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Friday, October 02, 2009

Here's a short story I wrote several years ago. I wanted to write something with an island flavor to it and set this in Madagascar.

Three Cries of the Hammerkop

Certain tribes believed that in the same way they can see their reflections mirrored in still water, a hammerkop bird can see reflections of the future, and knows who is shortly going to die. When the bird sees the image of a person with death overshadowing him, it will fly to the home of the doomed, and utter its three warning cries. The hammerkop will watch for the falling star which prophesies death, as it falls above the area of the dwelling in which someone is about to die. When it sees this star, it will fly over the abode venting its mournful cries.


Little Rana listened to the hammerkop fluttering outside her window, then watched listlessly as the bird landed on the sill and gave three raucous cries.

"I know," she said, her breath small gasps. "I know."

She did not need the bird to tell her she was dying. She felt the heaviness of her chest, the heat from her small body searing into the matting of her bed. Her fever would soon kill her.

"Mangetaheta aho." (I am thirsty).

The water pitcher sat on the bedside table, but she was too weak to reach it. Alongside the pitcher sat a plate of koba, the pate of peanuts, rice and bananas that was her favorite. It had been sitting there all morning and was probably stale. Her stomach would not welcome it now anyway. She had hardly eaten in two days and her stomach seemed not to remember food nor that it needed it.

Death was waiting for her, biding its time like a shadow man in the corner of her room. And outside the tin-covered cottage she shared with her mother and sisters, life continued. The sounds of the Antsirabean village crept through her window, comforting and tormenting her at the same time. She so longed to be with her friends, running along the savannas, trying to catch the funny looking indri or stopping to smell one of the many orchids or baobab that bloomed in the rainforests. Right now, Tana's mother would be cooking a pot of Akoho sy voanio, just as she does everyday when the sun is at its highest above the Ankaratra mountains. Rana could taste the chicken and rice simmered in coconut milk on her tongue, remembering the sweet flavor of the carefree life of a ten-year-old girl living amidst the beauty of Madagascar.

"Mandehana!" (Go away!), an angry woman's voice yelled just outside.

That was Lona, her neighbor, probably yelling at Radama, who always snuck into Lona's yard trying to steal beans from her garden. He had never been successful given the small fact that he was always getting caught.

"Go away, before I tell your mother, ya little cur!"

Rana smiled as she heard Radama's laughter. Rana knew that part of the thrill for Radama was luring Lona outside so that he could see her womanly figure silhouetted through her light cotton dress. Lona still hadn't realized that Radama only came around on very sunny days.

The hammerkop came again, again giving its three cries on her sill.

"Mandehana!" Rana said as strongly as she could, almost mimicking Lona. "The star is not yet here!" She sat up and dared it to speak again. The bird flew away.

The effort robbed her momentarily of breath and she lay back down exhausted. There was another sound at the window.

"Manao ahoana." Radama peeked his head through her window, his teeth white against his cocoa-colored skin. "Who were you screaming at?"

Rana looked at the boy, jealous of the health that bloomed so radiantly from him, the strength of the young and undying. He would be here tomorrow to play, as well as the tomorrow after that, and the one after that.

"Nothing. Just a bird," she answered him.

"Did it cry three times?"

"Yes," she said sadly.

"Then it is true what they say, that you are dying?"

Rana did not answer her playmate immediately.

"Vizako aho" ("I'm tired). Go away, Rad." But the boy did not move, just stood there watching her curiously.

"Aiza your maman?" he asked.

"At market, getting vegetables for me to eat to make me stronger."

"That won't do it. You need magick, that is the only way," he said with the worldly wisdom of a child who had gained the secrets of the earth in his ten years. "You should go to the waters and bathe. People have been healed there."

"Maman does not believe. She says no one has ever been healed in the waters."

Radama shook his head incredulously. "But that is foolish! Of course people have been healed! Look at Gotrand, the old man who lives near the market. Remember, he had the cough and was all the time spitting up blood? Everyone thought he would die, and even the bird said so. Then one night, his sons carried him to the waters and the next day it was as though he never had the coughing. Rana, has no one even tried to take you to the waters?"

Rana shook her head solemnly against the pillow. From the front of the hut came sounds of pans clanging. Her sister, Sohandra, was preparing the noon-day meal.

