Burning, the needle that gently scrapes my skin, that doesn’t press very deep, that moves along slowly, that skims my flesh beneath the surface, that injects black ink blood between the two layers. Gaël crouches over my thigh. His left hand stretches and holds the skin. The other draws with the strange machine. Piercing, its sound—it reminds me of the dentist’s drill. Its tiny needle makes me think about the one in the sewing machine where Neny Kely rips open her fingertips and wears out her eyes, neck, and back, all day and all night afterward. Neny Kely. My Little Mama. It will be her birthday soon. We haven’t celebrated it at home, since Papa . . . But thirty-three is apparently a special year. “It’s how old Christ was,” Nirina said. “You have to remember Him,” she always said.
My friends at school, they were shocked the day I forgot to be quiet. I never talk about her or what happens at home. It’s better that way. They’re all rich, at the French school, most of them. They don’t know what poverty is. I didn’t know about it, either, before. She moved in when I was eleven, quietly, when Papa left. I learned to hide her presence, because the golden fingers of Neny Kely, well . . . She became a seamstress when he left, when money became genuinely scarce. Her mother had taught her how. Lots of foreigners and upper crust wives in Tana want exact replicas of what’s in the magazines. She works quickly and diligently, Neny Kely does. So the women, they like her very much. They recommend her to friends. They give her their children’s old clothes, sometimes, which Little Mama tailors for us. Or she makes us new clothes from her clients’ leftover fabric.
No, better to keep quiet about home, about the string of little papas who’ve lived there after mine left, about my four half-brothers and half-sisters who have always seen and heard their fathers cussing Mama out, because scarce money and alcohol, well, it makes men violent, makes them snap. It lifts their honey-sweet mask and turns them into themselves, I think. In junior high and the French high school, to fit in with them a little bit, the ones who drop them off and pick them up in the nicest, latest-model cars, I’ve never talked about myself, so that they don’t see how different I am. And besides, poverty’s not interesting, and I don’t want them to pity me. Not at all. So for all the bad things that happen, I learned to stay quiet. That day, though, “Neny Kely” popped out of my mouth all by itself. I couldn’t suck it back in. My sophomore classmates asked me why I called her “Little Mama,” so I said that she had me early, at sixteen. That Papa had fallen in love with her and the island, when he’d arrived in Madagascar. That there weren’t age restrictions for that. Their own mothers were much older when they’d been born. “She must be pretty cool!” they said, and I smiled. I couldn’t tell them that no, not really anymore. Not since Papa—he must have taken her ringing laughter away with him to his France. I didn’t say anything about the smiling clients who are demanding and difficult, or the sleepless nights at the machine or with a needle in hand, always hunched over, and always too much work, which doesn’t bring in nearly enough money. I didn’t mention my half-brothers and half-sisters, either, who don’t have French citizenship or scholarships—and no school fees, because their papas never officially recognized them, or they just aren’t French. They go to the Malagasy school. So when my real brother comes back from boarding school on weekends, and when I come home after my classes are done and I’ve finished up all my homework real quick in the school library before getting on the bus, we teach them how to read from our books. Papa often said that school’s important. It opens a door to the future. But Malagasy schools don’t open anything. Teachers, doctors, the rich, they won’t attend those schools. What matters is a foreign degree. So no, Neny Kely and I don’t spend too much time together. Actually, we know each other really well without saying much. But it’s so much work and silent worry for a woman all alone with too many children.
“Sting-ing, scratch-ing, sting-ing, scratch-ing,” I chant over and over in my head. I like rhyming, I like words that use the same sounds. I used to try writing poems and short little things, in my diary, before . . . My teacher said that I was good at writing, that my stories were good. I liked French, I liked those classes . . . It’s hot in this hotel room. It is big, though. But heavy, my eyelids are so heavy sometimes. You’d think the walls were closing in a little. My head starts to swim, a little. Burning on and under my skin. People said it would hurt a little, but I almost like it, when it feels like a sharp nail that absolutely wants to pick a scab, pressing and scraping, making a gash. If it were me, I would dig the needle deeper and scratch my skin much harder! It happens to me sometimes when I sleep, or when I succumb to nothingness and slide out of time, like Nirina says. When I abandon myself. Papa often said that word. He’d chuckle. “I abandoned France,” he’d say. “I didn’t like my life back there.” Then, he abandoned us one day. I never really understood why. His official wife had gotten very sick, I think. His children from before us had asked him to come back and stay with her until the end. The end lasts a really long time, though! Maybe he started not loving us anymore? Maybe I should have paid more attention, made him swear to come back. Then our lives wouldn’t have become so . . . gray.
Sound of drilling. Like a giant mosquito going bzzz. It keeps going, but I like the burning a lot. It makes me feel more, I don’t know, more . . . alive. I didn’t think it would take such a long time, to paint an animal and a few strange letters into me.
