Turning the Bones
Marcy Campbell’s short fiction appears most recently in RE:AL and Sou’wester and new stories are forthcoming in Another Chicago Magazine and Parting Gifts. Her poem “Traffic,” as a winner of the “Moving Minds: Verse and Vision Project,” will be “published” on nearly 1,000 buses in metro Cleveland this fall. She is the Fiction Editor of Artful Dodge and teaches writing at the College of Wooster.
Jillian and I are sitting on the hard-packed earth in front of a large fire, the flames illuminating the faces of the others in the circle. The air is saturated with the smell of spice, strong coffee and sweat. I wipe my brow with a handkerchief and smile nervously at anyone who looks at me. This is their ritual, their world, and Jillian and I are only vazaha, foreigners.
To my left is our guide, Razaranohira. We call him Raza for short, and he doesn’t seem to mind. He grins and shows his teeth, and I wonder how they can be so straight and white when everything around him is crooked and dirty.
“They are asking the ancestors for forgiveness,” he says.
His English is good. He interprets the words of some of the family members who are part of the Merina tribe, the largest tribe in Madagascar and one of the several who practice the ritual of famadihana, the turning of the bones, that we are now witnessing.
Before we left for our trip to this village, Raza prepared a document to show to the chief when we arrived. It explained in Malagasy who we were, how long we would stay, and that we wanted to observe. At least that is what Raza told us, and I have to trust him, as my Malagasy is very weak. I know only ten words, including azafady (please) and misaotra (thank you).
We are enveloped by the shadows of gray stone cubes, the family tombs. In rows surrounding the perimeter of the tombs are hundreds of upturned zebu horns, their sharp points glinting white in the firelight. It was just yesterday that Jillian and I saw our first zebu out the tour bus window. We gawked at the huge hump on their backs and their pendulous ears. They were not at all like the cattle we have back in the states. The horns around the grave are remnants of past celebrations and a sign of the family’s wealth. Nothing like the manicured cemeteries Jillian and I are accustomed to. No plastic roses, no carved angels.
But, to the Malagasy, these stark tombs are like luxury hotels for the dead. I remember the Malagasy man sitting next to me on our flight to the capital city of Antananarivo. He carried a cupful of earth in a plastic bag and explained to Jillian and me that it was from his family tomb. If he died while he was abroad, he said carrying the dirt would increase his chances of being returned to the tomb to be buried. “Earth wants to return to its home,” he said and waved the bag at me.
Superstitions like this are common here, and taboos, known as fady, run rampant in every tribe. Jillian and I have been warned by the locals not to touch a pig with a stub tail, as it will bring poverty. If we cut any branches from the sacred tree by the river, we will be forced to find a rooster with black spots to sacrifice. I have been told that if a dog pees on a tomb, it must be killed. But it is also fady to kill a dog. It’s very confusing and best left out of the hands of the vazaha.
Jillian turns to Raza and asks, “Why do they need the ancestor’s forgiveness?”
“Because the rice won’t grow. The ancestor must be angry at the family for something they have done.”
This is the first night of the three-day famidahana, and the party is in full swing. Some of the family members are dancing at a frantic pace to music from drums and bamboo flutes. The men, women and children all wear lambas that look like togas draped around their bodies and adding a gaudy burst of color to the backdrop of the gray tombs. The men share glass bottles of toka-gosh, crude rum made from rice and sugar cane. I have been warned that it is highly potent and do not want to lose control among strangers, so Jillian and I drink bland, rice tea.
She is tilting back her head to swallow the last of her tea and reaches for more. We are parched from our day at the Perinet Reserve, the destination of our nearly 10,000 mile journey to get up close and personal with lemurs. Jillian loved the furry creatures. She cooed at them and snapped pictures while I watched from a distance. A friend told me lemurs carry rabies. Jillian crouched down, “so they aren’t scared,” she said. She offered her granola bar, and I told her she shouldn’t feed wild animals.
I had been more enamored of the chameleons. Slowly inching along a branch, watching me no matter where I went, one eye fixed straight ahead and the other rotating up, down, side to side, following my movements. I tried running forward and backward, hid behind a tree, but there was always one eye focused on me. When I got too close to one, its body changed color from a muted green to a fiery red, and I took that as a sign that I had gone too far. Jillian was uninterested, told me I lacked subtlety when approaching animals, so I sulked along behind her and the lemurs.
Raza is singing now with the rest of the family. The women sing a high verse, a lilting melody, while the men come in underneath with a low, steady accompaniment. Of course I cannot understand the words, but it sounds light-hearted, cheerful almost, and I find myself humming. When the song stops, I ask Raza, “Are you related?”
“Most in the village are related,” he says. “I am a cousin.”
