One evening after our neighbor Vorito returned from work in Antananarivo, he came to our house in Ankasina and said to me, “Monsieur Ranomenjanahary said I can bring you to the city tomorrow. For a job interview.”
I was very happy to hear that. It made me hope that one day I might leave Ankasina, make something good of my life and maybe become rich. But I began to worry about my little sister Lala because Lala was no easy girl. Apart from Father and Mother and me and Vorito and my cousin Veloraza, nobody knew how to tame her when she got angry. She was three years old but her scream split ears and shook a house. And she was clever like a cat. She didn’t hear Vorito tell me about Monsieur Ranomenjanahary, but when she studied my movements that evening and found something dubious about them, she did everything in the world to frustrate my plans with Vorito. First, she woke up very early that morning of our trip and clung to my chest like a bug. Father was away in Votovorona, working at a building site. Mama was pregnant and had gone to a clinic. She could give birth anytime. But I had prayed God to delay the baby until I was back with Vorito.
I locked our house. Our house was like a big rat from a bath in a gutter, waiting to dry in the sun. I hated it. It was uglier than my cousin Veloraza’s house, the house near the white-coloured church. Veloraza’s house was dirty and sometimes damp clothes crowded its windows, but it had iron balusters. When I visited that house, I treated myself to the balusters, counted them, felt them and didn’t mind too much when my finger ran over mucus from my uncle Fanampesoa who had a cough as constant as rats in Ankasina. He always spat as if he had a long-distance spitting contest to win someday. His spit missed the balusters, which was what he wanted, but sometimes it stopped on the balusters, spreading the red patches of my uncle’s blood. But that did not spoil my visit to Veloraza’s house. It was paradise compared to our house. Our house was made of wood and thatch because Father was poor and still had the thoughts of the old people: stone for the dead but wood and thatch for the living. So, our house was built of wood. And the wood was old. And sick. When it rained in Ankasina and the garbage moved, some of it stopped in front of our house. I hated it. I felt like running away from the house, and when Mother began to spit from her pregnancy I felt like smuggling Lala out of the house, dropping her off at Veloraza’s house and seeking my fortunes elsewhere.
I locked the house. Lala stood by, her big eyes watching.
“Why are you looking at me like that, Lala?” I asked. She held my hand, her sharp nails digging into my skin. “I am with you,” I said. “I am not running away. We are going to Veloraza’s house. Veloraza has made a good toy car for you, Lala.”
I had planned it with Veloraza. He would give a toy Peugeot car to Lala. Veloraza was the one with gifted hands. He made tin cars, tin trucks, tin planes, even tin men and tin women. His hands turned scrap metal into lovely things. He was our artist.
When we got to Veloraza’s house, his father was in and was fiddling with some of Veloraza’s creations. Tin toy cars. Tin Tranogasy houses. Tin people in dancing postures. Veloraza’s house was ugly on the outside, but beautiful inside because of Veloraza’s handiwork. My uncle Fanampesoa looked sad and tired and skinny, sitting on a wooden chair made by my father and shaking his son’s art. There was a special spittoon that Veloraza had made for him. It had a wide rim with figurines of children tied round it. Veloraza had made it to stop his father’s long-distance spitting across the window.
“Salama tompoko,” I greeted. “Manao ahoana?”
“Marary aho,” he answered breathlessly. “I am sick.” He was in his old brown trousers and the bloody mucus stains on them made him look like a painter from his studio.
I knew he was sick. But he would recover, just like Father when he had his own cough. He recovered, just like we all recover. We never die, because God watches over us.
“Azafady can you do something for me?” he said, squeezing out a smile. He waved his right hand at me and Lala. It was not for us to leave. It was for us to make way for his next spitting. We cleared out of his way. He aimed through the window: it was a good one. Like a bird it dived across, out of the way of the lintel and the iron balusters. And then there was a terrible cry from outside, full of threat and anger.
