Trigger Warning: The story contains strong language (spoken by both adults and children), mild sexual language, very brief mention of pedophilia and rape, brief mention of drug use, and references to mental illness/self mutilation.
Alimah was born into a war she didn’t choose to fight in—a war against her sisters declared by her parents, Eugenia and Amir Kebede.
The most epic battle took place back in 1993 at the family’s A.M.E. church. Fanaye, the middle child, won a solo part in the church choir for the Easter Sunday service. Desta, the eldest child, lost the part to her and spent that Sunday morning fuming.
“It’s not fair!” Desta whined with a stomp of her foot as they prepared to head out. “Why can’t I sing with Fanaye? Alimah gets to play the organ. You guys don’t let me do anything!”
“Sweetheart, you can try out next time,” Eugenia said as she checked her lipstick in the mirror, pleased that it was not too light for her golden tan skin tone and not too red to offend the prudish old church women.
“I’m not going, then.”
“Desta, we’re not playing this game this morning,” Amir grumbled as he saturated lotion into his dark chocolate-hued hands. “Get into the car with your sisters. We’ll be down there in a minute.”
“I said I ain’t going.”
“Get your ass in that car!” He snapped.
The knob banged the wall after Desta swung the door open and stormed out of the house.
“She deserves a chance, Amir,” Eugenia softly commented as she slipped her feet into her Chanel pumps.
“Her vocals are too weak.” He glanced in the mirror, checking his nostrils for any pre-breakfast coke residue.
“That’s what lessons are for!” She sneered at her husband.
Amir hurried his wife with a firm hand wave. Then, with a fiery glare, she zipped up her dress jacket and walked out behind him.
Alimah, who was six at the time, got to play “Oh, Happy Day” on the church organ. The audience was spellbound by how she transitioned effortlessly between each phrase on the music sheet and then brought enough tension to the keys to match the power of the choir’s harmonious vocals when they belted out, “he-taught-me-howww—!” The pastor raised an eyebrow at Fanaye, who was sneaking dirty looks at Alimah. Still, she refocused on singing notes that made the elders weep in awe, overwhelmed by the eight-year-old with the anointed vocal range of a mature woman.
“Fucking church,” Desta whispered to herself, “Fucking family… fuck Alimah and Fanaye…fucking shit, fuck, goddamn, fucking cunt, bitch, shit…” An impish smirk appeared on her face as she continued to create a raggedy freight train of profane words that distracted her from the rest of her sister’s performances.
After the service, the congregation rushed downstairs into the basement, chasing the aroma of fried chicken, candied yams, string beans, and baked mac n’ cheese. The girls had rushed ahead of their parents, stomachs growling too ferociously for them to wait. Fanaye shoved past Desta, nearly knocking her over a pew.
“Watch it, you swamp troll!” Desta screamed.
“Shut up, ugly!” Fanaye shouted back.
Desta leaned against the stairway entrance with her foot turned upward. Fanaye sashayed past Desta, not batting a lash, but tripped over her foot and landed face down on the steps. Two teens flinched at the bottom of the stairway when they saw Desta dragging Fanaye down the stairs by her pigtails.
“Let go of her!” A middle-aged woman pushed past the boys and yanked Desta off of Fanaye. “This the Lord’s house. Y’all supposed to act like little ladies!”
Fanaye got back on her feet, aimed a target at her sister’s eye, and socked it. Desta howled, falling and sliding across the basement floor. Both children were shrieking at the top of their lungs, sending echoes of girlhood misery throughout the entire floor. Several elders struggled to break up the tiny hurricane of flailing arms and torn lace in the middle of the basement floor. Alimah started hitting her sisters with her Teddy bear to stop them. Fanaye snatched the bear from Alimah’s hand and hurled it across the air.
“Gimme my Teddy!” Alimah screeched, giving Fanaye a swift kick in her crotch.
Fanaye knocked Alimah to the floor, landed on top of her, and whipped her sleeves in her face with a windmill motion. Desta dug her kitten claws in Fanaye’s scalp and bent her neck back, hoping to snap it like a Barbie doll’s head. A group of church members managed to stop the baby brawl, lining all three children up against the wall beneath a massive painting of Jesus’s resurrection.