“Did others travel far to get here?” I ask. I have seen how treacherous the travel can be and think they must have known about this event far in advance.
“They are already here,” he answers. “Where else would they be?”
I am distracted by a man in a yellow lamba walking from person to person with a platter of meat. Jillian looks at the meat for just a moment before taking a piece. I am afraid of what it might be, although it has the familiar look of beef. Brown, slightly bloodied. I have read in the travel guide about bilharzia, hepatitis, even bubonic plague. Malaria is an ever-present danger from the swarms of mosquitoes, but we are already taking pills to prevent that. I want to coat my digestive track with a thick layer of metal, or forgo food altogether and live on the rest of my granola bars and filtered water for the remainder of the trip.
“Zebu,” Raza says and pops a chunk into his mouth.
“Take some,” Jillian says. “Don’t be rude.”
I place it on my tongue and chew quickly before swallowing. It tastes like regular steak. I look again at the garden of horns blooming around the tomb and think of the zebu that die for these parties.
I lean toward Jillian and raise my voice above the singing that has started again. “What do they do when they kill all their cattle?” I ask. “What do they eat?”
She shrugs. I take more zebu.
I wonder how long Jillian would fare in this land of wooden shacks and mud huts. Would she learn to carry a sack of rice on her head? She looks somewhat rugged in her khaki pants and hiking boots. But despite two pairs of socks, she is nursing a blister on her pinkie toe. This morning, I helped her scratch the price tag sticker off the bottom of her stiff, leather boots. She should have worked them in weeks ago back at home but insisted on saving her new outfits (and boots) until we arrived at our destination. In retrospect, a poor idea.
As for me, I can’t imagine ever learning to carry anything on my head. My skull is too pointy. Besides, I wouldn’t be able to handle living for long without modern conveniences. The lodge we are staying at is no Hilton, but it’s comfortable. We sleep in soft beds. We ride in clean buses, so unlike the dangerously crowded and dusty taxi-brousses we’ve seen careening through the countryside. It is worth the extra cost to have booked a package tour. And, the money was of no real consequence to me. The law firm where I work is doing well, and I hope to make partner next year, the youngest the firm has ever had.
Until I met Jillian, I was having a hard time finding things to spend my money on. In desperation, I bought a towel warmer and robotic lawnmower, the kinds of things you find in the catalogs on airplanes. Now, I spend money on her, anything she wants, even if it’s to go halfway around the world to satisfy a lemur fascination.
I admit I had to look up Madagascar in my atlas. I gazed at the large chunk of island with Africa to its west and the wide expanse of Indian Ocean to its east. Jillian and I had been surfing channels when we found a National Geographic show about lemurs. I learned how much she loved them, and I learned that when she gets excited about something, her eyes crinkle up and start to get teary in the corners.
In the past six months that I have known her, I have learned that she sleeps in boxer shorts and an old T-shirt. That she prefers red wine to white. I have not learned how her mother died, only that she did, just before we met, and that Jillian refuses to talk about it. “Too painful still,” she says. I had hoped this trip would help her to forget.
The turning of the bones. It is not a place to bring a woman, not even a woman like Jillian who seems ready and willing to handle new situations. I never thought she would want to attend a ceremony so connected with the one topic she’s trying hard to suppress. But, Raza’s description of the famidahana had captivated her. We met him standing outside the lodge where he was chewing on a piece of sugar cane. He had on a red shirt that said Nike in black letters, probably a cast-off from a well-meaning church group in the states.
Raza is one of the nature reserve guides. Yesterday, he took us to a prime spot to observe the sun-worshipping sifaka lemurs. We watched as they sat up on their haunches and outstretched their arms, turning up their snouts into the morning air and letting the sunlight warm their furry, white bellies. He explained the famidahana to us on our hike back to the lodge. I had reservations about trespassing on such an important ceremony, was scared that we might be harmed. Jillian was not concerned and convinced Raza to allow us to attend as guests, for a price of course.
“I want to immerse myself in the culture,” she had said.
Jillian grabs my arm and points toward the tomb. Out of the square of darkness that is its opening, I see one of the older men walking. He moves slowly, deliberately, and clutches to his breast a bundle in a faded, yellow cloth frayed at the edges.
“What is it?” I whisper, and Jillian shushes me.
A woman unrolls a multi-colored woven mat over the ground, and the man gently lays the bundle on top. He takes a corner of the cloth and slowly unravels it, revealing a bone. For a moment, I mistake it for more zebu horns, until I see the skull with gaping eye sockets and the hollow rib cage. I recoil at first, expecting to see scraps of skin and hair, to smell the rot that I assume would come from a dead body.
