Malagasy writer Johary Ravaloson riffs on the urban legend of the vanishing hitchhiker.
It happened in November. A sticky night, relieved by crisp poststorm air. I was waiting for passengers under a streetlight in Ampasampito, near the cemetery, when I heard squelch-squelch on the pavement. I looked up from my notebook and saw a faltering shadow stumble into the circle of light. Slathered with mud, her feet and wedge heels forming thick, slimy boots, the woman lurched frantically toward me, squick-squicking. She looked like she’d probably cut an elegant figure, one of the elite, before falling into a sewer. Her legs and hands, her raincoat, her face and hair were stained with grime. I locked my taxi, quick as a flash. Absolutely not, I couldn’t. Left my window open, though.
“Help me, please help me! Take me to Andraharo!”
“Wherever you’d like to go, ma’am,” I said, “as soon as you’ve cleaned all that off.”
“I’ll give you a hundred thousand!”
“There’s a pump on the corner.”
“Alohalika ny ranom-bary e!”
Water in the rice fields, up to my knees! I said nothing, just pointed to the street corner. Water in the rice fields, up to your knees: it suffocates young plants and destroys any hope of a harvest. But by this season, the rice plants were mature enough to survive that level of water. Frightened squelch-squelching toward the pump. Almost kinda sexy, actually. Keeping tabs on the operations in my rearview mirror, I realized how weird it was, that old-timey raise-the-alarm phrase coming from the woman’s lips. She was a city girl, even with the splotches of mud on her calves.
“Show me your hundred,” I said, when she got back from her rush scrubbing job. She pulled ten out of her splotchy handbag.
“I can give you thirty now, and my husband will give you the rest when we get there.”
I paused. Something moved on the other side of the intersection.
“Alohalika ny ranom-bary e!”
I looked at her and said nothing. Antananarivo really was that close to the fields, then. Deciding abruptly, I opened the door for her. The cold stench of damp earth gusted into the car with her. More activity around the edges of the light, but the shadows seemed unwilling to come any closer. I started the engine, turned on the headlights, and they disappeared.
“Where in Andraharo, ma’am?”
“Across from the gas station.”
“There aren’t any houses there, though!”
“My husband is at his office, he’s working late.”
“Your husband works late? What is he, a taxi driver?”
I laughed aloud at my stupid little joke. Then, slowly, her silence dampened my spirits. At any rate, I thought, even for thirty thousand, it’d be worth it. I rolled along, no rush, and snuck glances back at her every time that there was enough light.
“What really happened to you? You’re not exactly . . . dressed for the rice fields.”
She stayed silent, rummaged around in her bag. She fiddled with her phone, then met my eyes in the rearview mirror and decided against making a call.
Finally, she admitted, “I fell down in the rice field. I . . . I had to, well, let’s say . . . I really had to relieve myself. I stopped on the dike road, I . . . There were cars passing, with their headlights on, I climbed down further than I wanted to and I fell down. I lost my car keys in the mud. I tried getting people to stop, but they all sped up as soon as they saw me.”
That was months ago.
And then, tonight, I see her again step into the illuminated circle beneath the light post where I park. Squick-squick, covered with just as much mud as before. It can’t be, this can’t happen. I jump out of the car.
“Alohalika ny ranom-bary e!”
Stunned by cold and surprise, I don’t know what to say. My pupils are probably dilated. No mud boots on her, this time, but dirt-encrusted pumps that she holds in her hands, shivering in the frigid night. She was probably wearing all black before she fell—blazer, skirt, hose, and overcoat, now all smeared with mud that’s somewhere between dark red and brownish green.
“Alohalika ny ranom-bary e!” she says again.
I don’t have the heart to send her to wash up at the pump. I open the door for her. She slumps down onto the backseat. I spread my Chinese-made synthetic blanket over her. That smell . . . She didn’t fall down in a rice field.
“To Andraharo, ma’am?”
Is she nodding, or is her face drooping? She seems overly weary under the blanket. Fingers on the ignition, I ask her, “What’s all this about?” She rummages halfheartedly under the blanket, too slowly. She stretches out her too-slow, too-muddy hand to give me new, spotless bills. I don’t like that. I let off the brakes, let off the clutch.
I’ll still watch her out of the corner of my eye. But, I mean, it’s not going to be much help. I’m not going to ask her anything like: “Would you like me to take you to the hospital?” She’s obviously not that kind of woman. Or not anymore, if you know what I mean. Just have to keep calm.
Roundabout. Cobblestone cemetery road. The streets are empty. I speed up.
She’s saying something to me, her lips are moving ever so slightly in the rearview mirror. Andravoahangy. Ankorondrano. Route du Pape. Antohomadinika. She doesn’t really utter a full sentence through the entire trip. And I’m charging into the cold, yellow light.
