damage. “You just bit your tongue. Off you go.”
Her nephew hugs her leg, whimpering, but she has already pulled out her phone and is scanning for the news from Ethiopia. The child steps back, studies her and takes off as fast as he can on his tricycle.
Her phone rings. It is an Ethiopian number.
“Kennedy. How are you?”
“Who is this?” she snaps.
She rifles her brain until it finally clicks.
“You are calling me.”
“Yes. We are coming to the US. We got lucky.”
“Oh,” she says, then, almost as an afterthought, “that’s terrific.”
Mateos waits until the last possible minute to give the tricycle away because he does not want to tip anyone off to the fact that they are leaving. Aside from his phone which he will take to Iowa with him, it is his family’s most valuable possession. He waits until he thinks Yoel is asleep, but the child sits up in the darkness as Mateos leaves the house, his eyes wide in the dark.
“Where are you taking my tricycle?” The child’s shrieks echo beyond the house and Mateos’ clenches with fear that someone will hear.
Then his mother sweeps in, “He’s not taking it. You are dreaming.” She lies down and eases the child back to sleep.
Stepping into the narrow alleyway, he is careful to not hit the tricycle against the wall of his neighbor’s house. He hears Yoel whimpering now, not screaming, through the wall. He relaxes knowing that there are children whimpering throughout the camp and this sound will raise no alarm. Still, Mateos feels that twinge of guilt that all parents feel when their children are bereaved. He reminds himself that this is the best way, the only way. One day when Yoel thinks of this tricycle, when he thinks of this whole place, he will really believe he was dreaming.
Emerging from the alley onto the market road, Mateos carries the tricycle by one handlebar. Handling the tricycle makes him think of a cat carrying kittens in its mouth, the floppy creatures squirming and imbalanced. He holds it so it does not hit his leg as he walks with it. It is at an awkward angle, the tassels swishing with each step. He has to stop every few steps to adjust his grip. It is not very big, but surprisingly heavy, and makes him feel off-center.
Mateos walks towards his friend Yacob’s shop and puts the tricycle down. A single lightbulb illuminates a pink dress hanging above a counter. There are some batteries hanging on either side of the dress and a single package of birthday candles. On the counter there is a bowl of tomatoes and onions. In the glass case below the counter, there are packages of cookies and gum and tomato paste.
“Bring it around back,” Yacob says, knowing that Mateos wants to be discreet. Even at this late stage, someone could derail their resettlement process. “Are you sure you don’t want me to sell it for you? It is worth some money.”
“No, you keep it. It is a gift for all you did for me all these years. You can sell it and use the money or keep it for your daughter when she is born.”
Yacob reaches out and clasps Mateos’ hand. The two men look at each other. They do not have time to express what has passed between them. They came here together fifteen years ago, never thinking they would stay here one year, let alone fifteen. They are the only ones still here out of the group who was at Asmara University together until the university was shut down, the students were rounded up for national service, and they decided to escape together. Most of the others went to Europe or North America. Some were sponsored by relatives who lived there. Some got scholarships. Now Mateos is leaving. No one else was resettled.
“Thank you,” Yakob says. “Thank you.”
Mateos cannot worry about the happiness and resentment and gratitude and sadness in Yacob’s voice. He cannot worry about what he is leaving behind. If Yakob were in Mateos’ shoes, he would feel the same way.
“You will be okay,” Mateos says.
“God willing,” Yacob replies, a small smile playing across his face. Mateos has never been sure whether his friend truly believed or simply parroted the words of the priests.
“God willing,” Mateos echoes his friend, although he is a man who abandoned his faith long ago.
The sliding glass doors part and Kennedy emerges from the cold November rain into the fluorescent space, almost slipping on the wet linoleum floor. She has just returned from Bangladesh and is leaving for Geneva tomorrow. She is rushing to get to her nephew’s birthday party before the cake is cut. She is often rushing to make it to birthday parties and other family gatherings, scrambling between writing reports, coding fieldnotes and endless meetings, to pick up a present and shove it into a gift bag. She will buy something in haste and probably spend way too much money. This is probably why she is the favorite aunt.
