Before starting his nightly route, Lemizo patted himself down to make sure that he had all the tools of his trade. On his left shoulder: a scrap paper bag glued around a large, empty, white metal container without a lid. On his right: two large sacks dangling down, one for different kinds of glass bottles, the other for scrap plastic. Around his waist: a large belt made from a tightly rolled swath of fabric, to hold any handled objects that could be reused. He also had his pointed metal litter picker, which kept him from having to bend over needlessly when he wanted to get a closer look at anything that especially interested him. A crocheted hat made from a mess of string on his head, and sandals made from long strips of leather on his feet: everything was in order, he was all set.
Lemizo was more or less satisfied with the neighborhood that the Great Council had allotted his clan when they last parceled out their territory. It really wasn’t bad at all—it hadn’t yet turned into one of those overpriced residential neighborhoods stuffed with government officials and businessmen. The locals were decent bourgeois folk, comfortable enough without being completely well-off; their daily lives ticked by as regularly as a metronome, and they had hearts of gold whenever the dual calendar of Christian and national holidays called for it. A conservative group of people, they were just as fond of the poor as they were of their traditions, but they had a rebellious streak at the ballot box to express their will—or their misguided impulses—about issues that were usually way over their heads. They had a soft spot for children, too, the little ones who could make them melt, especially with faces washed clean: the better the kids looked, the warmer the residents were! Here in this neighborhood, they wanted to feed them, they measured their own moral value by the kids’ sweet little faces. The residents two neighborhoods to the west, they liked absolutely dirt-poor school-aged kids better, it was easier to spot them. The people there needed a deeper reassurance about how sensible their charity was, how urgently it was needed. Once, in a fit of emotion, they had taken the matter directly to the local authorities and managed to enroll a whole gaggle of street kids in schools or nurseries in just one morning, after scraping the mud off their faces and getting them fresh clothes from their gardener’s wife. And those strange ol’ birds never turned down an opportunity to get their hands on the progenitors of their wards-of-the-week, either—the actual or assumed progenitors, they didn’t care—to spew their moral speeches at them, the crowning achievement in the residents’ fight against such a detrimental affront to the etiquette of neediness. They were known as the “paramedics of the dump”: it was practically an addiction, with how quickly they cleaned up the streets. That sector was just as feared as any other. The Great Council sent anyone there who had broken the Code in any way. It was actually a type of disciplinary action: children were our assistants, they played crucial roles in every job, but there, they were stuck in nurseries and schools!
The adults didn’t risk wandering about in broad daylight: they’d be arrested for vagrancy, and automatically sent off to a construction site, which was essentially a forced labor camp. The kids weren’t so bad off: they got a cup of instant soup in the morning, a bowl of rice and beans at lunch, and a glass of milk at four. So what if, as waggling tongues claimed, the children were given spoiled or expired donations to eat because of the deplorable storage conditions? Practically speaking, that odd pinchpenny policy gave the kids a welcome break from the race that life had forced them to run as soon as they could walk. To get themselves out of their predicament, parents would go to the school or nursery, as well as to the civil authorities and declare that they were going to return to their birthplace in the countryside. The powers that be encouraged this practice and only rejected such demands in exceptional circumstances. But the Great Council had established one condition: it alone could grant families permission to file their declarations.
Practically every single newcomer from the bush ended up in that camp within the first two or three weeks for having doubted the Great Council’s omniscient power once, just one tiny little doubting thought. After some time with the “paramedics of the dump,” though, it was the rare person who wouldn’t quiet down. Peace depended on respect and mutual defense of the domain; justice was ensured by rotating families through different sectors; and the Great Council itself was not a fixed body: a third of its members were replaced by direct elections every year, a month after New Year’s. The members whose terms were up would simply rejoin their group, no malice and no regrets, because there weren’t any privileges to serving on the Great Council, save the respect due for its harsh measures and firm hand. These men were, above all, almost irritatingly aware of how extraordinarily fragile their fringe city was. They tried to give it some structure to save it from the Others.
