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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Text copyright © 2012 by Johary Ravaloson
Translation copyright © 2019 by Allison M. Charette
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Previously published as Les larmes d’Ietsé by Éditions Dodo vole in France in 2012. Translated from French by Allison M. Charette. First published in English by Amazon Crossing in 2019. An excerpt from this book was previously published in Tupelo Quarterly, no. 9.
Excerpt from page vii of the foreword to Mood Indigo by Boris Vian, as translated by Stanley Chapman, reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Published by Amazon Crossing, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Amazon Crossing are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc., or its affiliates.
ISBN-13: 9781542093538 (hardcover)
ISBN-10: 1542093538 (hardcover)
ISBN-13: 9781542093514 (paperback)
ISBN-10: 1542093511 (paperback)
Cover design by David Drummond
THE ENCHANTED ISLAND
A long time…
This time, he…
THE SHADOW OF BABYLON
IN THE LIGHT OF RANOUR
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR
Only two things really matter—there’s love, every kind of love, with every kind of pretty girl; and there’s the music of Duke Ellington, or traditional jazz.
Everything else can go, because all the rest is ugly—and the few pages which follow as an illustration of this draw their entire strength from the fact that the story is completely true since I made it up from beginning to end.
Foreword to Mood Indigo
Translated by Stanley Chapman
A friend, who didn’t understand what I was always scribbling in my notebook and who missed the elders’ oral stories, recited a hainteny to me, a poem-turned-proverb:
“Vato hanasan-damba, ny lamba lasan’ny tompony, ny ranon-tsavony lasan’ny rano, ny vato mijanona eo ihany.” (In the washhouse, the clothes leave with their owner, the soap with the river water, and the rock remains.)
“Ponder it well,” he said to me. Then he added, “No one writes any modern hainteny.”
Thus, in the following few pages, I would like to offer up these two expressions:
—Men do not cry; they are contemplating Ietsy’s pool.
—Enchanted as Ietsy was, buried in the land of his children.
For this prodigious task, I necessarily called upon a name out of legend. If my friend will accept these two phrases as rock, the rest of it, “completely true,” may leave with the river water.
Trois Mares, July 29, 2005
THE ENCHANTED ISLAND
For some time now, even though there was likely nothing that should have disturbed his nights, Ietsy would wake up. Usually, at such moments, there were no crickets chirping, and no owls hooting. The pipistrelle bats had apparently paused their furious fluttering, and their furless wings neither made striking flap-flap sounds nor beat the air. There wasn’t even a breeze that might have crinkled the leaves on the trees, not even slightly. The normal wooden creaks of the house were silent. No restless stirring could be detected beneath the bedsheets. It was as if the silence itself had pulled him from his sleep.
Should it continue, he’d persuade himself that he was sleeping, dreaming, keeping his eyes shut and not moving a muscle. He’d let his mind wander, grasping at profound or asinine thoughts here and there but never pushing them through to their conclusions, so as not to chase off his almost-dreams. Surely, the echoing lull—or rather his passing isolation—would never last long enough for the wandering to persist.
Certain sounds did ebb and flow like a lazy tide, with a few popping abruptly in his auditory canals. The ones that never ceased, like the one from the regulated movement of the hundred-year-old pendulum set into the wall above the staircase. It was so much a part of the house itself, aging with it instead of measuring the passing time, that sometimes you could forget entire days even as it chimed each quarter hour and ticked every second. His wife’s breathing, so regular and so familiar that he had to concentrate to discern her presence, so close, almost inside, breath of his breath—he’d been married to Lea-Nour for over fifteen years—it made him fall in love all over again. Dogs started barking again nearby. An echo reached him of a truck passing on the national road; a buzzing insect or gnat irritated his ear. He picked out the sound of a spider’s eight legs brushing against the baseboards, the muted sound from the next room of the sleigh bed’s feet against the mildly warped wood as his youngest child tossed and turned, the sighs and murmured half phrases of children’s dreams from his oldest daughter or her sister in the room down the hall, the crumpled garbage bag in the kitchen downstairs with probably a mouse or roach digging jumpily through it, and the wind tousling the slumbering outdoors.
During these moments, if he did lift his eyelids, he would remark that it was, unsurprisingly, dark. As his pupils dilated, he could make out an arm, if his wife had rolled over in her sleep, or part of her back, her face faintly aglow from the white sheets, and other forms, also blurry, of unmoving objects that seemed to have been there for years.
He could sometimes see a star twinkling through the cracks in the shutters, or the pale clear moon, momentarily covered by the frenetic paths of passing pipistrelles, hunting their thousands of mosquitoes per day. Like them, he could move around the house without light, this house that had witnessed his birth.
He could get up noiselessly and breathe the country air, now so close to the city. He didn’t do anything of the sort at first. He wanted to recover his sleep as quickly as possible. Mostly, he didn’t want to interfere with the unfolding night.
He knew all this, and it buttressed the calm. The calm of Anosisoa, the home of the Enchanted Island, between the rice fields and the woods, within the centuries-old walls, the calm of the neighboring village, the industrial zone, the city, places a hundred miles in every direction, probably the entire country. All of that was reassuring. All of that should have reassured him. It should have created a state of peace, but that state here wasn’t known as sleeping at night.
His nocturnal disquiet may have had something to do with his inactivity during the day.
Ietsy Razak didn’t have what one would call a career, much less a job. Granted, he didn’t have to worry about what he would eat, how he would clothe himself, where he would live. All material concerns had been provided for him, in advance and in abundance.
It had always been like that in their family, as far as I know.
First, Ietsy the Blessed One, the Great Ancestor. And then the forebears of Ietsy Razak who had crossed thousands of nautical miles to reach this land set among the waves. To complete their journey, they’d walked on giant lily pads floating on the ocean. Once on the island, they’d worked deftly to make the effects of their enchantment last from generation to generation. They replaced the original masters of this land, transforming their existence into myth by integrating them, conquering them, or driving them to the wilder ends of the earth. They wound their way into the delicate, tightly interlaced caste system, asserting their dominance by force, alliances, or more often the timely breaking of alliances. They always supported the kingdom’s expansion and took their share of the spoils. They fell in step with later waves of migration, profited from them. Trade made them rich once and for all. They bowed before the colonial forces and demonstrated intelligence, a type of adaptation so close to compromise that the outsiders probably couldn’t have told the difference—but even so, they remained among the only ones concerned with defending what the latest arrivals were lusting after. To establish their power under the rising sun of independence, they sowed progress, benefited from the hunger for knowledge, and imposed undeniable authority. They made themselves indispensable in every time, even during the revolution when everyone wanted to fell old trees like them.
Like his forefathers, I should say, for Ietsy Razak only ever reaped the fruits of that history.
And at every rude awakening, business picked back up again. People wanted to farm their lands, lease their buildings, borrow their funds, avail themselves of their wisdom and experience. It all worked, ran by itself like the electric train from his childhood. There were some incidents, of course, but Ietsy’s father, Mr. Razak, was a shrewd man. He’d diversified, turned a profit from all his lands, belongings, relationships. People came to consult him on all the important national issues. He kept a firm hold on the family fortune, partially from a passion for power but also because of his only son’s complete disinterest.
Ietsy had only simple desires. He only had to ring a bell for the housekeeper, secretary, or administrator to come running, all the old staff to hear and obey—they were all part of the inheritance, the divine and ancestral blessing, surely.
Blessed by the Gods and Ancestors. That was what his father always said when he made young Ietsy give thanks. That, too, was customary. They went to perfume their ancestral tomb, the paternal side in Anosisoa at the new year, his mother’s side in Ambatofotsy on All Saints’ Day. On every holiday or minorly important occasion, they poured out a drink in the sacred northeast corner of the house, in a small alcove, which had not the ancestral portraits on display—those kept watch over the hallways or held court in the parlor—but symbols representing the ancestors engraved into rot-proof wood (a small old scrap that may have once been the stern of a boat, with mysterious lines on it, nearly entirely erased, but undoubtedly made by a human hand). And they took pride in being the family that displayed the most splendor every seven years or when social norms dictated—an approaching election, or the day before a change in the tax rate when they’d have to call upon their allies—when they rewrapped the lambamena, shrouds of wild silks, of those resting in their vaults.
Over the years, the luxury of how they “re-turned” their dead made other families’ ceremonies pale in comparison, especially during the enlightened revolution—or at least the first few years, truth be told—when the government tried to discourage extravagant traditions. However, according to Mr. Razak, they always owed their ancestors that, their ancestors who granted them the fullness of their blessing.
They’d always been among the first to receive insights from beyond the seas—science, culture, even the trappings of religion when necessary. Thus, they were now one of the great Christianized families.
They had of course always venerated the land of their ancestors and acknowledged it as the source of all good things. But for a time, they had also designated pork as taboo, to the satisfaction of the Muslim traders, and continued to use their writing style long after people here had forgotten who Muhammad and his god were (after all, Mecca is not on the Enchanted Island). They’d seen the technological superiority of the whites, supported King Radama I in his policy of openness toward the West, and accepted the transcription of the Malagasy language into the Roman alphabet without qualms. When Queen Ranavalona II converted to British Christianity in the nineteenth century, they built the first churches where those who had followed the foreigners’ god too early during the preceding reign had been executed.
The stone for the church in the Rova, the royal citadel dominating the capital, had come from a family quarry. The diaconal duties always fell to them. Ietsy was second only to his father to shake the pastor’s hand at the end of the service. The Razaks had permanent seats right behind the royal chair carved of hardwood with its scarlet cushion. The throne, long unoccupied but once believed unmovable.
Sadly, a terrible fire had reduced everything within the royal walls to dust, the church, the five palaces: Manjakamiadana, the palace of Queen Ranavalona I and her successors; Manampisoa, the one Queen Rasoherina had added; Tranovola, for Radama I; Mahitsielafanjaka, for Andrianampoinimerina, the father of the Malagasy nation; and Besakana, for Andrianjaka, the founder of Antananarivo. Up in smoke, too, went what had been discovered of the trano manara, the cold-house tomb below which lay the former sovereigns: the Fito Miandalana, or Seven Aligned-Houses. The flames ravaged the sky for an entire night; the city’s summit could be seen for dozens of miles. Crowds came from all around to climb the hillsides, larger and still more despondent than a century before when the last queen, Ranavalona III, had departed in exile. Rivers of crashing tears flooded the underneighborhoods; only lamentations rose, and they could not conquer the flaming citadel. Hours later, heat still tortured the cladding of the great palace stones, whose four iconic towers were like giants being burned alive, writhing and roaring without falling over.
