Beyond the Rice Fields
Allison M. Charette is the recipient of a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her translation of Beyond the Rice Fields by Malagasy writer Naivo. Set in the early 1800s, this historical novel uses dual narrators—a slave boy and his first owner—to depict the era when Madagascar was ruled by a monarchy and first being settled by Europeans. Read Charette’s essay on translating Naivo here.
The Sovereign Ruler has issued a proclamation:
“To the people under the sky, I say to you: I will travel the land and visit the 12 sacred hills. I will do this to honor the tradition of my ancestors. I will circumcise my son. And thus I call upon you to cleanse the paths that I will follow. Mow the grass and widen the roads in anticipation of my arrival. Most importantly, I call upon you to kill all of the rats. You must hunt down every single rat, even if there are only two or three on each hill. All the rats must be exterminated.”
When Ramanantsoavina, a 10-honor general from the Royal Army, brought Ranavalona’s words to the people in our province in the central square of Ambohimanelo in this, the 15th year of her reign, fear swept through all those gathered there.
Bebe, my grandmother, heard the messenger, and she’s still shaking. She rushed home, distressed, trying to catch her breath. She’s been sitting on her stool ever since.
“There will be a mass trial,” she whispers, again.
“For the rats?” Hanta asks, squatting beside her.
My daughter has grown. People think she takes after me quite a bit. Her words are just a child’s babbles. She’s four years old.
Prince Rakoto, heir to the throne, is of age to be circumcised. No shadow shall cast dark stains on a midlands prince’s passage to adulthood.
My mother is sifting seeds in the winnowing basket.
“What are you afraid of?” she asks Bebe. “There’s nothing for us to be ashamed of.”
Bao’s state of mind doesn’t allow for bad news right now—she just got back together with Rainivonjy, one of her favorite lovers, after being apart for several moons. He’s dropping hints that he’s ready to marry her, that he’s intending to dismiss his first wife.
“Why rats?” Hanta says again. “What’re they going to do?”
“Rats are people who have been found guilty of sorcery or insurrection,” Bebe says.
I look at Bebe. She doesn’t say anything more; she looks down at her hands, which are old and dry, the nails have turned yellow. Rats must die. They who call forth the tangena will descend upon our villages to purify the people, along with the earth husbands. Judgment of the masses.
Bao tries to be reassuring. “They won’t do a single thing. People will go lay their stones, one or two beggars will be judged, and everything will go back to normal.”
Silence settles. I walk out of the hut and finish hanging the laundry in the yard to dry. I keep listening through the door, but no one speaks. I go back inside and sit behind Hanta, pulling her to my breast.
“This happens from time to time,” I murmur gently, stroking her hair. “All boys of the proper age will be circumcised at the same time as Prince Rakoto. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“Let’s hope you speak the truth,” Bebe breathes.
At the hour of tying the calf to her stake, a neighbor brings us news: a judge has arrived in Sahasoa, flanked by two earth husbands. The village chief, Ranjato, offered them the use of his house for their preparations. Villagers will be summoned to place their stones starting at sunrise. They’ll go off to collect stones in the fields and formulate a plan. They will place one stone for each person they suspect of sorcery.
The people who receive the most stones are a danger to the community. They will be judged.
* * *
A day passed, but nothing happened.
Night falls again. A huge full moon rises on Sahasoa. The great portal stone casts a round shadow on the central square. The surrounding hills buzz with insect songs and screaming wildcats. Thin trails of white smoke rise here and there above thatched rooftops, and furtive, faraway conversations are carried on the wind.
Groups of men roam the paths, which have been emptied of the usual inhabitants. Their noisy footsteps echo through the night. The villagers keep a vigilant, worried watch in their huts. Beams of light filter weakly through the cracks of doors and windows.
“Sarobabay, izay voa aza tezitra!”
More footsteps echoing. Then, the echoes of stones being thrown onto rooftops.
The sentence of judgment. The call of tangena, that our fathers have passed down since the beginning. Sarobabay, a cry whose meaning has been lost to the endless string of tormented nights.
“What’re they doing?” Hanta whispers.
“Quiet!” orders Bao. “Not a word. Not a sound.”
The footsteps come closer. There is a silence in the night. Then they fade.
“They’re leaving,” I sigh in relief.
“The ancestors have smiled on us,” Bao says.
But they haven’t gone. A stone falls on the roof of our house with a dull thud. Then a second. And a third. Soon, rocks are hailing down on our rooftop. Then another silence.
A knock at the door. Three times. Bam bam bam.
“Who’s there?” Bebe tries to control the quiver in her voice.
“Rekindle the fire.”
We blow to pull flames out of the hearth’s slumbering embers. The dim hut emerges from shadows. Hanta starts to cry.
“Rabaovolamirindra! I name you a witch and a threat to a thousand men and a thousand women! You must purify your name, if you are able.”
My mother screams and collapses unconscious to the floor.
* * *
We don’t dare speak for a long time. My mind floods with swirling, piercing questions. What will we do?
“Who could have accused me?” my mother says finally, holding back her tears. “This is a mistake, I’ll tell them that it’s just a mistake. Or malice. I’m not a witch!”