“Fold your arms!” One of the church ladies had a finger in each of their sweaty faces. “Don’t move. None of you!”
One of the deacons searched frantically for the girls’ parents. Within seconds, he found Amir and Eugenia in the church gymnasium that doubled as a cafeteria. They were surrounded by a throng of admirers wanting to talk to Amir, who rarely showed up at the church due to his demanding schedule as a famous jazz guitarist.
“Brother Kebede, your wife’s so beautiful!”
“Mr. Kebede, your music changed my life.”
“Your daughters are adorable, and little Alimah’s so talented…”
“BROTHER, YOUR KIDS WERE FIGHTING!”
At the sight of their parents storming towards them, the girls quickly dried up their tears and wiped their snotty noses. Amir’s nostrils flared at the sight of disheveled kinky curls, scratched-up cheeks, torn stockings, and Desta’s swollen eye. They avoided looking into their father’s face and tried to block out his strained breathing. Finally, Alimah took a chance and gazed up at her father with her humongous puppy eyes.
“I didn’t do anything,” she whimpered in a tiny voice, squeezing her Teddy bear in her arms. Her bottom lip trembled, then she started bawling.
Desta sneered at her pitiful baby sister. Amir exhaled. He picked his third-born up, giving her a slight bounce like he did when she was an infant, and kissed her cheek as her sobs resonated throughout that entire section of the church.
“Don’t cry, Yeh-nay woo-ehd,” he uttered between smooches. He glanced back at Desta and Fanaye and sharply barked, “Ere!”
“Get your butts over here.” Eugenia gently snatched Desta and Fanaye away from the wall and pulled them up the stairs. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”
In the car, Amir slammed his cigarette in the ashtray beneath the car stereo, stomach growling as he sped ten miles over the speed limit in the drizzle. Alimah was seated between her sisters, holding her Teddy bear, which was slightly misshapen from being stepped on after it hit the floor. Desta gobbled on some Skittles in her patent leather purse, thinking about the sour cream-and-butter whipped mashed potatoes she missed out on. Then, she offered Alimah some of the candies. Thinking about the food at the church, she happily let Desta dump a small pile in her palm. Fanaye glanced down at the Skittles in Alimah’s hand and rolled her eyes.
“I could have all daughters like Alimah,” griped Amir, “Instead, my baby girl is sitting between demons. Now, I don’t even want to show my face at that church again.”
“They are not demons,” Eugenia retorted, “and you’re barely at church as it is.”
“Those two little monsters beat up my baby, and she did nothing.”
“Yes, she did,” Fanaye interjected. “Alimah kicked me!”
“Shut it!” Amir boomed. He glanced in the rearview mirror at Alimah, who pretended to be nonchalant while gawking innocently at her father.
“Don’t yell at Fanaye,” Eugenia cried. “And Alimah’s not a goddamn baby. Babies aren’t invited as guest pianists for symphony orchestras.” She pulled a menthol out of her Birkin bag and rolled down the window before lighting her cigarette. “That kid is too smart for her own kind. And she’s got your temper—which makes it worse.”
“Well, did she start the fight?” Amir gave a snarky side glance. “No. So, what does that tell you? She not a little devil like her sisters.”
“I’m no devil.” Fanaye nearly stood out of her seat, stretching the seatbelt. “You and mom are the devil!”
Amir almost threw his body over the seat as he swung his hand at Fanaye’s head. The children’s shrieks blended in the screeching tires and honking horns from nearby cars. Fanaye crawled under the seat, dodging more violent swings of his arm. Eugenia grabbed the wheel, yanked it straight, and pulled her husband back into his seat.
“Have you lost your goddamn mind, crazy nigger?” Eugenia tossed her cigarette out the window and rolled it back up.
“Don’t ever call me a nigger, again.” Then, Amir resumed full focus on the road ahead.
“Obviously, church hasn’t helped you stay sane.”
“Neither being married to you.”
Eugenia opened her purse and glanced at the gold credit cards tucked in her pocketbook. The humiliation had reached boiling point as she fantasized about taking out a card, sharpening the edge with her nail file, and slicing her husband across the neck with it. But her quiet rage subsided at the sight of the name AMIR N KEBEDE embossed into the golden plastic. The Mercedes Benz, the upscale townhouse, the weekly trips to Bergdorf’s or Tiffany’s, her husband’s net worth, and the cocaine he could afford—those were the main things that kept her married to him. Sex could have been one of those reasons, but Amir always packed up his penis along with his luggage and left home for months on end touring.
