Crayfish leap backward in huge bounds, which I loved.
But later, I’d find their own excrement in their heads.
Lord Rat washes his face, he is bald.
Lady Mouse trills, she is toothless.
Once upon a time, I was a little girl. I lived in the country.
Then, Nenitou came. Nenitou is my mother-sister. She took me with her. She made me leave the country. I was going to go to school. I was going to have beautiful dresses. Clean ones. I was going to watch “tivé.” I was going to ride in the “cayer.”
Nenitou likes animals. She loves chameleons. She calls me Itamba, short for Itambarira. Itambarira is a chameleon. I am a chameleon. A dumb chameleon: always told to do things that I don’t know how to do. A chameleon with nasty wide eyes: I always have to lower my eyes and look at people’s feet. A changing chameleon. With nasty, flaking skin.
Happy young girl with rosy round cheeks,
now limp little puppet with sunken face has become.
Sun dancing through the clearing glade
stream skipping over forest rocks
like a butterfly,
now gaunt skinny cow the others won’t lap clean
dark shadowed bird of accursed song has become.
Nenitou is my younger mother, my mother-sister. I saw my mother’s blood. Flowing from her cracked head. Cracked open on the doorframe. She had been too slow—another chameleon—to open the door for my father that night. He had come back when the rooster crowed, like always. Sloshed with betsa-betsa, like always. But that night, he was also sloshed with a strange scent. A strange woman’s scent. A whore’s scent.
Does Nenitou’s blood look like my mother’s?
I arrived at Nenitou’s house with my country sheets and my country clothes. Nenitou told me they were stinking rags. Don’t touch them anymore. But without touching them, I couldn’t fall asleep. Nenitou had bundled up my precious rags to burn them. I hid the bundle, and Nenitou took a wide belt from Dadatou, my father-sister, and beat me.
Country girl with dirty nose
here you’ll learn to be nice and clean
sheets in my house are nice and clean
even my “boyas” don’t wear raggedy clothes.
One night, Nenitou had guests over. She dressed me in a pink-flowered dress that hadn’t kept growing up with her oldest daughter, Peta. When she called me to show me off to her guests—I hate it when they show me off—I hesitated outside the door for a second. I heard her say, “Oh, I pulled her out of poverty! Those poor country folk, they only eat once every three days, they don’t have any clothes, they don’t even go to school . . . But mine is such a lazy thing! She’s like a chameleon. ITAMBA!”
I went inside, eyes fixed on my feet—you shouldn’t look at decent people. My head bowed, my heart ached, and my nose started running. You shouldn’t wipe your nose on the edge of your dress. Definitely not with the new old dress! Not with the back of your hand, either. Snot dripped onto my lips.
“You filthy, snotty little pig! Go wipe your nose, and hurry up, before I throw up my entire dinner!”
Peta and Rojo are Nenitou’s daughters. Andry’s their little brother. He’s my age. They like stories, and so do I. “Itambarira” is my favorite story.
Once upon a time, there was a princess. She was beautiful and rich. Her name was Fitia the Lovely. But Fitia was the exact opposite of her name. She was mean, she was so mean! She had a little slave girl named Itambarira. Fitia’s father had bought her in betsimisaraka country, in the East. So they were there, Fitia and her slave.
One day, famine descended on the land like a swarm of locusts. Many people died. All the able-bodied men left to find food. Then, Fitia remembered she had a very rich cousin in the North. She decided to go beg his hospitality until the famine went away. She packed a bundle of her belongings and set it on her slave’s head. She carried her jewelry box herself. They set off on their journey.
After three days of walking, Fitia was tired. She ordered her slave to carry her.
Itambarira said, “If you give me your silver earrings, I will carry you.”
The princess gave them to her. The slave girl put them in her own ears.
Later on, the princess was hungry. She ordered her slave to find her something to eat.
Itambarira said, “If you give me your gold bracelets, I will find you something to eat.”
The princess gave them to her. The slave girl put them on her own wrists.
Later on, the princess was hot, and she wanted to bathe. She asked Itambarira to find her a river to bathe in, and Itambarira said, “If you give me your lovely goldwork clothes, I will find you a nice river to bathe in.”
The princess gave them to her. The slave girl put them on and gave the princess her own rags.
While the princess was bathing, a handsome prince came along. He saw Itambarira and asked her, “Who are you? Where are you going?”
“I am Princess Fitia. I’m going to visit my cousin Ndiambé, whom I have not seen in a very long time.”
“I am Prince Ndiambé. You are welcome in my home. Come, climb onto my zebu.”
