For some time now, Ietsé would wake up, even though there was likely nothing that should have been disturbing his nights. Often, at these moments, no crickets were chirping, and no owl was hooting, barn or otherwise. It seemed that the bats had paused their voracious fluttering, and their furless wings neither produced their characteristic flap-flap sound nor beat the air. There wasn’t even a breeze that could have been crinkling the leaves on the trees, not even a little. The house’s normally creaking wood was quiet. No restless stirring was perceptible underneath the sheets of the conjugal bed. It was as if the silence itself had pulled him from his sleep.
If it lingered, he’d persuade himself that he was sleeping and dreaming, keeping his eyes shut and not moving a muscle. He let his mind roam, grasping at profound or asinine thoughts here and there but refusing to follow them to their conclusion, so as not to scare off his almost-dreams. Surely the echoing lull—or rather, his passing isolation—would never last long enough to continue his wandering.
Sounds ebbed and flowed like a lazy tide, with a few sudden pops in his auditory canals. The ones that had never stopped, like the one caused by the century-old regulated movement of the pendulum set into the wall above the staircase. It belonged so much to the building itself, aging with it instead of measuring the passing time, that you sometimes forgot entire days even though it chimed every quarter hour and ticked each second. His wife’s breathing, so regular and so familiar that he had to concentrate to feel her presence, so close, almost inside, breath of his breath—it’s been over fifteen years that he’s been married to Léa-Nour—it made him fall in love all over again. Dogs started barking again in the vicinity. The echo of a truck passing on the highway reached him, a rustling insect or cousin irritated his ears. He recognized the sound of a spider’s eight legs brushing against the baseboards, the muted sound of the sleigh bed’s feet against the slightly warped wood in the next bedroom as his youngest child tossed and turned, the sighs and murmured half-phrases of childhood dreams of the oldest daughter or her younger sister in the room down the hall, the crumpled garbage bag probably with an anxious mouse or roach digging through it in the kitchen downstairs, and the wind tousling the slumbering outdoors.
During these moments, if he did lift his eyelids, it would be to remark that it was, unsurprisingly, dark. As his pupils dilated, he could make out an arm, if his wife was moving in her sleep, or part of her back, her face with a faint glow from the white sheets, and also blurry forms of unmovable objects that seemed to have been there for years.
Through the cracks in the shutters, he could sometimes see a star sparkling, or the pale clear moon, covered momentarily by the frenetic paths of passing pipistrelle bats, hunting their thousands of daily mosquitoes. Like them, he could have moved around the house without light, in this house that had witnessed his birth.
He could have gotten up noiselessly and breathed in the country air, now so close to the city. He didn’t do anything about it at first. He wanted to recover his sleep as fast as possible. Wanted mostly not to interfere with the unfolding night.
He knew all of this, and all of this buttressed the calm. The calm of Anosisoa, where the Enchanted Island was found, between woods and rice fields, in the walls of the centuries-old home, the calm of the neighborhood, the industrial zone, the city, places a hundred kilometers in every direction, and probably, the entire country. All of that was reassuring. All of that should have reassured him. It should have created a state of peace, if that state wasn’t called sleeping at night.
His lack of nocturnal tranquility may have had something to do with his lack of activity during the day.
Ietsé Razak didn’t have what one would call a career, much less a job. Granted, he didn’t have to worry about what he’d eat, how he’d dress himself, where he’d live. All those material concerns: he was set. Everything had been provided for him, in advance and in abundance.
In that family, it had always been like that, as far as I know.