“If only you had faith in Desta.” Eugenia scoffed, “That child is talented. You’re just too focused on Alimah to realize it.”
Alimah stared down at the hole in her Teddy Bear’s neck. She wanted to pull hunks of cotton out of him and stuff them in her ears, so she could avoid her mom bad-mouthing her.
“You baby Desta,” he argued. “You need to be honest with her—she doesn’t have great musical talent. She’s turning eleven and needs learn the truths about life.”
“You two always talk about Desta and Alimah,” Fanaye interjected, sassily shaking her head as she spoke, “You just like Alimah and Desta better because they have light skin. You two hate me because my skin is darker, and I’m not light like mom!”
Desta twisted her face at her sister in puzzlement. Alimah continued staring out of the window, soothing herself with melodies that she composed in her head.
“Fanaye, you know good, and well, that’s not true,” Eugenia cried. “Your father and I love you, and we think you’re absolutely beautiful. There’s not a damn thing wrong with your skin.”
“Maybe she’s heard garbage from your mother,” Amir grumbled as he exited off of the bridge into Brooklyn. He still hadn’t forgiven his mother-in-law for berating her daughter for marrying an African man with dark skin and wooly curls. Eugenia’s mother was determined to pass down the light skin, flowy soft curls, and Creole ancestry that her daughter was so-called blessed with. After all, she believed those features helped Eugenia have a successful, albeit short-term, top model career.
“Nothing’s wrong with your skin color,” Amir told Fanaye, “You’re a pretty girl—just change the attitude.”
Amir and Eugenia fell silent for the rest of the drive home. Alimah had already torn the hole in her bear’s neck bigger and stuffed two balls of cotton in her ears. It didn’t do much, but it gave her some comfort for the last five minutes of the ride.
At fourteen, Desta got into heavy metal music. So, instead of beating up her sisters, she turned to the nihilistic lyrics and hardcore instrumentals to release anger. Her love for the genre was born after a trip to their grandma’s house in Baton Rouge with her mother and sisters. Their great-uncle Julius lived there mooching off his sister. An occasionally employed alcoholic, Uncle Julius’s excitement of seeing prepubescent girls made him drink harder. He drunk enough to morph into a night creature that raped Desta inside his locked bedroom. After Desta confided in her mother what happened, Eugenia sought divine intervention to get the ultimate revenge against him. With the help of her sister’s magick and some graveyard dirt, Uncle Julius had a heart attack while boating in the bayou and drowned. No one attended his funeral except for the grandmother and his drinking buddies.
Two weeks after her fourteenth birthday, Desta spent 72 hours in a psychiatric hospital after Uncle Julius’s voices attacked her head which triggered her to carve the words BAKULU BAKA into the flesh of her arm.
“What’s wrong with my baby?” Eugenia asked the head psychiatrist at the hospital where Desta stayed.
“We’re assessing her,” he said. “She’s showing a lot of symptoms of psychotic depression. However, we’re not one-hundred percent sure yet.”
Fortunately, Desta was treated with the appropriate medication that balanced her moods. Fanaye eased back on rivaling Desta, understanding that her sister needed support.
However, Fanaye declared a new war against Alimah.
After mastering the piano and organ, Alimah had taken up the acoustic and bass guitar at the age of nine. With her father’s mentorship, and the help of some of Desta’s rock CDs, Alimah mastered the instrument at thirteen. That was one more instrument than Fanaye, who only knew the piano but didn’t master it. Her gray eyes could’ve turned green as a dragon’s skin when Amir announced exciting news for Alimah.
“I’m inviting you on stage with me in Montreal,” he told Alimah, handing her and her sisters brochures of the international jazz festival. “You’ll be performing with me for one song.”
“Oh, my God,” Alimah gasped as she gazed at the photos of the large audiences and famous jazz icons printed on the glossy paper. “Yes, I’d love to do this!”
“She’s only thirteen,” Fanaye shrugged her shoulders. “It’s a jazz festival. Are jazz fans even interested in seeing a thirteen-year-old on stage?”
