I Am Mary
Hand-fired mud bricks hold together our two-story house. Every spring we make new bricks to replace the ones falling apart and some we try to sell. This is my favorite time of the year. Papa neatly stacks and smolders them in the middle of our modest rice field. He works silently and continuously, stopping only to grunt at my big brothers when the brown mud rebels against their efforts to mold it. Then his lips will push up and eyes like daggers will direct one brother or the other back to reshaping the cast into the perfect rectangle it should be.
The square columns of bricks radiate heat and we like to play around them, soaking up the warmth in our thin bones and inhaling the sweet odor lifting from the spaces left in between. Next to the bricks I prop my little cloth doll, with the big eyes and crooked blue smile I drew on her chin with my special pen. After just a few minutes, the crinkly straw inside her warms up so much that when I hug her I know what it's like to feel a real baby next to my heart. When I become a mother, my baby will never forget he's loved. My arms will open wide as an eagle's wings to protect him. My heart will reach to his and hold it like a lover holding hands. My mouth will only give kisses and speak gentle words in his delicate ear.
The bottom floor of our house is where we keep hay and potatoes or even tubers and chickens when we have them. A ladder on the outside of the house lets us climb to the first floor where our family of nine, and soon to be ten, lives. Once inside, a small door to the left opens up to a galley where you can enter and look down on the animals. The floorboard is only as long and wide as the back of a zebu; the rest is open and dusty with dry grass. We throw food down to the animals if the weather is bad outside, and if anyone needs relief during the night, this is where we go. The rest of the first floor is a single open room where we sleep on two big straw mattresses and our Neny cooks in the corner to the right near the window. A large wooden cross adorns the wall behind my parents' mattress and pictures of rainbows and cats with funny outfits that I found in a magazine are pasted above the second mattress.
Most days I tend the rice fields with my brothers and sisters, or weed out the manioc and potatoes, and feed the chickens. We walk several kilometers each day down the side of the mountain to get fresh water from a spring and to wash our clothes. Sometimes we will go to school, but the teacher only comes to our village once or twice a month. I do not blame her; she has her own family and livelihood concerns. Besides, Papa prefers it that way.
I'm the third born and the first daughter. My mother bore four other daughters after me. Being the oldest daughter and nearly twelve means I have many responsibilities. Neny expects me to take care of my sisters and to help her with all the household chores, especially now that she awaits another baby. She wants me to learn how to take care of the household because it won't be long until I have my own family. After all, Neny was only three years older than I am when she married my Papa.
Papa is tired of having so many daughters and I know he is worried about how expensive it will be to marry us. I know this because he is always complaining about it, insisting to Neny we need not go to school but rather earn our keep at home. He has demanded another son from Neny. We are all praying that she will satisfy Papa.
Once a month, Neny walks down the side of our mountain, up the side of the next mountain and down again to the nearest market. She carries a large basket on her head with anything we can manage from our garden, and if there is nothing, she will take a couple of chickens to sell. She'll buy the things we need for the next month such as candles, petrol, matches, and cooking oil. If she leaves in the earliest morning when the stars are bright in the sky, she will arrive by sunrise and can spend the full day at the market until nightfall. She must hurry to sell enough and gain the money to buy what we need. Usually she returns very late at night when the moon is high. She is not alone in this monthly trek; the other seven women in our scattered village follow the same cycle.
Neny has been very tired these past days, her belly swollen so large. The baby will want to see the sun and the good earth for himself soon. Neny has been weary and resigned; she tries to keep up with her duties but I am assisting more and more. Before, when pregnant with my younger sisters, she was short-tempered and lashed out easily. This time she is kind, grateful for help, and her eyes seem to have lost their flame. I worry about Neny.
It is time again for Neny to leave for her monthly trip to the market. Before sunset, she gathers manioc greens and some bricks into a rounded straw basket that will later be transported on her head while her hands carry the petrol lamp to guide her way in the dark.
"Please Neny, let me go instead of you, you are too tired," I insist as we sit together on a straw mat, finishing our plates of wet rice with big metal spoons. Neny looks at the floor; her eyes will not meet anyone's. Is she ashamed? I only meant to be kind to her.
"It is forbidden!" Papa barks. He is wary of any change from the normal routine, lest it invite bad luck upon the birth of his son.