Radama was quiet for a moment, contemplating something private. "I could take you," he finally said.

Rana looked at her playmate suspiciously. She had often been the target of Radama's cruel jokes and wondered whether this would be the cruelest. Her mother had warned her against false hopes. But looking into his eyes, which were so sure, she wanted to believe that she didn't have to die. Not today. Not ever.

"I have no strength hardly to walk."

He looked over his shoulders, then back with a conspiratorial smile. "Not to worry. I will get us a pousse-pousse."

Rana rose up a little. "But how…"

"Didn't I say not to worry," he smiled. "I know a way. I'll be back by sundown."

"Maman will be back before then…."

"You have such little faith, Rana…I shall not let you die. I promise."

He said this last as though all power rested with him. Despite what her mother had forewarned, Rana began to believe that maybe there was hope. After all, Gotrand was walking around today, his strength twofold that of many younger men.

Radama winked at her, his face jovial again. Then hearing Sohandra coming into the room, he ducked away quickly.

"Here you go," her sister said, carrying a tray with three bowls on top. Sohandra looked over at the uneaten kobe on the table as she placed the new tray down on the edge. "Oohh, you've hardly eaten your breakfast. Rana, you must eat or you will…"

Sohandra stopped, leaving the rest of the words unspoken. The sisters glanced at each other, then Sohandra turned away, afraid that tears would come. "Here, I have gathered your favorite fruit and nuts, and here is a bowl of Vary Amin Anana. I hope it is good."

Sohandra moved the uneaten morning repast to a nearby chair, then handed Rana the bowl of fruit. Rana sunk her teeth into a pear, studying her sister as she did so. Her sister's mocha beauty often turned many of the village men's heads and stirred their hearts and loins. At seventeen, she was already promised to a farmer in the neighboring village of Fianarantsoa. He was old, almost 35, but he was also wealthy with sheep and parcels of land. As was custom, he would present a bride price which would repay their mother for her loss. But there would be no bride price for Rana, she thought sadly. The pear suddenly did not taste good anymore. Death seemed to be reaching closer. She could only hope that Rad could help her.

Sohandra upended the bowl of rice into the bowl of Vary Ami Anana. The mixture of steamed mustard greens, spinach, and tomatoes sautéed with the juice of roasted beef smelled wonderful, but Rana's stomach lurched at the thought of trying to force it down. As Sohandra bent closer to serve her, Rana could smell the scent of vanilla intermingling with the other aromas. Sohandra always smelt of vanilla, of freshly baked bread, of hyacinth. Good smells, comforting smells.

Rana reached out to touch Sohandra's unbound hair, and brought it closer to her nose to sniff. In times before, Sohandra might have slapped her younger sister's hand away, but this time she let Rana run fingers through it. The dying girl seemed to be trying to form a memory, to take it with her when she went to join their razana, the ancestors. There, she would become fanahy, those fortunate to stand next to the creator and gather wisdom. The thought should have comforted Sohandra, but she could not bear to think about losing her little sister.

Rana let go of her sister's hair and laid down exhausted, the tiny flicker of hunger that she had momentarily felt dissipated with her strength.

"Won't you eat a little more?" Sohandra pleaded, but Rana weakly shook her head.

It was fady to talk about death. Even Radama's careless mention of the word "dying" was taboo and might still bring punishment down on them both. So Rana could not speak on it, could not talk to Sohandra about how she felt about all that was happening to her. Rana could not bring herself to tell of the coldness that fear sometimes brought, the fear that was a servant to its master, Death, preparing the way for the taker of life. And Sohandra would not speak of the breaking of her heart, of how she would miss the days when the two of them had gathered flowers together to give to their mother, or when they went down to the river bank to wash their clothes and lay them to dry in the sun. She could not fathom that they would never eat lichee nuts together or braid each others hair or laugh at the indri fleeing through the trees.

"Maman will be coming back soon. She's bringing carrots and leek onions for soup. By then, you're sure to be hungry. And you know how delicious Maman's soup is. You will eat and gain your strength." Tears ran down Sohandra's face. "The razana cannot take you; you belong here!" she cried softly, then fled from the room. Rana tried not to hear the sobs coming from the other part of the house.