She unzips her thick winter coat and fans her face with her hand. She is still not used to the heat that periodically fills her body like she’s been dumped in a hot tub. The hot flashes started about three months ago and they get worse when she is under stress. She takes a deep breath and slows down, walking efficiently past the handbags and women’s dresses that line up like soldiers at attention just across from the cash registers. Muscle memory takes her to where the toys are.
Her gaze focusses above the merchandise. Fixated on her goal, the gift, in her mind’s eye, the well-lit, echoing store falls away as she races forward. Her knee brushes against something and she hears a bump and then a cry. Without breaking her stride, she becomes aware of the child who has fallen down near her. She glances around, realizing a family is surrounding her. Trained to quickly and accurately observe social interactions, she notes the mother comforting the child, the father standing just to her left. Two other children and an older woman, perhaps a grandmother, are on her other side.
Kennedy glances at their faces, mentally rifling through the index of her fieldsites: Ethiopia, Uganda, Jordan, Lebanon, Sudan. She finds a category to place their features in: Bangladesh. She studies their clothing; she is skilled at doing so without appearing to stare, and decides they are a refugee family from Myanmar. She does all of this without breaking stride. The man opens his mouth to ask her something, but she hurries away leaving the family in her wake.
Finally at the toy and sporting goods department, she finds a row of bicycles. At the end of the row, there is a tricycle, looking tiny next to the looming mountain bikes. It is pink with tassels. Shiny. She considers buying it, but doesn’t want to deal with the hassle.
The tricycle makes her think of Mateos; she wonders if his son was able to take his tricycle to the US, assumes not. She hasn’t talked to Mateos since he called to tell her that he was going to be resettled. The recent war has cut off communications; she wonders if he was resettled before the fighting started.
A burning wave of heat flushes through her, again, searing her from the inside out. Damn menopause, she thinks. And then she realizes she’d better hurry or she’ll miss the party and no longer be the favored aunt.
Mateos stares into the dense thicket of women’s blouses, which give way to an orderly mound of fake leather handbags. He clutches Yoel’s wriggling hand. “Kusbel,” he hisses, then focuses on the click of his wife’s heels on the linoleum floor. They are bathed in the artificiality of fluorescent lighting. His eye starts to twitch.
Mateos’ family takes what they think is a shortcut and immediately become lost in the shelves of shoes which tower over their heads, disorienting them. When they finally emerge, they are surrounded by towels and bedding on one side and sporting goods on the other, meaning they must double back in order to find the kitchenware section. A tide of customers move against them. They pass another family that mirrors theirs—father, mother, child. Mateos smiles. All three look away in unison. An old man with a walker, his face slack, approaches. Mateos opens his mouth to speak, but the man keeps moving, his shoulder brushing Mateos as if he did not exist at all.
“Excuse me,” Mateos stammers, his voice reaching out to a straw haired woman with a friendly face who is moving slowly, almost dreamily towards him with a full cart. But instead of speaking to Mateos, her eyebrows point down, like daggers. She accelerates her walk, almost, but not quite, to a slow jog.
“Excuse me,” Mateos repeats, approaching an employee who is stacking boxes of Legos nearby.
“Huh? Huh? Huh?” the acne-faced boy, wearing a blue vest, grunts. “I can’t understand you.” The boy, like the customers before him, moves away from him.
It has been hard, since they arrived. Adjusting to life in a new country is always hard. Mateos knew it would be hard. But this was harder. A month after they’d arrived, the war broke out and they couldn’t contact anyone back in the camp. Then news started to trickle in and he wished it hadn’t. Mateos feels fear all the time as if he were still in the refugee camp, trapped between soldiers from three armies and more militias than he can keep track of, all of them intent on believing that the refugees are the enemy, something to be feared and punished.
Neither Mateos nor his wife have been sleeping. When he wakes in the middle of the night, he tries to soothe himself by thanking God for his family, for their fortune, for their good life in Cedar Rapids. “God protect them. God protect them,” Mateos whispers every night. He is not really a religious man, going through the motions for his wife’s sake, but he has been clinging to these three AM prayers as if they are an object keeping him afloat in a raging river. The fact that this is all he can do—words whispered as he lies there, bitterness chalky in a mouth dry with insomnia—makes him feel weak.
As they pass a row of bicycles that stand at attention just across from the children’s toys, Yoel yanks his father’s arm. Mateos is stunned by the pain in his shoulder, surprised that such a small child has such power. He sees the pink tricycle standing at the end of the row of bicycles. Yoel is still pulling. “Mine!” he calls out.