Rue d’Andraharo. Then the gas station. I slam on the brakes.
She opens her mouth again, and I don’t give her time to repeat it. Why’s she bugging me with this thing? I throw her out of the car and take off. Like a shot. When the water gets that high in this season, they open the floodgates, so the water can run out to the ocean. I step on the gas. Probably at Antanimena by the time she gets to the middle of her sentence.
I reach the train station, Avenue de l’Indépendance. She’s probably at “knees.” I shiver. From cold or fear? Not even a dog around to watch the city’s fairytale fountains. Stop under the first streetlight. I get out of the car. Walk around it three times. And three times the other way. Sit on the warm bumper of my old clunker.
Soon, another taxi will pull up. The driver will say hello. He’ll ask if I want a drink. Because I’m thirsty. What’s he asking? I can’t understand what he’s saying, but I hear his voice, a woman’s voice.
It says, “Alohalika ny ranom-bary e!”
I open my eyes. I’m alone under the streetlight. It shows me real life, a calm reality. I stand up. Jump as my hands touch the cooled, moist hood. The decorative fountains in front of City Hall hum behind their gates. I scramble into the car. Twice as relieved to get back under my blanket. I wrap it around my body up to my ears, before settling down in my seat. One hand kept free to reach the thermos.
The pool stops gurgling. The lights shining on City Hall also go out. It must be midnight. I didn’t get any fares all evening. A shadow lurches behind the light. Squelch-squelching toward my taxi.
I drop the lemongrass infusion and take off. Like the wind.
Alohalika ny ranom-bary e!
Sitting on the biggest chair, a beer in my hand and Talking Heads in my ears, I rub my stomach watching her work the grill. She’s making masikita kebabs. I came downstairs as soon as I smelled the aroma wafting into the room. Now I’m in the big armchair. The TV is on, but I turned off the sound. Silent broadcasters are hilarious. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s like they’re not there, not a single one of them in that damn box. But you know what’s happening. Nothing changes from yesterday. The same faces in different places, or sometimes even the same places. A silent track. I picture Mike Brant crooning Qui saura. She pulls my headphones off and asks what I’m laughing at.
“The TV’s on mute!”
“You’re dumb,” she says.
Still, she leaves a few pieces of kebab for me. What a taste! I rub my stomach in anticipation as David Byrne’s voice in my ears asks where is that large automobile? . . . my beautiful house! . . . my beautiful wife!
None of it’s real! My car’s a clunker that I lease at night, my house is a bed that I can only spend time in during the day, and my wife’s a daydream that I chase through my notebooks beneath the city’s street lamps.
Nothing’s real except the smell of the kebabs. I’d stopped by when I smelled the familiar aroma of zebu meat fried in the fat from its hump. As a bonus, I get to take advantage of the heat from the brazier.
“Give me five,” I say to the kebab lady, “Come on. Six! Seven! Seven for the price of six!” She smiles, counts what she has left. “Ten for the price of ten, will that work?” My smile drops. I sigh, “Six’ll be fine.”
I try picking up the chair to scoot it closer to the fire. It weighs a ton. Packing pallets tied to a set of rims. I guess I’ll just stand near the fire. It’s not that much warmer.
“It’s cold, the charcoal’s not burning good, it’s not crispy enough,” she says.
“It’ll be fine.”
“Oh, is it you? Yes, you. I recognize you. Stop looking behind you, you’re the one I’m talking to.”
“Uh . . . ”
“You’re the taxi guy that drove the dead woman around. My boys know you real well. They wash your car. The first time, when you got back from Andraharo, you stopped here. I was there. They washed your car, they always talk about the smell.”
“Uh . . . ”
“Why’d you do that? Why’d you agree to let her get in your car? You don’t get any fares anymore, you know. You don’t even have enough money for ten measly masikita!”
I’d sat down on the irregular chair at the first word. The cold is seeping into me as it all tumbles around in my head, making my limbs and my whole body numb. Stiff as a lifeless sculpture. I can’t unclench my teeth, even if I wanted to answer. Frozen, like when I see her. Except that she directs my actions like a marionette. So, other people can see her, too. And they see me when I drive her all the way across Tana. Like a child, I had closed my eyes and thought I was invisible.
“Do you want some peanut sauce? Or chili?”
I’ve got to shake myself out of this. Concentrate on the masikita smell. Nice, warm thoughts. A Friday night outing behind Mahamasina where a client will keep me for the night and share his feast with me in the taxi. I just have to ask. The bottle of rum I used to share with Ra-Eddy before he left to claim his own corner in the sun, down south in Sapphire City. My mother’s masikita that she’d buy on the way home from work, that we’d reheat over the fire and gobble down with soasoa rice that was cooked at the end of the afternoon, kept warm under blankets, as soft as can be.