First came Ietsé the Fortunate, the forefather. Then, those ancestors of Ietsé Razak who had crossed thousands of nautical miles to reach this land among the waves. They’d walked on giant water lilies floating on the ocean to complete their journey. Setting foot on the island, they’d known full well how to make the effects of their enchantment last through the generations. They had assimilated the masters of this land, transforming their existence into myth after integrating them, conquering them, or driving them to the wilder ends of the earth. They had woven their way through the natives’ tight caste system, making their dominance known by force, by alliances, or still more often by the timely breaking of alliances. They had always supported the kingdom’s expansion and taken their share of taxes. They had accommodated later migratory waves, turning them to their profit. Trade had unquestionably enriched them. They’d bowed before the colonial forces—showing intelligence, a type of adaptation so close to compromise that the outsiders probably wouldn’t have been able to distinguish the difference—but, even with that, their own kind remained among the only ones interested in defending what the latest arrivals lusted after. To establish their power under the sun of independence, they had blown the winds of progress, profited from the hunger for knowledge, and imposed an undeniable mastery. They made themselves indispensable at every moment, even during the revolutionary period, when everyone wanted to cut down the old trees, like them.
Like Ietsé’s forefathers, I should say, because Ietsé Razak has only ever reaped the benefits of his situation.
And whenever these rude awakenings occurred, business picked up again. People wanted to farm their lands, lease their buildings, use their funds, and benefit from their experience. All of it worked, kept running all by itself, like the electric train from his childhood. There were some incidents, of course, but the Razak patriarch was a shrewd man. He’d diversified, making his lands, belongings, and relationships yield a profit. People consulted him on the country’s important issues. He kept a firm hold on the family fortune, partially out of a passion for power, but also partially because of his only son’s complete disinterest.
Ietsé, he wasn’t interested in much, and he had only simple desires. He only had to ring a bell for the governess, secretary, or director, all the old staff, to come running to hear and obey—all of them were part of the heritage, the clearly divine and ancestral blessing.
Blessed by the Gods and the Ancestors. That’s what his father always said when he made young Ietsé give thanks. That was customary, as well. They went to perfume their ancestral tomb: the paternal side in Anosisoa at the New Year, and his mother’s side in Ambatofotsy on All Saints’ Day. On every holiday or even somewhat important event, they poured out a drink in the sacred north-east corner of the house, in a small alcove with not the ancestral portraits on display—those watched over the hallways or held court in the salon—but with signs representing said ancestors engraved into rot-proof wood (a tiny old scrap of wood that may once have been the stern of a boat with mysterious lines on it, nearly entirely erased, but undoubtedly made by a human hand). And they prided themselves on being the family that showed the most splendor every seven years or when social norms dictated it—an approaching election, the day before a change in the tax rate where they’d have to call on their allies—when they rewrapped the lambamena, shrouds of raw silk, of the ones resting in their vaults.
The luxury of “re-turning” their dead made others’ ceremonies pale in comparison, looking back over time, especially during the enlightened revolutionary period—or, truthfully, at least the first few years—when the government had attempted to discourage extravagant traditions. However, according to the Razak patriarch, they always owed that to their ancestors, who were granting them the fullness of their blessing.
They had always been among the first to receive the light from over the waters—science, culture, and even the trappings of religion, when necessary. Thus, now, they were one of the great Christianized families.
Certainly, they always venerated the land of their ancestors and acknowledged it as the source of all good things. But they had also adopted the taboo of pork for a time to please the Muslim traders, then had continued to use their writing style long after people here forgot who Mohammad and his god were (after all, Mecca is not on the Enchanted Island). They had discerned the technological superiority of the whites, supported King Radama I in his policies of openness toward the West, and accepted without qualms transcribing the Malagasy language into the Roman alphabet. When Queen Ranavalona II converted to English Christianity during the nineteenth century, they had built the first churches (where, during the preceding reign, those who had followed the foreigners’ god too early had been executed).
The rocks for the church in the Rova, the royal citadel dominating the capital, came from a family quarry. The diaconal duties had always fallen to them. Ietsé was second only to his father to shake the pastor’s hand at the end of the service. The Razaks had a permanent seat right behind the royal hardwood chair with its scarlet cushion. The throne long unoccupied, but believed irremovable.