A bit of sweat on Gaël’s forehead. Little pearls of saltwater. A focused crease between his eyebrows. Little smiles in the corners of his eyes, when he looks up at me for a moment. He’s only three years younger than Neny Kely, and her wrinkles are so much deeper! She doesn’t even need to smile for them to show. Maybe women get old more quickly. Or maybe it’s that she had the last three kids one right after the other. That, and Papa. And my half-siblings’ fathers, they left, too, but they didn’t stay as long, each one stayed less than the one before, and the last two, violent-violating her when they’d come home mamo, drunk as a skunk . . . She didn’t say anything, but I know. Their alcohol, and her screams, and the blows . . . That’s what made her old so early. That, and everything else that only women have to deal with. I hear her crying softly at night, a lot. She thinks we’re sleeping. But I don’t sleep very soundly, since . . . yeah, since those days. I don’t like it, but I have nightmares, and That comes back, sometimes, even when I’m not sleeping. We never talk about it. We did talk about it once, so the weight on Neny Kely’s shoulders is heavier now, I can see it, ever since That. She stays quiet, but I know that she’s worried. She was scared, and she’s still scared, that I’ll drop out of school and that the doors to my future are closing like hers, her future that’s lost more and more blood ever since Papa left. No, I won’t drop out. I know I had to do last year over again. I couldn’t work like I had before. I lost the desire to work, a little bit. Or the will. I even thought, plenty of times, that it wasn’t worth it. But Nirina made me swear to the stars-and-ancestors that I wouldn’t end up like her. I go out much less on weekends and during vacation since she hasn’t been around. And since Gaël, too. I made it into sophomore year, just barely, and I won’t stop. And the tattoo is for That, too, it’s not just something pretty. The picture will make sure I don’t forget the day I became the other me. It’ll make sure I always remember that what hurts us must also make us stronger, this painting in me, of that animal from the day when I became the one who abandons myself, the one who needed to go out at night to look . . .
Gaël’s very nice to give me this as a present. Otherwise, I’d never have been able to get it. I’d been dreaming of it for a long time. More and more people have them at school, on their arms or shoulder blades or necks. It became a thing a year or two ago I think, I dunno . . . at the same time as those phones where you can slide your finger along the screen—what are they called, again? Oh yeah, “touchscreen.” It’s so important to keep up, not just for rich people. Everyone wants to have those imported things. Even when they don’t really have the money, there are still the little “bizniss” guys, like Tiana says, my homeboy on the street. Kind of jiolahim-boto-thugs like him, or enterprising students, with friends who manage to find the latest phones, I don’t really know how, the ones that are also mp3 players. They sell them at high prices, but not like in the official “Orange” stores! Tattoo artists have also opened up shop. Lots of them, in Tana. But you can get infections, AIDS, and their tattoos are expensive and not as well done as the real ones. People with real ones, the really gorgeous ones, they get them done like rich people. They go to the hospital or the doctor, to “foreign” tattoo parlors and artists, “made in France.” Nirina got herself “decorated” here, “on the heart side of my arm,” like she said. I went to Behoririka with her, in Chinatown. In the very back of a junk shop was the booth, a really tiny one. It smelled bad. I didn’t feel very well there, not at all. I wanted to throw up and I wanted to leave, but I didn’t say anything. There was Chinese art on the walls, patterns of big snakes and skulls-and-crossbones, right next to overly colorful mermaids and Jesus of the Sacred Heart. Nirina picked a red crown of thorns, like a bracelet, on her upper left arm. Her tattoo bled on the thorns, black-red pearls like period blood. And afterward, too. Or maybe it was the ink? Later, it got infected. She had to go to the pharmacist several times, to get penicillin to heal herself. The man had probably pressed his dirty needle down too hard. Everything there was nasty. It was next to the bathrooms, and it smelled like toilets, and mold, mixed with spoiled food and the strong odor of lots of men, when they’ve just had you. I know how the big guy got paid. I remember him looking pervily at me and her. I saw him pinch Nirina’s ass when she walked in, and I heard some familiar sounds when she asked me to wait for her outside, afterward. She popped a Pecto into her mouth as she walked out. Sucking on it takes the bad taste away. Maybe it was there, where she got—
“Owww!” That stung worse, there, on my inner thigh. That skin is as tender as a baby’s bottom. Gaël’s finished the circle of letters and started to fill in the flying horse, but he stops after I jumped. He asks me if I want to take a break, or if I want him to open the window or get some water for me, if I’m OK, if it hurts, if . . . His questions make me smile. I won’t tell him. I don’t want to. Not him. Actually, I haven’t really told anyone the whole story, except for Nirina. I knew right away that I could tell her everything about That. Every last bit. Words, descriptions tumbled out by themselves. Well, the ones I had that were somewhat clear, the ones I actually kind of remembered. Not like with the French teacher or the school nurse, or the therapist that the social worker from the consulate had sent me to. All my words stuck inside me with them. I didn’t know, I didn’t remember anymore, only that animal, and my shaken body, and me gone from there. I abandoned myself, I kept repeating. They didn’t understand. They pitied me, I know, but they thought I was lying or scared or wanted to protect someone, but that’s not true! Their own lives are so far from that. They live here, but they’re vazahas, or maybe Malagasy but rich, that’s just like being a foreigner. They live in this other world. I know: I listen to the girls at school talk sometimes. Tennis clubs and riding lessons on weekends, their second house in Mantasoa, their vacations in France or “abroooad”—like they do, with the longer vowels—or all the things their parents bring them from their “business trips.” Those types of people have vola. People with money, they can’t know how it is! And besides, who genuinely wants to know the truth? No one wants to know what it’s like to be nothing, “tain’akoho chicken shit,” someone people don’t see. Being poor is like trying to scream your lungs out while dust stuffs up your mouth and nose without anyone noticing, not even up there in the stars, not even if they can hear and see you, no one will help make it stop hurting. It’s being able to feel misery and an utter lack of power, and not being able to do anything besides what rich people tell you to do, because you’re nothing and you don’t want to disappear without anyone caring. Except Neny Kely, that drove her insane, you not coming home at all one day, with her never knowing why, and . . . I hate thinking about That! It makes my chest so tense and agitated. There were some who wanted to try to help me, and they were nice, really. But they didn’t understand a thing. They listened to me, but from a distance, and they didn’t hear anything. I know that. I was like them, before. Not exactly, but close.