Since then, with aid from the international community, more stone had been cut for the church. The trano manara of the Seven Aligned-Houses had been rebuilt, the cold dwelling place of the ones who had reigned over Antananarivo since King Andrianjaka had consecrated the capital with that name, at the end of the Gola era and the dawn of the Zak, in 1610 on the Christian calendar.
“Can money be used to re-create sacred relics?” Lea-Nour whispered to Ietsy at the inauguration ceremony for the first phase of restoration.
“The ancestors do not die!” he whispered back.
She sighed as she looked at those gathered, all dressed in the same clothes: modern yet carefully acknowledging tradition. For the women, a Chanel suit or something that passed for it, a silk lamba between white and cream around their shoulders, rarely with the traditional chignon at the nape of their neck, like Lea-Nour; the men in dark suits, some with bow ties, like Mr. Razak, and of course the lambas over their shoulder, white with red stripes—the solid red lambamena befitting only the sovereign or the ancestors, and warriors the only ones permitted to wear the black-banded lamba.
“There’s nothing there!” she said.
Ietsy didn’t know if she was talking about the people in discourse around them or the tombs. The threat that the vacuity of the former represented, because they ran the country, and the latter, because nature—and especially death—abhors a vacuum, even with the rituals to erase the shame of forgetting the ashes of ashes, could make any elder shudder. But the world was entering the third millennium, and, in the shadows of the stones that still stood, after sacrificing a zebu and consecrating new roofs for the tombs, the rebuilt church was inaugurated.
As for the hardwood chair, other furniture, and the very structures themselves of the Rova’s other buildings, they are still waiting for the tears shed that horrible night to water the trees needed for reconstruction, as well as the other emblems of sovereignty.
Before, Mr. Razak had made a habit of bringing Ietsy here to look out over all of Antananarivo, reminding him of their role in making kings throughout the ever-shifting precolonial period and even more so throughout their regained independence. Two eras symbolized ever after by thoughtless renovation and tumorlike growth.
“I don’t believe any of it,” Lea-Nour said in spite of everything one day, shaking the black hair resting simply over her shoulders.
Ietsy, walking beside her behind the house, watched her jet-black eyes rebel in her wise oval face. The October wind whipped through the warm air, making jacaranda flowers float to the ground. He questioned how anyone could live in the skin of someone who didn’t believe any of it. The mauve flowers carpeted the path running straight to the tomb.
“Your father opened all of Anosisoa for me,” she said. “Even this vault. Up to now, it was inaccessible for women who married in! I appreciated the gesture, as did my parents . . .”
“Your father was so pleased that Vazimbas were returning to Anosisoa!”
“He always thought of himself as more vazimba than anyone else.” Lea-Nour smiled. “I’m not really worried about it, though—when it happens, I’ll be dead, you know.”
“You don’t want to become an ancestor?”
“They’re just dead people, like God is just Sunday morning tedium. If everyone believed like you do, Ietsy, we’d be able to rebuild the Rova without any foreign aid!”
And she laughed, her large stomach stretching before her, full of happiness.
“You really don’t believe it?”
“I believe in life,” she said, caressing her belly. “In children. In preserving this earth for our children, enriching it and passing it on. In Filistria. Weren’t you the one who told me about Gombrowicz?”
“Yes. Sanctifying the earth is always protecting it. It’s dedicated to our children or ancestors.”
“Sure.” Lea-Nour smiled. “But ancestors live in a tomb, whereas children can travel anywhere they want!”
The Razaks’ loyalty, which harbored the same ambiguities as their long history, troubled Ietsy. But only a little—it was only ever a small pebble in his shoe. As a child, he went to the Protestant church on Sundays and to Catholic mass on Thursdays at his school (Sintème, which had overseen the education of his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and all of the country’s elite since colonization). But his father’s most essential entreaty was to not forget the great crossing and the source of unending milk and honey. The god on the cross had been welcomed into the traditional pantheon with the others. The Jesuits charged with Ietsy’s education nearly turned him into a skeptic, but after enduring several trials, his ancestors’ protection proved extremely strong.
He was probably around eleven years old when he saw concrete evidence of it for the first time. The way people in Anosisoa obeyed his every whim obviously didn’t count; that came more from their attachment to financial stability than a fear of invisible, wrathful beings harassing anyone who would try to thwart the blessed one.
There was a guy in the grade above him, mixed race, burly, built, a full head taller than him. He acted all tough and unaware of Ietsy’s natural birthright. One lunchtime, while the other guy was walking home with a few friends to his white vazaha neighborhood next to school, our doubting Thomas sat on the hood of the car and told the driver—often under pressure to shift between Ietsy’s desires and his responsibility to the father—to follow them, and to only pass them once they’d gotten a little ways away from the pink brick outer wall of the hallowed school. Ietsy got all fired up by the stares of the crowd as he passed by like in an Independence Day military parade, confirming his divine and ancestral consecration in his heart of hearts even before completing that first trial. Once the car reached the other guy, Ietsy stood up on top of the roof and hurled insults at him. Everyone following behind was too captivated and surprised by the scene to yell at them to clear the road; perhaps some of them had recognized Mr. Razak’s car. None of that mattered to Ietsy. He continued his diatribe, calling upon the gathering mob as witnesses to the cowardice of the other guy, who didn’t understand the situation fast enough. Then, when he finally opened his mouth, Ietsy jumped him. From the car, he had enough momentum to knock the guy to the ground and pummel him. The driver hoisted himself out of the car and pleaded with Ietsy to stop, while at the same time preventing anyone else from intervening or laying a finger on him, giant that he was. Ietsy left the other guy with blood running down his face.
That afternoon, no one at school talked about anything besides the supernatural trial that had happened. The victim’s parents complained to the rector, but he sidestepped the issue: extra muros, outside his jurisdiction. During his sermon at that Thursday’s mass, he made only a brief allusion to it, staring hard at the blessed one among the rest of his students. Ietsy pretended not to understand.
The young vazaha never had a chance to exact revenge. The driver, in defiance of regulations, started waiting for Ietsy right at the door to his classroom, too afraid that some accident might befall his master’s son. The rest of the time, his friend Nestor—whom they called Thor or Néness, depending on if they were emphasizing his strength or klutziness—towered behind him like a real bodyguard. Besides, they were reminded in their studies that violence was a crime, and as the fat headmaster Brother stressed, the punishment—suspension from school—could be permanent.
The following year, the parents of the vazaha boy—colonie by default, that was what they called anyone who was forced to tolerate everything that someone else did—pulled him out of Sintème and enrolled him in the French high school. The Gods’ and Ancestors’ protection fell unquestionably within the realm of perfection.
Three years later, the blessing was confirmed a contrario, as he would later tell it (with linguistic habits acquired on the bench at law school, people might think, as Ietsy was supposed to get his law degree like his father, if they didn’t know that his exposure to syllogism dated back to childhood, to long lunches in Anosisoa when, while Mr. Razak and his guests binged on clever debate and florid words, Ietsy and his friends pigged out on food and learned the strange effects of alcohol, Ietsy making a valiant effort after several swigs of the paternal whiskey to stay straitlaced until the soft rays of the setting sun streamed into the room and flooded the white plaster wall before going dark). That year, which would end up being his last at that school, he was less bored: there were girls, and a new kid, Arthur, another mixed guy who’d gone in the opposite direction of the ex-colonie, from the vazaha high school to Sintème, and introduced them to the forbidden world of smoking.
I’m obviously not referring to tobacco—which also wasn’t tolerated, outside of the rector’s office—but about what no one smokes anymore besides gangs and guys who haul pushcarts, to avoid feeling fatigue. And artists, too, for inspiration—like the new kid’s parents.
When Ietsy visited their house, he didn’t get a chance to see Arthur’s father, a theater man. His mother, on the other hand, a painter—he often caught sight of her in her studio in the back of the garden, from which the scent of the Ancestors’ weed sometimes wafted. Art was a foreign milieu for Ietsy; he only knew that the paintings that hung on their walls in Anosisoa, which some of his father’s friends drooled dumbly over, were worth a lot of money.
He fantasized more about Arthur’s mother, who wasn’t just an artist but a redhead too. She was from the north of England, near the Scottish border. Her ancestors had fallen in love with the Malagasy sky as they got closer to it during the era of the London Missionary Society. In the first part of the nineteenth century, the awful Queen Ranavalona I had driven out the religious zealots of the Queen of England beyond the seas, for fear they might win over her own subjects’ hearts. By following in their tracks back to the island, Ms. Jones was chasing an old family dream. But of course, no matter how blessed the young Ietsy was, she was naturally out of his reach.
Thursday afternoons in Arthur’s room, with no classes, there was Jeannie. She was the most shameless of all the girls in their class, who’d only started to be dropped into high school in their third year, a few at a time. Jeannie was hitting the joint with them, and it had a fantastic effect. She wanted them to touch her, kiss her. The others thought it was funny, especially Néness, and Arthur too; not Ietsy, he’d always been put off by group work. He watched them, or listened to Charlie.
It must be said that andzamal causes very weird sensations. The cannabis caused Ietsy, already a naturally contemplative person, to be so engrossed that he could watch flies mating for centuries. As for Charlie, he couldn’t stop reading, poems or other books he’d grabbed from the library that lined the hallway to Arthur’s room. Sometimes he would unveil the beauty of a text out loud to his friends, but they’d laugh “at anything and everything,” he had said, annoyed. Ietsy didn’t hear anything very well or feel anything specific, neither agreeable nor disagreeable, as if he were far away, but when the others laughed, he spasmed too, for no apparent reason, and, like the others, sometimes without stopping for an eternity.
Charlie thought they were morons and kept repeating that poetry was the only thing worth anything at all.
“A poet, while the rest of the world wallows and bathes in muck,” he told them, “a poet takes a dump standing up!”
