Tragedy has struck the Rambahy house: Ikalamainty, the black chicken, has just joined her ancestors on Mount Ambondrombe. Her demise brings great sorrow: a steady source of income for the household has disappeared. And worse, the poor thing was brooding at the moment of passing, so this morning, Rambahy’s wife is brooding over the orphan-eggs. Her husband looks on, powerless to console her.
“What are we going to do with these eggs now?” she asks, worried and sad.
“Oh, throw them out, of course! We can’t eat them now. She’d already been sitting on them for several days.”
Throw them out? His wife will mourn them with bitterness. She loves eating omelets so much that she’s still frustrated from sacrificing those eggs under the hen’s wings in the first place. And now, this talk of getting rid of them in such a cruel manner! Seven eggs. Yes, seven! An abundance!
“Well, what do you want to do with them?” her husband bristles. “Are you going to sit on them yourself? Or keep them as mementos?”
Lost in thought, his wife doesn’t catch his ironic tone. They’re not rich: throwing seven eggs out would be in blatant defiance of fate. Ingratitude before the Good Lord and Ikalamainty. The country woman racks her brains so long and hard that she eventually teases out an idea, an “enlightened” idea, she says.
“We can sell our eggs!”
Her husband is hardly blown away. “What? You can’t think like that. Nobody’s going to want them! They’ve probably spoiled. It would be dishonest. Throw them out!”
“No! Waste only makes want. In this house, eggs become omelets, chicks, or money. Have we ever once considered throwing them out? And in all fairness, we won’t be forcing anyone to buy them, people come to buy things of their own free will. We’ll set a low price, it’ll be a nice bargain.”
Although her husband is still fairly skeptical about the potential success of this “bargain,” he eventually allows himself to be convinced. Deep down, he wouldn’t pass up the small fortune, either.
Eager to make good on her promise, Missus Rambahy immediately starts preparing the seven little ovals, which had turned quite yellow after the abruptly terminated incubation. Washed, polished, given a little love, the eggs endeavor to recapture a hint of their former freshness (but it’s just a hint). The wife gazes lovingly at her masterpieces, admiring her reflection in the rejuvenated shells, and lays them gingerly in a small basket. She’d be taken in herself, such is her pride! Then, Missus Rambahy wraps her lamba shawl around her shoulders and sets off for the weekend Sabotsy market, her tiny, precious wares under her arm, a wide, beaming, hopeful smile on her lips. The poor rely on that hope for their survival.
It’s Saturday, the weekly market. The throng of people mills about between overflowing stalls. Malagasy markets have remained faithful to their original reason for being: you come here to sell, buy, chat, and laugh, but also to see and be seen. And the highfalutin crowd moves slowly, lazily, like in a slow-motion film. No one is ever in a hurry here. Draped in white, the human forest is just a dense, buzzing mass, pierced by the persistent cries of the peddlers on foot:
Rat poison, new rat poison for sale!
It’s the best extermination!
Rat traps, cheap rat traps for sale!
Come and see a demonstration!
It’s a well-known fact that rhyming jingles attract customers. But more often, those genius rhymesters shout themselves hoarse for nothing more than indulging smiles or sneers. And then they take off in pursuit of a potential customer. “You want one? It’s cheap! I’m not even selling it, I’m practically giving it away.”
And the possible buyer always shouts, “It’s overpriced!”
And thus begins the shoestring comedy show, every single time. They’ll either buy it anyway or turn and continue “proudly” on their way. That’s how business works. Sometimes, when the haggling gets a little too intense, it can practically end in a fistfight.
“If you don’t want to sell it, don’t bring it to the market! Put it underneath your pillow at night, you’ll feel better.”
“You didn’t come to buy anything, you’re asking for a handout. Go beg in front of the church!”
For a moment, the foul-tempered market-goers will size each other up, but it never goes any further than that. As they say, good will is more valuable than a sale, and it’s better to lose money than to lose friends. Popular wisdom usually wins out, a reflection of the treasured Malagasy fihavanana, the common lineage to which all belong. Then, each goes on their own way.
