The twins, already near the summit, were calling for their parents to hurry.
Nine years old, and already so eager, Marcelle thought. So fearless, so different from me at that age. Or is it just that I’ve prepared them for this in a way my father never did? She felt a tickle under her neck as if a long nail had just reached out and scratched her tenderly; she smelled eucalyptus and steamed rice, and could almost hear the distant rhythm of drum beats, tubas and clarinet notes.
Wistfully, she turned and gave her husband a warm smile. “Almost there, Jim. Thank you for doing this.”
He nodded, but looked pale, dislocated.
Poor thing, she thought. I guess this proves it, he must really love me.
“I know this is important for you.”
“For us,” she corrected. “They want to see you. See the kids, see what I’ve done with my life. I want them to be proud.”
He started to say something, but his mouth just hung open. His eyes welled up uncontrollably, and he looked away. Marcelle smiled. God, she adored that about him. Loved that he wore his emotions on his sleeve. She had been blessed, and she had her grandparents to thank. This was important.
“Let’s go, they’re waiting.”
Jim carried a bundle of silk sheets and wool blankets under one arm, and a backpack full of their gear — hammers, crowbars and gloves — over his shoulder. In his other hand he gripped a little hibachi grill. Marcelle climbed ahead of him, bringing a CD player and a picnic basket packed with uncooked burgers, hot dogs and veggies for grilling. And a bottle of whiskey.
The morning was already hot, dry and still. Somewhere below, near the road, a blackbird was squawking and scrambling in the autumn leaves. “Are you sure this is ok?” Jim asked, using his shoulder to wipe sweat from his forehead. “We’re not going to get in trouble? Your grandparents, your father…”
“Don’t be silly. They’re waiting,” Marcelle repeated. “And they’re cold.” She took steps that seemed lighter and lighter, as if with every stride she were shedding pounds, and years.
The white marble walls and gleaming roof appeared over the rise, and there were the twins, already at the door, clapping and knocking.
“They’re cold,” Marcelle said again as she paused, closed her eyes, and recalled the first time, twenty years ago, she had met her grandmother.
Helene Raziambiosa stirred in the night. She rolled over on her small, uncomfortable cot. Her old bones creaked. She blinked, opened her eyes. The objects in her dark room swam in and out of focus — family pictures bobbing along indistinct black waves beside small trinkets and keepsakes, a sandalwood dresser full of her meager shawls, a post for her straw hats.
Through the window, the sweet scent of eucalyptus mingled with the dry aroma of rice, carried on the winds over the highlands. Madagascar slept fitfully — shifting and rumbling — and Helene knew something was wrong. This was the dry season, and the weather should have been calm, serene and complacent, resting before the rainy season’s imminent turmoil.
Something in her room shifted. She gasped and sat up, peering into the hazy, inky blackness where a familiar outline sat on the bedside chair.
The figure trembled, but said nothing.
“Olsen, is that you?”
It trembled some more.
No, she thought with sudden clarity. He’s shivering.
“Are you cold, Olsen?”
A barely perceptible motion, something akin to a nod. And the figure shivered again.
Helene choked back a cry and put her knuckles to her mouth. “I’ll do what I can, darling. I will, I promise. I’ll make them come. I’m sorry, darling, so sorry it’s taken so long, so long for The Turning.” She shook her head and balled her hands into fists. She looked up toward the shadowy ceiling with its chipped paint and rotting, sagging roof, and she was glad she couldn’t see the family photos on the other wall, behind where Olsen sat, watching her expectantly.
“I’ve had to do so much, so much… All on my own. But they’re good boys, they are Olsen, they really are. Even if they don’t follow the old ways, even if they’ve left me alone here and they don’t — can’t help out their mother. But this, this is the Famadihana. They must come. They will come. I’ll make the arrangements tomorrow. Tomorrow, I’ll make the calls.”
She looked back to her husband, but in the soft, slowly–spreading glow of dawn, whose silky fingers poked through the canvass–draped window, she could see that his chair was empty.
Marcelle ran to the phone, but her father beat her to it. He snatched it up in his coal–stained fingers, put it to his ear and sat heavily at the kitchen table.
“Hello?” A pause and he closed his eyes, shaking his head. “Yes, yes… I’ll accept the charges.”
He glanced to Marcelle and put his other dirty hand over the mouthpiece. “It’s your grandmother.”
Marcelle’s eyes lit up. “Calling all the way from Madagascar?”
“Hush — and go back to bed. You have school tomorrow.”