We used to live like vazahas, before, and my life slid by so sleek and smooth! Mama had the same stars in her eyes as they do when she smiled. And I think our laughter had the same music as theirs. Papa had his pension from the French army and worked for rich people who paid him well. Inside that life, I didn’t see the chicken shit in the dustcloud-streets! There was a young street zaza who slept under a piece of cardboard, not too far from the house. Papa took pity on him. “He’s a poor orphan,” he said. He gave him little things to do, just a little every day, to keep him from begging, he told me. He paid him with a bit of money and something to eat. He talked with him a little and clapped him on the back in laughter, like he did with me and my little brother. I watched the snot that, just like they said, did everything it could not to run—the nearly-liquid yellowish green crud that was always crusted just below his nose. I thought it was icky-maloto so I didn’t say anything, but I didn’t want to touch or talk to someone who was that dirty. I didn’t know what it was like, before, to be mafy ady, poorer than poor. Life taught me. He really had nothing! His parents had left him behind, he told us, the priest in his village . . . I remember I thought, “Why is he called Tiana, then—beloved and desired?” Yes, that Tiana. He became my homeboy. He hangs out around Antaninarenina, where the nightclubs and hotels for whites are. He’s smart. He won’t get nicked by a knife in a gang fight. He’s got his little gang of jiolahim-boto-thugs, too, but he’s managed to stay far away from those wars. He used to watch-wash cars, like for Papa, then he did carry-your-bags for women who were shopping around there, then it was a bunch of other little things. He would make “home d’livreez”—he’d say that in front of the tourist hotels—of vanilla, spices, artisanal goods from the vendors who were working elsewhere. Now, he does “bizniss,” he boasts about it with a self-important smile. “Imported cigarettes!” you hear him say, outside of the nightclubs, and he’s the one who brings the rasta weed, rongony, to creatures of the night. We laugh, sometimes, when we share a smoke or a joint. We’re the same, him and I. We provide the grass or a flesh-trip, in exchange for first-class-fanafody: money, or “comfort meds” (we saw something like that on T-shirts some tourists from Reunion were wearing, it made us laugh so hard!). Anything against destitution—financial and emotional.
The therapist, teacher, and nurse who wanted to help me, to try to, afterward—they smile at me when they see me in school. But their lives kept going, the same as ever. They don’t know what it’s like to hurt yourself for no reason, clawing at your arm or stomach or thigh until it bleeds, while you’re sleeping, because of nightmares where That happens again, the mix of the empty pit and mahamay, the burning inside. Feeling yourself suffocate and die, and needing to leave the house at night because That comes back again and again, even when I’m not asleep, even if I don’t want it to. The nurse, though, she at least understood. One night, she came out to the club with vazaha friends, a little before Gaël. The other kids at high school go out dancing other places, like the chic bar in the basement of the Carlton. Practically never where I go. Kids my age don’t even go out yet. Too young. I’m very careful. But that time, I couldn’t turn around and leave fast enough. She looked me over, up and down. She was worried, I could tell, about my short shorts and all my makeup. She understood, I know she did, but she acted like it was nothing. I got out of there fast. I was ashamed of myself, of that me. And on Monday morning, she came into the school courtyard and asked me to follow her. She gave me a glass of water in her office and said, “If there’s something wrong, Aïna, if you want to or need to talk, come see me. You can talk to me, you know, it’s between us girls. I understand many, many things.” I nodded. I said thanks. But besides that? I can’t. Normal girls can’t understand That. Even I can’t, sometimes. Like with Gaël. I can’t tell him that I like hurting myself. That I don’t just work nights for the money. Sure, we need it at home. Especially because, since all of that happened, Neny Kely hasn’t been working as quickly. But it’s not that! Before, I would never have done that! These days, I seek out pain because it’s stronger than me. I can’t keep myself away from it. It happens all by itself. It’s me . . . and it’s not me. Gaël can’t know! He’d think I was weird, adala, even though I know I’m not crazy. That must not happen. Gaël’s nice. He’ll take me to France, maybe, if he loves me enough. Maybe I’ll see Papa again there? No, Gaël doesn’t know how to hurt anyone.
I knew it right away, when I saw him leaning against the bar, by himself, that he wasn’t like the other guys. He came out to the club several times before we started talking, and he left alone, every night. I noticed him as soon as he walked in the first time. Tall, with bronze skin, light eyes. Same color as mine, I thought. He shook his head at all the girls who went up to him, every time. He had a nice smile, but it was far away, so . . . “no”. He was watching everything around him, and it seemed like he didn’t like what he saw. “A meat market. The guys are animals, starved. And the girls, too. I wondered what you could have possibly been doing in the middle of all that,” he told me, after we . . .