Missus Rambahy struggles to pick out a path, narrowly avoids crushing tomatoes, fruit, manioc, and potatoes underfoot with every step. All the wares spread directly on the ground form reefs between the rolling white waves in the vast market sea. At one point, a treacherous banana peel tries to capsize the woman with her eggs. She has the unfortunate reflex of smashing the little basket tightly under her arm. “Heavens! My eggs!” She checks her treasure anxiously. Miracle of miracles, her little darlings are intact! Even Perrette wasn’t so lucky in La Fontaine’s tale.
Now, Missus Rambahy takes each step with great caution. She’s looking for one of her friends and eventually finds her lounging behind a pyramid of vegetables. The plump seller isn’t bored waiting for her customers: her neighbor, a scrawny Comorian struggling to sell his coconuts, is endeavoring to tell her some good jokes, with her impressive rolls of fat featured at every opportunity and in every way. (To tempt, perhaps?) And they explode into fits of hysterical laughter, paying the astonished passersby no heed. Maybe that’s also an unknown technique of classic marketing to attract a distracted buyer’s attention. A longer laugh than the others erupts out of her throat as Missus Rambahy comes up to her.
“Hello!” she says, addressing the laughing seller. “Are your sales booming? Your face is shining today, it would look wonderful on a billboard.”
The woman of exemplary girth wrenches her attention away from her gallant storytelling neighbor to look at her friend. She peers dubiously at the little basket and spits, “Not the greatest, but we’re having fun.”
Well, obviously, when you’ve got a good storyteller sitting next to you! The egg woman refrains from making any comments on the merry marketwoman’s way of passing time—she has other things on her mind. “Can you do me a favor? Sell these eggs for me while I do my shopping. Even for fifty francs each, just give them away. I’ll be back soon.”
The rotund seller nods her head, takes the basket, peeks inside, and sets it near the potatoes as her friend hurries away. They’re both used to that, giving each other little bits of things to sell, since the poor hands of peasants so rarely see money.
Relieved of her fragile charge, the good wife Rambahy weaves ably through the crowd. Friends and acquaintances greet her, asking news of her husband, and she gives breezy answers without stopping. She’s in too much of a rush to waste her time with idle chit-chat. It’s the same on every market day. She’s always dying to satisfy her guilty pleasure: to actually see all the riches laid out for her to admire after spending an entire week with them dancing through her dreams. At long last, the fabric merchants’ little stalls stand before her. Her pace slows. The pretty material is the only thing in the market that interests her. She always stops and lingers there forever, just to touch all the gorgeous dresses-to-be, although so poor is she that she’ll never be able to allow herself even the smallest scrap of material. The bath of fabrics intoxicates her. Stroking them, intense passion floods her mind. The pleasure of forbidden fruit! And Missus Rambahy dreams: an important, rich, elegant woman, she dallies over two beautiful fabrics, her eyes motion the merchant over for help in making the difficult choice . . . But no vendors ever want to take part in her little game. They all know her, the penniless wife on her weekly pilgrimage, and they ignore her. She leaves dejected, cursing poverty and all the fabric merchants in the world. But just a few stalls down, her naïve adventure starts all over again. It’s the same on every market day . . .
Around eleven o’ clock, Missus Rambahy goes back to find her friend. And joy awaits her: all the eggs have been sold! Their low price ruled out competition. She hastily pockets the money, thanks her seller-friend a hundred times, and starts back toward her village. She is so happy! Our good woman nearly skips home. The weight of money in her pocket makes her that much lighter. What a nice surprise for her husband! What a personal triumph! Her poor Ikalamainty can rest in peace, her eggs were not wasted. It’s true, then: matter cannot be gained or lost, only transformed.
Rambahy, sharpening his spade near the door, sees his wife coming.
“So, did you sell them?”
But any spoken reply would be pointless. She could be mute, and he would understand her, so eloquent is her beaming face.
