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from the December 2015 issue: Knowing the Unknowable: Writing from Madagascar

One Times Two

Hamban-Joky and Hamban-Jandry were twin brothers, unusually identical brothers. They looked the same and acted the same. Their mother, Velonaina, mixed them up. Their father, Tsiahoana, couldn’t tell them apart. No one in the village knew one from the other. Only they recognized one another, only they knew which one was which.

For Hamban-Jandry had been the first to see the light of day. And thus he was Zandry, his parents’ youngest child.  Hamban-Joky was the one charged with their placenta at birth, and thus he was Zoky, the eldest. He was so acknowledged because carrying burdens is an elder child’s duty. So in life, it was Hamban-Joky who carried the two brothers’ destinies and decisions on his shoulders.

They had no problems growing up. They’d had bracelets put on them to prevent confusion. Hamban-Joky wore copper and Hamban-Jandry silver. So as long as they didn’t switch them, everyone knew who they were dealing with. People noticed that the one who wore copper was a leader who ran his world his own way and maintained control of all situations. The one who wore silver was obedient, helpful, and wanted most of all to live a peaceful life. They made a nice pair of twins, and their clan was proud of them.

Like all children, they hatched lots of plots and played lots of tricks. They nicked fruit from orchards, like all mischievous kids. They joined up in the warring campaigns against the little neighborhood boys in other villages. They also defied customs by going to forbidden areas where there was more abundant game, or picking up money from the offerings around tombs and altars. Like all children of their age.

 So at home, they were punished. After misbehaving, knowing that they’d be feeling the rod, they’d come home quietly at nightfall, one following the other. The first to cross the threshold had to bear the full fire of their parents’ anger. Generally, that was Hamban-Jandry. The second waited for the end of the storm to slip into the hut. That way, Hamban-Joky emerged relatively unscathed, without being yelled at too much.

So from then on, their parents demanded that the guilty parties appear together. And they thought it fair that Hamban-Joky would be more severely reprimanded than his brother. Then, one day, they saw them switch their bracelets just outside the hut. Filled with compassion for the eternal victim that Hamban-Jandry might become, they gave up the thrashings. The twins were allowed more freedom growing up.

Still, the parents were pleased with their pair of progeny. The older began work that the younger’s helpfulness brought to fruitful conclusion. Undeniably, those two were made to complement one another. Little by little, they’d learned to respect the customs, and now everyone knew that the family’s lineage would be doubly secure: their only thoughts of the future were together.

 

But a war broke out beyond the seas and white officers came to recruit volunteers. In the village, there were none. The officers didn’t budge: they would have their volunteers. So they pressured the adults. They needed their volunteers. That evening, a dozen of the most handsome boys stood before the village chief’s hut. They were young men who’d already shaved their beards for the first time, who didn’t yet have wives, and who were in perfect health. The twins were among them.

When the officer with gold stripes saw them, he stared, perplexed, at the unimaginably perfect resemblance between them.

“No,” he said. “One of you will stay in the village. Two brothers can’t serve in the army in the same year.”

The declaration devastated the twins, who’d been thinking of the war as an extraordinary experience to share. The officer stepped up to Hamban-Joky and pointed: “You stay here.”

And so Hamban-Joky and Hamban-Jandry were separated, for the first time in their lives. The older stayed in the village and got on with the brothers’ usual chores. His parents would choke up as they watched this branch of the pair that had been left to them. Their hearts were filled with sorrow, imagining the gentle Hamban-Jandry far away from his brother’s protection. They imagined the little soldier facing an unknown land and having brushes with death far from his home. Hamban-Joky didn’t let himself think about his younger brother too much. Still, he could sometimes be seen heading solemnly for the heavy round stone to the north of the hut where their father had buried the twins’ placenta. He would circle it a few times before sitting next to it. From there, his thoughts would fly away in search of his brother’s.

It seemed as if the war didn’t want to end. Officers would come back periodically to find other volunteers. The village was emptying of young men. Parents started to lose hope of ever seeing them again. The girls were worried, too: would there be enough boys to marry?

The twins’ parents began to dream of holding a little girl on their knees before they died, for they felt themselves aging under the weight of the years, especially from the grief caused by their absent son. But Hamban-Joky wanted his brother to be there when he took a wife. Deep down, he had always thought that such a day would be a double wedding. He shared his thoughts with his parents, and they concurred.