But sadly, a terrible fire had reduced everything that had existed on the royal grounds to dust: the church and the five palaces—Manjakamiadana, the palace of Queen Ranavalona and her successors; Manampisoa, the one that Queen Rasoherina added; Ranovola, the one for Radama the First; Mahitsielafanjaka, the one for Andrianampoinimerina, the father of the Malagasy nation; and Besakana, the one for Andrianjaka, the founder of Antananarivo. Up in smoke, too, went the discovered part of the Fito Miandalana, the Seven-Aligned-Houses, and the trano manara tomb, below which lay the former sovereigns. The fire destroyed everything. The flames devoured the sky for a whole night, and the city summit could be seen for dozens of kilometers. The crowd came from everywhere to climb the hillsides, and it was larger and still more destitute than a century earlier, when the last queen, Ranavalona III, had departed in exile. Streams of tears ran through the poor parts of town; lamentations were the only things to rise and could not best the flaming citadel. Hours later, heat still tortured the cladding of the great palace stones, whose four emblematic towers were like giants being burned alive, writhing and roaring without falling.
Since then, with help from the international community, other stones had been cut for the church. The trano manara tomb of the Seven-Aligned-Houses had been rebuilt, the cold dwelling place of the ones that had reigned over Antananarivo ever since King Andrianjaka had christened his capital with that name, at the end of the Fahagola era and the very beginning of the Fanjakana, in 1610 on the Christian calendar.
“Can money recreate sacred relics?” Léa-Nour whispered to Ietsé during the inauguration ceremony for the first phase of reconstruction.
“The ancestors do not die!” he replied in the same volume.
She sighed looking the gathered assembly, dressed in the same modern clothes that carefully acknowledged tradition: for the women, a Chanel suit, or something that passed for one, with a silk lamba around their shoulders, between white and cream, the rare ones among them, like Léa-Nour, wearing the traditional chignon on the nape of the neck; the men in dark suits, some with bow ties, like the Razak patriarch, and of course the lamba around their shoulders, white with red stripes—the solid red lambamena being only fit for the sovereign and the ancestors, and only warriors being permitted to wear the lamba with black bands.
“They’re empty!” she said.
Ietsé didn’t know if she was talking about the people pontificating around them, or the tombs. The threat represented by vacuity of the former, because they ran the country, like the latter, because nature but above all death detests emptiness, despite rituals performed to sweep away the disgrace of forgetting the ashes of ashes, it made any elder shudder. But the world was entering the third millennium and, in the shadow of the rocks that had remained standing, after having sacrificed a zebu and consecrated new roofs of the tombs, the reconstructed church was inaugurated.
As for the wooden chair, the other furniture and the structures themselves of the other buildings of the Rova, they are still waiting for the tears shed that odious night to make the necessary trees grow, as well as other emblems of the sovereignty needed to reconstruct it all.
Before, the Razak patriarch had had the habit of bringing Ietsé here to look out onto all of Antananarivo, reminding him of their role in making kings throughout the constantly shifting pre-colonial history, and even more so in their reacquired independence. Two periods now symbolized by thoughtless, tumor-like reconstructions.
“I don’t believe any of it,” Léa-Nour said one day, despite everything, fluffing up the black hair hanging simply over her shoulders.
Ietsé, walking beside her, behind the house, watched her jet-black eyes rebelling within the wise oval of her face. The October wind whipping the warm air was making jacaranda flowers fall gently to the ground. The young man wondered how anyone could live in the skin of a non-believer. The mauve flowers carpeted the path that ran directly to the tomb.
“Your father opened up all of Anosisoa to me,” she continued. “Even this vault: up until now, it had been inaccessible to daughters-in-law! Like my parents, I appreciated the gesture . . . ”
“Your father was so proud that the vazimbas were coming back to Anosisoa!”
“He always thought himself more vazimba than the others,” Léa-Nour smiled. “Really, though, I’m not that worried about it. When it happens, you know, I’ll be dead.”
“You don’t want to become an ancestor?”
“They’re only dead people, like God is the tedium of Sunday mornings. Ietsé, if everyone had the same beliefs you do, we’d be able to rebuild Rova without any foreign aid at all.”