The others rolled around laughing, without quite understanding why. It had become a conditioned reflex, even without the stimulus of cannabis. The instant there was the slightest lyrical allusion, they’d exchange glances and laugh hysterically.
They’d had to memorize a poem for French class. The day it was due, the teacher asked for a volunteer to recite it. She was undoubtedly thinking of Charlie. Before anyone else reacted, though, Ietsy raised his hand, suddenly inspired by the text. He’d barely read the title. He wanted to blow everyone away, especially the pretty teacher whose copper-colored hair made him think of Arthur’s mother. She didn’t let any of her surprise at her student’s unexpected enthusiasm show, just invited him to come to the front. He stood in front of her desk so that she could see only his back. Before the class—ready for anything, knowing him—he began his performance. He lowered his eyes, pretending to concentrate, then, staring hard at Jeannie and Arthur with the most constipated expression—he knew there was no point in looking at Néness—he barked, “Invitation to the Voyage!”
His comrades burst out laughing, followed of course by the entire class. He huffed, acting offended but unfazed. Once the room was calm, he started over. He didn’t have to make sure they were paying attention anymore. He kept his eyes half-closed and made a face as he intoned the first syllables again, letting the next line tumble out in a rush of relief. And again, to widespread hoots of laughter. He turned around and gave the teacher a mock-hurt look, but of course she hadn’t seen anything and was just tapping her pen on her desk.
“Well, go on!” she cried.
He let a few quiet moments pass, then continued his act. Arthur was bent over double from laughing, Jeannie had tears streaming down her face, and Néness was smacking the table and his thighs. Everyone, he thought, was laughing. It was contagious. Even the teacher had a hint of a merry smile as she renounced her plan and told him to take his seat.
As he returned to the back of the classroom, he saw Charlie’s strange expression, but riding the euphoric success of a schoolboy, he hadn’t thought anything more of it. He just wondered if his friend, too, had been smoking before coming to class.
One afternoon a few days later, Arthur brought over some “super-high-quality” stuff. It was just after Easter, and the rainy season was well over by then. They’d never smoked inside the school grounds. As they were enjoying it in the shadow of the pine trees above the soccer field, the quietest corner at Sintème, the poet of the group took some pills out of his pocket.
“With these,” he said, “it will be a spleen explosion!”
They didn’t know what that meant. They were already soaring. They’d missed the start of class. Charlie was telling them about his own experiments, the rest of the group was laughing. Ietsy was with them and sometimes with himself. Probably everyone else too. Jeannie, between Néness and Arthur, was touching herself on the blanket of pine needles. When Charlie gulped one of the tablets down and held out his hand with the rest, she took her own hand out of her pants to take one and swallow it. Jeannie certainly didn’t have cold feet. Ietsy hesitated. Néness took one, and finally Ietsy did too. Only Arthur demurred. He preferred it au naturel, he said, rolling another joint. No problem, they were open to anything, time had stopped. Then, Ietsy thought, he fell asleep.
Néness was the only one who’d actually slept, Arthur told him later on the phone.
“You guys completely lost it. Especially Jeannie!”
Ietsy had only a faint idea of how they’d lost it. He woke up at home under his bed; he had a headache and felt exhausted. Snippets of scenes were coming back to him, but he didn’t know which ones were part of reality. He thought maybe he’d cried at one point, and at another, he’d been naked as the day he was born, racing against an equally naked Jeannie and Charlie.
“All the fathers and brothers in the school were chasing you around the courtyard with blankets,” Arthur told him, screaming into the receiver with laughter. “They wanted to get your clothes back on, but you didn’t make it easy for them!”
Apparently, once they were corralled beneath the Jesuit inquisitors’ eyes, caught and covered—everyone except Néness, who was probably still snoozing under the pines—Jeannie stood up and pissed in the rector’s office, singing all the while.
Ietsy didn’t remember that at all. He listened to Arthur, shaking with nervous laughter that made him bang his head against the mattress slats. He got a nice bump, but not enough to make him move or think it was any less funny. On the other end of the line, Arthur also cackled with laughter, like during their finest hours.
“We’re gonna get kicked out!”
But even that he said laughing hysterically. Neither of them was yet aware of the tragedy.
Ietsy, suddenly hearing his father’s heavy footsteps coming up the stairs and then in the hallway, smothered his laughter with his hand and, still under his bed, slammed the phone down and tried to look apologetic. He heard the click of a key in the lock. Mr. Razak walked in, livid, in one of his eternal dark suits, his mustache and goatee unkempt from rage. He wrenched the telephone out of the wall and took it out of the bedroom, his son unable to hold it. The door slammed, and the lock snapped shut.
Ietsy crawled carefully out of his hiding spot, which wasn’t actually a place to hide because the old-fashioned bed, too tall and not wide enough, hid nothing from view. He started asking himself what he’d intended, choosing a refuge like that, when the key turned again in the lock.
His father entered, followed by two maids and the houseman, stooped and slow. The master of the house strode over to the wardrobe without a single glance at Ietsy and opened both its doors. The others, their job obvious, scooped up all the clothes they could find, including everything on the floor, the chair, and the desk, bringing all of it outside. Each of them made two trips, the man throwing fearful looks at him as he passed, while the women lowered their eyes, one respectfully and the other, the younger one, hypocritically, unable to keep a smile away from the corners of her mouth. His father stood rigidly before the armoire, as if trying to bore his anger through the sandalwood. Silence hung heavily over the swishing fabric.
Ietsy didn’t react, too dumbstruck. He figured he must still be under the effect of the drugs, literally hallucinating. Once his wardrobe was emptied, everyone left and the door was shut, locked again. Then he realized he didn’t even have boxers on, and his other things had already been stripped from the room. They’d probably looked for narcotic substances he might have been concealing. But he hadn’t reached that point; for him, he was only trying things with friends to have fun. So there he stayed, naked and cut off from the outside world.
The only contact with the outside that his father permitted was the plates of food slid in and furtively removed by a wordless, terrified servant, and the old chamber pot that had been used just before his great-grandfather’s final days (in his final days, he’d worn diapers, which a nurse changed for him like for a baby). He racked his brain for a good strategy: Would it be better to rebel, scream, throw the pseudoindulgent food against the wall, do the same with the shameful pot and its contents, then jump out the window and leave a scandal outside in his wake, or do everything at the same time? He’d certainly done enough already. Upon prudent consideration, he decided it would be rather dangerous. He was on the second floor, more than twenty feet up; the Razaks had high ceilings. For a moment he decided to bend, try to mount some sort of defense, but nothing came to mind that would ever withstand his father.
After the third day, it was getting to be too long, and he prepared to go on the offensive. But instead of the regular Quasimodo, the housekeeper was the one who poked her head, ageless even back then, through the door of his room around noon. She didn’t bring a meal, but clothes.
“Your father is expecting you in the library,” she said, her voice as misty as her eyes.
She likely had strict instructions too, because she said only that, then slipped back out and closed the door behind her, but without touching the key this time. He quickly got dressed and mentally prepared himself for war.
His father was playing quite the game, even making him wear his dark suit, the one Ietsy had worn a few months earlier for the funeral of his incontinent elder. He dragged his feet down the stairs. Upon seeing him, his father, in shirtsleeves but a knotted tie, rose from his armchair. Walking toward the living room, he let one sentence drop casually as he passed: “We’ll have a quick bite to eat, and then we’re going to bury your friend Charlie.”
It was as if he’d been struck by lightning. He wondered if he’d heard right. He couldn’t believe his ears, but he couldn’t hope that it was a joke, either. If it must be spelled out, Mr. Razak was as much a prankster as Jeannie was Mother Teresa. And although he would sometimes laugh with his guests, wielding a type of humor that was not shared with his son, he was not in such a mood that day. Ietsy followed him unsteadily. His head was spinning, his heart racing. His father already sitting and the housekeeper waiting, standing in front of the door to the serving pantry. Water looked like it was trickling down the chandelier above the table. And the light that normally poured in through the high windows had become fuzzy. He didn’t realize it was tears, forced out from his eyes without him noticing, blurring the scene until they fell from his cheeks to form clearly visible wet spots on the shining wood floor, brushed daily with abrasive coconut husks and rubbed with beeswax every Friday, the tiniest things in the Razak household often becoming such regular, scheduled routines.
The last time he’d cried like this, he must have been seven or eight years old. For his bad behavior, serious enough that his father promised him a thrashing, he’d been banished from the table and sent to his room to wait. The patriarch had never hit his kid before, but that time, he truly seemed ready to strike.
As he sent him upstairs, he’d added, “I won’t take off my belt just yet.”
He’s going to kill me, the child had thought. His fear had made urine run all the way down his jellylike legs as he climbed the interminable staircase, and his reddened eyes flowed like waterfalls. He kept crying for a long time on his bed. So long that he’d fallen asleep, exhausted. When he’d woken up later in the afternoon, his father had already gone back to work, and he didn’t know if the sentence had ever been carried out. He never knew. The housekeeper had never really revealed anything, only grousing that he’d deserved to be punished, and he’d made sure not to question the primary individual.
This time, adolescent Ietsy dared to ask his father a question, choking back sobs: “Are you going to kill me too?”
Mr. Razak didn’t reply. Still, setting down the fork he’d been bringing to his mouth, he merely gave his son a strange look. It was clearly very inappropriate.
But Charlie hadn’t been killed by his own father, either. At least, not really. His friends whispered during the funeral that the man most likely would have done it, if it would have prevented a scandal. They wondered if murdering his child would have caused the minister of youth and culture less indignation than his son of dying of an overdose. Children of powerful men, no matter what the father’s position, were allowed to do anything, even favoring death over life, never mind what the priest said, clearly obligated to focus the mass on the temptations of artificial life.
Arthur had managed to communicate with Charlie shortly before the tragedy. He was locked up and stripped of all his belongings, like Ietsy. His books, his beloved books, they’d taken Baudelaire, Burroughs, and the others from him. His parents believed them to be the source of his insane debauchery.
“Even Rabearivelo, a national treasure!” added Arthur, who now saw himself as the only one with any knowledge of such matters, because of his artist parents.
Charlie’s misfortune was still having a key that opened every door in the house, particularly the one to his parents’ bedroom, where he’d gone to procure the pills for his final trip.