For a long pause, no one dares to speak or even move. My youngest sister of three years stares down at the mat and sucks on her mouthful of rice. She looks just like Neny; her eyes and thoughts guarded, like the bats in our field as they avoid the light of our torches. We all finish the rest of the meal in silence.
We go to bed soon after the sun does but my eyes refuse to close. All I can do is stare at the ceiling from between the shoulders and feet of my siblings. When I hear Neny get up and start to pack, I gently untangle myself and start the fire for breakfast. Halfway down the ladder I hear her trip, and I run over to the top to make sure she is not hurt. I swiftly make it down and place a hand on her shoulder.
"Please Neny, please, I am begging you."
She shakes my hand off and her eyes avoid mine, "You heard Papa," then walks off with her lantern in hand.
I put the rice on the fire and gently wake the oldest of my sisters. I tell her I will just be a moment outside. As she watches the bubbling rice, I tread quietly down the ladder. With my temples throbbing from the fear of Papa's awakening, I tiptoe after Neny and catch up with her as she descends the mountain. She is worried and does not want me to defy Papa, but more than that, I can tell she is relieved.
Our plastic flip-flops are worn and tattered and no shelter against the cool grass whipping our feet. Our long skirts capture the early morning winds that rise up from the earth and chill our legs. To stay warm, we walk briskly. Neny carries the lantern and I hold the big basket balanced on my head anchored underneath by a tightly wound lamba.
With only the light of the lantern, we make it down the first mountain and halfway up the second. The terrain is dusty and the mountains are dotted only here and there with young trees defying the scorched earth around them. Lights ahead and behind us bob up and down like fireflies as others take the same path. There is a small trickle of water before we reach the peak and we stop briefly to take a bit in our hands. How grateful we are that the mother of the great river in the valley below supplies us with this clean, fresh water. Our hands ache from the cold as we lift the spring water to our mouths.
Just as we reach the highest point of the second mountain, we see the slightest sliver of pumpkin haze on the horizon below. The sharp whistles of birds join and then drown out the chorus of frogs and crickets from the night's concert. It becomes easier now for us to see and we proceed with a faster pace. My heart finally stops beating like a drum at the bottom of my throat. My shame at disobeying Papa and worry that he would overcome us had been weighing on my head much heavier than the basket I was carrying. We are far enough away now that I know Papa will not follow us.
I take the lantern from Neny so she can focus on her steps; now that we have some daylight and can move quickly, she will need to take care not to stumble. My balance is off and I am concerned I may trip myself, but I know better than to complain. Neny breathes heavily, but she doesn't stop. In some ways, it is more difficult to descend the mountain than to climb up. I don't hear her panting anymore but instead notice she is having trouble gripping on the dusty path. We take off our flip-flops so our toes can cling to the steep drops. I ask her to walk behind me, so I can catch her if she falls.
Her voice is raspy. "And then you drop our only basket to sell?" Still, she stops and does as I suggest.
I walk a bit slower, hoping this will help her footing. We are almost to the bottom when she slips. She drops right to her bottom and slides a few meters, just knocking the back of my feet as I turn to reach for her. I take her hand in mine and help her up. I notice little red bubbles dotting the palms of her hands. She brushes herself off and nods for us to keep going.
It is only a short way now to the market and ahead of us a few other women are making their way to the same place. They wear brightly colored lambas around their waists and baskets on their heads. I can see the ruffled white heads of chickens looking out from the top of one of these baskets and something about it makes me laugh. Neny is now in front of me and turns back with a stern look.
"Hurry," she says.
It is only dawn, but already marketeers are vying for the best spots to sell their wares. The morning air mutes the din of voices to the humming of a swarm of bees. This mixed with the reds, blues, yellows, and greens in the marketplace makes me feel I am a tiny creature in a giant flower garden. I stop for a moment to let my eyes catch up with my feet.
"Hurry," she reminds again.
I have only been here once before. The first time I saw the market I thought of a marmite of rice bubbling over. Within the stone grey concrete walls and dome-shaped roof stand the cement tables that only the butchers may use. Large metal hooks from the ceiling hold the great chunks of zebu or pork that the butchers periodically hack into pieces. Freshly slaughtered before daybreak, the slabs of meat on the counters are already painted black with flies that the butcher boys try hopelessly to swat away with plastic bags tied to thin sticks.
