By Audrey McCombs
First place in The Missing Slate’s inaugural New Voices writing competition
The air pulses with clapping hands, the ground beats with pounding feet. The village elder folds back the last of the rotten lamba shrouds, and the bones lay gray and exposed in the desert air. A hundred voices rise together, tuneless and rhythmic. Cassandra stands among the villagers just inside the mouth of the canyon, but she doesn’t know the chant, she doesn’t feel the rhythm, and so she stands alone, hands awkward at her sides. She has never seen human bones before, but this only the latest in a long list of Madagascar firsts. She tries to feel awe, or reverence, or loss, but she did not know the man, so for her there is only a failure of sympathy. The villagers knew him. They speak in low, respectful tones. But to Cassandra, the bones are just the relics of a religion she wants to believe in but can’t.
The old man removes the first toe bone, and places it on a sheet of new raw silk. He takes the next bones in turn, the tiny toes, the feet, the ankles, the large tibia and fibula that seem obvious and easy compared to the delicate tarsals. In her head, Cassandra names each bone as the village elder handles it. The villagers would be uninterested in the names, perhaps even offended, but that she can remember them all pleases her in a small way. It helps ground her, this recitation of facts, something solid to hold on to amid constantly shifting values and expectations that she barely understands, and cannot fulfill. The village elder works his way slowly up the body, focused, attentive to each bone, even the tiny hammer, sickle and horseshoe of the inner ear. He is careful not to miss a single one.
Cassandra’s world is made up of transect lines, survey protocols, DNA sequencing of the baobab trees she is studying. Back home, she spends much of her time in a laboratory under florescent lights wearing latex gloves, operating machines made of polymer and silicon. There, the amputated limbs and harvested organs of her trees are reduced and reduced and reduced again into their essential parts. There, they are out of their element. They are autopsied. She will write a journal article about her studies here. It will be read by other people working under florescent lights, wearing latex gloves.
Here in Madagascar, her trees are beautiful. They stand sentinel and solitary among the rupicolous landscape, their purple-gray bark marrying the blue sky with the red earth. Some of the baobabs she studies are over five meters in diameter, over two thousand years old.
From the group of men, Cassandra feels Jaomora, her guide, watching her. He has maneuvered himself so that he is standing just off her line of sight as she watches the village elder turn the bones. Joamora doesn’t understand the distinction between a professional and a personal relationship. Joamora’s wife is a decent woman, raising eight sons with no daughters to help. Cassandra wonders sometimes if Joamora’s wife wishes she would join the household, for the help with the washing of dishes, pots and clothes. Joamora is a big enough man in the village he could have two wives. And what wealth if one of his wives was a white woman.
To avoid making eye contact with her guide, Cassandra looks away from the body and over into the canyon. Sunlight saturates the copper and rust of the sandstone, while reflections from the stream cavort on the canyon walls. Cassandra stands still among the thrusting village women, the waves of their chant squeezing like hands against her ears. The ferns along the stream bank twitch in a different wind. Cassandra is disoriented, dizzy. The ground continues to throb beneath her feet. The clapping and chanting press upon her; she cannot hear anything past the wall of human sound. She needs air. Trying to ignore Jaomora, she focuses back on the old man and the bones. The elder places his ancestor’s skull on top of the pile of relics, then wraps and ties the new silk shroud.
The Malagasy say that in the time of the ancestors, the baobabs wore huge round canopies heavy with silver-green leaves. From their great height they surveyed the other trees and plants, deciding they were the most majestic, like unto gods. The gods became angry at the trees’ arrogance, and as punishment, ripped them out of the earth and planted them upside down. This is why the canopy now is flat and root-like, branching sideways from the trunk but growing neither up nor down.
She doesn’t know the village elder’s name—he is simply “Dadá.” The elder. Joamora’s wife is “Mama’ny Justin,” Mother of Justin, Joamora’s eldest son. Only children have names here. She doesn’t care to know the village children—they scream and kick at her the same way they torture their emaciated, mangy dogs. Justin and his brother, Guitot, like to peak through the canvas enclosing the pit that serves as her toilet. They threaten to pull down the canvas wall as she squats, it’s a game for them, and the village mothers laugh encouragement to the children. So she doesn’t know the village children, nor the women without the children’s names. She also suspects that “Jaomora” isn’t her guide’s real name, but one given to strangers. Names are powerful; people protect their names here. Cassandra is a scientist and doesn’t believe in witchcraft, but sometimes she feels foolish for having given them hers.