Mateos jerks his son back and Yoel bangs into his hip and starts wailing. Mateos spins his son around to face him, his hand dashing out, open palmed, hovering just above his son’s head, just to the side of his temple, poised. He glances at his wife who is several paces ahead of them. She stops and turns her head towards them, a smile on her face.
Mateos’ arm drops to his side; he places Yoel’s hand in his own. His wife waits for them to catch up to her and then she pries their son’s hand out of Mateos’ and eases it into her own. She slows her pace, pats the top of Yoel’s hand, and begins to croon slowly, almost singing. Mateos feels his shoulders relax, his pace slow, even though he is not the one she is trying to sooth.
The Tekeza river runs fast this time of year. A child squats low on the bank. There is less chance that she will be noticed than one of the adults. At the break of dawn, she has come to spear fish to take home. Her family has been hiding for a week. They are starving. She is heading to a place where the river eddies just beyond the bridge, a place that no one knows about, where the fish will have to slow. She can’t see the soldiers right now, but they are all around on the hillsides on both sides of the river.
She watches the river splash against the remains of the bridge as if trying to conceal it. The two halves of the bridge are submerged, impassable, but oddly unbroken as if this were a mere detour, as if the taxis and trucks that once drove along the road were meant to descend the sharp decline into the swirling waters and ascend on the other side. One of the concrete pilings crumbles. The leg of a broken giant.
As she creeps toward her spot on the bank, she spies the tricycle. It is buoyed by a torrent of water, brown tongues licking what remains of the tassels on the handlebars, frothing over the small rims, bathing the once shiny pink paint in mud and debris. The tricycle peeks out from the crumbled concrete as if it is also hiding. A stick caught in the twisted spokes of the tricycle is wedged under one of the blocks of concrete, bending the spokes, warping the wheel as wood and tricycle are propelled at different speeds by the current. The back wheels are missing.
A few months ago, the child would not have hesitated before diving into the river to retrieve the tricycle. Her siblings would have straightened the gnarled spokes and used the discarded remains of an old flip-flop to repair the back wheels. The river gave them fish for food and logs to make charcoal to sell. Sometimes it gave them toys.
The child spies something bulbous bobbing beside the tricycle and at first thinks it is a ball. How sad that the river has bestowed two toys today and she cannot swim out to retrieve them. The ball bobs up and down in the current, nuzzling the tricycle, nestling between the handlebars and the seat. The ball is connected to something long and thick. The child’s eyes trace this tail. The tail, she realizes, is thicker than the ball and covered in some sort of loose fabric that flows and whips in the water. And then the tail narrows to a smaller point; at the end of the point, there is what looks to be a foot. No. Two feet. Tied together.
Shocked, she stands, poised to run away. She takes two or three steps, her heart pounding, feeling like she might vomit. Then she remembers the soldiers and quickly flattens herself to the earth. Then she remembers the fish and begins to creep forward.
As the girl studies the body, she understands why she mistook it for a ball at first. It looks like it could’ve been made from plastic or rubber. Just as the bridge looks like it was always meant to descend into (not across) the river, the body looks like it was always a ball-like object, like it could never have been alive.
Scanning the vast river, her gaze rests at the inaccessible bank on the other side, where she sees many of the same odd balls bobbing in the river. Balls with bulbous long tails and flowing rags swirling around them. As she studies them, she can tell that they are different from the large logs carried by the current. The logs are uniform in shape and buoyant, their tips rise in the crest of the waves and fall with a gentle, natural, splash. These balls with long tails are awkward. They cluster together as if clinging to each other, forming small rafts that are then ripped apart as they approach the rapids. And then they drift out of sight down the river in the direction of Eritrea, and eventually Sudan.
“The Pink Tricycle” is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real persons or situations is purely coincidental.
About the Author:
Jennifer Riggan is a professor of International Studies at Arcadia University, ethnographer, and creative writer. Her fiction and her academic work shed light on the inhumanity of humanitarianism while humanizing the experiences of refugees and displaced people. She is the author of two books and many articles based on her ethnographic research in the Horn of Africa. She received an MFA from Arcadia University.
*Featured image by slowrabbit from Pixabay