And she laughed. She carried a large stomach before her, full of happiness.
“You really don’t believe it?”
“I believe in life,” she said, caressing her belly. “In children, in the fact that we must preserve this Earth for our children, enrich it and pass it down. In Filistria. You were the one who told me about Gombrowicz, right?”
“Yes, that hallowing the earth always aims for its protection, dedicated to our children or our ancestors.”
“Sure,” smiled Léa-Nour. “But ancestors live in a tomb, whereas children can travel anywhere they please!”
The loyalty of the old Razaks, harboring the same obscurities as their long history, burdened Ietsé. A little, that is: only ever like a pebble in his sock. As a child, he went to the Protestant church on Sundays, and, on Thursdays, to the Catholic mass at school (Sintème, which had undertaken the education of his father, his grandfather, his great-grandfather, and the rest of the country’s elite ever since colonization). But deep down, his father’s entreaty was to not forget the great ancestral crossing and the source of the ever-flowing milk and honey. The god on the cross had just been welcomed into the traditional pantheon with all the others. The Jesuits charged with his education nearly made him a skeptic about all of that. After enduring several trials, however, his ancestors’ protection proved extremely sound.
He must have been around eleven years old the first time that he saw concrete evidence of it. There was the way that the residents of Anosisoa submitted to his every whim, but that obviously didn’t count: that revealed more of their attachment to material things than a fear of wrathful invisible beings who would harass anyone who might thwart the blessed ones.
There was a guy in the class above him, a mixed-race, burly and built, a full head taller than him. He acted all tough and seemed unaware of Ietsé’s natural birthright. One lunchtime, while the other guy was walking home with a few friends to the white vazaha neighborhood where he lived next to school, our Didymus sat on the front hood of the car and asked the driver—who was often pressured to juggle the son’s desires with 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. The crowd stared as he passed like in the Independence Day military review, which got him all fired up and confirmed in his heart of hearts his divine and ancestral consecration before he’d even gotten to the end of that first test. Once he reached the other guy, he stood up, still on top of the car, and hurled insults at him. Everyone following behind him, surprised by the scene, was too captivated to yell to clear the road—and perhaps some of them had recognized the Razak patriarch’s vehicle. None of that mattered to Ietsé. He kept up his rant, making the forming mob witnesses to the other guy’s cowardice. The guy didn’t understand fast enough. Then, as he finally opened his mouth, Ietsé jumped him. From the car, he had enough momentum to knock the guy to the ground, pummeling him. The driver dragged himself out of the car and pleaded with him to stop, while simultaneously preventing anyone else—the giant that he was—from intervening and touching the son. Ietsé left the other guy with blood running down his face.
That afternoon, nobody at school talked about anything except the ontological trial that had taken place. The victim’s parents made a complaint to the Rector, but he slunk out of it: extra muros, outside his jurisdiction. At the weekly Thursday mass, during his sermon, he just made a brief allusion to it, staring hard at the blessed one. Ietsé pretended not to understand.
The young vazaha never got the chance to take his revenge. The driver, in defiance of regulations, started waiting for Ietsé at the door to their very classroom from that point on, 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 wanted to highlight his strength or klutziness—towered over him like a real bodyguard. And besides, in their studies, they were reminded that violence was a crime, and as the fat Brother Headmaster emphasized, the punishment—suspension from the school—could be permanent.
The year after, the young vazaha’s colonizer parents—by default, what they called people who had to tolerate everything someone else did—pulled him out of Sintème and registered him in the French high school. The protection of the Gods and Ancestors unquestionably approached the realm of perfection.