Radama was true to his word. Around sundown, after her mother had sat with her and forced her to eat some soup and then left her to sleep, a creaking sound outside her window woke her from her restless nap. Radama peeked his head through the window, the ever present smile on his face.

"I told you not to worry. I am here. And I have a pousse-pousse waiting outside to carry you to the springs."

Rana shook her head feebly. "I cannot. I do not have the strength any longer. Just let me go."

"No!" Rana had never heard him speak so harshly. Even at his angriest, there was always a lilt underneath, his playfulness never far from the surface. But not now.

"Why should you care, Rad? You don't even like me."

"I do too like you!" he protested. "Which is why I'm going to take you right now to the healing waters. Then you shall grow up and grow beautiful…and then one day you will be my wife."

If she could have laughed, she would have, but even the thought of laughing sapped her strength. There was no way she would ever marry the boy who toted trouble with him where ever he walked. Right now, he eased through her open window, stealthily moving so not to disturb her maman and sister.

She was surprised at how easily Rad lifted her off the bed. He carried her gingerly to the window, then deftly maneuvered her out. And as he said, the small rickshaw stood waiting, although it was missing a wheel and leaned to one side. He had made sure to take one that no one would even care to miss. He lowered her into the seat, then positioned himself in front of the vehicle and took up the poles. He managed to balance the rickshaw to keep the side with the missing wheel from scraping the ground.

The moon was high over the mountains as he pulled her over the rutted road, and the smell of spices from the now-closed market tinged the night air. It was cool, and she shivered since Rad had forgotten to bring her blanket.

Most of the villagers were inside their homes, eating their evening meals. A few men were gathered around the meeting hut where inside the owner served strong brew distilled from sugar canes. One of the men spotted Radama and waved.

"Manao ahoana, Radama. Where are you off to?" The words were slurred.

"I am going to the loharanos.

"Whaa, the springs? So far and at night? Boy, you need to get home 'fore your Maman comes looking for you."

"She already knows," Radama said easily. Rana heard the lie and thought that Rad did not lie very well. Yet, the man said nothing else as Radama pulled her along. She wondered whether the man in his drunk even saw her.

The night got cooler as they entered the rainforest and she shivered with ague and fever. No one knew exactly what was wrong with her. The village doctor said that she had sickness of the lung and had given her medicines but they had not worked. And there was no money to take her to the big hospital in Antananarivo. Her maman sold flowers and spices at the mart to the tourists, but only made enough to buy seeds for their garden, a goat to milk, and cloth for dresses. This had been enough before her father left. Before she became sick. It would take a month's worth of money just to bury her in the christened graveyard along with a marker to let the world know that there had once been a girl named Ranavalona Mokae.

In the distance, they heard lemurs moving through the trees. A breeze caused the tree fronds to whisper, and Rana thought she heard the voices of the ancestors beckoning her in the wind. She felt ready to go to them. A burst of leaves startled them as a bird flew from its branches; it cried three times.

They traveled for miles. She knew that by now her mother would have checked her room, found her gone. But they did not hear the cries of the villagers searching for them – not yet.

Now she could smell the sulphur from the hot springs. Saw the lights in the distance from the hotels where the tourists stayed who came to see the famous waters. They came to play in the water, to buy the precious gems formed in the caverns, to look at the pretty homes lining the large avenues where the rich lived. The tourists did not care to see the poor, to see the tin huts where they lived, to see the people who served them, who sold them their trinkets.

"We are here," Radama said at last as he stopped the pousse-pousse as close to the water as safety allowed. He walked to where she sat.

"I have to place you in the water so you can be healed. It should make you feel good." He lifted her from the rickshaw and carried her the few steps to the springs. He walked her into the water, all the time holding her as the waters closed over them up to their necks. Immediately, the heat of the springs began to take the chill away, to seep into her skin, her bones. Death seemed to take a few steps back. Maybe, to tease her this one last time.

The waters began to swell around them. Radama held her tightly. In the moonlight, his face was unsure, as though he was not certain what was happening.

"Rad," she said without the breathlessness that had bothered her for weeks. "I'm scared."

"It is OK. I won't let anything happen to you, Rana. Just hold still and let the waters go through you."