“Sell them? I sold them all!” the country woman gloats. “I told you, we sold them in less time than it takes to roast a grasshopper!”
She dances around, swinging her little basket over her head. Tomatoes and other vegetables go skittering across the mat, victims of her exuberance, and her husband gets a great big banana in the face. But he congratulates his wife for her cleverness all the same. How fantastic! Happiness had been hidden in Ikalamainty’s seven eggs, and the “enlightened” idea revealed it, transforming it into the pretty coins spread out on the bed. They count and recount them, making them clink merrily together as they weigh them in their hungry hands.
“Wonderful! Look at them. Look at our eggs! They’ve become smaller and more beautiful and, well, so much fresher than before!”
And peals of laughter ring out through the whole house, streaming toward all the openings in the tiny hut, plugging up every hole poverty had made. When happiness graces the poor with its presence, it always retains its original scent: naïveté. Men waste their time with sly ruses—life is much simpler than that.
Missus Rambahy tears herself away, still with a meal to prepare. Her joyful refrains rise from the kitchen. Everything she touches glitters like the pretty coins she earned. Perhaps today, lunch will be especially succulent at the Rambahy house. Good fortune never comes alone.
The midday meal is served on the mat. Rambahy and his blissful wife are just starting on their plate of steaming rice when the door has the ill-fated idea to be knocked upon.
“How rude,” Rambahy grumbles, “coming over at this hour. I’m hungry! Joy has hollowed out my stomach.”
His wife, whose stomach had perhaps been filled by that joy—who knows?—stands and goes to see who the unexpected visitor is.
“Oh, what a nice surprise! It’s Bary, our nephew from the city. Come in, my child. Come inside!”
A young man, dressed in respectable clothes, with a respectable city smell, ducks as he enters, so as not to receive the bump on the head that the too-low doorframe has the annoying habit of giving in greeting.
“Hello, my boy!” his uncle greets him. “We’re very happy to see you. Come over here, take your place of honor on the north side of our home. You may not have been invited, but you have been sent by the Ancestors. Let us eat!”
Young Bary approaches the mat. He explains that he was “late” because of a detour that he made to visit a friend before coming to see his uncle. And like any good Malagasy paying a visit to someone, the nephew has a small gift for his hosts. He carefully reveals a small parcel and hands it to his aunt.
“Look at what your nephew brought for you, Auntie. Look, eggs! I hope that your discerning palate still enjoys omelets!”
“Oh of course! You’re very kind. I’m really so happy to see you!”
The joy expressed would be made of pure greed if naïveté knew how to lie, but innocence is served well by candid words. And the young man adores his aunt, her and the purity of her country life.
“Oh, the prices here are so reasonable! In the city, can you imagine, these eggs would have cost me double! It’s so nice in the countryside. And it’s all so fresh! The air, the food, the girls’ rosy cheeks, everything here is fresh! It’s all so far from the stingy, polluted cities. Well, I hope that what I bring will do credit to the unexpected guest that I am. Would you like to crack a few eggs and make a nice omelet for us, my dear Auntie?”
Missus Rambahy hurries to get a plate and breaks the first egg.
“Oh! It’s spoiled! It’s not an egg anymore.”
“Just throw it out.” The two men brush her off; their wells of praise for the good old countryside have not yet run dry.
Auntie cracks another egg.
“Look! This one’s also bad.”
The two men stop talking and wait. Third egg.
“Oh no, this one is, too.”
The nephew comes closer, intrigued. “Well, the vendor might have mixed rotten eggs in with the fresh ones. Let’s try the others. Perhaps . . . ”
But no, the disgraceful yellow yoke trickles out, revealing a tiny fetus covered in blood. The Rambahys are shocked into silence, assailed by terrible doubt. Their horrified eyes lock, the same panic welling up in both of them.
“You’d think . . . you’d almost think . . . ”
“Yes, I was almost thinking . . . ”
The words rush over their tongues like flames licking the insides of their mouths. They’d prefer to stay silent, but their amazement is such that it drags the words out from the depths of their souls, uttering their most intimate thoughts. Their duped nephew smashes the rest of the eggs open, terminating the shells of the poor, inedible fetuses.