Three years later, the blessing was confirmed a contrario, as he would later tell it, we might think with the linguistic habits acquired on the bench at law school—Ietsé had to do law like his father—if we didn’t know that his familiarity with syllogism dated back to his childhood, to the long lunches in Anosisoa when, while the Razak patriarch and his guests binged on clever debates and florid words, Ietsé and his friends pigged out on food and learned the effects of alcohol, the boy trying valiantly, after several sly gulps of the paternal whisky, to stay straight-laced until the soft rays of the setting sun streamed into the room, flooding the white plaster wall, and then went out. That year, which would prove to be his last at that school, he was less bored: there were girls and a new kid, Arthur, another mixed-race who’d taken the opposite route of the ex-colonizer, from the vazaha high school to Sintème, who initiated them into the world of forbidden smoking.
Obviously, I’m not talking about tobacco, which wasn’t tolerated outside the Rector’s office, either, but about the thing that no one smokes anymore except gangs and people who pull carts by hand so they don’t feel tired. And artists, too, for inspiration, like the new guy’s parents.
Ietsé, during his visits to their home, didn’t get the chance to see Arthur’s father, a theater man. His mother, on the other hand, a painter, he spotted her often, because she had a workshop set up in the back of their garden, from which sometimes emanated the scent of Ancestors’ Weed. Art was a foreign environment for Ietsé—he just knew that the paintings that decorated their walls in Anosisoa were worth a lot of money, because he’d found that some of his father’s friends exalted dumbly before them.
He fantasized more about Arthur’s mother, who was not just an artist, but a redhead. She was from northern England, on the border of Scottish territory. Her ancestors had already fallen in love with the Malagasy sky as they walked under it during the time of the London Missionary Society. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the awful Queen Ranavalona had driven out those zealots of the faith of the Queen of England beyond the seas, afraid that they might win the hearts of her own subjects. By following their tracks back to the island, Miss Jones was fulfilling an old family dream. But anyway, for the young Ietsé, no matter how blessed he was, she naturally fell into the category of the inaccessible.
They spent Thursday afternoons in Arthur’s room without lessons, and there was Jeannie. She was the wildest spirit of all their female classmates, who were sprinkled sparingly into the school only starting in junior year. Jeannie was taking hits of the joint with them, and it had a fantastic effect. She wanted to be touched and kissed. The others thought it was funny, especially Néness, and Arthur, too. But not Ietsé, who’d always been put off by group work. He watched, or listened to Charlie.
It has to be said, Andzamal gives you really weird sensations. Already naturally a contemplative person, with the cannabis-caused engrossment, he could watch flies mating for centuries! As for Charlie, he didn’t stop reading: poems or other books grabbed from the library that filled the hallway leading to Arthur’s room. Sometimes he unveiled the beauty of a text to them out loud, but his friends laughed indiscriminately, he believed, annoyed. It was like Ietsé was absent, not hearing anything really well nor feeling anything specific, neither agreeable nor disagreeable, you know, but when the others laughed, he spasmed, too, for no really apparent reason, and sometimes, like the others, unendingly for forever.
Charlie thought they were morons and kept repeating that poetry was the only thing that was worth anything at all.
“A poet,” he told them, “while the rest of the world is bathing and wallowing in muck, a poet takes a dump standing up!”
The others died laughing, without quite understanding why. It had become a conditioned reflex, even without the stimulus of cannabis, at any slightly lyrical allusion, they’d exchange glances and burst out laughing.
They’d had a poem to study for French class. On the day it was due, the professor asked for a volunteer to recite it. She was undoubtedly thinking of Charlie. Before anyone else reacted, though, Ietsé raised his hand, suddenly inspired by the text. He’d barely read the title. He wanted to blow everyone away, especially the pretty lady teacher whose copper-colored hair made him think of Arthur’s mother. She didn’t show any of her surprise for her student’s unexpected enthusiasm, but rather invited him to stand at the front. He set himself just in front of the desk, so that she could only see his back. Standing before the class—who all knew him well, and that anything could happen—he started his performance. He lowered his eyes, pretending to concentrate. Then, staring hard at Jeannie and Arthur in turn with the most constipated expression (he knew there wasn’t any 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 tried again. He didn’t have to make sure anyone was paying attention. He kept his eyes half-closed and intoned the first syllables again, and then the next few tumbled out in a rush of relief. Again, to widespread hoots of laughter. He turned around and gave the teacher a mock-hurt look, but she of course hadn’t seen anything and was just tapping her pen on the table.