“If they can play good, yes!” Alimah slammed the brochure on the table.
Amir cut his eyes at Fanaye. “You and Desta are going, too.” He snatched the brochure from her hands. “I want you there to support Alimah.”
“Why do we have to go to everything for Alimah? You never drag her or Desta to see me sing or act in anything.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Only when you’re gone touring. You tell them to support since you don’t have to be there.” Fanaye had landed the role of Maggie in her school’s production of A Chorus Line, but she didn’t mention it. She figured her father wouldn’t care that she, one of the only few Black kids (along with Desta, who was a senior) at her predominately White school, won that role out of all the blondes who were up against her. “At least, I know mom’ll always support me.”
“Fanaye, go to your room.”
“Gladly!” Fanaye jumped up from her seat, flipping her hair over her shoulder.
At the hotel in Montreal, Fanaye and Alimah shared a bedroom in the two-room suite that the record label paid for Amir to stay in. A private room without her father was honey to Fanaye’s ears, as she was able to control the television and watch whatever she wanted. The night before the concert, Alimah had fallen asleep around nine, so she could be well-rested for rehearsals in the morning. She had a vivid dream of jamming on stage with her Fender and crowd-surfing across the hands of thousands of her punk rock fans. However, her nocturnal fantasy was cut short by the lusty moans of a woman.
“What’s that noise…” Alimah groaned as she woke up. Her vision cleared enough to see a naked woman with silicone-pumped breasts performing fellatio on the television screen. Her mouth dropped as wide as her eyes at the woman entertaining various men with large penises. “What-the-fuck-is-this?”
Fanaye was laying in bed next to Alimah, staring at the screen with an indulgent smirk on her face. Alimah leaped towards the remote, but Fanaye snatched it in time, holding it above her head. Then, she snaked her arm around Alimah’s neck and trapped her in a headlock.
“Don’t tell Dad,” Fanaye whispered.
“You’re freaking disgusting!” Alimah cried, straining in her sister’s death grip.
“It’s educational,” Fanaye let out an impish snicker.
Alimah twisted Fanaye’s arm from around her neck until she was able to escape. Fanaye flicked the television off as Alimah shot out the room. She chased after her sister, who had made it through the suite’s living room where Desta was asleep on the pull-out sofa. Alimah tripped over the ottoman. Once her body hit the floor, Fanaye stomped her fingers. Amir was startled awake by Alimah’s wailing. Once he rushed out of his room, he found Alimah pinning Fanaye to the floor and punching her face while Desta struggled to pull her off.
“You bitch!” Alimah sobbed through each blow to her sister’s face.
“Get up!” Amir shouted, dragging Alimah off of her sister.
“She punched me in the nose!” Fanaye sat up, hand cupping the blood oozing from her nose.
“She was watching a porno!” Alimah pointed her finger at her.
Amir snatched Fanaye off of the floor and pushed her against the wall. With his finger in her face, he muttered, “You’re staying in the room with me for the rest of this trip. Now go clean your nose.”
“Fuck off,” Fanaye huffed under her breath, low enough for her father to not hear.
Desta followed Fanaye into the bathroom with the ice bucket. After plugging Fanaye’s nostrils with tissue, Desta wrapped a few cubes in a face towel and pressed the makeshift ice pack against her sister’s nose. Some minutes later, Alimah stepped into the bathroom with an ice pack around her knuckles.
“Daddy told me to apologize to you.” Alimah rolled her eyes to the left. “So, I’m sorry.”
“Go to Hell,” Fanaye hissed.
Despite having bruised fingers from the previous night, Alimah executed a performance that hypnotized the hundreds of fans in the audience. She endured the burning in her knuckles as she shredded her fingers across chords while performing “Calla Lily”, the title song from her father’s hit funk-jazz album. That album earned him a spot on the Billboard Jazz Album Charts in the 1970s, making it his biggest U.S. accomplishment after years of selling more in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Goosebumps tickled her neck as she knocked out an impromptu solo that embellished the chorus of the song. Her curls shook around her sweaty face as she rode the euphoric wave, giving those last few seconds of the song her all, and end it with an exhilarated leap. Cameras flashed, capturing her and her father bowing hand-in-hand. The tingles she felt as the crowd roared stayed with her the rest of the night.
