Bleeding Hearts

Of baboon lust, ibex ballets, and the necessity of the African wolf.

May 1, 2001
Outside Magazine
THE LAST NIGHT, we camped outside a village called Gich, a collection of round thatched huts. This was where Douré had been born and raised and where he lived today. Each hut was surrounded by an intricate brush wall. Inside the wall was a carefully tended vegetable garden and a few head-snapping chickens.

We put up our tents and Mulat started a small fire. Just after dark an old woman hobbled into our camp. She had gashed her leg splitting firewood. By firelight, Sue cleaned the wound and I dressed it. We gave her antiseptic cream and painkillers and she vanished back into the dark.

"That was good of you," Mulat said. "It was not bad wound, but she is old."

"It was pretty deep."

Mulat shook his head. "That is not deep."

Then Mulat told me how he had been taken from his home by henchmen of the Mengistu regime, beaten, and sent to the Eritrean front. He had survived three years in the trenches. He was only released after being wounded in the leg by shrapnel.

"It was very, very, very bad," he said.

"Did you have friends die?"

"Many, many, so many. It is normal in Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, if you are in army, you die."

"Somehow, you didn't."

Mulat shrugged.

Some minutes later, he said: "It is better to die than be forever damaged. Then you only suffer once."

That evening, Douré invited Sue and me into his tiny mud hut for dinner. We sat around a flickering fire on goat skins in the smoky near dark. He introduced us to his wife, Taggusunnat—Patience." She was squatting by the fire wrapped in scarlet cloth, her shoulders draped in a soiled blanket. She was young, with a tattoo of a cross on her right temple and lustrous brown eyes. She shook our hands with both of hers.

We had injera and coffee. Injera is the Ethiopian staple, a platter-size crepe made from teff, a grain similar to couscous. (And coffee, of course, is native to Ethiopia; the word may have derived from the ancient southwestern province of Kefa.) Douré tore off chunks of mud-colored injera while Taggusunnat poured cup after cup of high-octane coffee.

We talked with the help of sign language. Douré is 42. Until the age of 30, he went barefoot. Now, as a scout, he wears plastic sandals. He carries no backpack and wears the same jacket in all weather. He carries no water and only a chunk of bread in his pocket for lunch. He carries the AK-47 but has never fired it. He has never been sent to war. He has never been sick. The Four Horsemen have not yet found him hiding high in the Simens.

That night, lying in our sleeping bags, Sue and I heard the ululating of the women of Gich, a celebration of some unknown event in the life of the village. The joyful trilling rose and dipped and rose again.

DOURÉ IS STRIDING along the escarpment through a lavender dawn. It is the last day of our trek. The trail moves in a straight line down through rocks and across incipient wadis. The stars are vanishing, details in the rugged landscape resurfacing from the depth of night. Douré is humming, Sue and Mulat silent.

We are moving in single file at a distance-devouring clip. Douré's eyes are scanning the horizon when he abruptly stops. His small head spins sideways. "Ky kebero!" he whispers, his voice as high-pitched as a girl's. A wolf.

I try to look precisely where he is looking but see nothing. Mulat spots it and points.

Douré swiftly pulls a pair of binoculars from his pocket and hands them to me. I pan, stop, back up to a flicker of motion.

"What is it?" Sue asks.

I see it now. "A wolf!"

The wolf is loping across the plateau, head down, moving quickly. It is an ephemeral figure, more the size of a jackal than a wolf. Reddish fur with flicking white socks. It bounds over the frosted grass, weaves through the giant lobelia.

I pass the binoculars to Sue.


"Ten o'clock."

She scans the exact place but sees nothing.

"I am sorry," says Mulat, "Ky kebero gone now."

Suddenly I remember. I'd heard them last night.

At first the distant yipping and howling had been in my dreams; beginning to wake, I'd thought I invented it. That is what you can do in dreams—create a world you wish existed. But then the choral yelping had separated from the hypnopompic images and I'd realized that the singing was real, echoing in the surrounding darkness.

I'd pulled my arm out of the warm sleeping bag and pressed the light on my watch. Four-fifteen. I'd lain back and listened. The faint call and response and refrain, like a faraway psalmody in some ancient language, had cheered me immensely. Somehow, despite everything, they were still alive. They were out there, even if we never saw them.