“Well, go on!” she cried.
He let a few quiet seconds go by, then continued his act. Arthur was bent over double from laughing, Jeannie had tears streaming down her face, Néness was smacking the table and his thighs. Everyone, he thought, was laughing. It was contagious. Even the teacher had the hint of a merry smile as she renounced her plan and sent him back to his seat.
As he returned to the back of the classroom, he saw Charlie’s strange expression, but with his euphoric schoolboy’s success, he hadn’t thought anything more of it. He just wondered if his friend had been smoking before coming to class, too.
One afternoon, a few days later, Arthur brought over a “super high quality”. It was a little after Easter, and the in-between season was well underway. They’d never smoked inside the school grounds. Now, they were tempted by the reportedly exceptional weed. While they enjoyed it in the shadow of the pine trees above the soccer field, the quietest corner of Sintème, the poet of the group took some pills out of his pocket.
“With these,” he said, “it’ll be a spleen explosion!”
They didn’t know what that meant. They were already soaring high. They’d missed the start of class. Charlie was telling them about his own experiments, and the group was laughing. Ietsé was with them and sometimes with himself. Everyone else, too, probably. Jeannie, in between Néness and Arthur, was stroking herself gently on the down cover of pine needles. When Charlie held his hand out with the tablets after gulping one down himself, she took her own hand out of her pants to take one and swallow it. Jeannie was far from faint-hearted. Ietsé hesitated. Néness took one, and finally, Ietsé did, too. Only Arthur didn’t. He preferred it plain, au natural, he said, rolling another joint. It wasn’t a problem, they were open to anything, time had stopped. Then Ietsé thought he’d fallen asleep.
Néness was the only one who’d actually slept, Arthur later told him on the phone.
“You guys completely lost it! Especially Jeannie!”
Ietsé only had a faint idea of what it was that they lost. He woke up at home under his bed, he had a headache and felt awfully tired. Snippets of scenes were coming back to him, but he didn’t know which ones came from reality. It seemed like he’d cried at one point, and that at another, he’d been naked as the day he was born, racing against equally-naked Jeannie and Charlie.
“All the school priests were chasing you with blankets, all around the main courtyard,” Arthur told him, screaming with laughter into the receiver. “They wanted to get you dressed again, but you didn’t make it easy for them!”
Apparently, once they were corralled underneath the inquisitor eyes of the Jesuits, caught and covered—everyone except for Néness, who was probably still snoozing under the pines—Jeannie stood up and peed in the Rector’s office, singing all the while.
Ietsé didn’t remember that at all. He listened to Arthur, quivering with nervous laughter that made him bump his head against the mattress slats. He got a nice lump, but that didn’t make him move or think it was any less funny. On the other end of the line, Arthur was also cackling with laughter, like during the best of times.
“We’re gonna get kicked out!” he determined.
But even that, he said laughing hysterically. Neither of them was yet aware of the tragedy.
Ietsé, his ears suddenly pricking up at his father’s heavy footsteps coming up the stairs, then in the hallway, smothered his laughter in his hand and, still underneath his bed, tossed the phone back on the hook and tried to look apologetic. He heard the click of a key in the lock. The Razak patriarch walked in, livid, in one of his endless dark suits, his moustache and goatee unkempt from raging anger. He wrenched the telephone out of the wall and took it out of the bedroom, his son powerless to hold onto it. The door slammed and the lock snapped shut.
Ietsé crawled carefully out of his hiding spot, which wasn’t actually a hiding spot, because of the old-style bed, too tall, and not wide enough, so it hid nothing from view. He started asking himself questions about what he’d intended, choosing that as a place to hide, when the key turned again in the lock.