Arthur’s mother, who’d also come to the burial, refused to join the line to shake the hands of “those people” after the laying of the body in the family vault. The black she wore made her pale skin shimmer. Despite her proper bun tied up at her neck, she was making Ietsy melt like fat in the sun. He would have followed her like a puppy dog forever if Arthur hadn’t elbowed him in the ribs.
The thinning group of friends talked a little on their way to where the cars were parked. No one had heard from Jeannie. Arthur and Néness already knew their fates. The former was going back to the French high school. His parents had questioned him at length, but he was a lucky bastard and got the love part of tough love. The latter was staying at Sintème like nothing had happened. He even got to keep his scholarship. In the nude chaos that had followed their experiments, no one had noticed his absence from class. Arthur, the only one in any state to answer the questions they’d been subject to in the rector’s office—in between uncontrollable fits of laughter—hadn’t mentioned him. So Néness had just kept sleeping under the pines until cold rain woke him up. He hadn’t returned home until nightfall. The next day at school, he first heard the rumors in the courtyard, then in the auditorium the official version about the group’s misconduct, then the final disciplinary action directly after. The other students were unnerved: drugs at Sintème, it was simply unthinkable for most of them. When Took, the class wiseass, tried to rechristen the courtyard the “Garden of Eden,” he and Néness were the only two who’d laughed. Everyone else had glared daggers at them.
It was the last time that Ietsy Razak saw his friends for a long while. The next day, after his father made him take a handful of red dirt from near the ancestral tomb, he put Ietsy on a plane to a boarding school beyond the seas, run this time by Benedictine monks, on the banks of a river that disappeared underground.
A long time ago, even before the era of Gola, at the very beginning, it is said a man accidentally fell from the sky. His name was Ietsy. Some of the poets sing that he tumbled down as he beheld the beauty of this land, trusted by the sea. As he had fainted, Breath dispatched the rainbow to go down and revive him. He was the first. The first to swoon at the sight of this island—it was already solid back then, and enchanted—and, once he’d come to again, the first to fall for it. There was no one on the island besides him. He was quite happy to be there, although he felt a little alone.
He went to where the colored band of light landed, over and over again, to see if there were any travelers, one woman, or even one man who would come down. He’d sent messages lauding the island and its abundance of everything, but no one came to live with him or visit him. In his solitude, he considered exploring somewhere else. But just for an instant, for he loved the island so much that the thought of leaving it seemed, after his fall, a letdown. “Better to bury myself here!” he said, according to the Talily, the ancestral memories.
So he stayed to ramble the rocky highlands, shaded valleys, and craggy bluffs, following rivers from lake to lake. His walks were beautiful but lonely. As he rested, on a mountaintop, beside a river, or in the shade of a ficus, he sculpted statues in the image of himself and the women of his dreams.
Every time that Breath dropped in without travelers or messages for him, she saw his disappointment and distress. Still, Ietsy persevered in wanting to stay. She offered to help him again. She was not yet the old woman we know her as. Breath could not have children but found Ietsy’s breathless statues beautiful enough to fill them with her breath of life. If, and only if, Ietsy would agree to be a father to them. Of course, this condition was the exact opposite of everything Ietsy had dreamed of. But he needed company. He agreed. Breath breathed into the statues, and they became alive. Thus, the only unearthly part of the island’s first people was their breath, their soul. That’s what makes humans human, they say—before, we were just wooden statues!
Ietsy, enticed by some of his dreams made flesh, obviously did not keep his word and was tempted to seduce first one, then more of his progeny. As this generally took place at night and Breath had the whole sky at her window, she caught wind of it and swore she would take back her breath from this small, incestuous world. She returned, jealous and vindictive, but couldn’t distinguish the wheat from the chaff, as they would later say. The men created in Ietsy’s image and the women embodying his dreams, the children all looked alike. Vexed, Breath took back her breaths arbitrarily, at random. And thus did Ietsy’s children know death, soon after receiving their name: Vazimbas, or Children of the Broken Vow.
Since then, Vazimbas give their lives to Breath but return their bodies to Ietsy’s land. In this country, where people take such pride in their origins, bastards have had the same face as everyone else from the very beginning, and essentially the same destiny; that is to say, every person has their own—the so-called purity of origins has no influence on it at all.
Ietsy lived 391 years before fate caught him. Tears flowed in fountains, for the Vazimbas cherished him. As one, they drew beside the lifeless body. Respecting Ietsy’s wishes, they buried him under the ground and named the place Tsievonana, The-Place-Where-No-One-Sneezes. They came from all the places Ietsy had left them when he had sculpted them. They all came, for Ietsy had loved them all and they all recognized him as the originator of their days.
From then on something was missing for those cast in his image, as if a lamba had been lost in a gust of wind on a stormy day. Thus, they knew cold, sneezing. In his memory we exclaim “IETSY!” when we sneeze. Breath also understood the absence and eased her punishment.
However, death continued its work, and life its course. Sloping gently, sometimes steeper, jagged, and uneven, strewn with traps, but leaving like the wellspring, alone, creek, flowing, swirling stream then river, even drying out, rarely climbing, often, yes, gently sloping down to the sea. And, as they say, Angano angano, arira arira, a legend is a legend, the truth is another, it is not I who lie but those who transmitted it to me.
So it was written in gold embossed letters in the copy of the Talily that Ietsy Razak’s father had given him when he left the Land of the Ancestors. He’d also given him two Bibles, one Protestant in Malagasy, the other Catholic in French. Ietsy never took those out of his bags. He’d learned very quickly that these people from beyond the seas gave him weird looks when he talked about religion. So, he avoided it. Over there, spiritual questions broke off at his fairly un-Catholic name. In the Benedictine school, they sometimes called him “Che” for short, even though most of his classmates—sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie, even some aristocrats—knew nothing of the revolutionary’s feats. It wasn’t worth it to talk to them about the Talily and its enchantments. They whispered enough among themselves when they noticed Ietsy writing and receiving letters in a strange language.
His father had given him the Great Ancestor’s name, maybe to ensure his protection or ward off evil, I don’t know. He’d actually gotten off to a bad start. His mother, as she threw him into the river of life, left via the East, the shore of origins and death. And not like in the myth of Ibonia, where the child symbolically kills the laboring woman as they come into the world, only to resuscitate the mother later: she went away for real.
This caused the boy some angst, and granted him some freedoms—there were benefits too. No one would insult his maternal side, for it was universally sensitive. If by chance someone was unaware of the ancestral status of the one who’d given birth to him and called him a son of a whore, there were always plenty of others around to teach them what blasphemy had been uttered. Most of the time, Ietsy feigned magnanimity and was thus able to get anything he wanted from the poor soul—guilt, and the fear of retribution from dead saints, would leave them at the mercy of the motherless child. Sometimes, he would beat them up, beat them hard, to teach them to be quiet, beat them up until the boiling tears he refused to let out were stilled.
When he was older, his story moved some girls to pity and a surge of tenderness, which he could always transform into something just as tender as a mother’s loving caresses—although far from as chaste. He didn’t play around with telling his woeful story every time. However, by dint of being a plaything to these women, his aunts, his housekeeper, his father’s secretaries, all the female friends of the family, especially those with kindly dispositions who would have liked to become a good stepmother for him and take his mother’s place in the heart of Mr. Razak—who had never actually considered himself absolved of his first promise of loyalty—he could play his hand very well with them.
His friends envied him and interrogated him. He prided himself on his reassuring way with girls. Sometimes he’d act indifferent, which was apparently attractive, but to be clear, he didn’t go too far with the show. He’d always had plenty of little loves, as Charlie called them. When one let out a swooning call of his name, he never teased her by asking if she’d come down with a cold. But girls were like anything else: when you went out with one, the rest were never far off. Mediocre minds would point out his status—the only kid in a rich old family—but frankly, who in that milieu wasn’t an heir to something? Cynical minds would reason that eligible young women would be far less afraid of a ghostly mother-in-law than a flesh-and-blood shrew who would stick her nose in every aspect of the young couple’s lives. In any case, he would have preferred that people pay attention to his personal charms. He was tall—a rare thing in Imerina, these highlands under the skies—with light skin, very popular around these parts, and shiny, black, straight hair above an intelligent forehead and symmetrical yet sensual face. But truth be told, he didn’t understand how it worked, either. More specifically, it never worked when he wanted it to. People envied him for his abundant advantages, but not for anything he’d actually done. Not that he was spurning his luck, but he wanted to have the choice. He’d always been chosen. Even though he could avoid the girls he didn’t like, he hadn’t really been able to get close to his heart’s true love. He was incapable of taking action to win someone over. His hands got clammy, legs shaky, lips dry. And if by chance his most secret wishes were fulfilled, his life drained from him, his will shattered by fear. As if the simple fact of wanting to love, to live, ran the risk of killing the one he loved, or himself.
This morbid anxiety meant that he was forced to hate the girls he desired most. He would have to find the fault that they generally tried to keep hidden, a weak forehead hiding behind bangs, an eye that wandered ever so slightly, bony knees, unshapely toes, imperfections that let him love without fear. And thus he went, from conquest to conquest, without any real victory, except for one. Obviously I don’t mean his wife, Lea-Nour: she was on a different level altogether; she was destined for him. His father’s words of the union of earth and water at their wedding had been fitting ones. But I’m moving too fast. For the moment, the field is still unsown.
Ietsy was welcomed in France by his father’s elder, only brother. Uncle Jean had married a French woman. Aunt Christiane, who wasn’t able to have children, had treasured baby Ietsy. She’d moved almost permanently to Anosisoa to take care of him. Yes, of course there was enough room in Anosisoa for several families. Yes, of course Uncle Jean and his wife had a place in Anosisoa. However, gradually, the bond that the woman was creating with the child eclipsed the relationship between the two brothers. Christiane’s foreign origins, even though her family had been on the island for a long time, and even more so the fact that she couldn’t give Jean an heir, had already pushed them away from Anosisoa once. What was more, the whole story of the Razak brothers with the Lamothe girl offended some people’s delicate sensibilities at the dawn of independence and was thwarting the grandfather’s political ambitions. So, they left for Paris before Ietsy turned three years old.