One day, they were informed that the entire populace was invited to the district capital to prepare to celebrate a victory: the war was over. The village’s impatience was indescribable waiting for the soldiers’ return party. The preparations were like never before. Everyone from every village traveled to the city with heavy loads of white rice, zebu cattle, and alcohol. Each person gathered their money—the boys had to have a dignified welcome.

When Hamban-Joky stepped through the entryway of the barracks, accompanied by his parents, he was trembling with nerves and felt as if his chest was going to explode with joy. He hurtled like a cannonball toward the soldier wearing a red tarbush, who had been watching for him with the same jubilation. The twins’ tears and shouts mingled in the air. Only then did Hamban-Jandry see his parents in tears. Joy doesn’t have to be spoken aloud when it’s felt so strongly. Now, it was the mild Hamban-Jandry who led the conversation. His gaze was sure, his voice firm, and he stood with military erectness. He showed off his uniform, he spread out his medals, he told them about his war, he described France, all the while addressing his brother as if calling him to witness it all. He introduced his army comrades to his parents. He called over the officer with gold stripes, who teased him gently. Hamban-Jandry replied to him in French. Hamban-Joky’s heart shivered at that. No one would ever get them confused again.

The party lasted the entire week: military parade, balls, and street fairs. Then the long, festive oom-pah-pahs faded away in the merriment that had exhausted every last person. They all thought then of returning to the village. This did not seem to be an enticing prospect for the soldier. Hamban-Joky found his troubled twin and asked him about it.

“I can’t hide anything from you, Zoky,” the soldier said. “I’m afraid that I’ve done something really stupid and I just can’t tell our parents about it. I need your advice.”

After the older one assured him that he’d do anything to help, the younger confessed: “Look, I met a girl over there. She loves me and I married her. You get it, I don’t know how to tell our parents, and I don’t know how she can live in the village. Where she’s from, everything is different.”

His brother was astonished. “Well,” he said, “it looks like you’re gonna get a thrashing!” They laughed.

No, there was no thrashing, but disbelief and amazement when Hamban-Jandry, leading a unbelievably white young woman with white-flaxen hair by the hand, appeared before the fathers and mothers of the village. He’d pretended to have administrative papers to handle at the last minute, letting his brother and parents leave a day before him. Hamban-Joky had already warned his parents of the existence of this foreign daughter-in-law before he crossed his familial threshold. And yet, they were struck speechless by the soldier’s wife. She was really a true vazaha. Everyone had already dealt with French men, but never women—in fact, in the village, they’d only ever caught a glimpse of the district chief’s wife, an imposing woman in her forties who had grown tired of the colonies. Hamban-Jandry’s wife was a pretty, supple blonde shoot with questioning eyes. She walked over to where the kids were playing and squatted down awkwardly. Her eyes looked for the mother’s and found a smile. Yvonne knew that it wouldn’t take her long to love everything. And when the young vazaha laid eyes on her brother-in-law, she laughed and also, deep down, looked for differences: the clothes, language, and mannerisms that four years abroad had built up in her husband. They were served a meal of rice and chicken. The husband’s anxiety eased when he saw his wife right on the ground, in a pose that was completely new to her, eating heartily.

They were received like honored guests. They had to be given the most comfortable hut until their choice of house was built in their choice of place. Gifts flowed in, and Yvonne said that she’d never received so much gold, because every aunt and cousin gave her gifts of jewelry. Also, like every bride, she was presented with fine mats, baskets, mortars and pestles, and heavy, three-legged cast iron pots. More than anything else, she cherished the ebony chair that Hamban-Joky had carved for her as a surprise.