His father entered, followed by two maids, as well as the houseman, a hunchbacked simpleton. Without looking at him, the master of the house strode over to the wardrobe and opened both its doors. The others, their job obvious, grabbed a hold of all the clothes they found, including everything on the floor, the chair, and the desk, bringing them all outside. Each of them made two round trips, the man throwing fearful glances at him as he passed, while the women lowered their eyes, the one respectfully and the other, younger, hypocritically, unable to keep a smile away from the corner of her mouth. His father stood rigid before the armoire, like he was trying to bore his anger through the sandalwood. Silence hung heavily between the swishes of fabric.
Ietsé didn’t react, too dumbstruck. He figured he had to still be under the effect of the drugs, literally hallucinating. Once his wardrobe was emptied, everyone left and the door was shut again, locked again. Then he realized that he didn’t even have boxer shorts to cover his skin, and his other things had already been stripped out. They’d probably looked for narcotic substances that he might have concealed. But he hadn’t gotten to that point: for him, he only tried it with friends, things to have fun. And there he stayed, naked and cut off from the outside world.
The only contact his father left him was limited to the meal plates slid in, then furtively removed by the wordless, terrified houseman, as well as the old chamber pot that had been used for his great-grandfather’s nearly-final days (during his final days, he’d worn diapers that a nurse had changed for him like a baby). He racked his brains over what strategy to adopt: would it be better to revolt, scream, throw the falsely indulging grub against the wall, along with that shameful bowl of his contents, and then jump out of the window and trail a scandal behind him outside, or do everything at the same time after jumping? He’d certainly done enough already. After prudently thinking it over, it was actually a dangerous idea—he was on the second floor, at least seven meters from the ground, the Razak ceilings were high. He kept trying, momentarily resolved to bow his head, mount some kind of defense, but nothing came to mind that would have withstood his father.
After the third day, it had been long enough that he prepared to go on the offensive. Instead of the usual Quasimodo, however, it was his governess, ageless even back then, who stuck her head through the door of his room around noon. She wasn’t bringing a meal—she had clothes.
“Your father is expecting you in the library,” she said, her voice as misty as her eyes.
She apparently had strict instructions, as well, because that said, she slipped back out, closing the door behind her, this time without touching the key. He got dressed quickly and mentally prepared himself for war.
His father was running quite the game: he’d made his son wear his dark suit, the one that Ietsé had worn a few months earlier for his incontinent elder’s funeral. Upon seeing him, the father, in shirtsleeves but a knotted tie, rose from his armchair. Walking toward the living room, he dropped a casual phrase behind him 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 correctly. He couldn’t believe his ears, nor could he hope that it was a joke. The Razak patriarch, if it has to be spelled out, was as much a prankster as Jeannie was Mother Teresa. And even though he’d sometimes laugh with his guests, wielding a humor that the son did not share, he wasn’t in that kind of mood that day, not at all. Ietsé followed him unsteadily. His head was spinning, his heart racing. His father was already sitting, and the governess was waiting, standing before the door to the pantry. It looked like water was trickling down the chandelier above the table. And the light that normally poured in through the high windows had also become fuzzy. He didn’t realize that it was his tears, expelled from his eyes without him realizing it, that were blurring the scene, until they fell from his cheeks to form quite visible moist spots on the shining wood floor, brushed daily with abrasive coconut husks and rubbed every Friday with beeswax, as the tiniest things in the Razak household usually became regularly scheduled rituals.
The last time he’d cried like that, he must have been seven or eight years old. For such a dumb show—yet serious enough that his father had promised him a thrashing—he was banished from the table and sent to his room to wait. Monsieur Razak had never hit his kid before, but that time, it really seemed like he’d wanted to let loose.
“I won’t take my belt off just yet,” he’d added as he sent him upstairs.
He’s going to kill me, the child imagined. Fear had caused urine to run all down his jelly-like legs as he climbed the interminable staircase, and his already-red eyes flowed like waterfalls. He’d 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, he father had left for work again, and he never knew if the sentence had been carried out or not. He’d never found out. The governess, growling only that he’d deserved to be punished, had never really shed any light on it, and he’d made sure not to question the concerned party.