“Neny, please. We know that.”
She doesn’t hear me. “Someone made a mistake. They took me for someone else. They caught someone else dancing on a grave in the night, making cats and evil birds talk. They think it’s me. I’ll set them straight.”
Bao wrings her hands. A terrible weight is constricting my chest. I stand up, trying to calm my pounding heart.
She’s opened the door and lit the outside of the shutters with her lamp wick.
The mark of infamy. They drew it on the door of our home with thick strokes of chalky earth.
Bebe is still kneeling in the northeast corner of the hut. She sighs heavily. “We ask that the outcome be favorable. We ask that the verdict be just.”
Bao nearly faints again. We have to help her stand up. It’s time to leave.
An idea comes to me, a hope. “We have to get word to my father! He can save us. Yes, Rado, he has influence.”
“You think so?” Bao says weakly. “Why not Rainivonjy? He’s a friend.”
“No,” Bebe says, “that may not help your case.”
“Right. We have to let my father know.” Now my heart beats with hope.
Bao looks questioningly at Bebe, who nods in agreement.
“She’s right. We have to try everything. But who can take the message to him? We cannot be separated right now. The four of us must stay together.”
“I’ll send Tovo. His home is not far from here. It won’t take me long.”
I rush out, running to Tovo’s house a little to the west. He’s not sleeping, either. Tovo agrees and leaves immediately.
When I return, Bao looks pitiful. She tries to act brave, but can’t. She sits cross-legged near the hearth. Bebe is slowly braiding her hair, trying to hide her own emotions. She watches my mother’s devastated face, cooling it with sprinkled drops of fresh water. Her motions are imbued with rare tenderness. Bao knows it. She fixes her large, dark eyes on Bebe.
“You must be strong,” my grandmother says. “You must be beautiful, my daughter. Beauty is a type of strength, it can affect even the judges.”
“You can beat the tangena. Thousands of people have. You are innocent. We are easily delivered from anything we are not guilty of.”
It’s time. We set off.
Pre-dawn is a dreadful, harsh glow. The paths are shadowed and silent. All the hearthfires have been extinguished, but we know that the neighborhood is watching us leave. We hear, more than see, other families sneak out of their huts. Someone says, “We are easily delivered from anything we are not guilty of,” to give themselves courage. Families soon meet on the path, forming a procession on the road to judgment. We don’t dare look at one another. Hanta clings to my hand, and I press her against my thigh. My eyes are so clouded with tears that I have trouble seeing where I’m putting my feet. What will our lives be tomorrow? What will our lives be the day after? Will Rado save us?
Bao walks in front of us, her face wild, her eyes dead.
* * *
She is naked in the hut, which has been emptied of all its objects. A hole has been dug in the ground, into which a large wicker basket has been placed. She’s sitting on a small pad, facing the east, her legs stretched out. She is alone, but we are just a few steps away outside, with only the bamboo walls of the hut separating us. They permitted us to see her briefly before the trial starts. From where I stand, I can watch the entrance to the room where she sits.
We can hear the servants bustling about next door.
Bebe, her forehead to the ground, murmurs, “We ask that the outcome be favorable. We ask that the verdict be just.”
Soon, I see the two earth husbands enter. One of them is holding a pitcher. I know what they’ll do. Bebe explained it to me. They’ll make her drink water collected by cupped hands, then pour some on her head, her chest, and her feet. The water is cold. I think of her shivering, I hear a sob. They make her eat a bit of rice, laying a bed for the tangena.
The judge, he who calls forth the tangena, walks in. He goes straight to her and says, “Open your mouth.”
He places a patch of birdskin on her tongue, which he commands her to swallow. The action is repeated three times. The pieces of skin will testify to her ability to regurgitate the poison, and will decide her life or death.
The judge pours two spoonfuls of tangena into a cup. One of the earth husbands proclaims: “We have gathered here, inside and outside of this home. The time has come for Rabaovolamirindra to drink the tangena. May those whose only goal would be to denigrate her, or those who would wish her death out of pure spite, be struck down by this tangena in return.”
“Open your mouth,” the judge says again.
He pours the tangena into her mouth. It tastes slightly bitter. I hear her breathe deeply as she swallows the poison. He who calls forth the tangena places resin from a banana leaf on her forehead and recites the incantation to the spirit of the tangena.
“Hear and attend, O Manamango, you are now in her belly, you are now infusing her bones, you see her now from the inside. If she is guilty of sorcery, if she has brought harm to children or if she has brought harm to adults, if she has trampled on a tomb or if she has sung with wildcats, if she has made use of harmful magic spells, then break her from the inside, ravage her entrails! But be wary, Manamango: like all of us ordinary folk, perhaps she has argued with others, perhaps she has taken the belongings of others. If that is all, if it is merely a crossroads, where one road must be chosen over the other; if it is merely the splitting of two streams, one of which serves to slake our thirst and the other to wash our feet; if this is the case, then let her live, let yourself be drawn out of her, for your task is to hunt down sorcery. Return and leave by the opening through which you entered.”