When the house on the bamboo hill was completed, the entire family came to admire it. A small fence enclosed a garden, which already held some plants that the newlyweds had unearthed from the forest, mostly palm trees, ferns, and orchids. The house wasn’t a true hut, even though it was constructed from everyday materials. It had the shingled roof, plank walls, and rosewood doors, but it was all in uncommon proportions. Everything was high and wide, and there were too many openings. Everyone sensed that the two wanted a large home for the numerous children to come. One day, they came back from the city in the district chief’s truck with an impressive load of furniture and crates. Soon afterward, they’d decorated like in the catalogs: a living room with flowered sofas, side tables (small and large ones), bookshelves, carpets, knickknacks, portraits of vazahas from overseas, lengths of cloth at the windows, porcelain lamps. They always took their meals in the same, specific room. Hamban-Jandry ate sitting on a chair at a table covered with objects for eating, stabbing, slicing, drinking hot things, drinking cold things, cleaning your fingers, wiping your mouth. Hamban-Jandry served himself after Yvonne, under the blank expressions of the photos of the old vazahas, his parents-in-law. The house had many dividing walls, so they slept in yet another room. And that was the most wondrous room. In addition to the bed, of a burnished golden copper covered in a satin comforter, there were other puzzling objects. Yvonne did her hair by herself, without another woman’s aid, in front of a mirror of more than ten square feet. You could see your whole body in it. But above all else reigned the radio and the gramophone: they’d of course heard talk of such things, but never the things themselves with their own ears. And the music was in vazaha voices.

Wonders arrived endlessly at the house on the bamboo hill. However, the newlyweds were increasingly left alone,  because everyone conceded that their destiny was to live among all those objects, and that the villagers’ was to carry on like they always had. Each person returned to their daily tasks, and life continued its course. Hamban-Joky shared the couple’s life with unrestrained joy. He was part of all the excursions into the forest, to neighboring villages, and all the journeys to the city. His brother claimed he needed an escort, and the twins accompanied one another. The special agent there knew them well, since one of his functions as a civil servant was to periodically distribute money to former soldiers to help them make up for the time lost fighting. Hamban-Jandry bought vanilla and zebus on his brother’s advice.

The white wife, she leaped from one discovery to the next, astonished by ordinary things, like the color of the water, the green of the forest, the singing bamboo, and their sparkling laughter. She learned words and polite forms of address quickly, she learned how to become a member of the family, and Hamban-Joky called her vady lova, “the wife to be inherited,” as was customary in the case of his brother’s death. For the moment, he didn’t consider taking a wife. His brother’s happiness fulfilled him.

This happiness suited everyone and could have lasted a long time, for the days passed calmly and prosperously. The couple’s wealth grew, and they poured out judicious advice and help to the villagers. The parents slipped into old age, filled with longing for a grandson who wouldn’t take long now to arrive. No one dared question the foreign daughter-in-law about her maternal hopes, of course. But they’d seen her smile at the snot-nosed kids, playing with them and winning them over. That surely meant that she wanted to be a mother.

Little by little, the desire for an overdue descendant made the twins’ parents worry. They alluded a thousand times to the joy of a house full of children, they told stories about the two brothers’ old pranks, they showered praise on couples who’d had a baby born to them. They spoke of nothing anymore save newborns and infants. Hamban-Jandry and his wife were saddened by their new obsession. As expected, the future grandparents consulted divining stones, sources of magic, and sacred trees. They sacrificed chickens, scattered fat and honey, promised white linen. They abstained from onions, kidneys, and voanjobory peas. They were willing to do anything so that Yvonne’s too-slender waist would expand.

In the house on the hill, a bright, spacious room was waiting for a cradle. Hamban-Joky slept there on nights when he stayed too late. Yvonne would tease him, calling him “snuggles,” like a baby. The cheek of that vazaha! Snuggles, to her brother-in-law . . .

But she did, she had the same intimate freedom with both Hamban-Joky and Hamban-Jandry, she laughed with them, joked with them, needled them, and loved them. With other people, she just smiled sweetly. Her gentle nature had earned her general acceptance among the villagers. Only some nasty tongues called her momba. Vazaha momba, “the sterile foreign woman.” Her husband knew that a child had to be born. He decided to unburden his parents from invoking the forces of life. He would finally take care of the recalcitrant child himself.

And that’s what he did.

Over the course of his travels, he learned about everything that could make people parents. He collected names, locations, recipes. Everything seemed like it must be useful. That’s when he met a miracle worker who promised him the thing itself. The man was respected in his village, cut off from any contact with the city. Still, he guaranteed that even in a white wife, his sciences would make a child grow. He promised the miracle.