This time, the adolescent dared to ask the question. “Are you gonna kill me, too?” he asked, choking back sobs. The Razak patriarch didn’t reply. Still, he set down the fork that he’d been bringing to his mouth, merely looking strangely at his son. It was obviously extremely inappropriate.
But it wasn’t Charlie’s own father who’d killed the boy, either. At least, not really. He most likely would have, his friends thought during the funeral, if it could have prevented a scandal. He wondered if infanticide would have caused less indignation than a overdose death of the son of the Minister of Youth and Culture. 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, who was of course obligated to talk about temptations of artificial life at the mass.
Arthur had been able to communicate with Charlie a little before the tragedy. He was locked away and stripped of all his belongings, like Ietsé. His books, his much beloved books, were taken away by his parents, who believed them to be the source of his insane debauchery. They’d taken Baudelaire from him, and Burroughs, and others.
“Even Rabearivelo, a national treasure!” Arthur added, who now thought himself the only one knowledgeable about such things, because of his artist parents.
To his ill fortune, Charlie still had a key that opened every door in the house, specifically the one to his parents’ bathroom, where he’d gone to procure pills for his final trip.
Arthur’s mother, who’d also come to the burial, refused to join the procession going to shake “those people’s” hands after laying the body in the family tomb, so they stole away after her, too. The black she wore made her pale skin shimmer. Despite the properly tied-up bun at her neck, she was making Ietsé melt like fat sitting in the sun. He would have followed her forever like a little puppy dog if Arthur hadn’t elbowed him in the ribs.
The thinning group of friends talked a little on their way to the parking lot. No one had heard from Jeannie. Arthur and Néness already knew their fate. The former was going back to the French high school. He’d had a long, drawn-out argument with his parents. He was a lucky bastard, though, and had gotten more spoiled than punished. The latter was going to stay at Sintème like nothing had happened. He was even going to keep his scholarship. In the chaos of nudists that had followed their stupefying experiences, no one had noticed his absence from class. Arthur, who’d been the only one in any state to respond—in between uncontrollable fits of laughter—to the questions they’d suffered in the Rector’s office, hadn’t mentioned him. So Néness had just kept sleeping under the pines until he was woken by cold rain. He hadn’t returned home until nightfall. Back at school the next day, he heard first the rumors in the courtyard, then the official version in the auditorium about the group’s misconduct, and then the final disciplinary action directly following. The other students were appalled: drugs at Sintème, it was simply unthinkable for most of them. When Took, the class wiseass, tried to rechristen the main courtyard “the Garden of Eden,” Néness told them, they were the only two who laughed. Everyone else glared daggers at them.
That was the last time that Ietsé Razak saw his friends for a long time. The next day, after having him take a handful of red dirt from near the ancestral tomb, his father put him on a plane to a boarding school overseas, this time run by Benedictine monks, on the banks of a river that disappeared underground.
Johary Ravaloson is an author and visual artist, in addition to his day job as a lawyer. Born in Antananarivo, Madagascar, in 1965, he has lived and studied in Paris and Reunion, before returning to his hometown in 2007. He has won numerous prizes for his novels and short stories, including the Grand Prix de l’Océan Indien and the Prix roman de la Réunion des livres. Along with his wife, contemporary artist Sophie Bazin, he founded a new publishing house in the 2000s, starting a new trend of in-country publishing in Madagascar and Reunion. His most recent novel, Vol à vif, is being published simultaneously in France and Madagascar in February 2016.
Allison M. Charette translates literature from French into English. She received a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for Naivo’s Beyond the Rice Fields, the first novel to be translated from Madagascar, forthcoming from Restless Books in 2017. She founded the Emerging Literary Translators’ Network in America (ELTNA.org), a networking and support group for early-career translators. Allison has published two book-length translations, in addition to short translated fiction that has appeared in Words Without Borders, The Other Stories, InTranslation, the SAND Journal, and others. Find her online at charettetranslations.com