Everything is Peaceful Here Except for Missing You

by Jake Weber

september 2016 story of the month

He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

-Matthew 5:45

After hello, there are five phrases in Tigrinya you must repeat at least several times each in every phone call. None means anything, which is why they are so important to say over and over. Mama has hit them all at least twice. She's surprisingly adept at using Skype for a woman who never had a phone growing up or a computer until eight years ago.

How are you? Is everything peaceful? How is your health? How about your family? We are all fine here, except for missing you.

We use them back and forth, trying to keep them going like tennis students with a rally. The exact wording changes here and there:

"How are you?" she asks.

"I am fine," I say, then ask her back, "How is your health?"

"It's fine," she answers, then, "How about your family?"

"We are all fine, except for missing you."

Sometimes, we don't even answer the questions; we just answer back with another question. These are the volleys at the net at point-blank range:

"How is your health?"

"How is your health?"

"How about your family, are they healthy?"

"Is everything peaceful?"

"We are all fine here, except for missing you."

This is expected for us Eritreans; it's how the game is played. I've done it my whole life. It is as natural to me as it is for Hae-lim to twist and untwist her hair around a silver chopstick while she talks to her mother on her phone, pretending the whole time she doesn't live with a black man from Africa or have a child that is ours growing inside her. But I never even noticed this custom of ours until I heard Mohamed Idris speak with his mother.

A year ago, I was looking for a part-time job to go with the one I already have at my uncle's parking garage. A second cousin was stranded in Sudan when the guy smuggling him into Libya was arrested. It didn't matter than I'm still in college, or that I had never met this distant cousin. When a family member needs help in an Eritrean family, everybody helps. So I answered an ad for a Tigrinya speaker I saw on Craigslist that paid thirty-five dollars an hour.

The job turned out to be a contractor gig translating intercepted phone calls for the Bureau of Records. They were looking to nab Mohamed, an ISIS recruiter who wandered mosques, convincing young men their parents lacked jobs because they had disobeyed the Quran. He spoke Arabic, of course, but his mother was Eritrean, so with her it was all in Tigrinya. He kept his cards close to his chest, as they say, but they were hoping he was more open with dear old mom.

Mama and I finally get past introductions on the phone, and we settle into the real talk. She tells me that Cousin Biniam is doing well now, that he made it to Libya. He is waiting to find a boat to take him to Italy and needs our help to pay for it. He was working at an oil refinery near Tripoli, but then the revolution happened, and word got out that Gaddafi had hired an African army to protect him, so it wasn't safe for Eritreans to be on the street. There is nothing to say after that, so she asks, "Is everything peaceful?"

Mohamed didn't disappoint with his mother. They sounded so much like my mom and me, dragging out the greetings in Tigrinya. Hae-lim will one day speak to our child on the phone, maybe in Korean, maybe English. Nobody in our house will speak Tigrinya—that much I know. Mohamed's mother called him b'ruh wedey, my blessed boy.

When the Bureau of Records did a background check on me, they didn't like that my mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. But my English was the best of anyone who applied, so they were stuck with me. We Tigrayans make a living all around the world from people who aren't crazy about us. My mother and sister make a good living cleaning toilets in Saudi Arabia for people who think of them as dogs.

When Mohamed was about to travel somewhere, he always let his mom know. She worried.

How are you all? We are fine, except for missing you. How is your health? How about the family? They are fine, except for missing you. I will be gone next week for a few days. I am meeting some people in Dubai. I will call you when I get back. Everything is peaceful.

One day, my cousin Biniam drowned with 318 other migrants in the Mediterranean Sea when their dinghy faltered fifty miles from shore. A week later, Mohamed went on a trip and did not call his mother again. My bosses at the Bureau of Records did not tell me what happened to him, but they thanked me for the work I did and sent me my last check. Biniam's mother and Mohamed's mother will tell someone else that everything is peaceful, their health is very good, there are no problems, except Mohamed and Biniam are gone.

My mother says I am a blessed and bright son. She tells me to be healthy, to be at peace. Hae-lim is a blessed and bright girl. May she be healthy; may she be at peace.

My mother and I always end our phone calls in Italian. We say ciao, one of the words the colonists left us along with the art deco government buildings. I was sixteen before I knew this word wasn't ours.

BIO: Jake Weber is a translator living in Maryland who volunteers as a mentor and English tutor for refugees from East Africa. He has published fiction in The Baltimore Review and was an honorable mention in the 2016 Leapfrog Fiction Contest.