I didn’t go after him like I did with the others. Not Gaël. Something kept me from it. Papa had had the same good look in his eyes, the same one. I tried to go up to him, lots of times, but my heart was pounding inside, like it did when I was fourteen, when a hot boy looked at me. I couldn’t. With the others, I square my shoulders, hold my head high, and look them straight in the eye. But I couldn’t with him. He looked at me a lot that week. But nothing. It wasn’t vacation or anything, but I worked every night, just to see him again. And I didn’t want him to see me with the other guys. I remember, I’d swing my arm up, quickly, forcefully, when somebody else put their hand on it. Then, one night, I crossed my fingers behind me for good luck, and I went over and asked him if he’d like to buy me a drink. “Just because,” I said, “not for any reason.” He smiled, looked at me curiously, and offered me the seat next to him. He was surprised that I spoke French with almost no accent. He has one, but it’s not too thick, it’s got a little bit of a lilt. I told him that I went to the French high school, and that Papa was French. “I’m mixed, too,” he said. “My mother is half-Guadeloupian.” I didn’t know where that was, where his country was. He told me. And it started like that.
Even when we’re doing it, Gaël is considerate. He didn’t want to, at all, for at least a month. It was weird. He’d meet me after school, we’d walk around Tana. We’d talk about him; about his home, an island he didn’t get back to very often; about younger me. I even told him about Papa leaving. It came naturally. It was fine, he kissed me, stroked my hair, my arms, my back, but nothing. I thought maybe he didn’t like women. So I asked him. I pressed him. He wanted to wait, wait until we knew each other better, wait a few more months, wait until I was eighteen. “What for?” I asked him. So . . . No one had ever done me like that before: slowly, very gently at first, but really good. Right after, I almost wanted to cry when he held me to him tightly, but so gently. With him, it was never like he wanted to tear his way into me and bang me as hard as possible, like the other guys, all the other guys. I never want to detach myself when it’s with him. He never has the crazy-hunger-eyes that roll into the back of his head, Doing It. He’s never like them. The others don’t really talk, they just say what they want, ask how much, growl something dirty Doing It. They take me into alleys by the bars or maybe to their hotel, they hike my skirt up and put as many fingers in me as possible, or not, then put their hard-on inside me.
Gaël, sometimes he’s almost too gentle. I want to tell him to do it harder, to hurt me sometimes. But I can’t. He wouldn’t like that, wouldn’t like me like that, I don’t think. He’s not like the others, even though people might think he’s worse, with all the tough-guy tattoos that cover him from the neck down, like the scaly snakelike thing that slithers over his whole torso, chest and back, in many colors, as big as the fañany fitu luha hydra that Neny Kely told me stories about when I was little, except this one doesn’t have seven heads. “It’s a Japanese tattoo. This is a dragon, and these are symbols within a snapshot of daily life,” he told me, when I’d asked him. That’s when he told me more about himself—that he’d worked for a well-known tattoo artist in Paris, but had “taken a break” for his thirtieth birthday, he’d needed to. I thought, “Abandoned, like Papa.” He explained that he’d gone to Reunion on vacation to visit friends who were also tattoo artists, where business was good, and that he’d come to Mada without a return date in mind, to see the country, the beautiful country, and to try to convince his boss to let him stay and open something here. He explained why he’d chosen the designs on himself. “Tattoos often represent—” Now, what was it again? “—something important in someone’s life, a change. Many people get one to mark a turning point,” he told me. Then, he explained the meaning of his symbols. “Speaking and Writing: they bring things from deep inside you into the light, so that they burn in the open and hurt you less inside,” the therapist had said as he gave me a notebook that I was supposed to show him at our next session. But I couldn’t find the right words to put on its pages, and I stopped going. That was it, that’s when he told me that he always had his tools with him, that’s when I remembered and told him about Nirina: how sad her smile had been when she saw her brand new crown of red thorns. “It’s to remind myself that life hurts, but that you have to forget the pain, pick yourself back up and become a tough thorn, and keep going,” she said. So I started thinking about a way to write That and its wound, my wound, into my skin. I didn’t say anything about That, of course. But Gaël only had to look into my eyes to see that I couldn’t bring myself to ask him, but that I desperately wanted to have one.
No, he’s not like the rest, the other guys, who only want to move inside me, go out and in and out again, and then back in again, more and more violently. His hands on me are never sticky-moist. They don’t need to squeeze every last bit of my stomach, my nonos (which aren’t that big, anyway), and my ass, like making mandarin juice or kneading pastry dough. Papa was a pastry chef. They make me laugh, the others . . . or, well, they used to! That was before. I stopped, since Gaël. I only went back for one—no, just two nights! But I stopped. I don’t want to anymore! It’s tempting, sometimes, but I want to completely stop. I want to heal. I’ll try, anyway. Now I know that it’s a kind of illness, the hunger for pain and flesh. Nirina gripped my arm hard, just before she left, looking me directly in the eyes. “It kills. Could be slowly or more quickly, but it’s always death!” She repeated that over and over.
