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from the May 2012 issue

Center of Flacq

At the first rays of dawn, when the dogs abandon their posts and the vagrants their cardboard boxes, the most pointless of prayers ascends into the sky. A plea. God, grant us this day our daily bread . . .

The wind from the east muffles the prayer, the voice weakens, but at that very instant you think it will vanish into thin air, it intensifies, proliferates, spreads out over the tarnished roofs of the municipal buildings, onto the sticky benches of a classroom. In plain sight the voice sometimes slips into the commissary’s backyard or next to a hospital bed. The voice incants, imitates the monotonous tinkling of gold.

In Flacq, they rise early, and since they are pious and careful with money, they start the day with prayers to the gods, but finish with that futile prayer of numbers.

Back to our beginnings. Land. Back when it was a savanna for children, full of hidden lairs where, despite the risk of the rod, these untamed beasts loitered. Through our Amazon Rainforest cuts the Céré River, wider than the sea, like the Nile except bordered with misconceptions. All stained with passing time.

Thus time passed as discreetly as an animal stalking its prey, and the village slowly spread across the land, never stopping, pushing the borders with its stalls full of clutter. Flacq during the day is nothing more than a vast market; buy, sell, pound the pavements, work the sidewalks… High-class hooker, as they say. Too high-class to invite us for a ride.

The villager is suddenly transformed; once peasant, he is now merchant, or doctor, or teacher. He now knows how land is measured in acres, he knows plot divisions and inheritances, and when the land is the measure of everything, everything is subdivided. Land stubbornly fenced. Uncultivated. Soon barren.

Yet the same beaming faces carry on here, pacing the same narrow streets with easy smiles, passing by, greeting one another in an endless chorus of kozé! . . . And laughing about the crosses they all bear . . . in order to both atone and to celebrate, what exactly they do not know. Soothing voices, nevertheless sizing each other up, easily heard from several hundred yards away as if speaking to others, to the absent. To the gods maybe, to whom they call from afar, in vain.

Hey Joe! Joeey . . . Haven’t seen him. Look elsewhere. Beyond the old sawmill blue clouds form a running blue train and hug a horizon of rising sun, green cane fields, brown straw. True, the sky is blue like an orange, as if washed in the aftermath of disaster.

Still, not a cloud sailed over the village yesterday, the night was scented, the streets crowded, and they inched along all day across the bridges, to be near the sun!, and everyone believed in summer, and in good times to come, they stole glances at one another, making out firm and supple bodies under the summer clothes, showing some skin finally!, and the night was pink and fragrant, and so poignant. Two deaths. Two that smelled of sulfur, of a love that stung. Jumped off a bridge. No wings to save them.

Tumbling out of Sainte-Anne Street, angels in school uniform. Green dresses buttoned up to the neck, dirty white shirts, same as the socks that barely cover their ratty shoes. He knows them all, Joe does, he can even name them. Yovanee and Ragini in the usual order, then come Asha, Maya and Manisha in single file, confidently crossing Royal Road. A sight that makes men stop and stare. Too bad they don’t shop at Bouboule et Bouboule. They would be goddesses in saris.

Joe watches as his angels move away, soon disappearing behind a line of houses that bite into the sky. With his legs beating to the unique rhythm of Mozambique, he wishes he could walk ahead of them, delete the loud billboards from the landscape, give them back some of the old land. But he drags his feet, Joe does. Tired even before he makes the effort. Old already.

This is your inheritance, Joe. This will teach you that you can never get your childhood back.

© Barlen Pyamootoo. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 Danielle McLimore. All rights reserved.

Read more from the May 2012 issue
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