Their husbands all want to possess her. She has become cynical about it, like so many other things, but she has not yet succumbed to being possessed.
The villagers carry the bundle to the stream, and, wobbly, Cassandra breathes again in the shifting air. She looks north into the depths of the canyon, then quickly looks away before the village catches her staring. The villagers say there is a door there, at the end of the canyon. Jaomora says it is fady. A taboo place.
At the stream, with the bundle, the village calls to the ancestors with their voices and their hands, their feet, their bodies. The village elder unties the bundle, and carefully washes each bone in the stream. The villagers invite the ancestors into the land of the living, calling on them to possess the sky, the rocks, the trees, the bitter air on the leaves of the hanging ferns. The village entreats the ancestors to accept the dead man into their ranks. Stamping their feet, they insist. Clapping their hands, they threaten. Calling with their voices, they argue and chasten and finally beg. A gust of wind blows through the canyon, a robinchat takes to the air, and gathering its light to itself the sun disappears behind the lip of the canyon wall. A cry races across the water and echoes through the rock walls. The bones have been turned.
Cassandra knows that tomorrow the dead man will be reinterred in a cleft in the rock three hundred feet up the sheer cliff face. But that will be tomorrow. Tonight, until the sun returns, the ancestors possess the land.
In the dying light, alone next to the stream, the wind blows Cassandra’s hair into her face, and she adjusts the lamba she has tied inexpertly around her waist. She is hungry, and the village women are cooking rice in black cauldrons balanced over wood fires. But the rice won’t be ready for at least another hour. She is always hungry here, where the standard meal, three times a day, is cassava leaves boiled with salt and ladled over as much rice as you can eat. She can eat a lot of rice now, but she is never full. She knows this constant hunger is beginning to affect her, both mentally and physically. She started wearing a lamba about a month ago; the villagers think (rightly) it is because she is trying to fit in, but she also wears it because her clothes don’t stay on her body anymore. She wants water now, too, and the stream teases her with chimes of invitation. Once, about three weeks after she arrived here, she succumbed, drinking from the stream on a long hot day in the field. She has been fighting giardia ever since.
Cassandra has been to this canyon many times in the course of her work. One adolescent baobab stands behind her to the south, about two hundred meters from the entrance to the canyon. A more ancient specimen guards a constriction in the rock about a kilometer and a half in front of her, to the north, deep in the canyon. Of all the trees she’s studying, this further tree is the one she loves most. It’s huge, and very old, the branches of its canopy interlaced in organic filigree. Immediately behind it the walls of the canyon narrow, creating a gap barely big enough for her to squeeze past. The first time she went out to this tree, exploring the area she started to twist through the natural door. Jaomora yelled at her to stop, explaining that beyond the doorway lies the land of the ancestors, where it is taboo for anyone to enter without paying proper respects. It is a fady place.
From the gloaming she catches a flash of bright pink waving in the breeze. It’s one of her transect flags. Back home, before she got here, she studied satellite photos of the area and traced tentative transect lines. But when she arrived she found that conditions on the ground were more difficult than she anticipated. Jaomora helped her delineate a more realistic survey protocol, but she doesn’t know if her data will stand up to rigorous scrutiny back home. Back home. Her pink flag undulates and suddenly her lungs won’t inflate properly. In her storage unit back home she has a pair of pink pumps the exact color of the transect flag. She sometimes wears them with a white and pink sheath dress. She can taste the wine and hors d’ouvres of a cocktail party, hear the low music and murmuring voices. Other field biologists stand in awkward groups against the wall, complain how they hate these things, discuss gel electrophoresis. She glides through the room, smiling, laughing, charming the money men.
The transect flag is tied to a stunted Pachypodium rosulatum, a succulent whose name means “elephant’s foot” for its bulbous shape and dry gray skin. Elephants are not native to Madagascar, but it was white scientists who renamed all the trees here anyway. She imagines a ghost elephant growing up from the pachypodium, shimmering in the almost dark. She imagines it trumpeting, calling its herd, then trampling the villagers, the village, every sign of human presence until no one could tell that anyone ever lived here. Salt the earth, she thinks.
In the gloom of the canyon lit by the half-moon and the stippled Milky Way, Cassandra squats with the village women. When she sat down among them they opened a tiny space for her, neither accepting nor rejecting her presence. She is elbowed, jostled, shoved to the left and right as the women next to her fidget and gesticulate. They pour toka from a reused water bottle into tiny glasses, precious things belonging to the wife of the village elder, used only on special occasions. The alcohol goes down like gasoline, leaving an oily, nauseating aftertaste. The Big Dipper hangs upside down just above the horizon, pouring stardust out of its pan onto the lighted side of the world. The eyes of a nocturnal mouse lemur spark for an instant in a pachypodium on the other side of the canyon.