Outside the market walls is an area designated for smaller animals and household goods. The ochre-colored feet of little children leave tracks as they chase after the small fowl that weave in and out of the cooler butchery. Turkeys struggle against the ropes around their feet as merchants arrange themselves and their goods on beige straw mats with pink and purple designs. A cage of kittens stands sentry near the entrance to the butchery, noisily entreating release. Red and blue plastic buckets, bowls, and baskets in every shape and size dot the landscape like patches of fire.
Farthest away from the center rest the smaller goods for sale; straw mats one after the other with a sprinkling of green onions, stalks of garlic, pearly white manioc and bushes of greens. Neny picks a spot here close to a winding path that leads to the meat vendors. Carefully opening our basket, I unroll the small woven mat inside and beat out the dust and chaffs of rice left over from our dinner last night. I take Neny's arm and ease her down onto the mat. Kneeling, I lay out our goods in even rows. It isn't much but if we can sell it all, we will buy petrol for the kerosene lamp and some matches and cigarettes for Papa. Lined uniformly around the marketplace, every mat around us peddles the same commodities.
How we manage to sell so quickly, I don't know. Maybe my mother's rounded curves spark respect in others. Maybe our goods look fresher and Papa's bricks are straighter. By the good grace of God, we sell everything by the time the sun is directly above us in the sky and beating down on us with the ire of a fighting coq.
Neny's forehead is smooth and relaxed underneath a shimmer of moisture as she watches me count and organize the bills we earned that morning. My chest puffs slightly, feeling her pride at how clever I am at arithmetic. Neny seems stronger, moving with greater ease and less faltering, as we hasten to collect our needed purchases. "Papa will be satisfied," she says, nodding her head sharply. She then looks up and scans her surroundings as if seeing them for the first time. "Hurry," she adds.
About five kilometers from town and just over the top of the mountain closest to the market, Neny lets out a quiet whimper and stops, bent over with her shoulders toward her knees. I find a flat space not too far from the path, near some large rocks, and lay our mat down. Neny stumbles over, slips out of her shoes, and crouches with her hands braced on the rocks. She is quiet but her shirt is soaked with sweat. She swats my hand away as I try to pat her back. I know we'll need water but we have none. I hope someone will walk past on the path, yet we left the market early, and it could be hours before anyone else returns home.
It feels like a long time that Neny paces and huffs and grunts. She grudgingly allows me, here and there, to wipe away the perspiration from her forehead with my extra lamba. Finally, she grits her teeth and squats down for several minutes. She falls back on her bottom and reaches between her legs to pull up a little naked creature, slippery and coated like our hands and teeth get when we've eaten rice cooked with pork fat. She puts the baby to her chest and then rubs its back quickly and soon we hear angry cries of protest. She then puts the baby to her breast; eager suckling now washes out the sounds of cries.
I run to Neny's side and gently ease her head down to rest. I take a deep breath. What a miracle this child is! I take the lamba and lightly wipe her clean. Neny is breathing quietly and looking in my eyes. I know she is worried about seeing Papa's fist and what it will do when it sees her.
"Take the baby." I lift the baby with care not to pull on the cord still attached to the inside of Neny. Neny scoots herself so that the rock supports her back. She reaches over and removes the baby from my arms, then pulls the rubbery cord up close to her face. With one quick rip, her teeth tear apart the cord and out of her mouth the copper-colored nutrients that had been the baby's lifeline for so many months splatter to the ground. Then, like the hog tails at the market, she ties the remaining flap above the baby's belly in a rough knot.
"The skin of baby's packaging will come soon. We will bury it and then we will go home."
I nod my understanding. I also know the baby will not be permitted to see where we bury it.
"May I hold her again?" I open the soiled lamba and place her within. I cross her arms across her body and fold the cloth in sections around her until she is a neat bundle, the same way we make steamed banana leaves. Then I hold this bundle to my heart, where I have held my doll so many times before. "She's perfect," I say while I gaze at her reddened cheeks and short but thick locks of black hair. "Papa will be disappointed, but when he sees her, how can he not love her?"