Lemizo had suffered through four weeks in that despicable neighborhood for having panhandled downtown seven days in a row. The main roads downtown were reserved for a different set of poor people, who had an autonomous administration; no one had the right to reap the rewards of both setups. But Lemizo, well, he had. It was a difficult month. He had to wait until the black of night before going out—he couldn’t risk being taken for a common bandit, he’d be speared by the Antemoro guards’ assegai, or torn to shreds by German shepherds. And even worse, the metal garbage bins there were so tall that it took a whole, complicated gymnastics routine to slide inside and climb back out again, a slew of laborious pull-ups and landings. It was too much for his starved skeleton, already shaking under the paltry load of a few burlap sacks and an empty container. Now, Lemizo took great care to follow the Great Council’s verbal decrees with absolute precision, so that he would never have to repeat that awful experience.
When Lemizo formed his own clan, the first thing he did was to get everyone in his little world accustomed to respecting the Great Council. He indoctrinated them with a reflexive fear of the Great Council above all else. Policemen, soldiers, civil or military authorities—you could always get free from them somehow, but the Great Council never let anyone slip through their grasp. Every crime was punished, nonnegotiable. He had heard about a couple of people who thought they were clever, who thought they had escaped safely back to their homeland after pulling some stunt, but the Great Council’s envoys always found them and brought them back to the city to settle their debt.
After patting all his tools down one last time, Lemizo set briskly off on his normal route, happy for now (until later, when his shoulders would start to sag under the fatigue by the end of his rounds). But he was startled by how little there was in the first dumpster: nothing for the metal container that held food scraps, just three stopperless bottles, and that was all. Unheard of! Slightly baffled, Lemizo continued down the street. Next dumpster: same story, in minute detail. He sat down for a moment, got up, sat down again, stood up again, completely disoriented. After a similar defeat at his third stop, he started asking the time from a few passersby, in case he had gotten mixed up, but no. He was right on schedule. Just after the time when the household trash got emptied into the collection bins outside. No, this wasn’t supposed to happen! Sure, there would always be a minor decrease between the third and the eighteenth of every month—that was normal along all the streets in this sector. Then, there would just be some banana peels, dried-out vegetable peelings, soup bones, and scores of eggshells and fish bones. On more bountiful days, he would find halved spheres of peels from early oranges fighting to overpower too-ripe persimmons and peelings from late-season apples, plus some thick pineapple scales. There might also be the fatty bits from a cut of pork, chicken, or duck, along with cheese rinds, the dregs of concentrated milk, and boxes of cake, still smeared with multicolored frosting. Plus, Lemizo usually had to bring one or two of the kids with him to carry all of the glass bottles and plastic containers. Such a rich night would mean a full day of cleaning for the women, with only one small break, fifteen minutes to gobble down a piece of dried cassava and a fistful of peanuts.
Lemizo’s mind raced straight to the most pessimistic option imaginable: someone must have nicked his route! It was the only logical explanation. That had to be it. He decided to bring the matter before the Great Council that very evening. That was another of the Judges’ functions: they held court every night to receive complaints and rule on any conflicts within their jurisdiction. First, the daytime envoys would present a detailed report of the preceding twenty-four hours to all the clan chiefs. Then, the disputes would be presented, a brief debate would take place, and the sentences would be passed soon after. The Great Council’s verdicts were law, there were no means of appeal. Lemizo was advised to conduct a discreet investigation to catch any potential “freelancers”—they were the most noxious pests of the whole group. If any were discovered, they’d be automatically sentenced to exile outside the city, without any possibility for redemption.
The next morning, Lemizo set up his partner, Siza, in a tobacco and cigarette stall, a few meters from the last stop on the bus. She stood casually, facing the largest trash dumpster, where she could easily oversee all the neighborhood comings and goings and pick out anyone who looked suspicious. Other trusted clan members were posted about, idling near all the secondary dumpsters. Lemizo spent the day criss-crossing his domain, but he wasn’t used to being out in daylight. He discovered new roads, unfamiliar houses. He let his nighttime memories guide him through pieces of a labyrinth strung together, instead of his extant consciousness. He even ran across others, who were themselves sneaking around a sector which was not their own, hugging the walls tightly enough to melt into them. Nothing out of the ordinary happened before nightfall. Then, the neighborhood housekeepers wandered out, chattering away in groups of three or four, to empty out their cans, buckets, and woven baskets. They loitered and lollygagged, making their nightly outing last, taking time to exchange all the little bits of neighborhood gossip amongst themselves, each one vying to shock their audience more than the next. An hour later, when the friendly murmurs had finally faded away, Lemizo gave the signal to jump into action.