Before, there was . . . no, not too long ago, we pretended to be izy, them, the men. We mimicked their grunts, when their ragged breathing would break up their words, always the same ones. We laughed so hard! “Mampalahelo daholo, they’re so pathetic! All of them!” she said. “They want to be strong and hard, but during? Mampalahelo daholo!” she’d say. “It’s like they’re zaza be, just big babies, fat or skinny, hairy or smooth like girls, they all want us to tell them that their dick down there, theirs is the best, the biggest and hardest, that it’s great. The best? Pssssssh,” Nirina laughed, “even if they’re not snipped and even if it’s all twisted at the tip like a corkscrew?” Oh, we could laugh so hard! “They want to take, to possess,” she taught me. “But they’re nothing! They’re nothing more than meat at that point,” she said. “You’re the one with the power to make them exist, make them believe they’re strong, real men,” she told me over and over, “but they’re just little scraps of meat that aren’t always hard, they have nothing. They aren’t even masters of themselves! Watch them carefully,” she explained. And it’s true! Malagasy, White, Indo-Pakistani, “Sinese,” old or not, rich or less powerful, they all look the same in the moment. Their tongue, trying to lick you everywhere, their teeth trying to bite and their mouth trying to swallow-breathe skin until it turns purpley-blue. The way they huff-puff out of breath on top, or moan and grunt on bottom or when you take them in your hand or mouth. They’re all the same. “At that moment, we’re the strong ones,” Nirina told me a lot. And sometimes, when we’d see them after and they looked at us miavonavona, all high and mighty, we’d smile, Nirina and I. They’d forgotten, but we’d seen them Doing It, and in real life, men aren’t very pretty when they’re naked!
The only time I didn’t laugh, when it actually pained me to see one of them, was when a guy from high school came to the club, over the last school break. A boy from an important family. I thought he was cute, but he never wanted anything to do with me, even before. He was an upperclassman, in his last year. And besides, they never mingled with others, those types of people. Not even with other Malagasies, if they weren’t upper class like them. Not usually. His girlfriend was mixed, but her mother’s family had power. I was a little jealous of girls like her. I wanted to have their clothes, the same ringing laughter, and mainly their birth, into marriage and money, that gave them such a life.
His girlfriend’s skin was the same as mine. “My little café au lait,” Papa called me. We could have been sisters, except her hair was smooth and her eyes warm-honey brown. My hair is crinkly and golden brown, and Papa gave me his weird green eyes, the color of pool water, kind of, and it changes, light green or darker, it depends. “You’re lucky,” they told me, girls of the night. The ones from the coast didn’t like their hair and spent hours straightening it or putting fake extensions in to get tight curls. And the ones from the Central Highlands wanted to have my coastal ass, “round and a little perky-pointy.” J-Lo kely, they called me, little Jennifer Lopez. Most of them had or wanted mixed kids, even though they knew that the men wouldn’t stay. I don’t know what’s wrong with people—why the children of this earth hate each other so much. Even upper-crust daughters want to marry vazahas and have mixed children. They don’t need passport-and-Euros, though! It’s like how Neny Kely’s father was from the southeast, from the race of “star-readers,” and Grandmother was from Tana, so Papa always told us, “Your mother has two cultures instead of one. You, my darlings, have three, at least, and the world is wide open in front of you! Being multiracial is a treasure.” What kind of treasure, though? Maybe if I was, I dunno, Malagasy or vazaha or whatever, but something rich, they wouldn’t have dared, they’d never have treated me like That! It’s not skin color. Not just that. It’s vola. In Madagascar, you have to have money to exist, and even more so if you’re half-white. Being a “peasant vazaha” and poor, on the Red Island, is worse than not existing at all.
I don’t remember his name, the young guy from the rich family at school. He was shocked when he recognized me. He stammered out that he’d just taken his Bac. Then he asked me if I went there a lot. He’d never talked to me before. He was always with his gang—some were gasy from important families, like him; some vazahas; some mixed races, like his bae. All rich. The French school was like a microcosm of Madagascar. Different groups stay together, they don’t mix together much. But they’ll mingle when money erases birth, differences, and colors. For them, I was just a financial aid student. Invisible. I couldn’t talk to them. But that time, there, it wasn’t the same. I looked him straight in the eye and saw that he wanted it. So I took his hand. He let me. We went into his SUV. He couldn’t get it up. His fleshy dick stayed limp and hung there, the poor thing. I helped him with my tongue and then got on top. We stayed there all night. We did it three or four times, I don’t know anymore. He wanted to say something when I got out of the car. I heard, “Thank you. Aïna, I—” but I was already gone. I didn’t want to talk money with him. Nirina chewed me out for it. “No exceptions! That’s the rule!” She was right. I saw him once more during vacation. He seemed to be doing badly. He was with his girlfriend, who glare-looked at me. The poor thing! He acted like he didn’t know me. He looked elsewhere, but his eyes flicked back to me many times, like something was burning him inside. I smiled to myself. Now it’s them, the men, who are burning! He was ashamed of me, I know, but he wanted me, too, even with her right there next to him. He came back alone the next night, a friend of Nirina’s told me that. He was looking for me. I thought about him sometimes. Poor kid! Pathetic, mampalaheo: him, his girlfriend, men and their wives, slaves to a little bit of tail-flesh.
Nirina saved me, I think, when she explained all of that to me. There were many times I thought about taking chloroquine and abandoning myself for good. Ever since the day with the horse and the days after, and after what Neny Kely said, I told myself that I was nothing, that I wasn’t worth anything, that Papa left because we were cursed. He’d said that Mama’s ancestors and the good Lord were watching over us. If that were true, they, he never would have abandoned our house. He never would have stayed with his official wife in France! If I were protected by the cross that Neny Kely had kissed when she’d placed the necklace she’d worn around my neck, then they wouldn’t have done That to me! It seemed like my whole body—my head, heart, gut, everything—would explode, so icy cold did That burn inside of me, everywhere. I wanted to tear myself apart, I hurt so badly. I wanted to leave.