Neny grunts and shakes her head loosely; she doesn't agree, but is too weary to respond to me. She looks pale and weak and it is good that we are resting. It is good that baby's first skin is taking so long to come out; Neny will not insist on walking home straight away.
The sun begins to kiss the ground with its yellow lips and the song of crickets rises. I hear the shuffling of footsteps coming up the path. Lost in the lull of repeated motion, the two women walk past without notice of us. "Azafady." I signal for them to stop and hasten over. "Water?" I gently rock the baby at my chest as I point to my mother lying just barely in sight around the rock.
One woman is young, fresh-faced with hair swept up in a neat bun. She carries a heavy basket on her head with one hand to steady it. Her brow is bubbled with perspiration. It is the other woman, old enough to be my grandmother, who speaks. "Milk." She pulls from her sack a soda bottle filled with the white liquid and sealed by a plastic bag tied around the top. Before she approaches Neny, she leans to the side and spits a brown grainy wad onto the dusty path, then grins a toothless smile at me. With the sun setting, I can just barely make out the lines on her face like signs pointing to her piercing eyes and worn lips.
The old woman kneels beside Neny, tears off the plastic plug and puts the milk to Neny's lips. Neny drinks greedily, like the baby did just moments earlier. The woman pulls the milk away before the bottle is half-empty. "Thank you," Neny manages to breathe out, but I can tell she wants more. I light our kerosene lamp as it has become dark.
"It has not come out yet?" the old woman demands of me. She reaches over and tugs the rope that the baby had clung to just a few hours ago. "You should have pulled it." She holds the lifeless cord up in the air but there is nothing attached to it. I look down at Neny and notice a circle of red growing between her legs.
"What have you done?"
"Go get the sagefemme. Why you didn't fetch the sagefemme before?" The old woman huffs off, places the rest of her milk in her basket and regains her path without looking back.
The young woman stares at us with the eyes of a rabbit: not knowing which way to run but sensing danger is ahead. "Please will you get the sagefemme for me? I cannot leave my Neny's side." The woman nods once, looks at her heavy basket, which is on the ground in front of her and looks back at me. "I'll watch it," I offer. She picks it up instead and places it on her head, then turns back toward the market and, hopefully, to find the sagefemme. The baby begins to cry.
I take the baby over to Neny and put her back to the breast. She quiets and excitedly suckles. Neny's face is drawn and her lips are pale pink. Her eyes look out at me weakly. The lamba around her waist is soaked and dark. "What should I do, Neny?"
Neny looks down at the baby on her chest. "Take care of Fara."
"Fara? This won't be your last, Neny. You will still have another and he will be a boy and Papa will be pleased."
"Papa will blame us."
My head is light and I feel worry clawing its way up from the depths of my belly. I run behind the rock and try to expel it, rid myself of the doubt and fear inside. Every muscle squeezes and, having eaten nothing since the night before, I get no relief.
Fara has stopped suckling and sleeps peacefully. Her face shows no sign of the turmoil below her. I kneel down to Neny and gather the folds of her lamba like a dam around the natural tunnel Fara had come through. I hope this will help stop the bleeding. I hope it will not be too late. I sit next to her and hold Fara, and at the same time Neny's hand. Neny does not resist.
It is a long time, but finally the young woman with the rabbit eyes comes back with a man. The man is old but sprightly. He walks swiftly and carries a bag over his shoulder and a kerosene lamp in one hand. The woman bids him farewell and goes on her way down the path, away from the market. The elderly man approaches us with haste.
"Where is the sagefemme?" Neny manages.
"She could not be located. I am the Ombiasa. I will help you now." He pulls a bundle of long dark leaves from his bag. "Child, fold these over and fill up the baby's tunnel with them."
I look at Neny but her eyes are closed. Sitting next to Neny with Fara nestled in my lap, I do as the elderly man indicates. I do not worry that this hurts Neny, as she does not move at all while I fill her with the stiff leaves.
My hands become slick with the life source flowing out of her. The leaves seem to be slowing the current, but the abundant dark pool beneath her is a sign of how much has already been lost. The Ombiasa lights something and smoke flows from his hands as he makes his way fanning them from the bottom of Neny's body toward the top. A stale peppery odor burns the inside of my nose.
I call again, "Neny?"
