The memories have been coming think and fast lately. Sometimes that happens when I get thoughts. My mind keeps turning and turning until I am overwhelmed but comforted by the things that reveal themselves to me. Images of tangerines and clean feet; thin bones; oil on metal; and long cotton robes scatter themselves across the white-screen of my mind. They arrive while I am driving or lying in bed. Or sometimes, they come to me while I am sitting at a computer wearing a large pair of head-phones.
The music I listen to is almost always free of lyrics. It blocks out everything else in the room. And then, even this action of drowning myself in sound takes me to a time when I was struggling to stay neatly balanced between the worlds of both the living and the dead. I was trying to hover in a place where there were no thoughts or reality. It was an attempt to get rid of the pain and spirits. But it didn’t work. And from experience, I now know as I try to ward off the cacophony of the physical world while seated in a computer room, it won’t work. This time, I am prepared for the truth.
I remember the death of Stonebird’s first grandson quite well. I’m sorry, that is not entirely accurate, I really don’t remember all of it very well but there are some details that stick out in my mind with a clarity I grasp tightly. The details may seem trivial. But to me I think life is in the details. It’s about the cat that sits next to the fire on a chilly, damp day – silhouette ablaze by the flames in front of him or in the background. The crescent of the cat’s back begs to be touched by its curvature alone. He sits warming himself while staring into the glow. He stares into the golden light of the flames the same way you do.
Just stare. Do nothing more.
And if you think, let it take you to a place of ease. Or let it return you to images that come vividly thick and fast. And then, let the thoughts float you around as you fill in the details. Because that’s where life is, it is in the details.
And so we sat in the vacant house – the trano banga – building a cookstove from clay. We had already taken the dirt and dried it in the sun. It was pounded into a consistency of flour. We mixed the dirt with sand and ash. The remains of the burned wood served as our glue.
It was the ash that held everything together.
And it was then the younger brother of Stonebird appeared at the door of the vacant house in which we were sitting. Without any warning or precursor he says to us, “There is some bad news. The child of Nirena is dead.”
At once, we fell silent. Stonebird’s brother continued on his way to the next household. I said nothing as I pondered the distinct difference between this culture and my own. With business and day-to-day events the Malagasy speak in indirect terms. They will not answer a question with a yes or no but instead beat around the bush towards a meaning you need to discover for yourself. They do this because oftentimes words have two meanings. Reality is shifty and they acknowledge this through dialogue. It is an art – as much in listening as it is in speaking.
However, with death, the people of Madagascar get straight to point. There is no explanation of the circumstances leading to the death as oftentimes seen on those drama television shows. There is no, “Well Mrs. So-and-So, we have some bad news about your son. There was an accident and we tried to save him but…” There is no arriving at the truth before it is said outright. The facts are simple and straightforward. There is some bad news. The child of Nirena is dead.
There is some bad news.
The child of Nirena is dead.
The words echo through your head as you try to grasp the meaning and implications of this newest twist of fate. And it doesn’t quite make sense until Stonebird, the father of Nirena and the oldest brother in the family with whom you’re sitting, walks past the door of the vacant house. His chin is held up in an attempt to betray his emotions. He walks with as much pride as he can muster and his eyes are cast straight ahead as if looking into a flame.
Just stare Stonebird. Do nothing more.
And if you think, let it take you to a place of ease. Or let it return you to images that come vividly think and fast.
And Stonebird, let those thoughts float you around as you fill in the details.
Because that’s where life is, it is in the details.
Life is in the memories of how you washed your feet on the day your grandson died.
And it is in the memories of sitting in a room with a small body wrapped in cloth.
We waited for soap and gold to arrive. And we all stared ahead without doing much more.