Ietsy had no memory of all that. He liked his relatives from beyond the seas. When they’d come back to the country for important family events, turnings of the dead, weddings, burials, his circumcision, they’d always brought him lots of presents. But he didn’t remember his aunt stretching out her maternal arms to give him a secure infancy.
As she told him about that not-so-long-ago past in their Parisian apartment, she dissolved into tears. Ietsy was just fifteen and didn’t know what to do with his gangly body when faced with a crying woman. She would probably make a decent mom, he guessed, unable to get himself out of the overstuffed armchair.
Fortunately, Uncle Jean was there. He looked like his brother, but younger despite his age, perhaps because he was clean-shaven and wore his hair long, tied back with a strip of leather. He finished serving the lemongrass-infused tea and sat next to her on the couch, taking her in his arms.
“There were so many rumors in your family back then,” his aunt continued, reaching for her husband’s hand. “All unfounded. Nothing happened between your father and me. I only wanted to fill in for your mother . . . but you’re not my son!”
Her frail body shook with gentle sobs. Then she pulled herself together and talked to him about Marlène. It was one of the few times that had happened in Ietsy’s short life. There were plenty of pictures of his mother all around Anosisoa: in the sitting room and in his father’s office, the ones from their engagement and wedding in the hall with a spread of other photographs as old as the trade itself, large portraits of her by herself in the library, probably taken those same two days, and then the one in Ietsy’s room in her normal clothes, which was also in the locket his father had solemnly given him for his birthday one year. Despite noticeable effort, his father had never been able to say more than a few sentences about her in front of him, except in a few exceptional circumstances. Plus silence was the norm in their relationship, anyway.
The first time he’d been told about his mother was when they were bringing the deceased new lambamenas. Ietsy was maybe eight or nine. There were two colorfully dressed operetta troupes, mpihira gasy, taking turns outdoing one another as they danced and acted out scenes from folklore; they’d sacrificed a black zebu with a white spot on its forehead. Someone had brought a grand piano, glossy and black before the dull red dust of the tomb, which some of the many family members played from time to time. A master flutist accompanied them, wearing the traditional white toga and straw hat. They had opened the heavy stone door and brought out the venerated relics. His maternal grandfather had told him that his mother was those pieces of bone, those clumps of hair that had kept growing, those bits of earth writhing around in the mat that people were carrying and passing hand to hand as they danced and yelled, and that she was watching over him. The first turning of the bones, his mother’s father explained, marked a new passage, a kind of consecration—they went from simply being deceased relatives to becoming ancestral protectors.
At the end of the afternoon, once everything had been carefully rewrapped in more than twenty shrouds of wild silks, the famous lambamenas, and returned to its place, Ietsy’s grandfather took the child to see the interior of the stone house. He showed him the ledges, lining the walls like bookshelves, where his mother, his grandmother, his maternal great-grandparents, and other more distant forebears rested.
Ietsy hadn’t yet understood why his mother was there, in Ambatofotsy, far from their home, while he and his father would go to the vault in Anosisoa after their deaths. But he had an excellent memory of the terrible nightmares he’d had after returning from his visit to the ancestors, despite calling on his favorite dreams when he closed his eyes.
Eyes open or closed, he often pictured scenarios that showed him in the best light. A prized one was him driving a blue Porsche with one of his father’s friend’s prettiest daughters: Lea-Nour. This time, he was doing the Easter rally with her, Tana–Ampefy–Antsirabe. It usually started off well, they’d get the best qualifying time on the hilly Ankatso–Ambohidempona course, but that night, once he was fully asleep, the Porsche headed straight for the tomb, and he ended up alone inside the stone with slender mounds of clay that claimed to be his relatives, like his mother. He screamed and woke up all of Anosisoa. His father had an herbal tea brought to him, left a light on, told him to read, but nothing worked—every time he fell asleep, he ended up again and again surrounded by the remains of his forebears.
He spent that night in the bed of his father, who, once his son was sleeping calmly, took the divan next to it. Upon waking, Ietsy was both disconcerted by and grateful for it.
These memories made him shiver again all those years later in his aunt and uncle’s apartment. Sharing them, however, brought some warmth.
“I remember that exhumation very well,” Aunt Christiane said. “It was the most beautiful ceremony I’d ever attended—not as lavish as Anosisoa, but more . . . I don’t know how to explain it, more elegant? I bet it’s your mother’s artistic side!”
“But why wasn’t she buried in Anosisoa?”
“The proverb says, ‘In life, we live in the same house; in death, we will remain in the same tomb,’” Uncle Jean said. “However, in our family, ever since our forebears settled in Anosisoa, the tomb has been reserved for the males. According to lore, there were some fussy in-laws who had disapproved of the fact that Anosisoa was only one head above the water level—a tomb that low was not worthy of their clan, and they would not allow their daughter, your great-great-grandmother, to join our side. The children’s will eventually triumphed over the parents’ huffiness—they were able to marry, but under the express condition that the daughter’s body come back to her family’s tomb on a mountaintop, as it should be. Our patriarch, to conceal his wounded pride, decided that from that moment on, Anosisoa would never allow daughters-in-law a place in the cold house.”
Ietsy was intrigued. “So, will you two also be separated at death?”
“We’ve made arrangements to stay by each other’s side, here in a plot at Père Lachaise,” Uncle Jean said, laughing.
“My own uncle will not be buried in the Land of the Ancestors?”
Ietsy’s stomach turned at the idea, his inner Malagasy soul rising up beneath the French words. Foreign lands, even with such close relatives, certainly held many surprises, and shocks. But he could not go so far as to judge his uncle; rather, he merely expressed his regret that custom would prevent him from ever being close to his mother.
“Don’t think like that, my boy,” his uncle consoled him. “No matter where her body lies, your mother is always with you!”
“No matter where you are!” Aunt Christiane reassured him, taking several photo albums out from a shelf beneath the coffee table.
“Before she became your guardian angel, Marlène was a sweet woman who loved life,” she said, showing Ietsy photographs taken before his birth and during his infancy. “She had a gift for music, and dexterous fingers she used to win over your father. That grand piano at the exhumation ceremony, that was hers, a gift from your father. After she died, your father couldn’t stand to hear even one note, so he got rid of it. The piano wound up with one of your aunts.”
“And I never got any musical education,” Ietsy interrupted as he stopped at a series of photos of him as a baby in his aunt Christiane’s arms—he seemed to be squealing and trying to grab her nose.
“Yes, you did.” Uncle Jean smiled. “With your mother’s sister, the one who’d taken the piano. You didn’t want to go, your father never understood why.”
“He probably didn’t mind!”
“Marlène and I had been friends before marrying into the same family,” his aunt continued. “Her arrival in Anosisoa was quite the breath of fresh air. Even your grandfather was mollified by her music and sweet disposition. She would have loved to see the world. She was happy with your father, although she understood that to marry him was to marry the land as well: the end of her dream to travel. It wasn’t so easy to cross the ocean back then. When she was pregnant with you, you moved a lot. She would rub her belly and say that you’d travel the whole world someday.”
Ietsy’s mouth hung open. He didn’t feel like crying anymore.
They talked again about the events that had led his father to send him to France. Ietsy hung his head, listened, but he felt like their reprimands didn’t affect him, wouldn’t affect him anymore. Experimenting with dreams and parallel lives hadn’t ever tempted him that much—or at least less than the grown-ups around him wanted to believe. His aunt had shed some light on a shadowy part of his life. It didn’t make up for his loss, of course. But he somehow understood that something in him had found an answer. Two days later, on the way to his dormitory in the nearby suburb of Bièvres, he promised them, before they asked, as if in gratitude for their warm welcome, that he would never touch drugs again.
He felt at ease with Jean and Christiane, able to have open conversations with them. But regardless, he did not say a word to them about the awkwardness he’d felt coming from the airport the first morning he’d arrived. He’d seen a whole spread of photos of scantily clad women and obscene words in the large tunnels they’d walked through. At Sintème, imported magazines with similar images were sometimes passed feverishly around underneath the boys’ tables during their evening study period. Ietsy’s imagination would get carried away thumbing through the pages, and often his entire groin hardened and hurt for a long time after the crumpled magazine had returned to its hiding place, usually stuck underneath its owner’s shirt. The fire that burned inside of him then was more intense than what he’d felt merely seeing a naked Jeannie. Although he’d never considered applying what the Jesuits taught in their sex ed classes, as they especially recommended to calm one’s mind with ice water if tormented by temptations, he had inherited, in addition to his highlander modesty, a notion of sex based on puritanical teachings and bundling up. So, when he saw, plastered on the side of a newspaper kiosk just beside their car stopped at a red light, a larger-than-life naked woman saying to contact her via Minitel, he didn’t dare look at his uncle sitting behind the wheel, for fear that he’d seen it too.
Despite first impressions, Ietsy wasn’t completely unfamiliar with this place his father had sent him to beyond the seas. Although he’d never set foot there before, he’d become very familiar with the language. The island’s prominent families had adopted the colonists’ language along with their religion, although not going so far as to leave Malagasy behind. French was used both to communicate with foreigners and between Malagasies sometimes to exclude those who hadn’t mastered it—and vice versa.
Ietsy’s culture was both Malagasy and French, with emphasis on writing in the latter. Printed texts, from the literary classics to weekly magazines, defined the imaginary France of his childhood and obviously impeded his ability to grasp the real one. Seeing as how they’d only socialized with high-society people in Antananarivo and sometimes received princesses at home in Anosisoa, he expected to meet Stéphanie of Monaco in the City of Lights, since the magazines—the ones that lay around the lobbies of Razak businesses—said she spent lots of time there. He never saw her outside the normal glossy pages. He of course never spoke of his disappointment until much later, when he could laugh about it, although he had surprised himself by defending the intrepid princess to some of the snobs from the Bièvres boarding school at a rally, the first and last he was invited to. Beyond that, he only dimly picked up on the distance between his imagination and reality, just like the distance between what he thought of himself and what others thought of the foreign student, although his close friends forgot about his origins and the color of his skin, because fundamentally, he was just like them.
This time, he got up and slipped noiselessly out the back.