Marcelle pouted. “And you have work tonight — as usual. I want to talk to Grammy.” She hadn’t spoken to her grandmother in a year. A full year, and in that time she’d practiced her Malagasy — knew enough of Madagascar’s language now to hopefully make Grammy proud, and to tell her something of herself. She wanted to say hello, to ask about the rice crop this year, to see how uncle Achille was doing, and her four cousins: Alfonse, Michael, Evangeline and Audrey. She had never met any of them, but there was a picture — three years old, hanging on the fridge, below her sixth–grade report card, the one with straight B’s, the one just next to that picture of Mom and her at the Little League field in Plattsburgh. Just before she left them. –Before Mom ran off with someone from the school board. Ran off and never came back, never called. Living somewhere in Texas now, they’d heard.
Marcelle swallowed hard. Outside, the snow was piling up, and icy flakes scratched at windows already seared with ice. She hugged her shoulders against a draft and thought she could see her breath, but that couldn’t be right — Dad said he’d paid the electric bill this month, right?
“Mom?” Her father sighed and closed his eyes. “What is it? Can’t this wait — it’s midnight here, remember?” He hung his head, and Marcelle at once felt so sorry for him. He had been working so hard at the mine, twelve hour shifts. He was gone when she woke up, and didn’t come home until after she’d eaten and finished her homework and sat down to fiddle with the tv’s antenna — to try to pull in some program, anything to watch.
“Mom, you know we can’t fly out there. We don’t have the money. My savings… No, you won’t pay for it. How did you…?” He scrunched up his face and bit his lip, restraining an outburst. “Achille is only an hour away and he has two sons – they can help, and really, Mom, you know how I feel about the old ways. Especially the Turning. I don’t…”
He glanced at Marcelle, still standing there in her pajamas, yawning. Then he turned his back to her, bent over and lowered his voice. And he spoke in Malagasy. He said something about a “Famadihana“, which was a word Marcelle didn’t know, but then she heard her own name, and she translated what she thought was — “she’ll have nightmares, she’ll be terrified…” and “I don’t want her exposed to…” And then again that strange word, and something called an “Ombiasy“.
Then he said, “Razana” — and that word Marcelle did know. It meant, ‘ancestors’, and for some reason the word chilled her. What did her grandmother want, why did she want them to visit so urgently, and what did her father think could scare her to death?
Marcelle trudged back to her bedroom, shuffling her feet. Since her mother had left, Marcelle slept with a nightlight on — a flickering little bulb that helped keep the shadows at bay, and made it easy enough for her to open her eyes and sadly confirm that her mother hadn’t come back, as she often dreamed, and wasn’t sitting by her bed like she used to, smiling down at her while she slept.
About ten minutes later she heard her father hang up the phone, and twenty minutes after that he came in, tiptoeing to her bed; he lightly kissed her forehead and started to leave the room, putting on his coat as he walked.
He froze in the doorway.
“Are we going?”
His silhouette — a coal–shaped, hardened outline, seemed to sag. “We’ll talk in the morning.”
“What’s a Famad–ihana?”
“Don’t worry, honey. It’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“So we’re going?” She sat up, hugging her shoulders.
“We’ll talk in the morning.”
“She’s your mom,” Marcelle whispered, staring at the flickering nightlight. “My Grammy. It… it would be nice to meet her.”
Helene gently — as gently as she could with her shaking, arthritic fingers – replaced the phone and leaned against her cane — an old, gnarled piece of sandalwood, twisted and hunched in sympathy for her bent back and aching hip. She turned and faced the Ombiasy — the medium whose counsel she had sought this morning, who let her use his phone — the only one in all of Sohamby — out of kindness and genuine sympathy.
Ducat Andriamato, besides being the village’s Ombiasy, was also Havana — like family to Helene. He sat behind his desk — a desk littered with papers, receipts, maps and small trinkets and fetishes. A bottle of Jamieson’s whiskey held down a stack of receipts against any breezes from the three windows around his office.
“Are you sure, Helene?”
She narrowed her eyes at him. Scowled at the brown, dusty suit he wore, the stained shirt, the grey tie. He may not dress like a Malagasy, she thought, but at least he acts like one. More than I can say for my own Fianakaviana – my blood relatives.
“Of course I’m sure. Olsen told me it’s time.” She coughed — a rough, rasping sound that clung to her throat.
“Maybe you should wait, Helene. You know Sohamby just had a Famadihana last year, and it’s a major event, and–”
“He’s cold, Ducat. Cold. And I’m seventy–two!”