How did Hamban-Jandry convince Yvonne to follow him to the child-bringer? Well, he didn’t tell her. The fact is, one gorgeous afternoon, they were seen knocking on the door of the learned man’s cottage. Proud and moved by such a customer, he rained questions and suggestions down on them, exponentially more than normal. The young woman, staggered by so many possible procedures, swore that it would be the first and last time that she’d go to a healer.

“What will you give to have a child before year’s end?” the man asked. “You must have a tsikafara.” When a vow is made and the gods answer it, you throw a magnificent party, the tsikafara.

“If a child is born,” Hamban-Jandry said, “in addition to the zebu that I will sacrifice, I will put honey on their lips, on my parents’ lips, and on my brother’s lips.” It was a lot to promise. Putting honey on someone’s lips means to grant a wish. Hamban-Jandry was promising to grant four wishes! Yvonne wasn’t surprised by such ardor, though. And thus, the transaction was complete. The child would be born in exchange for a fine white linen suit, leather boots, and glasses. For the magician. In the village, his father asked for nothing. He wanted the child, that would be enough for him. His mother declared that she would even add another zebu to the sacrifice. But all the same, she would get to choose the little one’s name. As for Hamban-Joky, he answered tersely: “Let the child arrive, then we’ll see.”

The treatment started, they followed the miracle worker’s recommendations to the letter. The future mother had to be washed with a concoction of leaves crushed by someone fady, someone taboo. But Yvonne didn’t have any close relations in the village. Her father-in-law alone was fady to her. He was the one who prepared the concoction for Yvonne’s bath. In a corner of the armoire, in a small round basket, they’d secured a flask of clear spring water, another of ocean water, and a sea shell. In the morning, they turned toward the rising sun, uncorked the flasks, and poured drops into their hands to polish her forehead and hair. “Ho soa, ho tsara.” Wishes for everything to be good and well. They’d never forget that little ceremony. Another of the learned man’s directions was that they were forbidden to kill, to end a life, whether mosquito, fly, or fowl, to kill joy or hope. They were advised to be gentle and magnanimous.

The couple spoke freely of their hopes in front of the older brother, who listened impassively to what they said. He kept quiet and didn’t express any of his incredulity. Hamban-Joky could not believe that such a birth would happen. He didn’t believe it.

Yvonne did her rituals of purification, and the chants of ho soa, ho tsara marked each day. Life around them was respected, they became more obliging than ever toward everyone. And Hamban-Joky kept quiet. He was often seen sitting pensively on the stone above their shared placenta.

And then he knew . . . How did such certainty come to him? He couldn’t explain it. He sank deep into thought and became more silent than ever.

The weeks passed, and the white wife still didn’t develop any nausea or desires of pregnant women. No one understood it. The men came to a decision: they would organize an all-night feast when the moon was in its first quarter. It would be a tsimandrimandry, a night of joy where sleep was banished. Attendees would be invited to pray, dance, and share the joy of the child still to come.

They tracked the nights and, one day, announced that the tsimandrimandry could take place. And there was a wonderful nocturnal celebration on the bamboo hill.

The shadows of the guests danced around the glowing fire, slabs of beef roasting in its heat. The hungriest ones took bamboo stalks to skewer fatty pieces, whose heavy drops sizzled on the white-hot charcoal. The smell made their mouths water, and alcohol flowed freely. Nobody really wanted rice, a sign that they’d come to feast, not to fill their bellies with ordinary food. The record was spinning, and the young people wanted to dance. So they danced.

 Hamban-Joky and the sorcerer prepared the service of petition on the veranda: they’d unrolled a light-colored mat and set the ritualistic white porcelain platter on a pedestal, with its glowing water drawn from the dance of a spirit in the whirling river. A large silver coin awaited the beginning of the joro, in the hopes the ancestors might deign to open their ears to the wishes of the living. The couple was called forward, and the crowd fell speechless: Yvonne had dyed her blonde hair black. Now she had braids with large knots of hair at the ends framing her pretty face. It was the taly-vono, the joro style representing a prayer to the forebears. She had tied a flowered cloth pagne around her waist like a real child of the country. Her husband came and squatted at her side. He, too, had donned the traditional garb for the occasion, a light-colored jacket with long sleeves stitched with three pockets, a silk soubaya pagne with dark stripes that was probably purchased from an Indian shop. Nothing remained of his former French military erectness. A true son of the village. Although they were still young, the couple cut imposing figures with their richness and bearing.