Bebe, her forehead to the ground, murmurs, “We ask that the outcome be favorable. We ask that the verdict be just.”
They take an entire pitcher of rice meal and make her drink it. A terrible weight is crushing my shoulders. She has to be feeling the tangena in her stomach now, spreading through her limbs. They make her drink another pitcher of meal. When the first wave of vomiting erupts, my mother lets out a long, painful groan, and I break out into sobs, and Hanta stuffs her fingers into her ears and buries her head in my clothes. Her vomiting continues, unending, the revolting sound of splatters in the wicker basket is her entire life hurtling out of her, expelled out of her mouth to meet its death in a foul hole.
One of the servants comes to the entrance of the hut. He takes a banana out from the folds of his rolled loincloth, peels it, and starts to eat.
“How is she?” Bebe asks.
“Nothing’s come out yet.”
The sun has lifted over the horizon, bathing the edges of the trees in smoldering light. The great Sahasoa fields have emerged from the night, but the countryside is empty. The farmers would rather stay away from the chief’s home today. The families of the accused, like us, are the only ones to witness this sad, majestic dawn.
A seer works busily near a neighboring hut, fulfilling many propitious actions.
Another servant comes to the entrance.
“How is she?” Bebe asks again.
“One of the skins has come out. The rest have not.”
I can barely hear Bao’s groans anymore. I gnaw at my hand until it bleeds. “Why, oh why? Woe is us! Oh, woe is us!”
“We ask that the outcome be favorable. We ask that the verdict be just.”
I finally calm down. I take Hanta’s small hands in mine. Yes, we ask that the verdict be just. We are not being judged by men, but by our ancestors, by the Creator. Blessed are they for the life they have given us.
Bebe isn’t praying anymore, but her toothless mouth still moves. She looks down and contemplates her hands, her old, dry hands with yellowed nails.
* * *
Blessed are our ancestors for the life they have given us.
Bao surrendered to the tangena. She will never dance again.
One scene will be etched into my mind forever. They had dragged her outside and thrown her into the yard. We ran over. Her long hair was scattered in the dust, her finely sculpted dancer’s arms lay unmoving on either side of her torso. Even today, still, this memory calls up a silent sob in me that travels toward my throat and my eyes. Bao’s face was a mask of pain.
When Rado and Tovo were close enough to see the place of judgment, the sun was already low in the sky. Groups of villagers were sitting silently on the hills. They knew that the trial was over even before seeing the long ropes that the strong men were pulling. But they still had hope—at first glance, they hadn’t seen us among the mourning families following the rope-pullers. Rado came closer to be sure. For a second time, he looked around the group of people following the bodies being dragged by their feet. Not seeing us among them, he was about to run to our home, when he recognized the last body, the one still waiting to be pulled.
It was my mother’s.
* * *
Bebe had roughly pulled us behind one of the houses after the trial. My grandmother held me against the wall, gagging me with one startlingly forceful hand. My body shook with spasms, and a flood of tears streamed from my eyes. I wanted to die. Hanta watched, frozen, terrified.
Rado found us and took control of the situation. Bebe couldn’t have managed without him.
“You’re not allowed to cry during the procession,” he said to me, gently.
“But . . . how? You?” I stammered.
“First, stop crying,” he said, more sternly. “You’re putting everyone in danger.”
“Iada! We have lost her! She’s—”
“Quiet. This is not the right time. If they see a single tear on your cheeks, they’ll fall upon you, too.”
“But I am so sad.”
“Do you want your daughter to be an orphan?”
“Then get a hold of yourself.”
We followed the inglorious procession without a word, our eyes to the ground. The bodies can’t be carried. They have to be dragged along the ground so they never come above our knees. The judge and the earth husbands examined the faces of the followers carefully. Any excessive emotion can be interpreted as a sign of collusion, and anyone who draws attention to themselves might be seized and judged, as well. It is forbidden to bury the bodies of witches in ancestral tombs. They must be pulled at the end of a rope and thrown together into a pit.
Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa, who goes by the pen name Naivo, has worked as a journalist in his home country of Madagascar and as a professor in Paris, and now works for the press in Canada. Beyond the Rice Fields is his first novel, published in March 2012 by Éditions Sépia. He is also the author of numerous (as yet untranslated) short stories, including “Dahalo,” which received the RFI/ACCT prize in 1996, and “Iarivomandroso,” which was adapted for a theatrical production in Antananarivo, Madagascar. Naivo is working on his second novel, as well as a short story collection.
Allison M. Charette translates from the French and founded the Emerging Literary Translators’ Network in America (ELTNA.org). She is on the board of the American Literary Translators Association and has published two book-length translations, in addition to short fiction in InTranslation, SAND Journal, and others. Currently, Allison is collaborating with French-speaking authors from Madagascar to introduce the Anglophone world to Malagasy literature in translation. Find her online at charettetranslations.com.
Beyond the Rice Fields will be published by Restless Books in Fall 2017.
This piece is part of the 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Series, which features excerpts and essays from recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.
Since 2009, the Fund’s annual contribution for grant awards has been augmented by support from Amazon.