“Okay, okay.” He held up his hands, then started rummaging around his desk. “So, what do we need — and more importantly, what can you afford?”
Helene lowered her head. She looked down at her dull shawl, the Lamba with its embroidered sparrows and warblers, the mountains and the suns and moons. Her ancestors — the Merina – in the centuries past had been astrologers to the kings. The diviners, the herbalists, the teachers. Oh, sure Merinas still held some of the highest posts in Madagascar’s government, but the old days – and the old ways — were quietly whimpering in their root–covered graves.
“I have saved,” she whispered, “enough. Enough to buy a good, hearty meal for all the guests. A bull and two pigs, maybe? Enough for a band, and yes, damn it, I’ve saved enough for a good silk sheet. A warm one!”
Ducat nodded. He was black — very black, a mainty as they were called, with strong African roots in his heritage. His skin reminded her of Olsen’s, and his hair — thick and wavy, and those deep–set olive–colored eyes; but there the similarities ended. This man was rough, coarse like gravel, where Olsen was smooth like glass, gentle and comforting as wet sand on the beach.
“I have saved,” she repeated, “for this. And I tell you, I swear — it’s time.”
Ducat clasped his hands together. “Then I will begin the preparations.” He looked up, bit his lower lip. “Your sons… they will come?”
Helene grumbled. “Achille will come — under protest, of course. Antananarivo is only one hundred kilometers away. He has no excuse, although he and his children will be a disappointment to Olsen, and I doubt they will participate.”
“And Joseph?” Ducat raised an eyebrow. “He can make the trip all the way from America?”
Helene shrugged. “I told him — I want to see my Marcelle, my grand–daughter. Olsen must want to see her too. Maybe she’ll be different than the others.” But I doubt it, she thought. Achille had converted to one of those countless Protestant faiths ten years ago, and his children — she bet they knew nothing of the Malagasy beliefs. How likely was it then that Joseph, all the way across the world, Joseph who had gone and married an outsider, a Fotsy (who then upped and left him), how likely was it he even remembered the traditions?
She shook her head. With their lack of respect, lack of veneration, was it any wonder their lives were so bad? Bad marriages. Bad jobs and bad health. No wealth, no love.
She shambled to the door, sliding her back foot and scraping her cane on his already–scratched–up floor. “I want the Famadihana to begin as soon possible. I feel his cold, Ducat, I feel it, and I do not like it. My children can come or not — but my first priority is to Olsen.”
Marcelle had little time to appreciate the majestic scenery of Madagascar. They had traveled in darkness from the airport at Antananarivo, and she slept in the rental car, continuing a sleep that started five hours before their plane had landed. And when she awoke, they were pulling up to a small shack with a sagging roof, surrounded by a clearing, a few other equally–squalid houses, and a low rising, terraced hill covered with rice paddies.
She got out of the car and stretched, and immediately smelled a sweet minty smell that reminded her of cough drops.
“Eucalyptus trees,” her father said, pointing to the grove of dark silhouettes on the crest behind Grammy’s house. But Marcelle’s attention was caught at a higher angle, at the crystal–clear view of the heavens, all those vivid, twinkling stars, unclouded and free from all city lights. Then she noticed the mountains standing like sentinels — juggernauts holding back the night, sheltering her from eternity.
“Wow,” she started to say as her eyes widened. But then a door opened, and four children emerged from the closest house, followed by an older man — maybe her father’s age. And then another figure appeared in the doorway, a hunched–over woman leaning on a cane. She trembled in advance of the night’s falling temperatures, but she was tense, excited — and crying, silently weeping in a way Marcelle understood only too well.
“Welcome home Joseph,” Grammy said, and pulled herself away from the light of her kitchen, entering the dark void separating them and crossing it slowly, like wading backward through time.
Marcelle’s father bent down and slowly wrapped his arms around his mother, and as the woman turned her head as if to listen to his heart, Marcelle met the old woman’s eyes. At once she saw a sadness, a loneliness that was like looking into a mirror.
“You know what they’re going to do, don’t you?”
Marcelle shook her head. She was having trouble understanding her cousins. The boy who was pestering her was about twelve, she guessed, and his name was Alfonse. He was skinny and wore a Yankees T–shirt (he even had bad taste in American teams, she thought), ripped up jeans and sandals. He spoke English, but with a thick French accent. She had been told her cousins only knew French and some Malagasy, but apparently they were learning English as well, living in the city. Sadly, she had actually hoped they’d talk in the native tongue.