I didn’t go back to school for a long time after the hospital. They wouldn’t leave me, the images that kept coming back, mixing with the pain and the desire to scream for That, the voices, the sounds, even the smells on me, to leave me alone, but That stayed stuck in my throat for a long time afterward. Prison-silence, for days and days. Neny Kely didn’t know what to say, what to do, the poor woman, she had to watch me in such anguish. She went back to her sewing. But she didn’t work as quickly or as well as before. I heard one customer complaining about her late work, threatening that she’d change seamstresses. She slammed the door, and Neny Kely came to see me. She started crying. Sobbing buckets. “It’s my fault!” She screamed it over and over. “I didn’t want to send you to boarding school, like your brother. I wanted you to help me in the evenings. The miles you walk alone after the bus, it’s all because of me! Papa wanted us all to go to France together. I was scared. I’d never taken a plane before. I didn’t want to leave my parents’ homeland. So I told him to go, that we’d wait for him . . . But his wife stayed sick for a long time. He’d already walked out on her once. He couldn’t leave her like that. But I don’t know.” She took a breath, then: “I felt jealous, alone, and then there was your first half-brother’s father. It was an accident, a mistake!” she sobbed. “Once I realized, it was too late. Somebody told him. I’m the reason he didn’t come back.” I wanted her to stop, to hear nothing, no more, but she kept going. “I know,” she told me. “I had That happen to me, too. I was twelve. It was an uncle, a friend of the family. Your Papa saved me, but the sins of the flesh came back in me, when he left, it was stronger than me. I didn’t love the men after him. The drinking, the hitting . . . I abandoned myself, my girl. Life made us drift apart, you and I, and I let it happen.”
I’m pretty sure that’s when the fissure that began cracking on the day with the horse blasted wide open. We hugged each other tight, Neny Kely and I, and I did what she did with my brothers and sisters, and with me when I was younger. She cried. I felt . . . nothing. My arms and my words lulled her. “Tsy mitomany,” I sang softly, automatically. “Don’t cry.” But I was empty inside, and I was far away.
I went back to school the next day, like a machine. We didn’t have any money—I had to keep my scholarship. It was a Friday, and that night, I don’t know, I just didn’t want to go home. “Breathe,” I thought. My chest was so heavy. “I can’t breathe. I need air!” I walked into the city without thinking. I drifted for a while. It was like I’d smoked Rasta weed. I don’t know how long I walked. When I came back to myself, it was dark. I wasn’t far from the jewelry district, with hotels and bar-clubs. It was two years ago—that was when I walked into that nightclub for the first time. The two men at the door let me in without a glance. I was afraid that they’d ask for my ID. “Unaccompanied Minors Prohibited,” the sign read, and I was just barely fifteen.
I crossed a terrace-type thing. It was dark inside, and hot. The strobe lights and music didn’t reach me, they slipped over me like water off a wide leaf. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the stage. Standing there was a girl with a cherubic face, wearing a clingy red slip. She was dancing like they do in ragga videos. There were lots of men around the runway. They seemed . . . like me. Under the hypnosis-power of the dancer’s thin thighs that she thrust-and-squeezed in rhythm-grace with her round butt. I watched for a long time. Then, I felt a hand on my arm. I saw a beautiful body, very tall and muscular for a girl, I thought. Her pretty face was heavily made-up, with crinkly hair encircling it, and there was a big scarf around her neck and shoulders, as red as her lip gloss, with feathers on top. “What are you looking to find or lose here among the crocodiles, little one?” she asked. It was Nirina. When I finally managed to speak, a little later at the bar, I told her, “I came for men.” The words came tumbling out all by themselves, as if they knew that they could. That’s when I told her everything. She listened in silence, nodding as I went along. She smiled sadly, patted my cheek, and tried to give me money for a cab home. “You’re just a lost lamb,” she said. “Once you’ve started, you can’t go back. It’s like a drug. You’re young, you’re lost. Here, you could lose yourself even more. Go back home!” I shook my head. I stood firm. Nirina became my Neny Kely of the night, my best—but I didn’t have any others, so my only friend.
Yes, she saved my life. She explained the rules of this world to me, and the prices, and especially how to find a man and how to act Doing It. “Control,” she told me. “How to take it, keep it, and never lose it.” I think I blushed or blanched. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll teach you. After the first time, it’ll come naturally.”