“He can do nothing,” my uncle said, laughing.
It was Veloraza whom we had come to see. He climbed the stairs but when he saw us he threw his anger aside and smiled at us.
“Veloraza,” I called out sweetly. “Salama. Do you have the toy?”
“Eny,” he affirmed.
I smiled wider. Lala smiled, but her eyes were still watchful.
“Lala, how are you?” Veloraza greeted, fondling her hair.
“Will you stay with us today?” My uncle Fanampesoa said, smiling.
“As long as you don’t keep spitting like a pregnant woman,” Veloraza said to him sharply.
“No more spitting from now on,” my uncle said.
“Azafady give her the toy, Veloraza,” I pleaded.
Veloraza, with whom I had rehearsed my escape from Lala, took Lala by the hand and led her to her waiting gift on one of Veloraza’s toy racks in the room. “Choose any one you like. Rasoa will be choosing his own toys in the other room.”
Luckily, Lala agreed and in no time, she was swallowed up in Veloraza’s charm, her eyes like Christmas fireworks. Then I tiptoed out of the room like a thief. It was about my future and I had to leave Lala behind. I hurried back to our house where Vorito was already waiting for me, his face twisted in anger.
“I would have left you and told Monsieur Ranomenjanahary that you are not serious,” he said. “I told you we would leave at 8 o’clock. We should be waiting in Monsieur Ranomenjanahary’s house by now.”
“I am sorry,” I said.
“And why are you dressed like this, Rasoa?”
“You are asking how? You are going for an interview, Rasoa, and you are dressed like a street kid? Monsieur Ranomenjanahary will just throw you out.”
“Azafady,” I said, pleading. “This is my chance. I need that job. This is my best shirt.”
“Tsia, you cannot wear rags to Monsieur Ranomenjanahary’s house.”
We went about in Ankasina looking for decent clothes for me. For the first time I felt like stealing clothes just to look good for the interview. But Vorito met a seller of boys’ clothes who agreed to loan us a suit of clothes and at the price of the shirt. It was a good proposal for me, and I pressured Vorito into accepting.
“You must do everything to impress Monsieur Ranomenjanahary,” Vorito said to me as I put on the clothes, a red shirt and green shorts that were a little too baggy for me.
“I will do my best,” I said.
“And try to speak good French. Monsieur Ranomenjanahary used to be a big man at the National Park. He will be impressed with French.”
“I will speak the best French I know, Monsieur Vorito.”
“Misaotra,” I thanked Vorito and also the kind trader.
“We are late,” Vorito said, walking too fast. I chased after him until we reached the place where his old Peugeot car was parked. The car was as tattered as though rats had over the years torn at every part of it. There were too many holes in the floor of it. It had lost its mirrors and its windscreen had so many cracks and splinters that would make you wonder if it had fallen off the moon and crashed in Madagasikara. But I did not care a bit about the shabbiness of the car. I was so proud of the car instead. It was the car taking me to Tana to see my future. The bumpiness of the road was like music to me. Over it, I imagined I heard the voice of Monsieur Ranomenjanahary speaking to me. I heard myself responding to him in French, smiling at his face. I imagined that he was a handsome man, a big man with a lot of money to pay me. I crossed myself and prayed to God to make Monsieur Ranomenjanahary like me. I prayed that nothing should make him angry, that his neighbours should not get him angry, that the weather should not turn his mood inside out like a shirt, and also that nothing should upset his stomach and make him throw me out.
We arrived just at his residence before 10 that morning. A skinny elderly man was on the veranda upstairs, drinking something out of a white cup. He was wearing an old cream-coloured shirt and brown trousers. When he saw us, he stood up and I saw how tall he was, like old Malagasy names. He could not be Monsieur Ranomenjanahary, I thought. Monsieur Ranomenjanahary should be fat and with hair filling his upper lip. But even Vorito looked healthier than this man. He was surely a visitor to Monsieur Ranomenjanahary’s house, I thought.