Anosisoa, like the other islands in the Antananarivo basin—backfilled, more and more gray, less and less green, in the middle of the granite string of sacred mountains—barely deserved to be called an island anymore. It was separated from the rice fields by a thick, solid wall of red earth; rice still grew in some of the fields, but others were filled in with suburbs and the industrial zone spreading north of the city. The sole entrance was a sturdy iron bridge, its thick joists rattling against each other as they expanded and contracted over time, groaning under passing wheels depending on the vehicle’s weight. Outbuildings for rice, sheds for agricultural equipment, a silo, and a treatment plant all sat on the fringes and brought it to life during the day.
Through a small forest of acacias and fig trees, the residence came into view. Three buildings of different sizes made a U shape, with a royal sycamore dominating the center, as it should, shading old beds of rosebushes and poinsettias on a stretch of unruly lawn.
In one wing, former stables had become a garage, with a second floor where the staff lived, three families plus the housekeeper and the latest driver, both unmarried, the first by vocation and the second by virtue of youth. Across the way and set slightly farther back, a two-story wooden house had once held offices, which were now in the city, for Mr. Razak had remodeled them into comfortable apartments for himself and his own father when his first granddaughter came along.
Now, the main building, where Ietsy was coming out from, was the epitome of a Central Highlands house, three times larger than average, with exposed brick, wood reinforcements, and a slate roof. Its imposing size was due as much to the initial builders’ ambitions as their successors’ desires to adapt it to new needs, like rooms for leisure. In the front, then, a glass wall framed the former parlor, now divided into a living room and a library, while at the back, two lean-tos framed the veranda, one doubling the size of the serving pantry and kitchen, the other a playroom for the children, used mostly by the adults to store anything and everything, since the kids generally preferred to lord over the attic lofts.
The whole ensemble restricted access to the highest point on the Enchanted Island, barely higher than the rest: the location of the tomb.
After lighting a cigarette under the veranda, Ietsy bypassed the drive lined with jacarandas; walked around the pool, an example of the significant progress Lea-Nour had brought to the old residence; and went down the little path that wound through the slumbering garden, more perfumed on that side with its jasmine trees, francisceas, and tall clumps of lemongrass, toward a pond that was hidden from view by a curtain of papyrus. And as he strolled around it, he realized that it no longer reflected even the moon, because of the hyacinths that had taken over the surface and spared only a few last patches of resistant water lilies.
The pond had been dug at the same time as the Andriamasinavalona dikes were constructed to tame the Ikopa River that wrapped itself around Antananarivo, four centuries ago, when the Betsimitatatra rice fields were being wrested from the marshes by unending labor that brought the entire population of Imerina together, after they’d driven away the former masters of the land, the Vazimban-drano.
For the Children of the Broken Vow, the original people of the great island—whether they be those of the coasts, Vazimban-driaka; of the forests, Vazimban’ala; of the mountains, Vazimbam-bohitra; or of the waters, Vazimban-drano, and later of the savannas, Vazimban-tanety, established where the great Ietsy had sculpted their ancestors—were all forever betrayed by those who came after belatedly answering the Great Ancestor’s call, more greedy and having made no vows, to seize the land of the Vazimbas. These others, unable to exterminate the natives—who grew like weeds, or rather like sacred wood—endeavored to forge alliances with Ietsy’s children. Alliances often later forgotten, if not renounced entirely, but believed necessary to inherit their virtues and uncover their secrets, which were said to contain, in addition to the key to the island’s riches, the mysteries of life, of first breath. And the Vazimbas, in accordance with Ietsy’s wishes, assimilated and absorbed each new wave of arrivals, trying to release them from their fantastical quests by opening their bastard hearts to them. But love is a difficult thing to understand for those who have not been bathed in it from birth. Feelings of exclusion and disappointment were often accompanied by violence, which ate away at the flesh of land and children, burying still deeper what always could have been within reach.
The newcomers split into two camps: those who thought they understood Ietsy’s children and those who gave up on that. All of them, though, once they felt an attachment to the land, ended up in the melting pot. Thus the first immigrants came, Gola the Magnificent and his companions from beyond the seas, from the northeast, searching for Ietsy’s treasure.
In Tsievonana, as the Talily tells it, one of Ietsy’s daughters stayed to guard his tomb, with the face of Ietsy’s final dream. Her name was Ratiakolalaina, The-One-You’d-Like-to-Love, given that name by her father because he was already counting his days when she was born. He spent his old age doting on her and delighting her with little animals he molded with his still-dexterous hands, just before his final moments. Any joy he gave her, she returned to him a hundredfold when her lips parted to smile. At ten years old, she was already so beautiful that the sun went into heat on the hill every time she went outside. For a while, there were no more nights and days. In the confusion, Ietsy withdrew further from mankind, achieved serenity after his disjointed life. Despite his self-imposed solitude, he saw Ratiakolalaina several times in dreams, and took seven years to die.
When breath left Ietsy, his beloved daughter peacefully awoke in her bed and knew that her father had died. She left her hut and went to the place from where Ietsy’s soul had departed. The sun escorted her through her journey and tried to dry her tears. The Vazimbas, who were joining her one by one to kneel before Ietsy’s cold body, found her lying prostrate before a small pool made from her tears. She did not move when they put him under this earth, respecting the patriarch’s wishes. It was as if she did not see them at all during the entire ceremony. At the end, they sat next to her for a time to share her grief. Some of them enlarged the pool with their own tears. Others, who could not, set down gold or silver. When they departed, they left, in addition to Ratiakolalaina, appointed guardian of the tomb, a mountain of gold and silver and a lake as deep as a good man’s eye. After a time equal to seven more years, as Ratiakolalaina’s sorrow would not ebb and the sun, weary, began again to circle the earth, the lake swelled and engulfed the tomb and its guardian. But instead of drowning her, the lake gave life to its wellspring. With love beyond measure, she continued to care for her father’s tomb under the water and was more beautiful than ever. She also had children, only girls, each as beautiful as she. As if Ietsy had finally fulfilled his dreams, safe from Breath’s anger in the watery world.
The Zazavavindranos, these Daughters-of-the-Water, still haunt the banks of our lily pad ponds, some rivers. Deep in our hearts. Since, as they say, the beauty of their souls shines forth in their bodies, they show themselves only to righteous young men. They can accept the men’s marriage proposals, give them children, riches, longevity, if only the chosen ones maintain a pure heart. If not, they dive into the nearest body of water and disappear forever. Likewise if their complex taboos are violated. According to the stories, you must never divulge where these mermaids came from. We know that Ranour, one of the most well-known Zazavavindranos, made her husband promise to avoid all contact with salt. He was not even allowed to utter the word. But some prohibitions are so subtle that wicked minds see them as mere excuses for the watergirls to return to their natural element. If on the off chance, within life’s ebb and flow, you should come across one of them, she pulls you from your solitude, bathes you in a perfume of eternity in the space of a breath, and dries you with a towel even more quickly. Then everything returns to the way it was before. The wind breathes, blows the rain clouds away, and the dust remains dust.
Later, after the first Ietsy and also farther, beyond the seas, in the land of dawn, the Talily says, Gola had been training since his initiation to hold his breath. He hoped to make his bathing last longer. He was so dedicated to his breath-holding that he did not notice the water filling in around him until much too late. But as he was not content with it, he did not even get wet. He could go out in the rain, in storms (he was a sailor), under cascading waterfalls—water evaded him. At thirty years old, Gola was still dry. He was nicknamed Andriatsilena, or The-Lord-Who-Never-Gets-Wet. Yet his greatest desire was to bathe, even for an instant, in the ecstasy of love. Even only for an instant, for as his age increased, he was much less concerned with the duration, and he secretly had hope.
One fine day, Gola found a sarimanok on the beach with a broken wing. The seabird seemed exhausted from a long journey. Yet beneath its feathers, Gola found only a trace of an old wound. The bones in its left wing were a little shorter but, to his touch, seemed to have healed. As Gola stroked the sarimanok’s down, he was surprised to find a few drops of water on his hand. The crystalline beads tickled as they slipped down his fingers, opening his pores to an unknown yet pleasant sensation. He brought a drop to his mouth and felt what flowers experience as they open their petals to the morning dew. Fascinated, Gola, who’d never been wet before, rushed to ask the bird where it had come from.
The sarimanok told him that in its last migration, its wing wounded, the trade winds had carried it farther south than in previous journeys. It had run aground on a vast land. Exhausted, convinced its final hour had come, the sarimanok looked for a noble place for its passage into the world of shadows. With a final effort, it flew above blue mountains and, within a valley of golden slopes, found a pool so blue that light itself came to gaze at its own reflection. It alighted a little off to the side and serenely began its mortuary song. Two young women, each as beautiful as the other, came from the water and drew near. The sarimanok thought they were messengers of death and had no fear. The Daughters-of-the-Water brought the bird near the pool, washed it, and cared for it. The water restored it, and, that very evening with the two beautiful caregivers, its wound already scarred, it sang melodies that were much less funereal. The sarimanok remained there for several seasons. Yet it had promised itself to return to the land of dawn to pass down to others’ ears what had been its joy.
As you can imagine, the words sown by the sarimanok sprouted into an idea, which in Gola’s mind blossomed easily into a grand plan. Gola dreamed of bathing in that extraordinary pool—which was of course the pool of Ratiakolalaina’s tears—which would soak him down to his core, he was sure of it, yes, even his heart, dried up by so many arid years.
And so Gola made preparations for the great crossing. First, he had to persuade his people to come with him. Gola extolled the faraway island with somewhat different words than the sarimanok. Yes, he told them the story about the bird with the broken left wing and the famed drops under its down. He stressed the size of the gold mountain. But even with a few dreamers among his friends who would follow him for any folly, many of them wanted more-convincing arguments before rallying behind this movement started by the legend of The-Lord-Who-Never-Gets-Wet in search of water to wet his skin. Gola said to those mistrustful people who didn’t know much: “Over there lies the future!” But they weren’t sure what that was and asked the oracle for an explanation. The island was so far away that the prophet they consulted, having already decided to help Gola, took a risk and said, “Over there, in every village, you will be honored both during and well after your lifetime!”
“But,” protested the skeptics, “what exactly is the future?”
The holy man simply said, “No one gets over it.”
That seemed true. They, too, made preparations for the great crossing.