“I’d love to, but we must wait, I have to fetch my little slave girl. She’s bathing in the river behind the rushes.”
Itambarira had become as beautiful as a princess, and she went with Prince Ndiambé. Mean old Fitia had become ugly, and she walked behind them. When they arrived in Ndiambé’s land, he married Itambarira. They had a splendid wedding feast to celebrate. Now, Itambarira has beautiful dresses that she changes as often as she wants to. And she’s pretty, like the pretty little animal that bears her name. For she is sweet, like the sweet little animal that bears her name.
But Andry stole my story from me, and he has his own ending.
That night, the newly married couple retired to the prince’s hut. They had their dinner brought to them. Itambarira didn’t touch a single delicious dish that was set before her. The next day, she didn’t eat anything, either. Ndiambé called for her slave girl.
Fitia told the prince, “Tonight, when everyone is asleep, go to the foot of the big jujube tree, and leave the lamp lit in your hut. I will show you what your wife is accustomed to eating.”
That evening, Ndiambé faked a stomachache as an excuse to slip outside. Fitia was waiting for him at the foot of the jujube tree with a small basket filled with grasshoppers— they weren’t too difficult to find, the South was ravaged by locusts. She pulled the prince back to the royal hut, and released a few grasshoppers through the open door. The prince saw a sight that filled him with disgust: Itambarira leapt with joy to see the locusts. She made sure no one was watching, then she flicked out a long tongue and swallowed the grasshoppers, one by one.
“A chameleon,” the prince cried. “I’ve married a chameleon!”
Ndiambé threw open the door, knocked the false woman to the ground, and beat her. He beat her.
And then Andry beats me. And then Peta pinches me. And then Rojo scratches me.
That’s why the chameleon’s skin sometimes peels and flakes off in strips. YUCK!
When my body was nothing more than one giant bruise, they danced around and sang:
Your rich prince doesn’t love you, ha!
Get back to your village, yah!
I am a chameleon. A dumb chameleon, but I do everything in Nenitou’s house. A chameleon with nasty wide eyes, they all want to poke them out. When I want to watch the “tivé” after everyone is asleep, the girls have already turned it off. A lazy chameleon. I walk to the market. I walk back from the market. My peasant feet never feel the insides of even worn-out, holey shoes. I was promised school, but I still don’t know what it is. Instead, I do everything in Nenitou’s house. I never ride in Nenitou’s car, it only has five seats. In front, there’s Nenitou and Dadatou. In back, there’s Peta, Rojo, and Andry. In the trunk, there’s the luggage. Our country “cayer” is an old wagon that our zebus pull, Lemanja and Lemena. Chameleons eat after everyone else, after the dog, after the cat, when there’s nothing left. Nothing left besides grasshoppers.
I saw my mother’s blood.
Flowing from her cracked head. Cracked open on the doorframe.
Does Nenitou’s blood look like my mother’s?
My bundle of clothes is waiting for me under a bush in Nenitou’s garden. My heart is still
in the country, back there, in the forest,
the stream, the birds, the pirogue of dream-leaves in the stream,
and butterfly orchid dew
dust from the path puffs up merrily under my bare feet.
But Nenitou will come back to find me there. She will take me with her again. She will make it up to me with new old dresses that haven’t kept growing up with Peta and Rojo. And for Mama, new old shoes that fashion left behind. And blood-colored bottles of betsa from the city, which make my Papa crazy.
This time, I really will go to school. Rojo and Peta—they never call me cousin—won’t abuse me anymore. I won’t do everything by myself anymore. I’ll ride in the “cayer.” I’ll watch “tivé.” I won’t eat grasshoppers anymore.
You can see Eye-of-Day shining down its warmth on our homes,
so what do you say to him?
You can come in by the Hole-Burrowed-into-the-Rock, so what do you say to Lemena
and Lemanja, my steadfast humpbacked friends?
What do you say to the ant who trailed a bundle of dead wood, who found an
unwelcoming family when evening came?
“I will not tie my slender legs together, not even with silken scarves. Someone hates me, so I will grind my own flour and toughen my skin.”
I will still finish my story.
LAY TSY MIKATRIKY! (Tsy mikatràka!)
Story, story. If there is a falsehood in my tale, it is not I who has lied to you. The liars are those with tangled brush under their noses, tangled brush around their mouths, and sun above their heads.
“Nenitou” © David Jaomanoro. Published in Pirogue sur le vide (La Tour d’Aigues: Editions de l’Aube, 2006). Translation © 2015 by Allison M. Charette. All rights reserved.