With Fara in one arm, I use the other to pull myself over to reach my mother's face. My hand recalls the cold wetness of the spring that morning as it brushes her cheek. Neny's fire is gone, the breath of her winds has passed. I look to the Ombiasa.
"It was the will of God," he says as he gathers his bag and pinches his lips together. "I will not ask for payment today." He turns, picks up his lamp, and propels his light step back toward the market.
Fara begins to cry again and I do too. I set her to our mother's breast and Fara attaches her tiny mouth for a long time. I sit all night by Neny's side, holding my sister under my shirt to keep her warm and laying her to Neny's breast at each sign of hunger. Finally, the sun begins to rise again and, as it lifts the dark veil of the night, it dries my tears and Neny's blood. I kiss Neny's forehead and then tie Fara's lamba around my chest to hold Fara near me as I walk into town to seek help.
The health center is closed and all staff but the janitor are out of town for training. To those around me, there is nothing I can say but that my mother died. There is nothing anyone can say. The few people nearby remain quiet, staring at the ground. The janitor helps me find a few men to transport Neny back to our village.
The pace is too swift. I resist going back. I know that when this path ends all of this will be real. We will bury Neny and nothing will be the same. I beg the men to walk slower but they ignore me and continue onwards as promptly as the Ombiasa retreated last night. We pass the spring with no desire to quench our thirst. With every step, I remember the breath of my mother behind me, the flapping sound of her shoe hitting the bottom of her heel, her voice urging me to hurry. I do not want to hurry.
My father's face turns to stone when he sees us approaching. Two of my sisters are in front of the house playing; the rest of my siblings must be in the field. He stands still as we get closer. My sisters come running toward us. Their eyes are wet and lips pulling down; they quickly comprehend the meaning of the stiff package wrapped in white cloth.
Papa shows the men where to place Neny and then speaks to them quietly to the side. I cannot hear what they are saying; the cries of my sisters fill my ears. I carefully lift the basket with the purchases we made at the market off my head and onto the ground in front of me. Fara starts to cry and, having no other recourse, I put her to my own breast and she calms down.
The men leave and Papa calls to me. I approach with Fara sleeping soundly in my arms. "It is a girl," he declares.
He raises his hand and slaps me across the face, knocking me to the dirt ground and Fara out of my hands. Fara wails and I rush to pick up and comfort her.
"Behold the misfortune you have brought on this family through your disobedience." He stares at me with hardened eyes as I avoid looking at him. "Take the baby and leave."
"Where will we go?"
Fara still cries loudly and I hope this means she is going to be fine, that if she were hurt badly she would be unable to cry. I do not know this to be true, but it quiets my fears for the moment.
He spits loudly to the ground near his feet and continues to stare at me.
My lip trembles but I slowly raise my eyes and meet his, then look to my sisters. Their eyes bulge with tears held back for the moment by the shock of what is happening in front of them. The youngest shakes her head sharply and cries out, "No." Papa raises his arm and points for her to go inside without shifting his piercing eyes from mine.
I turn back down the path toward the market again. The tears making tracks down my cheeks become less frequent as my pace quickens. Fara calms down with the swift, rhythmic rocking of my step and falls asleep. Once I reach the bottom of the first mountain, I stop and scoop water into my parched mouth. I drink heartily, careful not to spill the icy water on Fara's tiny head.
I make my way back to the marketplace; the few ariary we did not spend yesterday jingle in my pocket. At a gargotte, I buy a steaming plate of rice to quiet the furious goat bleating in my belly. I continue putting Fara to my breast when she cries; this keeps her satisfied.
In seven days, I will return to my natal village to honor my mother at her burial. I will not join the gathering but will watch from afar as the family wraps my mother's body in white shrouds, a special lamba of delicate and costly thread counts that will envelop her like a spring cloud, to brighten her rest within the family tomb. She will not be lonely. Her ancestors will rest with her in similar packaging: carefully arranged like the cocoons of silkworms, the winged insects long gone but their prized legacy still intact.
I press Fara closer to me, can feel her strong heart beating quickly next to mine. She is joined with me now, the threads of my responsibility to her as strong as the lamba around my ancestors in whose path my mother shall soon follow. The day is ending and I look up at the pinpricks of light shining through the dark cloth above. Like my ancestors, they too are abundant figures in white. Although they shine above, some more bright than others, none will lead my way.