Back at the hotel, Alimah revealed her new musical goal to her father. “I want to be a rock musician.”
“Rock?” Amir chuckled, as he folded and packed his suitcase for the flight back home. “Now, why would you want to perform that?”
“I’ve been learning some chords from rock songs,” Alimah folded her legs tighter while sitting on the bed. “I feel like I can express myself better with that music.”
“Rock music has very rigorous guitar play. You’re a young lady…you don’t want to ruin your fingers too much.”
Alimah glanced down her nails, noticing some of the blue polish that chipped after that electrifying performance. “So? I can handle it.”
Amir kissed his daughter’s forehead. “Good night, sweetie.”
“Do you think I’ll suck at it?” Alimah remained on the bed with no intention to leave. “I remember you telling me how I used to dance to rock music as a baby, and you sometimes played it for me so I could dance. You still have those records—Ike and Tina, Jimi Hendrix, Sly & the Family Stone, Rolling Stones…”
“What’s your point, dear?” Amir grabbed his jacket off the nearby chair and began folding it.
“It’s okay for me to listen to it. But you don’t think I can perform it because I’m a black girl?”
Amir’s hands slowed down between the folds of the jacket.
“There’s nothing but white boys on MTV doing rock. I wanna do what they’re doing.”
“You worry too much, Alimah.” Amir stuffed the jacket into the suitcase, then tugged the zipper around to close it. “You can perform whatever you want. Just know that the people in this industry are ruthless, especially towards Black musicians. If you’re Black and a woman—it’s even worse.”
“You said I can sign with a label when I turn 18. I’ll be an adult, then.”
“Yes, but I also said that I’m going to be your manager when you sign,” Amir asserted. “My job will be to do what’s best for you. I know the industry better than you.”
“You had me perform with adults in symphony orchestras and stuff.” Alimah stood up, but she folded her arms to refrain from losing her cool. “And, I watch you. I know how the industry can be!”
Amir squinted in disbelief, suppressing an incredulous laugh while shaking his head.
Fanaye entered the room, dressed for bed in her pajamas with a scrunchie holding her long hair up in a ponytail. Sensing the tension, she stayed quiet, climbed into the bed, and flicked on the television to a cartoon channel.
“Sweetheart,” Amir rubbed the side of Alimah’s face, “it’s too late for this conversation.”
Defeated, she left out into the living room, where Desta spent one more night on the pull-out sofa.
“Can I sleep with you tonight?” Alimah nudged her. Desta blinked awake and nodded, turning over on her side.
After slipping under the blanket, Alimah was hit with a tsunami of worrisome thoughts. She massaged her knuckles, working her fingers down to the callouses beneath her nails. The blue polish had chipped even more. She didn’t mind seeing the manicure go to waste, as long as that euphoric tingle from the concert remained in each nerve ending in her strumming fingers.
“Desta, can I borrow some more of your CDs?” Alimah asked. “I wanna listen to some on the flight home.”
“Yeah,” Desta mumbled under the sheets, “Which ones?”
“Alice in Chains and Judas Priest.”
“Fine,” Desta grumbled, curling her body tighter in a ball. “You didn’t give me back my Metallica CD, though.”
“I’m still trying to memorize and practice chords from it.”
Desta flipped on her other side to face Alimah.
“Have you thought about recording yourself playing it? To keep track of how you’re doing?”
“When we get home, you oughta try it,” she suggested. “And see how really good you are if you’re serious about playing rock.”
“I’m serious about it. I don’t think Daddy is.”
“Who gives a fuck?” Desta raised up on her elbows. “You mastered the guitar. You can play any kind of music you want.”
Alimah glanced at the clock, which read 1:54 in the morning. The time didn’t stop her from asking one last question before going to sleep.
“Can I go to that metal concert with you next week?” She crumpled the soft blanket in her hand, reading into Desta’s awkward facial reaction.
“You sure Dad won’t be pissed off if you go?”
“Dad’s gonna be in Paris next weekend. So, he won’t know if I go.”
 This expression means “my treasure” in Amharic, an Ethiopian language.
 This roughly means “Come on!” in Amharic.
End of Part 1 – Ungrateful by Kenya Nelson is available on Amazon.com.