“Peanut, yes, chili, yes,” I say too forcefully, released at last. “ . . . She’s not dead.”
“Not dead? Ha ha ha! You’re the only one who sees her in flesh and blood. The rest of the world just sees her as flesh and mud! Ha ha ha! You’re driving a dead lady around!”
“She’s not a dead person. I take her to her husband’s office in Andraharo.”
“Have you ever seen her husband? What’s he look like?”
Masikita. Bathed in spicy peanut sauce. Mmmm. Some warm bread would be perfect. The kind that’s fresh out of the bakery first thing in the morning. Sometimes my clients give me a piece. I’ve never seen her husband. As soon as she gets out of the car, I clear off, I don’t ask for the rest of the money.
“It doesn’t matter, she’s not dead. She talks, she says things to me!”
“What does she say?”
“She said that there was water in the rice fields, up to your knees. Alohalika ny ranom-bary e!”
“Ha ha ha! That’ll do her a hell of a lot of good! Since when do dead people care about rice? There are never any tombs underneath rice fields!”
“Hey, listen, one of my wife’s cousins, her grandfather appeared to her in her sleep and warned her about the same thing, and when they opened his tomb, it was all flooded from a crack inside!”
“Yeah, but he didn’t ask for a taxi ride!”
“Ha ha ha!”
Who are all these people around me? The masikita are getting cold. The fat’s congealed, and it’s scraping uncomfortably against my tongue. Why are they shouting like that? The chili’s not heating up my palate at all. Why are they all looking at me? The sauce is getting thick. Why are they laughing?
“Alohalika ny ranom-bary e!”
“Ha ha ha!”
“You don’t remember anything, do you?”
“What was it that happened? She appeared, squelch-squelch, covered in mud, was that it?”
“Ha ha ha!”
“You didn’t stop!”
“I was at the taxi stop, under my streetlight.”
“Ha ha ha, no, we’re talking about the first time. You didn’t stop, did you?”
“What are you talking about?”
“The first time, when she fell in the rice fields and climbed out onto the big dike next to the river, all covered in mud, asking for help, you didn’t stop.”
“She was yelling, ‘Alohalika ny ranom-bary e!’”
“But did you see her? No one would have let her get in their car looking like that.”
“She was beautiful!”
“She’d be gorgeous without all that mud!”
“Ha ha ha, a gorgeous corpse! Ha ha ha!”
“She’s not dead!”
“She’s more dead than dead. Left alone on that dike, abandoned by everyone, knocked down in a rice field. She died of that. Ever since, she’s been begging us to take her to Andraharo. You’re not the only one she asks.”
“You’re not the only one she relays her message to, either.”
“Oh yeah? You, too?”
“Alohalika ny ranom-bary e!”
Ten p.m. and not a single passenger. Read the whole paper. Headlines to classifieds. Nothing new outside the glowing halo beneath my streetlight. The daytime driver who left it in my clunker could have just as easily held onto it to keep himself warm. The nights are still chilly. The transitional government’s transacting. Grasshoppers are spawning. Murders and robberies give way to murders and robberies. Lots of people have been blessed with favors from the Sacred Heart (I stopped counting after seventeen and turned away from the page filled with thanks notices). Lots of used SUVs have arrived by boat, but that doesn’t make them any cheaper. So I guess tomorrow still won’t be the day that I’ll sit behind the power windows of my SUV and never see the random glances of children in the streets again. Oh well! Still waiting to pay today’s lease on my 4L (I have to do at least three trips). On the financial page, the World Bank tells me I’m not the only one. In fact, I’m one of many. Ninety-two people out of a hundred have less than the average taxi fare every day. No wonder I don’t have any passengers! Widespread poverty clogs the arteries of the city and plows the rice fields. Wrap yourself up tight in the paper and wait for something better.
Something moves in the side mirror. A young couple walks into the light. They come toward me. I smile at my good luck. They climb into the back on my side, I say good evening, they frown, shake their heads and climb out the other door. The two doors smack shut like a slap across both cheeks.
I rub my face, I don’t even have time to process what happened when the door opens again. The not-passenger. “Sorry!” he spits out, leaving a thousand-ariary bill on the seat and taking off again, fleeing me like I’m a curse. Smack again.
I get out when the coffee man comes by. I tell him he’d better wash a cup good and clean for me. He laughs and obeys. We swap stories around his brazier cart. He laughs when I tell him I haven’t had any passengers. He takes off without getting his cup back and before I can pay him. I laugh, too, when I realize it. I savor the last sip of my free coffee as long as possible.
Then, I see her coming into the circle of light. There’s a dog in front of her. She’s already grabbing the handle.
