I

I never asked you for her name.

II

She tapped red heels under the red hem of a white habesha

kemis[i] while you shrugged cap and gown over T-shirt and

jeans and my mother said on the phone if we’d made it

to America it would have been the same, have you seen

what your brother wears even if I’m dressed to the nines.

Not ten minutes after we sat down to full plates

your mother approached with the dishes from the table,

dealing fresh servings, expression unswerving mirroring

my grandmother at every meal; I asked the friend beside me

for the Amharic phrase I’ve had enough food and he told me

there wasn’t one as your mother leaned in. Your eyes

in her face, amber spiced with kohl, the spoon heaped

with kitfo, added to everything already on my plate,

and I spoke the one word I’d rehearsed well enough to say,

amasegenalehu[ii]

and watched her light up. I cleaned my plate

in the absolute absence of language to tell her

I enjoyed the food; the friend beside me whispered

you passed with flying colors.

III

The gown I chose for graduation wrapped me from knuckles to toes, gold trim

on black polyester expensive enough to mimic silk, upsetting my mother

who still believed me too little to wear black.

Crossing the stage, diploma in hand, sole flapping loose from the plastic heels

my mother shipped to me for thirty dollars more than what they cost,

lipstickless mouth unmasked for the livestream

my parents were watching nine thousand miles away,

I met the eyes of your kinswomen in the crowd,

learning for the first time how to speak my name.

IV

When we left that night you bid each relative goodbye;

I waved to them from across the room.

But your mother took me by the arms and I wanted to believe

she saw then what my mother would have seen,

her eyes warm like the Ceylon cinnamon

my mother sent for you across the oceans

as I said amasegenalehu, desperately, amasegenalehu

because it was all I had to give, because I had no words to say

the man you raised saved my life, but he will never meet my mother.

You passed me a Target bag as your uncle drove us home,

saying inflectionless my mother gave me this to give to you.

Inside, a netela[iii], white patterned with red,

lighter than battlefield gauze, fleeting like Ras Dashen mist,

scented like sunlight and spice markets.

I packed it into my carry-on wrapped in the hoodie

you once gave me with even less explanation.

My mother says if we’d been there

I would have brought gifts for your friends too.

V

The night your mother drove into town

we were sitting on the football field six feet away

from a trampled carton of nachos. The crowd rushed the stage

and you were hyperalert and drowsing by turns and didn’t ask me

to stay or leave, so I stayed; I watched your profile

for as long as I dared

every time you shut your eyes.

Then your mother insisted she was stopping by

and I walked you home for the first and last time,

gritting my teeth to keep from grasping your elbow

as you stumbled into potholes. 

You said you know I live four minutes from you

and I said don’t make me tell a woman whose name I don’t know

you were run over while crossing the road

because I let you walk home alone.

I left you in the fluorescent glow

of your porch and walked home through the park I haunted

when it hadn’t been long enough between visits to call you;

the traffic lights were red at the corner

but I crossed over anyway.


[i] Traditional Ethiopian formal garment.

[ii] Thank you.

[iii] Traditional Ethiopian shawl.


Lalini Shanela Ranaraja is a multi-genre creative from Kandy, Sri Lanka. She holds a BA in Anthropology and Creative Writing from Augustana College in Illinois, USA. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Entropy, Off Assignment, Random Sample, Sky Island Journal, Transition, Uncanny Magazine, and elsewhere. Discover more of her work at https://www.shanelaranaraja.com/