Then, someone in the crowd intoned the ancestral hymn:

Look, the great ones are arriving, arriving
On their heads, they wear bowls
And their backs, platters
We called One alone
But one hundred have answered the call
Look for the great ones coming, coming.

Parents, supporters, and friends took up the unchanging chant from every corner of the yard, making it rise beyond the bamboo, beyond the hills. All the way up to the Never-Ending-Life. The miracle-worker called upon the forces of Nature to join with him for the joro. He also called upon all the spirit-beings of the woods, the tsiny and the kalanoro, male and female, powerful and lame. He didn’t want to risk omitting a single one. Then, he addressed the God of the Sky and the God of the Earth:

“Rakatoko, lord of life, god of the heavens, and you, Rajorobe, lord of the earth, god of lower realms. You, the two who have sculpted my feet and my hands, you who see us when we are standing, when we are squatting, when we are lying down, you who give us the sun and the moon and all the innumerable stars, you who give us the soil and its fruits, the waters and their gifts, the heat and the cold, grant us today the gift of being present among us.”

Then, turning toward the North, he addressed the husband’s parentage:

“And you, our dearly departed in their eternal cold-houses, you are the blood of our flesh and the bones of our limbs, I ask you to come to us. You who begat Hamban-Jandry, look watchfully upon him and grant him what he asks of you.”

Then, they saw Hamban-Jandry tremble a little, his lips moving in a silent prayer. But they didn’t see that Hamban-Joky was also raising just as fervent a supplication up to his ancestors.

Then, the names of the ancestors were called: all the ancestors were called by their name, the ones who had begotten Hamban-Jandry, his father Tsiahoana, and his mother Velonaina. He uttered the twenty-eight names of the ones who had made the young man.

“You, on the banks of the Mananara, far away, you who are the blood of Tsiahoana. You, Rakorokoro, who were the first of the ancestors,

“You, Tsiosa and Havana, who were the parents of Koso and raised bulls,

“You, Bijoro and Sainy, who were the parents of Jerison, the wife of Koso, and who left us our heavy silver necklaces,

“You, Tombolaza and Soatia, who were the parents of Tilahimena and built the cold-houses of Sandrakaty,

“You, Zaranaina and Sina, who were the parents of Soazafy, and Soazafy, the wife of Zafitody, who were together the parents of Tsiahoana and who brought us to these lands of Ankaibe, you who sleep now on the hills of our village,

“Here is the son of Tsiahoana, look at him, he is your child who continues your line among us. Grant him also some of your blood and your bones. Grant him strength and life for his loins to procreate this child who will be all of you.”

The officiate dipped the silver Napoléon coin into the bowl of water, then plunged the mango stalk in and shook it over the couple, who shivered with ardent emotion. Then, he sprinkled it over the crowd. He had completed Hamban-Jandry’s masculine branch, now he had to rally the maternal ancestors. Now, he climbed the long-past line of Velonaina. The blessing would be complete.

“You, in the hills of Ankaisina, you who are the bones of Velonaina, you, Velombitana and Mevasandry, who were the parents of Bevary and grew rice on the hillsides and near the swamps,

“You, Kalo and Malandy, who were the parents of Todiana, the wife of Bevary, and who brought us granite mortars,

“You, Tonga and Manana, who were the parents of Tsaradia and conquered new rice fields in Ankerika,

“You, Jihy, who was the father of Bizaha and the husband of Kalotody, whose father came from beyond the seas, you both who knew the art of healing,

“You, Bevary and Todiana, who were the parents of Avilaza and planted coffee,

“You, Avilaza and Kalo, who were the parents of Velonaina, and who held our young twin boys on your knees, you whose bones we laid in Ankerika,

“All of you, here is your descendant, the flesh of your flesh, it is for him that we pray, so that you might grant that he would continue your lives through his own descendants. Give him this child, for whom we all wait. Give him this child.”