But even as he spoke, the current became a fast moving eddy surrounding them, pulling at them, as though it wanted to swallow them whole.

"Please, I want to go Rad. The water will kill us."

"No, it will not. You'll see. You will be whole again. I promise." He held her tightly as she struggled against his grasp.

The water rose past their chins up to their noses. It rushed into her nostrils and filled her lungs. She was drowning! She fought like a gazelle, already dead between the devouring teeth of a tiger.

But she needed to breathe one last time. She had to!

Suddenly, the water pushed out of her lungs into her throat and she began to cough violently. Water and blood poured from her mouth. She gagged as the torrent spewed back into the spring. She knew she was dying now. There was so much blood.

Then mercifully it was over. The water calmed and slowly went back down. She took a breath…a really deep breath. No longer was there that heavy band that had constricted her chest. Now the air felt crisp and clean as it moved easily in and out of her lungs. And she could move without the tiredness that had sapped her strength, making her feel old. The fever that had consumed her was gone.

"Rad…I…I am healed." And she knew it was true .

They pulled themselves out of the spring. She didn't need his help.

"Thank you, thank you so much Radama. I am going to live. The hammerkop was wrong." She hugged him, then moved away embarrassed.

The boy smiled shyly, and reached over to kiss her cheek.

"So you will marry me one day?" he asked.

She smiled. "We shall see. You have to give my maman a good bride price."

"Even better than this," he countered.

"Yes. I am not cheap. Sohandra's man is giving Maman many chickens and another goat. Plus jewels, also." Then she remembered. "Maman! I must tell Maman! And Sohandra! They will be so happy! Let's go home!"

Rana gladly walked the trek back to their village as Radama pulled the empty rickshaw. It had been months since she felt this strong. Her legs were as sturdy as they had once been. The night was no longer threatening, but a comfort, as it had witnessed the miracle of her healing, and the shelter of its cloak had made it all possible. She laughed at the moon in the sky, knowing that there would be more moons to come. No birds flew above, but even if there had been, she would have just laughed anyway. A star burst, then fell from the sky.

When they arrived back at the village, the dawn was just emerging over the mountains. The morning air was crisp, but no longer cold. The day would be warm, welcoming. Already along the way, the merchants were setting up their wares under the white umbrellas. Soon the tourists would be straddling in on their pousse-pousses, looking for things to buy. She knew Maman would be too worried now to be heading to market, sure that something would have happened to her. But once Maman saw her walking, saw her standing and talking and laughing…

Both children approached her hut carefully, not sure what to expect. But no one was standing in the doorway. All was quiet. Maybe Maman had gone to their neighbors in search of her.

They entered, and she heard her Maman sobbing from her room.
She walked to her room, ready to comfort her worried mother, to tell her everything was all right now…then stopped in the doorway.

On her bed, where hours before she had lain dying, Sohandra now lay still, her beauty frozen in death. Rana's heart stopped. Maman sat in the chair next to the bed, her body shaking with sobs. Some of the neighbor women stood around the bed, Lona among them.

"Maman" Rana whispered. "What happened…."

Her mother turned, tears streaming down her face. "Rana, where were you?! We looked everywhere when we found you gone. We went to the neighbors, not knowing where you could go…."

Rana pointed, her shock making her reborn body stiff. She felt Radama's hand on her shoulders.


"We looked for you in the night. Sohandra was walking towards the trees…I told her that you couldn't have walked that far, but she was desperate to find you. A bird cried and startled her. She fell and hit her head on a rock. She got up…and seemed all right except for a small gash on her head. She walked back to the house and went straight for your room…and then the bird cried through the window…three times…and then she fell onto the bed…and did not move again. Never again."

Rana could see the gash now, the dried blood that marred the smoothness of her sister's skin. She walked slowly, as though in a trance, pushing past the neighbor women, who were also crying. Sohandra, beautiful Sohandra, seemed even more beautiful now. Rana touched her sister's face. It was cool.

Tears flowed from her own eyes as she realized too late that every blessing comes with a price. Outside, a bird cried three times, then cried no more.


Sharon Cullars Coffee Talk at 10/02/2009 09:13:00 PM Permanent Link     | | Home


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