The bottle comes around to her again, and she drinks, passing it to the woman on her left. Most of the women are drunk. Cassandra touches her lips and nose—they are numb, and she is speaking loudly to no one in an incomprehensible mix of English, French and Malagasy. She realizes she is drunk, too. The women are gossiping among themselves, increasingly animated, until one stands up and challenges another, screaming in Malagasy too fast for Cassandra to follow. She stands up, takes a step back and away from the oncoming fracas. She can suffer them no longer—they are illiterate, married at fourteen, at thirty keeping a household of ten children and already old. They spend their days gossiping, squabbling, creating petty dramas to fill their otherwise empty lives. Taking advantage of the distraction, Cassandra slips away from the group to walk north, deeper into the canyon.
Well out of earshot, Cassandra hears the conversation among the women.
“Where is the vahaza?”
“The ancestors will take care of her.”
“The ancestors will be offended.”
“I’m not going after her.”
“Let her go.”
Cassandra stumbles across the uneven ground. She tries to follow the trail she knows, but the landscape is alien in the dark. The clamor of the villagers grows faint behind her, and the night murmurs in her ears. Insects drone the rhythm the village chants imperfectly imitate, while the small wind croons cool love poems across her skin. The rocks under her feet are broken and irregular, and when she falls her palms come up slimy with blood. An animal skitters behind her, she’s sure it is following her, so she slows down, and it does too. She walks faster, and it matches her pace. Soon they are moving in the same irregular gait, and it eases her travels across the stone, as if her feet have connected with the ground and are translating for her body above. The alcohol is still with her, but she has left the rest of humanity behind.
She is almost to her tree; it rises ahead of her at the end of the canyon. As she approaches, the walls of the canyon close in, looming over her, blocking out the starlight. The darkness congeals and the wind picks up, tugging at her hair and her clothes. The air snaps as she feels her way past the tree, the bark smooth as wrinkled silk and now stained with a smear of her blood. The wind pours through the threshold from the spirit world, screeching like a murder of crows. Roiling, furious wings claw at her hair, her face, her shoulders and arms. She lets them tear into her, feels the canyon vibrating around her. She drags her sticky palm along the rough stone wall, sand like salt in the wound. She stumbles on, fighting the impassioned air. Her hand pushes into nothingness as the canyon wall ends, she staggers, rights herself, and draws herself tall at the doorway between two worlds.
Gazing across the threshold, Cassandra is suddenly very cold, her vision sharp. The wind, changing again, laughs harshly and it is the village women mocking her. The world around her expands. Molecules dilate, opening up so that everything fits together more loosely. She smells lipstick, and seared salmon, and freshly laundered towels. Yearning for her lost life, she feels impossibly heavy, as if her veins were filled with gold. She stares out across the awful, secret landscape.
She stares for a long time.
The phallus is smooth as it enters her, but it is large, bulging in the middle, and she screams without volition. The tree pulses inside her, swelling then subsiding, growing ever larger until she is shrieking, knowing she will burst apart from the inside. The wind from across the threshold of worlds runs its fingers through her hair, whispering to her in a language her body knows but her brain does not. The pulsing quickens, and when it reaches its crescendo microscopic tendrils shoot up into her body. Cassandra, her self, shatters. The tendrils tear through her uterus and her abdomen, they pierce her diaphragm and wrap themselves around her heart, her throat, and the inside of her skull. She is subjugated; she is as a conquered land.
Her bonds relax a little, and the phallus withdraws. The wind stops whispering in her ear, but now she feels the thrumming of the earth, and the air, and the water, the myriad living things below her.
The tree gently lowers her to the ground.
They find her there the next morning, wrapped around the base of the tree, naked and covered by her thin lamba. Blood has dried on her face, on her hands, and on the insides of her thighs, and her body is circled with welts. The women help her wash herself in the stream, and give her clothes to wear. Her hair has turned purple-gray, and she has lost the ability to speak in human tongues.
Audrey McCombs is currently an MFA student in creative writing and environment at Iowa State University, and is the Creative Director for ‘Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment’. Before going back to graduate school, she worked in natural resources management for many years, and has lived in Asia, Europe and Africa. She dreams of a three-year vow of silence, and a house empty of everything but blank walls upon which she may, finally, write down the code that animates our brute substance.