“The Famadihana?” Alfonse asked, giggling. “Do you even know what it is?” The other kids had come by as well — Evangeline, Audrey and Michael. Their last name was Radiankava, which Marcelle never understood, since her own last name was ‘Ralen’. But she had heard that in Madagascar parents picked both first and last names for their children at birth.
Evangeline — the oldest of the children, leaned in and glanced around. They were outside, sitting around a small fire while their parents and Grammy — and that weird scarecrow–looking man Grammy called ‘Ducat’ — all sat inside sipping tea, eating some stew called Romazava, and smoking and talking. Mostly, it sounded like they were arguing, with her father and uncle Achille shouting back and forth, until Grammy’s voice silenced them both.
“You’re going to meet your grandfather,” Evangeline said with a giggle.
“And your great aunts and uncles,” Audrey chimed in.
“And,” said Michael, “their moms and dads.”
“Everyone in the Fiankaviana,” Alfonse exclaimed, still grinning, trying not to laugh.
“–Everyone in the tomb.”
And that’s when Marcelle backed away — almost tripping over her heels. Her cousins were talking about how the bodies got cold and needed to be turned, taken out and rewrapped in warm shrouds, how the ancestors needed to be shown their descendents and what they had done with their lives, needed to know they were still cared for.
Marcelle turned, and as they laughed she ran, over a hill and towards a curious white–shaped building, out of place from the others, steeped and garnished with ivy, painted with murals. As she ran, tripping and almost falling over herself, approaching in dizzy zigzags, she saw there were pictures tacked to the bleached walls — photographs of unfamiliar people, flickering in the firelight and almost — but not quite — glowing in the spearing rays of dawn.
The Famadihana began just after sunrise on the third day, and Marcelle passed the morning in a dazed sense of wonder. The Zebu bull and the pigs had been slaughtered the night before, and at sun–up the music began — as the three men took positions atop the family tomb and began to play their instruments — the drum, the clarinet, the tuba. Soon, the smell of roasted meat overpowered the rice and the eucalyptus, and the winds coming over the highlands swirled and spun the smoke into her eyes as the guests poured in from over the hills, emptying the village and most of the neighboring towns. A lot of people, evidently, knew Grandpa, or were related somehow to him or his relatives buried in there with him.
The Ombiasy, dressed now in flamboyant red and yellow robes with a blue scarf, joined the musicians atop the step–shaped tomb–building, and just as Achille and Marcelle’s father approached the door, with Grammy looking on, Ducat opened a whisky bottle and sprinkled it down over the doorway, then flung drops to the crowd as if anointing everyone.
“To ward off evil,” Evangeline whispered, smirking. The girl wore a leather jacket, though it wasn’t so cold — not to Marcelle who had left three–foot snowdrifts and sub–zero temperatures back home.
Marcelle pulled away and tried to get a closer look, and when she glanced back to see if her cousins followed, she saw them off on their own, near Grammy’s house, playing at Gameboys or something, chuckling to themselves and ignoring the festival.
“Stay back,” her father had told her before sunrise, before everything started. “Stay with your cousins, and don’t get close. You can eat whatever you want and enjoy the music, but don’t come near the parade, or the tomb.”
Marcelle looked ahead and saw her father and her uncle — and a few other men from the village — disappearing inside the darkened doorway. The music deepened, slowed, drew out and savored the notes, and the wind died and the sun shimmered as a faint lone cloud passed by in reverence.
The men emerged to triumphant music, loud belting tuba blasts and thundering drumbeats. They were carrying something — something wrapped in tattered rags, something Marcelle couldn’t quite see with all the people crowding about, jumping up and down, holding big pictures over their heads.
Her father went back into the tomb and emerged again in a minute, carrying something else. Five times he went in, and five times he and the others came out. At last he and Grammy took one of the shriveled things out a ways from the others. Holding a rag over his face, he helped Grammy remove the threadbare fabric.
Marcelle pressed in closer, walking around legs and bodies, past dancing revelers, men and women holding signs and photos, carrying gifts, baskets, smoking meat, banana flambé, dishes of Romazava. She got turned around, spun and kicked, then found herself in the clearing, right behind her father, looking down at Grammy who was looking up at her.
Grammy smiled and spoke in Malagasy.
“Olsen,” she said, addressing the husk of a thing on the ground, the shriveled thing with sunken eyes, stringy hair and brown teeth, the thing clinging stubbornly to a stained, faded shroud. “I’d like you to meet Marcelle, your grand–daughter.”