“Bonjour, Monsieur!” Vorito greeted the man. I greeted him as well.
“Bonjour, bonjour,” he replied. His eyes looked sad and hungry.
“Who is he?” I muttered to Vorito.
“Are you crazy? Who else would it be?”
I looked up and saw the man beckoning me with arms too long and thin as if he had never eaten rice and romazava in his life.
We climbed the stairs. Vorito whispered to me: “Don’t talk too much, Rasoa. He does not talk too much. And he is not a happy man. His wife died not long ago. If you get him angry, he will throw you out.”
We entered a room whose ceiling was high and there was a television, a set of brown furniture, shelves of hard-cover wildlife books and of vases and sculptures and zebu horns carved by a gifted sculptor, a thick centre rug woven with a big lemur staring at me as if frightened to see me here. I was lost in the air of the room until Vorito pulled my eyes off the objects and led me to the veranda where Monsieur Ranomenjanahary was waiting.
“I have brought him, Monsieur,” Vorito said. “He stopped going to school because there is no money. But he is a bright boy. He cooks well. And he works hard.”
He nodded his head, took a last sip of his tea or coffee, wiped his mouth and gestured me to a chair across his table. He gestured to Vorito to leave us.
“Do you want coffee?” he said to me in French. He was lean and his teeth were brown and crowded like muskmelon seeds. But I was not scared of him. I was only scared of not passing the interview.
“Non, merci,” I declined.
“What is your name?”
“Je m’appelle Rasoa.”
He turned to Malagasy. “Where do you live?”
“Ankasina,” I said.
“Aiza?” he asked, as if he didn’t hear me.
“Ankasina,” he said, turning the word over as if he had never heard it before.
“Are you a street kid?”
“Tsia, tompoko,” I denied.
“Do you steal?”
“Do you break things?”
“Do you have any sickness?”
“Can you really cook?”
“Eny, tompoko,” I affirmed. A big smile broke out on my face.
“What can you cook?”
“Rice and romazava.”
“I can cook tsaramaso and ravitoto.”
“Can you read and write?”
“Can you read this?” he said. He took a pen from the table and wrote on a piece of paper a long word in twists of letters and loops, and then passed it to me. “Can you read my handwriting?”
“Eny, tompoko,” I said, took the paper and studied it. “Andrianatompokoindrindra.”
“Do you know him?”
“Eny, tompoko. He is the father of the Malagasy people.”
“Très bien,” he said with a tiny smile. “I am impressed. I like you. But I cannot trust you yet. You will work here for one week and then I will say if you can continue or not.”
I was going to ask him about Madame Ranomenjanahary, but before I opened my mouth Monsieur Ranomenjanahary was up from his seat.
“Come back tomorrow with your things,” he said. “There is a room downstairs for you. And you can start school immediately.”
I was overjoyed.
“Misaotra, tompoko!” I yelled, thanking him, happiness rushing out of my lungs. I knelt down quickly, crossed myself and thanked Jesu.
I rushed downstairs to meet Vorito.
“I got the job!” I said.
“Très bien, très bien,” he said, nodding his head.
We drove back to Ankasina happily. When I reached Veloraza’s house I saw a crowd gathered around the house. Two men carrying something heavy and wrapped in a white cloth made their way down the staircase in Veloraza’s house. Men yelled out orders. Some neighbours were crouched near the house, crying. I became afraid. I knew Fanampesoa was dead. He looked terrible when I saw him earlier in the day. I looked for Veloraza. There were just too many people pouring in and out of Veloraza’s house as if Veloraza’s house were one big lump of sugar and the people were ants hungry for it. I did not see Veloraza. I saw a fat man named Rabinur carting away Veloraza’s tin creations. He was Fanampesoa’s landlord. I saw the tin dancers and Fanampesoa’s spittoon sticking out of the man’s carton. I ran to him and asked him why he was removing Veloraza’s things.
“Fenampesoa owed me rent,” he said with dark eyes. “These are the only good things in that house.”
“Do you know where Veloraza is?” I asked.
“Tsia,” he said with a disgusted face. “When did I become Veloraza’s keeper?”
I searched for Veloraza. Lala must be with him, I thought. I went to Madame Rakotomanana’s provisions shop and Madame Rakotomanana said she saw Veloraza going towards Boto’s jackfruit and pineapple-covered stall. I went to Boto’s fruit stall but Boto said Veloraza never came to his fruit stall. Then Rahelisoa told me he saw Lala playing with Romuladon, Fandeferana’s bastard. And when I saw Romuladon and pinched his big ears, he shrieked and said he never played with Lala, that it was Velonjara that played with Lala. When I asked Velonjara, Velonjara said he saw Lala running after a man who sold hats. I searched for hat sellers. I saw three of them. They had laid out their bright hats on the ground like a country of splendid hats. But the men looked at me with surprise on their faces as if my question was a joke. We have seen no girl named Lala, they said. Besides, there are as many Lalas in Ankasina as there are splendid hats, they added. And do you care for a splendid hat for your fine, little head?
I sat on the ground and grabbed my head with my hands. I shook my head and then opened my mouth wide and yelled out Lala’s name. Then I began to cry. I was in the way of many passers-by, and some kicked me as if that was what would make their destinies better, but I did not care. I cried for Lala. I cried for Father in Votovorona, who would soon hear of his daughter’s disappearance. I cried for Mother who was away to give birth. A man lifted my hand, yelling at me to stand up. I looked and saw it was the clothes dealer whose clothes I was wearing. There was also Madame Rakotomanana the seller of provisions, Boto the pineapple and jackfruit seller, Fetra the rice and romazava vendor, Guillaume the zebu slaughterer and Gildas the carpenter. And there were other people whose faces I barely knew but who had stopped what they were doing to search for my sister. We looked and peered and gazed and probed. We pulled doors. We lifted tarps. We probed tents. We peeped under stalls. But we did not find Lala. We found Veloraza instead. But then he broke our hearts. Lala slipped out of his watch when Fanampesoa was breathing his last.
I will kill myself, I told myself. I will go home and drink rat poison so I will not see the fury on Father’s face when he finds out that Lala was kidnapped because I went to Antananarivo for a job interview.
“Go home and rest,” my helpers said to me. “We will continue to look for Lala. When we find her, we will bring her to your house.”
I left them but went first to the stall of Rufin the rat poison seller.
“It kills fast,” Rufin said, which was frightening. But I took it. “Don’t let it touch your food, Rasoa.”
“Misaotra, tompoko,” I said, gratefully.
Like a sick rat, I moved towards our house. I dipped my hand in my pockets for the house key. I had lost it. I stopped two times on the way to cry and to beat my chest for all my carelessness. But I cannot kill myself that way. So, I took courage and walked to the house. I would break the padlock, I decided.
But I found the door of our house open. A thief had broken in, I was sure of that, but he had nothing to be happy for. He must have left the house, cursing us. But there was no thief inside. Instead I saw Lala sitting in the centre of the floor, staring at the door, staring at me, sucking her thumb.
“Lala!” I cried. “How did you get here?”
I felt a sudden desire to beat her up, but I couldn’t. I threw away Rufin’s rat poison, rushed to Lala and hugged her. “I have been looking for you all over the world. Everybody is looking for you, Lala. How did you get the key?”
“You forgot it in Veloraza’s house,” Lala said.
“Where did you go? I was looking for you everywhere.”
“Somewhere, Lala. Did you take the toy from Veloraza?”
“Don’t worry, Lala. I will get you another toy.”
She shook her head angrily. “I don’t want a toy.”
“Then I will get you something better. See, Lala, I got a job today,” I said, tugging her left cheek. “In Tana. Fine place. Good house. Good master. Monsieur Ranomenjanahary. He wants me to live in his house.”
“I will go with you,” Lala said, spreading wide her mouth, ready for an ear-splitting cry.
“Please don’t shout, Lala.”
“I don’t want toys. I want to stay with you.”
I did not know what Monsieur Ranomenjanahary would think about her. But I said, “Yes, you can come with me.”
I would risk it, I thought. That night, after Madame Rakotomanana visited our house and found my sister and left us with a happy heart, I began to give Lala a good talk about how to behave at Monsieur Ranomenjanahary’s house. If Monsieur Ranomenjanahary accepted her, I said, she would wear good clothes all the time and never appear like a street kid. She would never play or shout when Monsieur Ranomenjanahary was around. And she would never put her buttocks on Monsieur Ranomenjanahary’s sofas, not even on the centre rug with a big lemur. And the zebu horns and sculptures and vases on Monsieur Ranomenjanahary’s shelves were not like Veloraza’s cheap tin toys. The price of one of them could buy Lala herself, I said, and Lala laughed, her eyes bulging with delight.
So, the next day, when Vorito took us to Monsieur Ranomenjanahary’s residence, I was shocked when Lala broke loose from us like a wild pet and jumped into Monsieur Ranomenjanahary’s arms. Monsieur Ranomenjanahary took her up and she kissed him on his lean, hairless jaw. I knew I would lose my job.
“What is your name?” Monsieur Ranomenjanahary asked her. The smile on his face was so small I feared the gentlest breeze could come and blow it away.
“My name is Lala,” Lala said, her fat face nearly falling apart with her smile as if she had seen Jesu.
Vorito told him she was my sister.
“Rasoa,” Monsieur Ranomenjanahary said, putting Lala down. “Take Lala and your things to the room that Vorito will show you. Make rice and romazava. I will be back in an hour. We will eat together.”
After we had packed our things into my room, Lala and I went to the sitting room upstairs, the room with the shelves and the zebu horns and statues and vases, the room with the lemur centre rug, the room with lush curtains and fat sofas. There was nothing I could do now to stop my sister’s madness.
“Stop it, Lala!” I said. “Don’t forget what I told you before we came here. Azafady.”
She ran into one of the big sofas, giggling.
“That is no place for your dirty buttocks,” I said.
I chased her out like a rat. But she ran to the lush curtains to feel them with her fingers and hear their rough sounds.
“I like this place,” Lala said, with dreamy eyes. “Will Father and Mother come and live with us here?”
“Lala!” I called. “Father and Mother cannot come here to stay. And look, the way you are behaving will just make Monsieur Ranomenjanahary throw us out.”
“He won’t,” Lala said.
“How do you know he won’t?”
“I just know.”
She found the lemur in the centre rug and began to stare at it. “What kind of cat is that?” she asked.
“It’s a lemur,” I said. “Not a cat. It lives in the forest.”
“Can I talk to it?”
“Tsia,” I said. “It won’t hear you.”
“But it’s looking at me, Rasoa.”
“It’s looking at you because that’s how the person who made the centre rug wanted the lemur to look.”
She hopped onto the lemur in the centre rug and began to fondle its great tail with white and black bands.
“Stop that, Lala!” I said.
She sprang from the rug and ran to the great shelves, pointing at the zebu horns and sculptures and saying how she wished she would grow tall enough to reach out and touch them now. I, too, felt a desire to reach out to the shelves and grab the zebu horns in my hands, smell them and show them to Lala, explaining to her how Guillaume the zebu butcher hacked horns off dead zebus and gave them to me for Veloraza, our cousin, who would clean them and carve the word MADAGASCAR on them.
But I remembered I had rice and romazava to make for Monsieur Ranomenjanahary. And it was my first rice and romazava. It had to be very good. I abandoned Lala and the temptation of zebu horns and figurines and went to the kitchen.
