Kadabe stopped in the middle of the path. “We’ve come a long way since dawn,” he said. “We’ll be in Lalibela by noon tomorrow.”
Ayalu squatted on the ground, took roasted grain from a small leather bag, and ate.
Kadabe put his bundle down and untied it. He emptied its contents onto the ground, then formed the shemma—the square of white cloth that had held his possessions—into a turban. He shoved his own bag of roasted grain into a pocket. His extra shirt became a handy carrier for the books that he was taking to his sister, Gemma.
The boys went to school almost a hundred kilometers from their mountain village in Ethiopia, and now they were walking home for the Christmas holidays. Tomorrow they would see their families for the first time since September.
“I pray that there will be many rich and generous tourists in Lalibela who will need guides this season,” said Kadabe, “and that they all speak English. I need money for books, and the seat of my pants is as thin as a butterfly wing. I must earn enough so that Uncle Gebre can make me new ones.”
Ayalu nodded. He, too, had to earn the money for his own books and clothing. “I hope to herd Uncle Asabe’s cows,” he said. “He will pay me what he can. It’s good that you’ve learned English so well. You’ll make a good guide.”
After their rest the friends walked on. By nightfall they had reached a village where Ayalu’s aunt lived. She gave them food and a place to sleep.
Early the next morning they started out again. They conquered the kilometers one by one. The sun was high overhead as they climbed the last steep path and looked down upon their village.
Kadabe shouted, “Hello! Hello!”
Gemma was jumping rope in front of the house. “Kadabe! Kadabe!” she called as she ran. “Mother said that you would be here today.”
Kadabe hurried to greet his father at his loom behind the house. He was weaving another shemma to sell at the Thursday market.
“I like school,” Kadabe told his mother later, “but I also like coming home.” He sat on the low stone bench that ran along the wall outside the house. Gemma sat down beside him.
Mother was resting lightly on her heels before the red coals. She poured injera (a kind of bread) batter onto the hot griddle so that it would be ready for the family’s dinner.
“Did you learn more English words to teach me?” Gemma asked.
“Yes, many more,” Kadabe told her, “and I’ve brought more books for you.”
Gemma jumped up. “Please let me have them now! Please! I want to look at the pictures!”
Just then Ayalu appeared, breathless from running. “Kadabe, come quickly! There are English-speaking tourists in the marketplace, and they need a guide!”
Early that afternoon Kadabe picked up the heavy cameras and bags of the tourists and led them to the first stop, Biet Giorgig, an ancient church carved in the shape of a cross from solid rock.
The Englishmen asked many questions about the village as the group went from place to place, and Kadabe was prepared with answers that he’d learned at school. He told the men about King Lalibela, who had made this village his capital during the thirteenth century.
They thanked Kadabe for his stories, and they said that he spoke English very well. When they left, they gave him five dollars. “Good!” Kadabe said. “Now Uncle Gebre can make me some pants for school.”
But when Kadabe turned toward Uncle Gebre’s, he spotted the camera. He remembered setting it on the steps while he handed the other bags to the tourists. Now the jeep that carried the Englishmen was gone, and the camera was still here!
What can I do? Kadabe asked himself.
Ayalu found Kadabe, still on the steps, his forehead lined with hard thinking.
“Look,” Ayalu said. “I have a soccer ball. Let’s go over to the grass field and start a game.”
Kadabe held up the camera. Ayalu took it and hefted it. “It is not a worthless object,” he said.
“No. Its owner was proud of it,” Kadabe answered.
“Unless the man comes back for it, it is justly yours,” said Ayalu. “Money from its sale would buy many books.”
Kadabe thought about that for a minute, then shook his head.
“But what else can you do? You don’t know where the tourists have gone, do you?”
Kadabe jumped up. “I think I do know,” he said. “I heard them say that they would go to the market at Gondar on Thursday.”
“Thursday’s tomorrow,” Ayalu said. “You’d have to walk all night to reach Gondar by tomorrow.”
Kadabe didn’t want to walk to Gondar, especially at night. There were jackals and hyenas roaming around the hills. The paths were rough and indistinct, and it would be dark. He felt cold just thinking about it.
Kadabe passed the camera strap over his head. At home he went to the back to talk to his father, but he wasn’t there.
“He’s gone to bid on some cotton,” said Mother. “I don’t think that he’ll return until late tonight.”
“Mother,” Kadabe said, “I have a camera that belongs to one of the English tourists.”
“They have gone to the Gondar market,” continued Kadabe. “I think that I should take this to him there.”
Mother nodded again.
“Do you think that I should?” Kadabe wanted to know.
“You must decide for yourself,” Mother answered.
Ayalu waited with the soccer ball.
“Then I must do it,” Kadabe decided.
“You don’t have to,” Ayalu told him. “And it’s a dangerous journey.”
When Gemma heard that her brother was leaving, she pouted. “Soon you’ll return to school,” she said. “There won’t be any time for my lessons then.”
Mother quieted Gemma and handed Kadabe a bag of roasted grain and a water gourd. “Take care,” she said.
Kadabe left Lalibela as the day’s light faded to gray. “I can do it,” he told himself as he wrapped himself in his shemma. The camera was heavy on his neck.
It grew darker. Sounds from hidden sources made Kadabe’s heart race. His throat was dry, causing him to sip often from the gourd. Sometimes he stumbled on jagged boulders, and twice he fell. But he went on. Never have I wanted to sleep as much as I want to now, he thought as the first light finally showed in the east.
Just when he had decided that he’d left the path to Gondar somewhere behind him in the dark, he saw the smoke of the town.
The next day, just in time for the evening meal, Kadabe arrived back home.
Ayalu was waiting to see his friend. “Well, did the Englishman reward you for returning the camera?”
“No,” answered Kadabe, “he had already boarded the bus to leave, and I only had time to hand him the camera through the window.”
Ayalu shook his head. “You were foolish,” he said. “You walked to Gondar and back for nothing.”
“That’s right,” Gemma agreed. “You should have stayed at home to teach me.”
Kadabe looked at his mother.
She spoke softly. “Your brother has taught you something greater than the English words you want to know, Gemma. He has shown you that if you do not do what you know is right, knowledge is empty.”
As he looked down at his tired feet, Kadabe smiled in agreement.