Ever since she said that, I knew myself to be the embodiment of strength. It’s weird, I know, but I liked it, letting them shake me up. I was the one who decided. I sought them out and they paid me, for that, for the me who had been forced to her knees, buckle-bent in the dust. I decided, to move mechanically or not, to let their hands grab and rub my skin quicker and quicker, to open up or not as their hard-on makes its way between my thighs and into me. I let them. And I even liked that, when they held my shoulders or hands down, gripping tightly, to work in and out faster. Sometimes, there were marks the next morning. “Mixed skin gets bruised easily,” Nirina said, smearing vinegar on the wound. When I got one who talked to me, I moaned, I said “Mmmmm,” like Nirina had taught me. “That makes them as happy as zaza kely who’ve just had their milk, the big babies,” she’d said, and then, inside, I found . . . peace. They didn’t know. They didn’t see how, when they banged too hard, on top or from behind, when I didn’t like the pain anymore, I’d go away. I liked when the physical pain made a door close in me. I would leave myself and leave them behind, far away. It was that day, the day with the horse, when I abandoned myself for the first time, Doing It. Now I know how. I withdraw whenever I want, and sometimes when I don’t want to. I close my eyes, or not, and I split myself in two, and I float just beside or above, farther away. It’s almost like how rongony smoke makes me fly away, this cloud in my head, but it’s not the same. Weed makes me blissful. Here, I don’t laugh. I’m just not heavy with sorrow inside anymore. I float. I feel and hear everything, I’m there, but I don’t stay wholly there. Looking for guys and Doing It, it’s like . . . I don’t know. I can’t find the words. Physical pain makes me feel, well, stronger than him, and stronger than me, I think, and even more . . . well, not “more.” Just “alive.” Something like that.
The buzzing’s stopped. Gaël’s hand is gentle on my cheek. “Let’s take a break, honey,” he says. Heat billows up to my face. The tattoo burns a little less as he rubs Vaseline into it before taking off his gloves. I like it, all the lines of the horse are filled with ink. It’s just the wings and letters left. We designed it together. I told Gaël about the horse on the side of one of the cars, but nothing else. He looked up the logo on his computer. I didn’t like seeing that one again. So I thought about the winged horse that our French teacher had told us about, the one that a Greek god had made into a group of stars. “Pegasus,” Gaël smiled, getting a piece of paper. “You want it in black and gray, or color?” I thought about the crooked thorns on Nirina’s arm. I knew she’d stay written in me, at least a little. I showed Gaël what I wanted: AÏNA, written vertically, on the “heart facing” side. That’s how it started: “Are you scared of forgetting who you are someday?” I held my breath. “He knows,” I thought. He’s already asked me what my nightmares are about, many times. “I don’t remember,” I tell him, every time. I don’t want him to know, to think I’m dirty. That day made me dirty. I was scared that I’d said something in my sleep, or that he could read my thoughts, but he smiled and stroked my cheek. “You have a pretty name. Aïna, ‘life,’ it’s precious.” I felt a lump welling up in my throat. My eyes started to sting, like they’re doing now. I look at my thigh, at the drawing on it. I like it. I don’t want to cry. I haven’t cried for a long time. Yes, it’s been a long time, since that day. Crying, sharp and broken screams, calling out—I couldn’t stop for a while afterward, I remember. I know I clawed at my face and pounded my chest, crying. My cheeks burned. My mouth felt dirty . . .
It was so hot in that bus, so stuffy! It had been a long day. I was tired. Another mile to go, walking, I thought. Didn’t want to. A closer house would have been better, not so far away. And comfortable, not like our two gray rooms where we can barely breathe during the rainy season. I got off the bus. I walked for a bit before I heard the noise, an engine, and the horn behind me. It was a big gray SUV. I got out of the way, but the car didn’t go past. It was like it was following me. I heard men’s voices, several, I remember. My name, repeated. Then everything gets blurry. The car that stopped, all the dust that the wheels had kicked up. Then a man’s hand, a large one, seizing my wrist. There were four of them, yes. They made a ring, surrounded me. They pushed me like in blind man’s bluff, from one to the next, and the next, and the next. My head, spinning. I smelled their odor, the alcohol. I wanted to throw up. Then, they yanked me away. There was a little path kind of thing, off to the right of the dirt road. I felt . . . They dragged me there. They threw me to the ground. I fell, on my back, I remember. It knocked the wind out of me, an impact, a shock, like a punch in the gut, and I tried to get back up. There was a mud wall, an old one, almost completely smooth, to the right, and the car at the end of the path. There was a horse on the body of the car, on the side. THE horse! Then the feeling of suffocation. I screamed, I know. They put a hand over my mouth. I couldn’t breathe. And I felt many hands on me. One pulling to lift my T-shirt up. Another crushing my nonos, then on my stomach, like it was, I dunno, dough being kneaded. I felt . . . after, or maybe at the same time, one pulling to get my jeans down. I tried to kick, but they were heavy, and many. They held me down. I felt my thighs wrenched apart, then . . . that long knife going inside me, like a saw in my body, BURNING. I tried to bite, but the hand over my mouth pressed down even harder. I heard someone bark, “Shut up! Or else.” Then there was something like sharp metal against my throat. “We get to do whatever we want. You’re gonna shut up!” they said, or else my mother, my little sister, they’d do the same thing to them, in front of me. I still remember the saw moving back and forth inside me, again, and then animal grunts, and a heavy, heavy weight on me. There was liquid burning inside. I’m going to die, I thought. For a moment, I believed that it was done, but each of the men had their own saw. Pain cleaving into me, my stomach exploding. The saw inside of me that started over, again. Then . . . That’s when it was, that was when my soul split. When I managed to lift my head a little, “Turn your neck!” I thought, and I saw the car from far away, and the horse on it. I don’t know why, but I stared at the horse. I felt pain for a long time. But I abandoned myself there. I know it kept going, that they put my body on its knees, then on all fours. Heavy, the weight on the wrists. I fell. Earth taste in my mouth. Then I fainted, I think. When I came to, doors were slamming. My jean jacket was thrown over to me. Laughter, I don’t know anymore. The car left and I just stared at the horse. That’s when I started screaming. I picked up my dirty clothes, then I cried and screamed on the side of the road, the main one. I tried to put my clothes back on as best I could, and started walking, mechanically. A scooter passed, a taxi, another car. They kept going. They left me there. I limped back to the house. Neny Kely was still working. It was late. She was worried. She yelled at me. She looked at me and stopped, and . . . I quickly told her there’d been pickpockets on the way home that tried to steal my backpack, with my books inside. I hurried away to wash the dirt, the blood off in the bathroom out back, in a large basin. I scrubbed and scrubbed. Then I collapsed next to my brothers. Then, we woke up, the next morning. Neny wanted to talk to me. I said that I was running late. I went back to school like nothing had happened. For a few days, it was like I was in a cloud. Sounds were faraway, muffled. One of the teachers noticed I was walking strangely. “Like a duck,” she said. I was limping a little. The nurse noticed the marks on my wrists, even though I was tugging on my sleeves. The rest happened in a whirl: summoning Neny Kely, the doctor, who inserted her steel machine to spread where I was still bleeding and burning, and the social worker, the police. I couldn’t say anything except “gray car . . . horse . . . ” The images I saw in my dreams. “Many men,” I said. “The horse,” I kept saying.