Again, the mango stalk went to sprinkle the people. The drops fell on the couple, the parents, Hamban-Joky, and all the guests. The miracle-worker’s abilities made everyone proud: the ancestral tree had been counted unquestionably well. Twenty-eight blessings would be poured out upon the couple—this time, a child would be born.

The white wife’s ancestors remained. Yvonne could name her four grandparents and two of her great-grandparents. She didn’t know the rest. “That must be why she’s sterile!” people thought. “The white woman hasn’t earned her forebears’ blessing! She doesn’t even know their names.”

Well, the blanks could be filled in. They heard the poor officiate stuttering a vague genealogy, in which he called willy-nilly on all the French people he knew. He matched men’s and women’s names together from the infrequent times he’d sat on the benches of the official school. Yvonne could tell that the list was strange, but the man’s intonation was so bizarre, his pronunciation so deformed, that she didn’t recognize any of the characters. The teacher was the only one choking back laughter at the great chaos of couples being named. Adam and Eve, Clovis and Bertha Broadfoot, Joan of Arc and Saint Louis IX, Roland de Roncevaux and Jeanne Hachette, Clotilde and Godefroy de Bouillon: these names had captioned his history book’s illustrations.

But the tally wasn’t yet complete, so the ingenious child-bringer added more:

“You, Pierrette and your husband, who raised calves, cows, and pigs,

“You, Napoleon and your wife, who commanded a hundred thousand men,

“You, Pasteur and your wife, who did not have rabies,

“You, Victor Hugo and Cosette, who carried pails across the miserable ocean,

“You, Brother John and Morningbells, who are sleeping.”

He completed the litany by calling upon General Joffre and his wife and ended with the district chief and his surly wife. His brilliance amazed the crowd. But Hamban-Jandry shivered with suspicion: would all those vazahas recognize Yvonne as their blood? And now the miracle-worker, carried away by his success, was singing, “Allons enfants de la Patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivé!” and so the joro ended with the French national anthem.

The ceremony came to a close. Everyone spread back out around the fire and bottles. The younger folks started dancing again, their faces flushed. The tsimandrimandry was in full swing—no one was supposed to close their eyes that night. The two brothers were dragged into the tangle of dancers, and Hamban-Jandry drank more than was reasonable. His elder brother kept a clear head and melted into the shadows of the bamboo that grew in front of the bedroom window, where a worn-out Yvonne had lay down in the semi-darkness. Hamban-Joky stepped across the veranda without a second thought and, pulling the slightly ajar door carefully open, slipped into the room. Yvonne saw him and said, “Come, Hamban-Jandry.” Outside, the tumult of the party became a chant, and the male voice of Hamban-Jandry sang the refrains. The first pink rays were already painting the hillsides when they decided to part. The tsimandrimandry had happened exactly as everyone had wished.

Izy io, the calling of the earth’s tears
And the cry of life
Through the urgent surge
Of flesh that must be born
Of one flesh to another
Of one man to one woman’s stomach
Between hill and vale
Between glen and gentleness
The child comes
The child comes
Finally, Izy io
Finally they are green again, the banks,
Deserted by a foremother’s
Tenderness
And by a forefather’s
Watchful search
Izy io, finally the confluences
Converge from the tree of strength
Transplanted from each bone
From each drop of blood
From each mother’s cry
Toward a new spring of life,
Fecund and fertile.
The child comes,
The child comes, finally, Izy io.

The echoes seemed to repeat the chorus for a long time. Yes, Izy io. The child comes, the child comes.

 

It was indeed a successful feast: at the next New Year, a mixed child was born on the bamboo hill, a little boy who carried Mananara, Ankaisina, and France within him. His grandmother presented him to the village at the christening feast. She’d given him the name Hamban-Baba, “son of the twin.” Since he was also French, his father called him Yves.

When they had to go to the city to register those names, the two brothers entered the office of records together. The official’s eyes flicked from one face to the other. Then he laughed and said, “This child has two fathers!”

 

“Doublement Un” © Cyprienne Toazara. First published in Dominique Ranaivoson, ed., Nouvelles chroniques de Madagascar (Saint-Maur-des-Fossés: Sépia, 2009). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2015 by Allison M. Charette. All rights reserved.

December 2015
Knowing the Unknowable: Writing from Madagascar
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