But there is nothing. The bones are stripped clean. The man arranges them in the proper order. It isn’t hard because many of them are still connected. The hand, for example, is still intact. I can’t help but think of the plastic model skeleton hanging in my high school science class. There is no horror movie gore here. It’s sanitary almost, yet I feel an uneasiness growing underneath my fascination. This is no plastic model. This is—was—an actual person, and he is just lying there on the other side of the fire.
Raza told us the corpse would be brought out and present during the ceremony, so we should not be surprised. But still I look at it in utter amazement. Jillian, too, appears enthralled. We glance once at each other, then quickly back to the bones.
I whisper to her, “Pretty weird, huh?”
She answers, “I don’t think we’d see anything like it in Chicago.”
She’s right. We have no dead in Chicago. Jillian’s mother, both of my own parents, not dead, just on extended vacation, or so it seems. I saw them of course, my parents. Lying in two mahogany coffins after their car crash three years ago. I had managed to avoid looking in coffins before, but there is no avoiding it when it’s your own parents. Well-meaning friends and relatives practically pushed me up to it, thinking that somehow seeing them in this unnatural state would heal the grief. My parents looked like wax mannequins. The stretched skin and molded mouths, straight lips. No smile, no frown. Indifferent. My mother in make-up that she never would have worn in public. The pink rouged cheeks, the eye shadow with tiny, iridescent flecks. My father in his best suit, worn previously at other people’s funerals.
I touched my mother’s hand, and the skin felt rubbery under my fingers. I felt nothing and wondered why, but now I know that I really couldn’t believe it was her. I’m waiting for my parents to return from vacation, from the Bahamas maybe, or a cruise to Alaska.
Still, I have visited their graves. Once. Which is more than most people do. Most people are on the other side of the country from their dead. Out of sight, out of mind. When I went to the cemetery, I stood and looked at their names carved in the granite. I observed that the lawn had been recently mowed. Many of the other graves had flowers, which I did not bring. I didn’t know whom I would be bringing them for. The man who mows the lawn? The other families who come to visit? Surely not my parents, if they were even in there. I had watched the coffins sink down into the earth with those wax mannequins inside.
There is no coffin here at the famidahana, no line in the sand between me and the dead man. I have never been this close to death without a barrier of daffodil arrangements. I watch a girl dressed in a bright blue lamba approach the bones with short, timid steps. She is young, perhaps only sixteen. She bows, deposits a plate of rice and zebu meat on the ground. The rest of the family is seated in the circle, doing some type of chant in harmony, similar to the song before but not as melodious. The girl takes hold of the edge of the shroud and tears off a small square. The fabric is old and worn, and it tears easily. She brings the piece of cloth to her mouth and eats it. I jostle Raza out of his chant.
“What is she doing, Raza? Why is she eating that?” I ask.
“Does she have to eat the whole thing?” Jillian says, her eyes wide.
Raza laughs at us, stupid vazaha, and shakes his head. “The woman has not been able to bear children,” he says. “Eating the shroud will help.”
I hear Jillian make a disapproving clucking in her throat.
“Eating cloth does not cure infertility,” she whispers to me. She is intent on watching the girl chew and swallow, as if she wants to make sure it’s not some kind of magic trick.
I suddenly have an urge to know if Jillian wants children. I lean in close to talk into her ear over the chanting. “What if you were infertile and the only way to get pregnant was to eat some dead guy’s clothes?” I ask.
She rolls her eyes. “I’m not eating anyone’s clothes, ever,” she says. “Although my mom would have been all for it. She wanted me to get the husband first, though, then the kids. If there was some kind of cloth I could have eaten to get a husband and kids, she would have been stuffing me with it, with a side of mashed potatoes.”
I laugh at her and put a hand on her knee. “How’s your blister?” I ask.
“It’s okay, I guess. I wadded up some Kleenex and stuffed them around my toe.”
We’re both looking down at her boot when the family starts getting up from the circle around us. An older woman walks over to the bones and sets a wooden bowl in front of them. As the crowd files past, they all place some kind of offering in the bowl, the red and green Franc Malgache bills, dishes of rice and bottles of rum and wine to nourish the person in the after-life.
Jillian jerks her head toward my pocket, so I pull out my wallet, take out some Franc Malgache equivalent to twenty American dollars. It is a month’s earnings for some here, but only if they’re wealthy. Jillian links arms with me, and we walk together up to the bones with Raza at our side. The village chief starts speaking to us in Malagasy, and I shake my head to indicate I can’t understand. Raza says our names to the chief, Jillian Brandt, Joseph Roth. The chief turns his attention to the bones and speaks in Malagasy again. Between the words I don’t understand, he repeats our names.
Raza says to us, “He is introducing you. You are not family, so the dead man does not know you.”