Their haul was even more paltry than the day before. Lemizo realized that he would have to go right to the source, so he enlisted all the women’s help to go door to door and solve the puzzle. The result was alarming: the garbage pails were almost empty when they left the kitchens. All the households had started sorting through their trash themselves. Newspapers and other scrap paper formed one pile; rags went in another; white tin boxes and all types and sizes of bottles made a third. Any food scraps, peelings, and other kitchen waste got thrown into a white metal container, which a pork farmer came and changed out every day. All the other piles got taken away, too, exchanged for cold, hard cash.
The impossible was happening, the unimaginable. The starry-eyed, middle-class bourgeoisie weren’t throwing anything out anymore, unless they had squeezed every last bit of usefulness out of it. The delicately balanced coexistence of two urban societies had just been knocked completely off-kilter. Lemizo shuddered to consider what violence would result from such a shock to the systems of two hordes of people that were, in reality, scrounging for resources from the same finite supply. The Great Council sprang into action as soon as he told them what was happening. There was every likelihood that this new practice would spread like wildfire throughout the entire city, which meant death to the only structure that society’s rejects had found that could house them and hold them and prevent them from sinking down to the scummy bottom. All the clans offered Lemizo their hardiest teenagers, both girls and boys, to help him bar the path of dozens of poachers they had identified in no time. They all had their methods. Some hissed threats, some demanded that they clear out from the neighborhood without releasing their prey from their iron claws. The wilier ones waited until the others had filled up their sacks and baskets after getting paid then nabbed their loot.
Everything settled down after three days of such treatment, but the collection bins still weren’t any fuller. After a week, the Others returned, arms linked tightly together, flanked by imposing, muscular Malabars. They were welcomed back to the kitchens with open arms, cries of joy, and questions of what had happened to them and why they had gotten pushed around—oh no, that wasn’t allowed! The locals complained and signed a petition to purge their streets of the filth that invaded their upstanding neighborhood when night fell.
The city residents called an emergency meeting in the primary school’s courtyard, where all the Fokontany assemblies took place. Lemizo slipped through the audience—it was a general hue and cry directed against the parasites, the ones that were causing all the problems: burglaries, unsafe streets, the collapse of their commercial economy, the filth in some corners of the neighborhood that made it feel just miserable . . . no one had the nerve to say that they were only disturbed because of the possibility that their newly discovered source of revenue, however meager—household waste—might dry up. The Fokontany president was given carte blanche to rid the honest citizens of the vermin biting at their ankles, as quickly as possible. Lemizo realized how dire the situation was, so he obtained the cooperation of the Great Council and all the clan Chiefs and planned for total war. Their very survival was at stake.
Dawn. A gray, drizzly Sunday. The army of the Undercity struck a stinging hammer blow against the Others, all the Others, in a desperate rage for their lives. A dark morning: sticks flew, canes whirled, ropes thrashed, eyes and lips spat hate and death. The local residents stood fast behind their closed doors and shuttered windows, only vaguely aware of what was happening outside. No whistles rang out to alert the local guards, who carefully turned a blind eye. It was just a moment, an everlasting moment for those inside as well as out.
Then the sun rose, like yesterday, like the day before, like tomorrow and forever. And the curtain fell on the bizarre phantasm, hiding the dead and wounded and any other traces of violence from view in an instant.
The neighborhood started to stir a little later than usual, still somewhere between stunned and relieved. The local authorities pounced on the opportunity to sweep up the city, neighborhood by neighborhood. They rounded up everyone without a place to live and carted them out in huge dumpsters, far from the city limits. They were packed in tight and left there, miserable. Official documents reported that they were “gathered, so that their case could be examined and dealt with appropriately.” The city was empty: emptied of its beggars, its poor, its cardboard and newspaper and plastic tents. Scrubbed clean of all visible filth. Healed—so they believed—of its blastomycosis.
But that was all a delusion. The sickness festered inside every house, inside every kitchen, inside every resident trying feverishly to profit from every last bit of trash in order to survive, or at least keep up the appearance of class, like the olden-day hidalgos. The Undercity had disappeared. Another would take its place, more murderous and violent than before, because they would have more to lose, ever so slightly more.
“Blastomycose” © Bao Ralambomanana. First published in Dominique Ranaivoson, ed., Chroniques de Madagascar (Saint-Maur-des-Fosses: Sepia, 2005). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2015 by Allison M. Charette. All rights reserved.