They never did it again, those men. I never knew who it was. I erased all the traces, all the fingerprints, when I went home that night and washed myself off. But still. It was a large SUV. Men who had money, and I just had my word. The police couldn’t do anything with that. They didn’t do anything. The nightmares started, where I was raped by men, many men, underneath the horse’s head. One night, at the club, it seemed like I remembered something. A laugh. I’d heard one of those laughs! I told Nirina and pointed out a group from behind. “Come on,” she said, leading me out into the noise, the night, my very soul felt confounded. But there was a wink in her smile, a few days later, when she was talking to me, casually, about “four men attacked in the middle of the night, in an SUV.” “It’s the recession,” she said. “Rising poverty.” They were followed, apparently, by an organized gang. They were robbed of everything: cell phones, watches, clothes. “The car was completely stripped, probably to be sold for parts,” Nirina said. “They got away, but the ones who did it to them, they left them pretty messed up. Lots of thugs. The men are at the hospital and aren’t going to press charges,” she emphasized. “They’re in a state of shock, and they didn’t recognize their attackers.” And then, I wasn’t dreaming, she was smiling, wide-smiling. I miss her so much. Or rather, him.
Yes, Nirina was “him,” and I hadn’t seen it throughout all those nights. She had her Chinese mother’s delicate features, she was all gentle femininity. Sometimes I thought that her voice was low, a little husky, but no, I hadn’t figured it out. Not that, not anything else. The innocence of it all. After meeting Gaël, I went back less and less, then not at all, to the “nights” in Tana to lose myself—or to find myself again, who knows? Nirina and I called each other a lot, and then, what with time, and my classes . . . And it felt like she was gently easing distance between us, more and more. Far away, at the other end of the line. When I didn’t hear anything at all, I got extremely worried. Her cell went straight to voicemail and her home phone just kept ringing into thin air. I stopped by several times. No one. Maybe she went back to her official boyfriend, I thought. I smiled as I thought of her saying, the first night, “I’m not faithful. If that happened, I’d never be able to keep it up. Never ever,” with her great sweeping arm and her voice placed so high. And maybe she’d found another passport and taken off for somewhere else. I don’t know, I felt . . . She’d called me a few months ago. Gray, morose, broken, her voice on the other end of the line. The Nirina who came to see me had short hair, short nails, no makeup. She was dressed plainly, as a man. A pale, thin, tired man, who winked at me, asking hadn’t I known, deep down, before reminding me about the wild nights and the gamble he’d taken, how he hadn’t protected himself, how he didn’t like that, even if he always told me to do it. “I played and lost!” He smiled sadly, and then told me about how a long time ago he contracted AIDS, which was ravaging him now. When a long time ago? He didn’t know. His boyfriend had broken up with him when he found out, of course. “Cut off my water and supplies. Oh well, food schmood!” he said, trying to joke with me. It didn’t make me laugh, but I saw in his eyes that he never would have accepted my pity or sympathy. So I tried. He wandered from stoop to abandoned apartment, he said, then to the hospital, without proper care or money. I offered—“No. I came here to say good-bye, little sister. Honor that. I’m going back to my family first thing tomorrow morning.” We talked for a long time, spent the whole afternoon together, and then, just before leaving, he winked at me one last time. “I want to see my parents again, before . . . I need to go back to my homeland. And it’ll be time, sooner or later, sickness or no, to go up, you know?” He smiled. “To abandon myself for good, go up to the stars.”
Burning, the needle that gently scrapes my skin. Gaël is almost done. He’s at the last lines of Masoandro that I asked him for, my light of day, above the horse. He thinks the great gray sun is to celebrate me passing the Bac. I haven’t told him, not yet. “A full-moon stomach soon,” Nirina had smiled. It’s a girl. I’ll call her Noro—“my light.”
“Je me deserte . . .” © Magali Nirina Marson. From Nouvelles de Madagascar (Paris: Magellan & Cie, 2010). By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Allison M. Charette. All rights reserved.