I nod, and Jillian and I look at the bones, at the man we are being introduced to. For a brief moment, I feel the urge to take his bony hand and shake it, lifting it into the air while the rest of the body lies on the ground. When the chief is done speaking, I place my money into the bowl, and he gives me a broad smile when he sees it. I shrug as if to say, “it’s nothing.”
When we return to our spot on the ground, I ask Raza what they will do with the money.
He says, “It goes back to the tomb. It will keep the spirit happy.”
I cannot believe that the family will let this treasure be sealed away with someone who can’t use it. They’re so poor. It just doesn’t make sense.
“Does anyone ever break into the tomb?” I ask. “To steal the money?”
Raza gives me a puzzled look. “No one would dishonor the dead.”
Everyone has given their donations and is sitting back around the fire, talking in small groups and drinking rum. Some people are lying flat on their backs, dozing off. Raza gets up to talk to someone, and Jillian and I stretch out our legs and get as comfortable as we can on the hard ground.
“I guess if this thing goes on for three days, there has to be some downtime,” I say.
“I suppose,” Jillian says. “Is it what you expected?”
I shake my head, bewildered, and look at the stack of bones and the offerings next to it. A piece of red silk is lying on the ground nearby, which Raza said will replace the fraying material that the bones had been wrapped in.
Jillian asks, “What if I could see my mom again or you could see your parents?”
“Like this?” I say. “You mean, we’d be like gravediggers or something?”
“Of course not. We’d be arrested!” Jillian says.
I imagine myself with a shovel and lantern, fog lying close to the ground, digging up my parents’ graves. At least I would know they were in there. Shortly after they died, I saw a movie where the main character faked his death and moved away, assuming a false identity. What if the whole thing had been a sham? My parents are off in Hawaii with new names, drinking fruity concoctions with umbrellas under a hibiscus bush.
Jillian says, “I just wish I could see my mom again.”
I put my arm around her and squeeze her around the waist. “I think it’s pretty normal to want to bring the dead back to life, at least if you had a good relationship with them when they were living,” I say. “There’s always something we forgot to tell them.”
“What’s that thing for you? What did you forget to tell your parents?”
I look into the fire and think about this for a moment. “I should have told them that I broke the lamp in our living room when I was ten. I told them it was my cousin, and he ended up getting in trouble.”
Jillian starts laughing loudly. Raza looks over at us and smiles and laughs too, as if he’s in on our joke.
“That’s what you would want to tell them?” she says. “I was thinking it would be something a little more profound.”
“Well, what would you say?”
“I would just tell my mom how much I love her and that she was a great mom, even though we didn’t always get along. She was great. That’s it.”
I was hoping for something more profound, too, but I don’t tell her this. I bring my arm up around her shoulder and tug at one of her curls and wonder how her toe feels and wonder if we’ll make love when we get back to the lodge or if she’ll be too sleepy.
We are silent for awhile and I notice my stomach starting to feel upset. I wonder about the zebu meat and how it was prepared.
One of the men on the other side of the fire stands up and staggers a bit, feet heavy with rum. He begins to sing and raises his arms to the musicians, rousing them to action. They comply and take their flutes and drums in hand, matching the man’s singing with a fast-paced tempo.
Others start to stand and dance, jerking one leg up and then another. They shout and twirl, faces upturned to the sky. Jillian’s foot taps next to me, her boot thumping the dirt. In a moment, she too is standing, and Raza extends his arm to pull her into the circle of twitching bodies. I pull her in the other direction, grabbing at the leg of her shorts to try to get her to sit down. She jerks away and joins Raza, and I realize I’m the only one still seated. It makes me feel uncomfortable, like I’m wearing swim trunks on a nudist beach, so I stand.
I take one hand and then the other out of my pockets. Jillian pulls me to her, and we are surrounded by the swirling reds, yellows, greens, and blues of the lambas. I look up, and all I see are arms flailing. I feel trapped underneath it all, like I’m underground and looking up into a sky of tree branches swaying in the wind. Then, Jillian takes my hands and clasps them. She raises both of our arms up over our heads and pokes through all those limbs, and I feel a rush of warm air against my knuckles. She presses her hips against mine, moving to the pulsing beat pounded out on the drums. She is smiling and sweaty and beautiful, and I start to feel my own body take over, sensing the rhythm from somewhere inside, from deep within my bones. I am humming again, and I can feel the drums in my chest. I lose myself, dancing like an idiot but not caring, smiling at Raza and his family.
The chief dances around the edge of the circle and is soon next to us. The whites of his eyes seem to glow in the firelight like the stacks of zebu horns. He is speaking to me in Malagasy again, and I look to Raza who says, “He is happy you have come.”
I take the chief’s hand and shake it. “Misaotra,” I say. “Thank you.”