“Where do you think you’re going like that, ma’am?”
“Over to the Place du 13 Mai.”
“ . . . That doesn’t exist anymore,” I say.
Even if I’d wanted to quickly hop in and lock the car, the dog’s weaving around my legs. Smack. She’s already forcing a smile at me through the window. She turns toward me, inviting me to stare at her hollowing face.
“Do I look like someone who wishes to go to a place that does not exist?” she inquires, purulent strips dropping from her cheeks, her neck, with every word.
I take my seat at the wheel and start off. Toward the Place de l’Amour, since that’s what they rechristened the square in front of City Hall. I try to say something, to prepare her. “It’s changed, you know . . . ”
I stare at her in the rearview mirror. I peer into the middle of the small rectangle, focusing on the light deep within her eyes.
“There’s a big pool and jets of water—it’s a fountain now.”
“A fountain? What a good idea, water for everyone!” She perks up, her eyes shining.
“No. There are gates.”
“There are gates?”
“You can’t actually get in, you just look at it.”
The light in the rectangle blinks.
“But it’s pretty!” I’m almost shouting. “The jets of water are choreographed with color-changing lights, they turn white, purple, red, green, and blue.”
It’s getting weaker and weaker. My words are what seem to be holding her above the water, like wax holding a tiny flame at the end of a wick.
“It’s wonderful! Families gather around the gates on Sundays. People come from all over the country to see Antananarivo’s fairytale. Country folk who might not know that running water exists, they just stand there, dumbfounded by the leaping fountains. They have their picture taken in front of them. Even I go sometimes. It’s like the pool’s sleeping, then it wakes up in a bunch of sparkling, humming springs, a magical sight with huge jets of water. I could watch it forever, pressed up against the bars of the cage, dreaming up a new life to replace my own. The sun sparkles in the spray, the water cools the surrounding air, the close city smoke feels a little more breathable . . . Ma’am? Ma’am! Are you OK? Do you want me to take you to Andraharo? To your husband’s office?”
She opens her eyes, and murmurs, her lips barely moving: “Please, take me to the Place du 13 Mai.”
We’re on our way. You don’t meet a lot of people in the dead of night. She sags into the corner of the backseat. I adjust the mirror to keep an eye on her, forget that I’m supposed to go under the Andravoahangy Bridge. Concentrate on driving. A few furtive nocturnal shadows let themselves be caught in the headlights. Three figures pissing into Behoririka Lake. Cops on the Rue de Pochard, but they don’t wave me over. Soon, we’re hurtling past the train station. Only half of City Hall is lit up. The water gurgles in the dim light. I park facing the fountains to give them more light. I cast a quick “We’re here!” behind me.
I slip into the yellow beams and pass through the gates with a daydream woman. Daytime, under the warm spring sun. We’ll walk right up to the pool. The woman will play in the droplets that rain down on her. I’ll scold her a bit like a child. She’ll laugh, twirling around on the paving stones. I’ll tell her to be careful. She won’t let anybody boss her around. Right when the jets of water shoot upward to form a tower of shining mist, she’ll shove me into the fountain. And then pull me out of it a few seconds later and kiss me, soaking wet.
“Place de l’Amour, really? ‘Love,’” my impossible passenger jeers, face drained of blood, staggering but upright, in front of the shimmering sprays. She mutters something I don’t understand. Something like Not the change I expected. Then she mellows, staring up at the dark sky above us.
“Dawn is breaking,” she says. “We’ll go give them a hand.” She points at the open square.
I clutch the steering wheel and shake my head. Clearly, we’re not seeing the same thing.
She shoots me a smoldering look and passes through the cage, leaving bits of putrid skin behind on the bars. I throw open my door and manage to vomit (almost) outside the car. I’ve emptied my guts and hurled my bile, and my eyes are watering, it’s hard for me to get back up. Her squelching, echoing steps sound wrong against the gurgling water. My headlights are glowing more and more weakly. I want to turn them off to save the battery, but all of a sudden I’m afraid of the dark. The squick-squicking comes back, louder. With rumbling moans. Every step is heavy with condemnation. A hoard floods the square, all victims of the rice fields. An unrelenting wave that swallows everything in its path. The water fountains, the pool, the gates. Shaking, I twist the ignition wires. The starter button. It whines like an animal in a trap. I’m the one who’s going to be trapped here. I mash the white button in desperation. More whining, then sputtering. I try again. The engine dies.
“Alohalika ny ranom-bary e!”
“Alohalika ny ranom-bary!” © 2016 by Johary Ravaloson. From Les Nuits D’Antananarivo. (Paris: Animal Pensant, 2016). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2016 by Allison M. Charette. All rights reserved.