“Sly witch!” he curses. “Foisting seven indigestible chicks off on her customers! Couldn’t the fat cow have waited until they hatched to sell them to me?”
The brief physical description of the vendor leaves the aunt stunned. There can be no more doubt.
“Then these are our eggs,” she admits weakly.
“Sadly, yes! These were our eggs,” her nephew says, misinterpreting her meaning.
“What I mean is . . . uh . . . those eggs belong to us . . . our eggs . . . I mean, ours. Our eggs.”
Elliptical syntax is not the young man’s forte, so he continues punishing his dishonest marketwoman. A disaster of perspective. So the aunt must tell him the whole story, after a fashion: Ikalamainty’s sudden demise; the “enlightened” idea, whose progenitor she conveniently leaves out; the eggs left to be sold with a friend. She also discreetly neglects to mention their enormous joy over the pretty coins it brought them. The nephew is flabbergasted. He doesn’t hide his doubts at having understood the story.
“So, those are your eggs? Eggs belonging to you, my aunt, which I then bought? Your eggs, yours?”
Silence falls, in which ovoid echoes flap away as fast as their little wings will carry them. Rambahy stares at his young nephew who brought the rotten gift. Bary is not angry, no. His astonishment has dispelled all his anger. But the effort it takes for him to accept the oh-so-spiraling truth makes him look like a flailing bird, as he points back between the eggs, his auntie, and the eggs again.
“Your eggs, Auntie!” he says again, to try to convince himself. “So those are your eggs, Auntie! My own Auntie’s eggs!”
The uncle cracks a smile. The other two look at him.
“The way you say it is funny: My Auntie’s eggs.”
The nephew gives him a look. He’s saying “Auntie’s eggs,” but it almost sounds like “Auntie Sex.” And he turns it over in his mouth: “My Auntie’s eggs, my Auntie’s eggs are rotten!”
The two men burst out laughing. The wife stares at them—can a bad omelet drive you insane? Their laughter crescendos, carried on a gleeful refrain:
My Auntie’s eggs!
Your Auntie’s eggs!
The lady protests as she finally understands the implication.
“They’re not even my eggs! They’re Ikalamainty’s. I don’t lay eggs!”
The two men just laugh harder at Auntie’s horrified expression. And Bary exclaims, “I can’t believe it! All the eggs at market, and I had the bad luck to run across my family’s!”
“And the best part is, you had the ‘sweet idea’ to bring them back to us. They came back, your Auntie’s eggs. Well, they were egg-shaped, at least!"
“And you, Auntie, you were already smacking your lips over the rotten eggs that your ‘genius’ had so skillfully gotten rid of. This is the tody of your actions: the rotten eggs end up back in your house!”
Their uproarious laughter is so contagious that the good woman finally loosens up, too. Her idea had been “enlightened”—it just hadn’t lit too far down the path.
Rambahy eventually sobers again.
“Well, my boy, there you have it! Your aunt and I have fallen victim to our lack of good will, selling rotten eggs. But we can’t complain of watery eyes if we try starting a fire with green wood. Choking teaches you to chew better; and falling teaches you how to walk better. You can have your money back.”
“No, Auntie can keep it to buy more eggs, I know how much she loves them. You know, this inedible omelet taught me something else: country folk make a lot of mischief!”
So they’ll just have their rice, with “silver water” tea from the remnants stuck to the pot. There’s an occasional wayward glance to the eggshells, provoking smiles. Oh, what a story Ikalamainty had been sitting on! And although she hadn’t had the time to hatch it, her owners were good enough to take it under their wings, and to hilarious effect. Ikalamainty hadn’t made a quiet exit from their home, and neither had her eggs!
And the woman’s mean trick had actually turned back around on her, and the peasant’s eggs were actually present for the meal, and Auntie mourns them . . . with fondness.