She is enthroned on my desk in a photograph where she stands, enthusiastically pointing at a large baobab tree. The center of the tree is hollow, the size of a small bedroom, and the branches spread, short and thin, above the swollen base. If I look closely, I can see the shadow I cast on the ground while I took the picture with a pink disposable camera.
Neither of us were from Ethiopia, but that is where we met. Our fathers were childhood friends who had not seen one another in longer than either of us had been alive. I remember being unsure about what to expect, thinking naively that it would be hot and dusty, like the Sahara looks in movies.
In reality, Lalibela reminded me a lot of home. It was beautiful. The reddish stone and soil of the mountains was spotted with guava and olive trees. I have never been anywhere so inherently joyful and vibrant; every moment, every detail felt consequential and imbued with life.
Beth and her father had lived in Ethiopia for several years when we came to visit. They picked us up from the airport; her father greeted me warmly and introduced us.
Our parents caught up on nearly fourteen years of history while we sat, silent strangers, in the backseat of the truck. She was thirteen then and I was only eleven. She wore her reddish-brown hair in a loose braid. Her sky-blue skirt brushed her ankles, embroidered at the hem with little pink flowers. A set of bracelets with rainbow-colored plastic beads adorned her wrist and clicked lightly every time she moved her arm.
“Look at this,” she said, breaking the silence. She dug something round and reflective from her purse. I thought it was a mirror at first, but she opened it up to reveal a magnetic compass with a bright red needle.
“That’s cool,” I said.
“Dad gave it to me for my birthday. It always points north.”
I nodded. “I have a little one at home for hiking.”
She snapped the compass shut and returned it to her bag. We settled back into the safety of silence, a bit more comfortably than before.
“This afternoon we can go see the churches,” her father said, smiling at me in the mirror. “They’re incredible, I can’t wait for you to see them.”
We arrived at her house, which was small and hemmed in by avocado trees and a stone wall. Beth barely gave me time to grab my duffel bag from the bed of the truck before she dragged me inside to show me around. The main room was full of books and trinkets from around the world.
“We move a lot,” Beth said. “I’ve been to tons of different countries.”
“Cool,” I replied. She was growing more mythical in my mind, this girl who had lived in more places than I’d ever dreamed of visiting.
She showed me some of her favorite artifacts: an eight-inch replica of a suit of armor that her father used as a bookend, an antique globe which she said was her grandfather’s, and a small, hand-painted jade egg from Thailand.
After the tour, she took me to the room which my father and I were going to share for the duration of our stay. There was a small window, a twin sized bed, and a cot. My father’s suitcase already lay at the foot of the bed, so I dropped my bag onto the cot.
Beth stood in the doorway, watching me. “So, Peter, what do you like to do?”
I shrugged. “Nothing much. I like video games, hanging out with friends. I like to read sometimes, too.”
“Cool,” she replied. “Wanna see my room?”
“Sure,” I said, and followed her down the hall. Her room was painted lavender, her favorite color. She had some posters on the walls and an overflowing bookshelf beside her bed. There was a trombone on the dresser beside a small bottle of Victoria’s Secret perfume, which she said her grandmother sent her as a birthday gift.
“Dad wants me to play the trombone like he did when he was my age. He’s trying to teach me, but he says my arms might not be long enough,” she explained. She stretched her arms out in front of her to demonstrate.
I stared at them silently. They looked long enough to me.
“My dad told me what happened with your parents,” Beth said.
“Oh,” I replied.
“Is it going to be weird, to have two houses and two Christmases and all that?” she asked.
“I guess.” I didn’t really want to talk about it.
As suddenly as she brought it up, she moved on to a new topic. “Do you want to see our garden?”
That afternoon, we all piled into the truck to go see the churches. Beth’s mother decided to join us and sat between us in the backseat, smelling of berbere spice and jasmine perfume. She talked loudly over the radio, asking me about life back in the States. I answered her questions politely, wishing that I was sitting beside Beth instead.
We arrived at the site of the churches and my father whistled appreciatively, drawing looks from the people nearby. My face flushed with embarrassment and I glanced at Beth, who luckily didn’t seem bothered by him.
The scene was breathtaking. Before us, the earth fell away into a large pit. In the center of the hole, which was several stories deep, stood a cross-shaped piece of stone. As we got closer, I could make out windows and doors carved into the reddish monolith, which I realized was the church.
I was so engrossed at the sight I didn’t notice Beth come up behind me.
“They used hammers and chisels to carve down into the mountain,” she murmured. “And there are tunnels and trenches that connect the some of the churches.”
I was shocked. “It must have taken like, a hundred years.”
She giggled. “Yeah, something like that.”
We traveled down into the trenches and tunnels, led by a guide. Beth and her mother covered their heads with scarves out of respect. The tunnels were short, and my father had to crouch down to fit. As we descended, the air grew cold and I found myself thinking about the weight of the rock that surrounded us. My heart began to pound and my breath came fast, but I did not want to seem afraid.
Beth slowed to walk right in front of me. She whispered over her shoulder. “Do you wanna hear a joke?”
“Sure,” I replied.
“What does a nosy pepper do?”
“I dunno, what?”
“Gets jalapeño business.”
I snorted. “That’s stupid.”
“Yeah, but it’s funny,” Beth smirked.
We got to the bottom of the tunnel and exited into the sunlight. The stone walls of the church rose up before us, towering towards the sunlight. Everything about the place felt weighted with a sanctity that I couldn’t fully understand.
The guide led us inside, through the cold rooms of the church itself. The walls were painted with elaborate designs which were hard to make out in the light coming from the small keyhole-shaped windows. I was overwhelmed by the ancient beauty of it all. Beth walked beside me, pointing out little details in hushed tones.
“The first time we came here, I was afraid that there was a trap door under the rugs on the floor. I thought I was going to fall through,” Beth whispered.
I smiled at her strange imagination.
We exited the church, squinting in the sunlight, and the spell of the building seemed to fade. Beth and I fell into step with one another as we finished the tour.
“Have you ever tried injera?” she asked.
The rest of the trip passed in a blur, and Beth and I quickly became inseparable. She showed me the marketplace and took me to see the baobab trees. She and her mother taught me how to make beef tibs and fatira and homemade croissants, a favorite from their time in France.
When it was time for me to leave, Beth made me promise to talk to her every day.
I sometimes like to read through our old emails. We talked about everything: politics, movies, school, music. She sent me pictures of her sons when they were born and helped me decide which dog to adopt. I told her about my fiancé and suggested that she paint her home office lavender.
We don’t talk every day anymore, but we still try to check in at least once a month. She lives in Spain now, by the beach. In her last email, she made me promise to visit so her sons can meet their Uncle Peter, and to bring my fiancé along so she can approve of him. I bought our tickets yesterday.
Beth and I haven’t seen each other in nearly thirty years, but I am confident I’ll recognize the girl under the baobab tree anywhere.