For the trade winds to push them straight to the wide future, or Madagasikara, they built boats in the image of the wounded sarimanok: small crafts of two joined hulls with a smaller left wing. The hulls were hollowed out from tree trunks, with boards on the edges to lengthen them. Woven palms joined them together. From felling the first tree trunk to applying the final coat of resin to seal the boats, they worked five months and seventeen days. Each prow and stern were set with sculpted panels, the fore ones peering into the future and the aft spanning the past. They did not bless the boats, for the sacred water was the water they would cross. After a three-day fast and a fire purification ceremony, they climbed on board. Seven times seven of the great outriggers held two or three families and the year’s harvest of rice, obviously, and feasts of fowl and coconuts, as the length of the journey was unknown. They hoisted their single square sails, white or multicolored, on the first moon after the equinox of the 397th wind season before the era of Gola. Bound south-southwest, for the Cape of the Broken Wing. The Sarimanok, Gola’s aerocraft, black and gold, sailed at the head over the surface of the waters. He was dreaming of feeling the water, and beside him, Ietsy Razak’s ancestors were thinking of the mountain of gold and silver.
What happened could only come to pass after heavy costs paid and several adventures, both warlike and romantic. After completing the crossing by walking on giant water lilies, Gola found bliss in the arms of Nour, a daughter of the seventeenth generation of Vazimbas after Ietsy’s death. From the moment the newcomers arrived on the eastern coast, the Vazimbas’ gifts of welcome repaid their investments a hundredfold. Ietsy’s children on the east of the island and Gola’s companions settled their blood pact and bred together.
Alas, Gola did not find the sacred lake, and the searches for the mountain of gold and silver turned up nothing. Did he have faith when Nour told him that the place lay deep in his heart? Nour, who became Ranour the Holy, who threw herself into a crocodile-infested river rather than hear her sailor husband complain of his lack of salt.
At first, the People of Gola increased in number, pressed forward over the lands and forests, and reached the Central Highlands. A few centuries after the first landing, a thousand warriors, Ietsy Razak’s ancestors among them, conquered Analamanga, The-Blue-Forest-Mountain, the most beautiful of the twelve sacred hills, jewels set in sparkling waters, and from then on called it Antananarivo, or The-City-of-Thousands.
Then they had to tame the Ikopa River, which was flooding the Antananarivo basin, and first and foremost their former masters, so that we would never again want for rice. It was the battle of the horaka, or wet war, a battle only in name against the natives of the swamps, the Vazimban-drano, who fled far away from the flying staffs of iron, as pacifist as their cousins met before. The great dike construction project and draining of the marshes could begin, which would engrave King Andriamasinavalona’s name in history.
Ietsy Razak’s forebears, who’d been behind the idea, wanted to commemorate the occasion by establishing their residence on the largest of the islets, Anosisoa. They of course kept a house near the Rova on the royal hill, but as the generations passed, they slowly moved out. They were deemed insane to abandon the high hills for Amboniloha, those substandard lands infested with mosquitoes and liable to flood every rainy season, and emerging barely a head above the level of the water the rest of the year. In the beginning, they lived close to the king, going there only to oversee the construction and harvests. Then, the dikes were reinforced, the rice fields expanded, and the Vazimbas pushed ever farther west or assimilated, so they were able to move there permanently, only going back up to the city for special occasions. They even built a tomb there.
Once drained, the swamps provided good soil for rice and became a reliable supply for the city as it developed around the Rova, keeping the specter of scarcity at bay when uncertain times came and resources from the faraway countryside didn’t arrive. In Ietsy’s grandfather’s time, colonists occupied the blessed city in the hills, and it was the members of the court, then whatever was left of it, who bent over backward to get to Anosisoa for festivals. Later, the rice fields between there and the city slowly started being filled in. The Razaks stingily granted a small parcel of them to the serfs freed by the French administration but kept the rest lying fallow until the independence government opportunely decreed it an industrial zone.
There was always plenty of water in Anosisoa, although it rained less than at higher elevations. Winters were pleasant there. And his forebears had proven prescient about mosquito-transmitted malaria as well. Having noticed that pipistrelle bats consumed thousands of insects in a single night, they planted sycamores and fig trees with large leafy branches, where the odd flying creatures liked to hang upside down to prepare for their insect hunts. No longer fearing the humidity or mosquitoes, they even kept the pond.
The Anosisoa pond was clearly not Ratiakolalaina’s pool. But it was a symbol of renouncing the Great Ancestor’s mythical search for treasure and setting down roots in the soil, the land. Ietsy Razak had swum there as a child in the summer. He was disappointed that his children didn’t care to discover the feeling of pleasure tinged with uncertainty when slipping into the pond, feet squelching into silky warm mud, brushing curious or startled fish. Like Lea-Nour, who’d had the swimming pool installed, their children preferred its tiled bottom and clear water to the mysteries of the pond that burst with life.
He walked around it again as he smoked another cigarette. His watch showed just after one o’clock. He wasn’t tired at all. For the past week he hadn’t been sleeping. It was unsettling. The first night, he hadn’t gotten up and instead waited for the dawn with his eyes bulging into the dark. Ditto the second. The third, he slipped outside to take a walk, hoping to fall back asleep after a breath of fresh air. It didn’t work. His eyes obstinately open, he waited for any sign of his youngest, who always woke up first, to give himself a reason to get up. The following night, he was planning on reading. But he’d woken his wife up with an unfortunately abrupt movement—he’d gotten the sheets caught underneath himself and only realized it when rolling over to pick up his book—and got such a dressing-down that he didn’t dare move or turn on the light again. So he set himself up in a separate room with a stack of books. But for all that work, he didn’t read, persisting in the search for sleep, or the reason for his futile quest.
I’m not even worried about the future, he reasoned, standing perplexed by the pond.
He told himself that the journey to the end of the night would once again be long. The words popped out of his insomniac mind like air bubbles from an aquatic plant on the water’s surface.
THE SHADOW OF BABYLON
At another time in his life during which he didn’t sleep much, the nighttime hours trickled away in smoke-filled, slightly drunken debates on life, art, the autonomy of books, the character of authors, on Céline, Gombrowicz, and the like. But he recovered from those crazy nights the very next day. He crawled out of his bed in late morning, usually without a hangover. He recovered quickly, as they say. He was a student. Not a literature student, for as it was established upon his departure from the Land of the Ancestors three years before taking the Bac, it was law school for him. Still, most of the time, he read something other than his law books. Perhaps that hunger came from his friend Charlie, his aunt Christiane’s influence, or boredom at the Bièvres boarding school.
He struck up a friendship with Boris, another aficionado of literature, with whom he lived in a huge apartment in Versailles during his five years of law school (more specifically, they’d crashed at Boris’s father’s place, the father having left his residence behind for the Côte d’Azur—it was too near to the capital). They discussed and exchanged books, CDs, and girls, or more often their impressions of that raw material, all night long, all the while blithely plundering the vintage reserves of Eugène K., Boris’s father.
Boris, like Ietsy, had lost his mother. He’d known her, of course, had lived with her for a little while, but more importantly, when he was eleven years old, had watched her die after a long and painful battle with cancer. From his suffering, which had seemed endless back then, he’d developed a hatred for everyone who seemed not to feel the same, especially for his older sisters; they’d already left home when the tragedy struck and had fallen instantly on their mother’s jewelry box after the burial. He was angry with his father, too, who hadn’t been able to prevent the pillaging, as he called it. He snarled awful things at them, sparing neither their egos nor their ears. The unplanned yet unruly child was dropped off with the Benedictines. There, his pain changed at the same time as his voice to become youthful disdain for all things ephemeral, particularly the people attached to such things. Céline’s Journey was his Bible, and he converted Ietsy.
For Ietsy, emerging from the cocoon of Bièvres, the Versailles era was when he attended the school of life, without anyone to intercede in any of his relationships. He felt kinship. He endured violence, humiliations, sometimes even fear in a country where he hadn’t expected to feel like a foreigner. Paradoxically, because he’d never really become a part of it, he hadn’t adopted the hatred of other young people whom he met on public transit or in shopping malls, drawn to him because of the color of his skin but who didn’t have a faraway place to hang their hopes like he did. He felt love, passion that knows no law, and its violent cruelty. At the end of his fourth year at law school, with no particular mishaps or brilliant results, he had his Andriba.
The Andriba was a mountain on the western edge of the Central Highlands. On its slopes in 1895, the queen’s army scattered and fled in terror before the explosion of melanite shells from the vanguard of the French army that had come to conquer Madagascar for the second time. Although the overall forces of both sides were unequal and the kingdom would have had to surrender sooner or later to a greater power, Andriba, according to his great-grandfather who had been there with his own father, one of the queen’s officers, symbolized above all defeat without a fight, the worst kind, leaving the wounds open to questions and preventing healthy predictions about the future. His forefather had warned him about it, and still Ietsy fell.
He met Ninon during one of those soirées he was so fond of with his rejected rally friends, as summer was stealthily approaching. After his first car rally in his final year at Bièvres, he’d realized very quickly that regular ralliers were too infatuated with themselves; they didn’t know how to have fun, listened to crappy music, and wasted their time making awkward appearances at parties and having politically correct conversations, which, given his origins, never could have included him anyway. The core group in Versailles had formed a loose cluster of party animals, international and also native French students, who loved the night and “real” music. They got together all the time, on the Right Bank below the Louvre or the Left Bank under the Pont Neuf, or sometimes overlooking the river on the Pont des Arts, which they liked less because it was too crowded, or in the garden at the tip of Île Saint-Louis, which they had to hop the fence to get to. They would spend the beginning or end of an evening out there, sometimes the whole night if certain arrangements were made, a bar or picnic, or themed parties, a simple costume, sometimes just a color to wear or an attitude to adopt, then of course invitations for the most beautiful girls, the hottest ones, lured by something different, who’d in turn lure good musicians who’d lure more girls, and so on. Sometimes five, six, ten, even twenty or more would get together, surrounded by city lights reflected on the water’s surface.
One May night, cross-dressing, silk stockings over hairy legs, garter belts, fake boobs, makeup, wigs for some, a large lacy scarf with fake violets on Ietsy’s head, they put on a scene from La Cage aux Folles to celebrate a good friend’s birthday and distract her from the next day’s exams. The masquerade ball drew a crowd, and the cake meant for seven—an intimate gathering—was cut into sixteenths.