That afternoon, I could have burnt down Monsieur Ranomenjanahary’s house with his gas cooker. I had never used anything like it before to cook. It was heavy and strong like a small bus without wheels filling the kitchen below the big iron spoons and ladles that hung on nails in the wall. My big problem was how to light the cooker. I was too scared of it to even come near with my lighted match. Vorito had showed me how to light the cooker when we just arrived, but I was too taken by the size and beauty of the house to even pay him any attention. But I went outside and put bricks together to make a fire stand, fetched some wood and cooked my meal. I prayed that Monsieur Ranomenjanahary would love it.
He returned in time when the food was still hot, served in tureens I found in his kitchen. Lala and I waited. We would only eat after our master had finished eating and told us he liked it.
But Monsieur Ranomenjanahary would not want that. He invited us to the table.
“Come to the table and eat with me,” he said.
“Tsia, tompoko,” I said. For how could we poor brats from Ankasina eat with our master?
“Come, please. Don’t be shy,” he said, beckoning Lala, who was now smiling like a doll, and me.
It was a big mistake by Monsieur Ranomenjanahary, I thought. Lala was not one to be treated to such luxuries as eating on a table with one’s master.
So, Lala, ignoring my gestures to not sit too close to my master, sat next to him while I sat three chairs away from him. Without invitation, Lala said a prayer in Malagasy: “Please God, make the rice taste good in our mouths and keep the lemur away from looking at us while we are eating and keep safe all the fine things in this house – the horns, the shelves, the soft chairs and tables and rugs and everything. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
“Amen,” we said.
“Good prayer,” our master said, smiling. “Misaotra.”
We ate the rice for several minutes in peace. I studied Monsieur Ranomenjanahary’s eyes to see if he liked it. He smiled into his tureens as he spooned up rice and romazava. Then Lala began to speak again.
“Can I ask you a question, Monsieur?” she said, her cheeks up in a smile.
“Yes,” Monsieur Ranomenjanahary said, happily.
“What is your job?”
“I retired from the National Park,” he said. “Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. It is a beautiful place with many animals.”
“Like the lemurs?”
“Yes. Our country is the home of lemurs and many other creatures. No other country has lemurs.”
“Why is that?”
“Because Madagasikara is a special island country.”
Then Lala asked the bad question. “Where is your wife?”
My spoon fell into my plate. “Lala,” I grunted. “Azafady.”
“Oh,” Monsieur Ranomenjanahary said, his head lower. “She is not here now. She is somewhere else.”
“Did she go to give birth?”
“Oh no,” Monsieur Ranomenjanahary said, with a chuckle. “She was… she was sick… and then she died.”
“Fiaraha–miory,” we said in sympathy.
The man nodded almost tearfully and then his muskmelon teeth came out in a smile. He almost nodded and smiled for a full minute.
But Lala would not stop. “Where do people go to when they die?”
“They are buried, Lala,” Monsieur Ranomenjanahary said, still smiling. “And then after seven years, we dig their bodies out for famadihana ceremony and bury them in a new place so they can continue their journey into the next world.”
“Oh,” Lala said and then turned to a photo of Monsieur Ranomenjanahary’s dead wife hanging on the wall opposite him. “She is smiling at you.”
Monsieur Ranomenjanahary looked at the photograph, smiled and nodded his head.
It was this conversation that won him over. That evening and almost the whole of the night, we felt very happy to be with Monsieur Ranomenjanahary, talking and smiling out of muskmelon teeth. We forgot who we were and quizzed Monsieur Ranomenjanahary on almost everything in the house – the lemur rug, the hard-cover animals’ book, the curtains, the furniture, the figurines, the zebu horns with the word MADAGASCAR on them, painted in exquisite colours so that I imagined our country had the most beautiful name in the world.
Image: Georgie Pauwels via Flickr (modified)