On this morning, the old musician stops playing the moment I bend my lanky bag of bones and squeeze through the tiny doorframe of his home. I’ve stopped greeting him, at least while he’s playing, so as not to frighten away, like birdsong, the music my ears drink in from the street.
But today, he breaks off. A long silence settles in while Marvane—that’s what I call him—aligns and adjusts the chunks of calabash gourd under the strings of his instrument. His fingers feel for new tones. An original tune painfully prepares to make its entrance into the world. Heady emotion filters through the still air, thick with the scent of eucalyptus—he hasn’t put out the stove. Slowly, the handful of coals that warmed his coffee smolder away. They warm him at the same time. Having drunk his coffee, he throws off his blanket. Draws the other chair closer to hold up the head of the marovany.
The first notes begin to rain down. Now and again, a little groan where an impatient finger brushes a string still abuzz with another note.
Teeth eaten away by chewing tobacco slowly form a smile. The solitary old man has finally noticed me.
“It’s just that I’ve a new story to tell you, Vazaha,” he says apologetically.
“Yes, Marvane. And thank you. But first tell me, what’s the thought of the day?”
“The thought of the day?”
“The thought of the day is: Dralam-bazaha mimpoly ampaosim-bazaha avao.”
“The White Man’s money always goes back into the White Man’s pocket?”
“Exactly. Well done. Now you speak my language almost better than I do.”
“Thank you, Marvane. Coming from you, that truly warms my heart. Now if you’re ready, let’s hear this new story.”
“’s the tale of Titiky.”
Marvane props his instrument against the chair in front of him.
The shelter is up. Like every night. Three sheets that were once wild with color, now faded, pale, vaguely unclean. Just like the faceless people who wander through this savage place. Faceless, eyeless. For they can’t be seen. Although they shout, they can’t be heard. Although they stare wide-eyed, they can’t be seen, because they themselves are so obsessed with what-will-I-eat, they cannot see the time seeping through their fingers like ocean sand. Three sheets arranged in a rectangle under the shop’s veranda. No need for a roof. The balcony on the first floor, where the landlord’s daughter lives, is protection from the rain and sun. Rain is no problem, since it rains twenty days a year, and it’s not the season. More worrisome is the sting of the southern winter, and the bite of a belly that’s always empty, or almost.
Pay off the pousse-pousse.
If you don’t take advantage of the rainy years, you’d better have some jump in your legs in the dry years. The wet years have crumbled into the abyss of the past like corn in a bottomless sack. Think about it without regret. The heart’s strength gets spent. Money’s sought out. Once found, it has to be used one way or another. Mine was used to give me a taste of the good life. The life of someone without a care. Oh, that Mikea. Memories of the good not-so-old days hearten me rather than getting me down. Make me think it’s still possible. Thirty years old. A pretty wife who’s an excellent dancer. A little boy who can already climb into the pousse all by himself, without anyone’s help. Only two this kid, but insatiable: he divides his time between Mikea’s breast and the pot of boiled cassava.
The shelter is up. Just a shelter from the eyes of passersby, not a shelter from the icy winds that split the skin in this season. Tioka atimo: South wind that pocks the still-bare buttocks of my little boy. Tioka atimo that drains away tourists of all tongues. And with them, their euros—but euros don’t easily make it into the pockets of pousse-pousse men. Tourists full of euros ride around in kat-kats. Usually, I sleep in my vehicle, my wife and kid in the shelter made of sheets; I’m the night guard for Hussein’s bulk and wholesale shop.
The south. The inscrutable Far South. Mesmerizing. Toliara tsy miroro. Toliara never sleeps.
Pay off our pousse-pousse.
The best kind of day for the three of us is when I bring back some old white ladies, vazahas tipsy with pleasure, and in the evening our troupe dances at the cabaret. Then, the next morning, the pousse gets a rest. I stick to making little repairs. I wash it. I polish it. Cajole it. Caress it. Take care of its little boo-boos. Fuss over it. Days like those, Mikea permits herself a trip to the market. Brings back fried sea urchins, zebu steaks, rice. Soaks our evening in the sweet smell of tomato sauce. Then the cloth shelter flapping in the south wind takes in a third inhabitant. Me. Yes, nights like that, I leave my hunched position on the passenger bench of my pousse to wrap my gentle Mikea in my sturdy arms.
Six months to pay off the pousse-pousse.
Only four more months and I’ll be an owner. Then I can rent it out and start working to buy another. I still have several years of pulling ahead of me. Mikea’s eyes shine in the light of the cooking fire.
She really is hard on herself, my sweet Mikea. I’ve always tried to convince her that she wasn’t the only one responsible for our ruin: when we lived it up like bawanes, she too got a taste for luxury, perfumes, fancy restaurants, nights out on the town with friends. Fair enough. But the real culprit was Mr. Drala, money. It came too suddenly. Brutally. Too much all at once. It went to our heads. Tore off our heads.
“It’s my fault, dear husband. It’s the woman’s role to manage a couple’s finances. Especially since you let me handle the money, unlike other husbands.”
“I let you because you worked, too, as a dancer in the group. You brought in almost as much as I did. And we wanted to live like modern people.”
Now we live on the street. Without bills to pay, it’s true, or water, or electricity, or rent.
Finish paying off the pousse-pousse before the rains come.
Margaret Besser's translation was one winner of And Other Stories’ translation sample competition, which ran in August 2015 in partnership with the City University translation summer school, "Translate in the City." The whole novel, Le Mangeur de Cactus, will be discussed at And Other Stories' forthcoming francophone African reading group.