Ietsy was a waitress perched on high heels, purchased specially at the flea market, when his eyes landed on Ninon. She was wearing a long-sleeved sheath dress in white damask inlaid with sparkling jewels, which clung so tightly to her skin that she looked like she was walking around naked, covered in glistening water. She was with a man in a black suit from an equally high-end label, in his forties, his hair as brown as hers was blonde. Ietsy’s platter only had a small portion left. Still, he walked over to the couple, slightly out of place among the cross-dressers and the real girls, fresh young things, and thought to himself that he’d gladly part with his molten chocolate cake in exchange for a smile from this siren. Normally, he’d have been too overwhelmed by such beauty to make a move, but the very strangeness of the situation gave him confidence. “There isn’t much left, but I can still serve up a nice slice of cake,” he said, beaming, and produced a plastic knife to cut the fortuitous piece in thirds. The newcomers smiled too, swallowed the offering in one go, and thanked him.
“Berthe, at your service!” he continued, quickly wolfing down his piece, afraid they’d keep walking.
“You’re very beautiful,” he ventured.
“You too,” she replied.
“That’s for sure!” agreed her companion, ogling Ietsy from his high heels to the violets on his head, pointedly fixing his gaze on the garter belt.
“Careful,” Ninon warned. “Antoine is a real connoisseur!”
“I’m more happy than gay,” Ietsy said, smiling to his ancestors.
And that is how they met.
Ninon worked as a model. They’d just gotten out of a function at the Louvre, and she’d wanted to walk down by the water to remind her of the sea where she’d grown up.
There wasn’t any champagne left, but Ietsy found a bottle of bordeaux. The glasses were crystal, luckily, from the set Boris’s late mother had. They sat on the wall facing the river and talked; the relatively clean concrete didn’t seem to repel the nice clothes. Then the friends got out their instruments, started playing songs from Kind of Blue, and stopped time. When they began to get tired, or rather thirsty, Antoine took the opportunity to take his leave. Ninon got up too, but her friend assured her that it was okay, smiling amiably at Ietsy, and she stayed.
They talked for a long time about nothing at all, her laughing at his stories and him nodding at what she said, until a cool breeze made her shiver. Ietsy put his bomber jacket around her shoulders. She still wanted to leave, had an early train to catch the next morning. He offered to take her home on his motorcycle, but she said she’d rather walk. So he walked her home. He’d gotten runs in his stockings long before but hadn’t considered changing.
She lived on the Rue de Babylon in a top-floor studio. He didn’t go upstairs, but they spent a long time in the entryway. Then they squeezed each other’s hands. He left, skipping and jumping on his high heels, and did a lap around the public park in front of all the buildings, his hands in the air like a cyclist who’d won the crucial mountain stage but forgotten his bike. Her phone number was in his garter. Looking up to a window at the very top of the building where a light had just turned on, he thought he saw a shadow laugh.
It was just before a long weekend. She’d told him she’d be spending it in the countryside. He hadn’t wanted to ask whom with. For the next three days, which stretched out indefinitely, as if trying to make Ietsy understand the theory of relativity, he swung from euphoria, reliving the moment of delicate, stocking-run happiness, to doubt, reliving the same events but picking out contradicting excuses behind every word they’d exchanged, every move Ninon had made. Monday evening, when he called her, he got her answering machine twice in a row. He didn’t know what to say to it. Then, gearing himself up to talk to the machine, he called again only to reach Ninon. She was glad to hear from him. He rediscovered the breezy tone he’d had with her on the banks of the Seine. She’d spent the weekend resting and getting ready for a busy week. They set a date to see each other the following Thursday after she got out of a fashion show, this time in a fancy hotel.
He arrived at the appointed hour, a little early even, but since that type of event always runs long, he had to wait at the bar for over an hour. The servers eyed him suspiciously as he ordered drinks like a prince, a black guy with white pretension, but they were overcome with murderous envy when Ninon appeared, breathless but smiling, and headed straight for him.
Ietsy, slightly self-conscious in a brown shirt with small green flowers instead of his usual polo, was instantly buoyed by the kiss she planted easily on his lips. He didn’t generally give too much thought to his clothes, but that evening, he thanked his aunt Christiane from the bottom of his heart for bringing him that lovely and not-too-showy shirt from her last trip. He still had his jeans, his leather boots, and the bomber jacket, also from Christiane, which he wore more often, given the way he got around. He’d spent a bit more time than usual getting dressed. He hadn’t wanted anyone to take him for one of those sapeur dandies he despised so much, even if he sometimes couldn’t help but admire the living tableaux they made on the Rue de Strasbourg. He certainly spoiled nothing of Ninon’s allure, who this time was wrapped up like a piece of candy in a billowing transparent plastic top. Underneath, she was wearing a mandarin-collared blue crepe de Chine shift with a wide belt casually draped around her waist. A pair of high-heeled thong sandals elevated the arches of her feet sensually, raising Ietsy’s blood pressure a notch.
“Sorry for making you wait,” she said with a huge smile.
“No problem. You look amazing!”
She wanted to get a drink with some friends, just not in this “tacky” place. Which she pointed out by looking over her shoulder at the customers around them. Ietsy, who’d already done his rounds and hadn’t seen anything particularly abhorrent—mostly very chic women and busy businessmen—nodded obligingly. While he settled his bill, Ninon’s friends turned up with a brutal gust of fresh air. Following them out, he glanced back around the room one last time and felt like he understood what Ninon had meant.
The other girls hopped into a taxi, and Ninon hopped up behind Ietsy on his motorcycle. He’d brought a helmet for her, but she said she wanted to feel the wind. “Screw the cops.” Ietsy took off, cackling.
Parisians in their cars usually didn’t spare much attention for bikes, but that night, they seemed the model of common courtesy. She shone like a beacon. They got off the bike on a street near Les Halles, and Ninon took his arm. He was just starting to get used to people turning around to stare as they went by, and then in the café, especially when the other girls breezed in all aflutter, he could clearly see the esteem in the eyes of their waiter.
He thought he should have Ninon come with him those three times per year he had to go to the prefecture to renew his student visa. But he knew that would have been out of line, so he tried to crack jokes, stay lighthearted. When he noticed the other girls were barely listening to him, he just smiled.
The trendy bar, the creation of a famous designer, radiated, reflected, and refracted light. There were mirrors all over the place and polished metal everywhere else. He thought it was just as “tacky” as the fancy hotel, just with a younger clientele. Still, when he went to take a piss, into what seemed like a wall of water, he was absolutely grateful for his luck.
Back upstairs, he found, like clouds hanging over his starry sky, two guys who’d sat down with the girls. He introduced himself with a smile. One of them looked like he knew Ninon very well. He invited all of them to a party he was throwing the next day. They all chattered away. Ietsy tried to follow the conversation and maintain his good mood. On the way home, he forgot all the others very quickly when Ninon, hands clasped around his waist, rested her head on his back.
Once they reached the Left Bank, she asked him to stop and walk a bit. Ietsy parked in front of a police station. The officer on guard outside saw them without helmets and was visibly happy to answer Ninon’s dazzling “good evening.” After locking up his motorcycle, Ietsy skipped gaily over to her. She took his hand and kept it in hers.
“Do you want to go to Paul’s party tomorrow?”
“If you want,” he said. “He seems chill.”
“That’s cool of you. He’s my ex.”
There were hardly any people around anymore. He caught hold of her and peered carefully at her, trying to see who was there behind that beauty, the mouth that smiled wide and often under dimples, her impish nose that could question the weather itself, her high cheekbones highlighting her round forehead, and her eyes, between blue and gray, oh ancestors, that drank in everything. Headlights occasionally lit Ninon’s face. Yet he seemed to glimpse a shadow behind her eyes. He smiled weakly, and a “Yeah, if you want” tumbled out. She offered him her lips, and he tasted them. First like a forbidden fruit, the hint of a kiss. When she didn’t pull them away, he had more. A mouthful. He felt molten steel flow through him, burning and freezing at the same time.
For the rest of the way to her place, they didn’t say anything more about the other guy. She asked him what he thought of her friends. They’re nice, he said. You mean they’re dumb? I don’t know. You’re not like them. What am I like? Why are you with me? Tread lightly, Ietsy thought.
As soon as they got to the entryway, she warmed up. She kissed him before bounding up the stairs two at a time. “Here,” she said, giving him her purse. “Careful with that, my whole life’s in there!” He let himself get left behind. But she didn’t want to lose him. She turned on one of the landings and came back down to kiss him again.
“Let’s make love,” she told him.
“I am blessed by the Gods and Ancestors,” Ietsy said.
“Get undressed and wait in bed for me.” She giggled as she pushed him into her room. She joined him a few minutes later, slipping under the sheets after having turned off all the lights and taken off her robe. She’d laughed her little laugh, so seductive. Did he want to respect the modesty she’d displayed? Was he afraid to discover the hidden marvels? Whatever it was, he said nothing, touching her in the faint glow of the Parisian night sky. He feasted on Ninon’s full, supple body, so unlike the matchstick models in vogue. She hardly tried to move, only turned over when he was about to take her. He had a moment’s hesitation, which she cut off by thrusting her hips back, rubbing up against him. “This is my thing,” she whispered, clutching his head against her neck. His pleasure had barely begun when it had come and gone. Embarrassed, he pulled out. He thought he could beg forgiveness by reverently kissing the shoulder at his mouth, stroking her face. He tried to kiss her lips again, but she turned her head. Then he noticed furtive movement. When she started gently moaning, he literally prayed to her through closed lips on her skin. Fear and awe chilled his blood and all his senses as she stirred her arm faster and faster, even elbowing him sometimes, which he took unflinchingly like presents to connect them. Both of them were breathing hard when she finally pressed herself to him, jamming her foot into his ankle, and unveiled paradise to him for a few dazzling seconds. Satisfied, a smile playing on her lips, she sank into him and fell asleep.
His eyes stayed wide open and his body motionless for the better part of the night, thoughts tumbling around in his head. He put up with the tingling arm he’d threaded under Ninon’s neck for a long time without daring to