“Get with the others,” her father insisted, stepping between Marcelle and the corpse, between her and her grandparents. “I told you–”
“Is that–?” she didn’t know how to finish her question. Her mouth was open, her thoughts jumbled. The world spun, Grammy’s eyes burned into her and the eucalyptus trees swayed and whispered as drumbeats pounded in time with her racing heart.
“Go!” her father insisted, just as a wraith–thin hand settled on his shoulder and drew him back.
“Marcelle,” Grammy said with a soft, understanding smile. She held a beautiful baby–blue silk sheet in her other hand. It looked warm. “It’s ok. Would you like to help?”
“Shh. Dear?” Grammy’s eyes twinkled like last nights’ stars. “There will be dancing. And singing. Olsen has much to see, and only until nightfall before he must be back inside. We’ll walk him through the village, we’ll view the fields and the trees, see the new sights, meet everybody. And did I mention the dancing? The singing?”
Marcelle bit her lip and tried to hold back her surging emotions — feelings she hadn’t felt since nestled between her mother and father one cold Christmas night years ago — when they still didn’t have any money but at least they were together.
Grammy’s hand came up, and with a long nail she gently scratched under Marcelle’s chin before pulling her hand back and opening it, palm–up. Marcelle looked at it only for a second before she took it — clenched Grammy’s hand and squeezed, as she’d been longing to reach for her mother, as she’d been reaching for a bygone past and an irretrievable future.
She smiled at her father — who only hung his head in deference. And Marcelle reached for one end of the silk shroud. “We should hurry,” she said in Malagasy, pronouncing the words slowly but with enthusiasm, bringing a smile to Grammy’s face. “He’s cold.”
While Jim fired up the hibachi and set the burgers and the dogs on the grill, Marcelle started the CD player and turned up the volume. With the music’s quickening tempo, the world–beats of drums, a clarinet, and undertones of a tuba pounding through the crisp Pennsylvania air, she motioned for her children to take a few steps back.
Withdrawing the bottle of Jamieson’s, she opened it and splashed the whiskey all over the door, over the burgers and the dogs and the fire, flicking drops even over Jim and the twins — who giggled and made faces. Then she set down the bottle and retrieved a crowbar and a hammer from Jim’s knapsack, and she advanced on the white marble door — the door secured by a chain and padlock.
She took off a thin silver necklace with a brass key as its charm, and quickly used it on the padlock. As the door opened with a rusty, grating sound, she paused and looked back at her family — at Jim, at the twins, standing in a semicircle as the meat cooked and the music played. Past their shoulders, the other stones lay in the slanting sunlight on the rolling hills, and the other mausoleums, lonely and cold, huddled against the chilly morning breezes.
“It’s time,” she said, over the music. “Turning Time.” But first, standing on the threshold, wanting to savor the moment, she studied this elegant home, this beautiful resting place. Her father had been here these six years now, ever since that tragic mine accident. And as she whispered into the long shadows beyond the door — whispered her hellos — she thought of the insurance he had taken out on himself, the money that let her build this place for him, the money that allowed her to bring Grammy and Grampa all the way across the world to be here, too.
After all, it made no sense for them to stay there, in the highlands of Madagascar, when Marcelle’s life was here, when what Grammy needed to see was here. Her cousins — her uncle — they could care less. They didn’t understand, didn’t believe in the power of ancestors, the strength of the old ways. If you didn’t venerate the dead, they sure wouldn’t help you out. After all, who else was going to look out for you, intercede with God in your behalf? No, her cousins wouldn’t take care of Grammy — and maybe that was why Grammy had come to Marcelle last week. In the dark, standing and shivering, hunched over on her cane, standing where the nightlight would have been if she still needed it, if things had gone differently, if she and her father had never gone to that first Turning.
It was what Marcelle had been waiting for. Now, carrying the hammer and crowbar, she grinned and got to work on the first crypt while Jim and the twins prepared the sheets, the finest she could buy.
After all, Grammy was cold.
Residing with his wife and daughter in upstate New York, David’s stories have appeared in Chizine #33, Writers of the Future: Volume XXII and Paradox, with another tale forthcoming in Withersin. He has published one novel and a work of non-fiction investigating ghost–sightings at an historical castle located on Seneca Lake. His website is www.sakmyster.com
Story © 2007 David Sakmyster. All other content copyright © 2007 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish