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art by Liz Clarke

No Gift of Words

The gibbous moon hung over the crowns of the baobab trees as Afua slipped from her cot and headed up the cliff road to the house of the witch. Red clay wet with the night rains slapped beneath her heavy feet, her hurried strides belying the fear curling in her belly. It was a dangerous thing to steal from a witch.
But after tonight, she would no longer be called Sahona, the frog. Afua had always brushed off the insults, thinking that she'd grow like her friend Talata had grown, tall and graceful. Afua stayed squat, however, with a pointed face like a chameleon's, blotchy skin, and bowed legs more suited to a lemur than a young woman.
She turned up the steep path above the village, glancing down toward where the moonlight glinted on the rice patties below. The witch, Mpamonka, was said to be the most beautiful woman on the Island, renewed by the magic in her fitaratra, a jug carved from lightning in the beach sands far to the west. Thinking about her half-formed plan, Afua shivered, though not from cold. The forest closed in and the path grew narrower, the red clay turning to coarse grass. Shadows danced, silver and black, and somewhere a night bird called warning.
The witch's hut stood beside a mountain spring that welled from the rock and dropped off the cliffs into darkness. Biting her lip hard enough to taste blood, Afua hovered at the edge of the clearing against a mango tree and listened. The forest shifted and sighed around her, insects buzzing and leaves rustling. No human sounds found her ears. With a deep breath, she walked forward. No more feet slapping against the soil now.
The fitaratra hung from a silk cord on the side of the hut. Once she'd seen it, the vessel seemed to call to Afua, its slender clarity shining as though it were soaking in the moon's light. "No more sahona," the power whispered. "Become the most beautiful woman in Vazimba." Afua would be hanuhane, admired, beloved.
Her fingers closed on the thin glass and the cool water beaded on her dark skin. She lifted the vessel down, stepping away from the curtained door, not daring to breathe. Afua backed away until her calves touched the smooth stone surrounding the spring.
With a silent prayer to Zanahary, she tipped the fitaratra to her lips and drank deep.
Fire lit in her belly as though she'd eaten a handful of ants. Afua bit back a scream and dropped the fitaratra. It shattered on the stone, slivers of moonlight flying in all directions. A woman's scream broke the night, coming from the hut.
Afua ran. Warm blood flowed from tiny cuts on her arms and legs and cheek. She held herself as she went, coughing and spitting. Shooting pain burned its way down her thighs and she fell, curling into a ball in the mud. She felt as though someone were pulling on her very skin in all directions.
"Girl! Thief in the night," a woman's voice sounded above her.
Afua forced her eyes open and saw the witch, more like a shadow of a woman than the true form in the darkness. Afua opened her mouth to speak, but only moans came out.
"Why have you stolen my potion? Why have you broken my jug?"
Afua licked cracking lips and shook her head. She wondered if the witch would kill her. She wondered if she were dying anyway. But she clung to the hope that the potion was working, clung with her last sane breath.
"I did not," she said, forcing the words out like stones across her twisting tongue. "I am sick, I came for healing." It was easy to lie to a shadow in the forest.
"Liar," the witch said and she spit into Afua's face. Her saliva was sticky and smelled of vanilla. Bones rattled in the darkness. "Since you like lies so much, I curse you to always tell them. And since you are so clumsy, everything you hold shall slip from your fingers like grains of sand through a seam."
"No," cried Afua, closing her eyes against the horror and the biting pain. She tried to explain. She only wanted beauty, an end to the mean sideways glances and snide words, a way to regain her friendship with beautiful Tatala. The words stuck in her throat and she found only lies rising like bile to take their place.
"I will release you," the witch said, walking away, "when you are able to apologize to me and mean it."
"Azafady, miala tsiny aho," Afua sobbed, curling around her splitting skin, her ant-filled belly. But she knew now the curse had hold, because she could say the words, beg forgiveness but she didn't mean them. The truth coiled like a snake deep in her heart and whispered as the fitaratra had. Any price for beauty.
She slipped into unconsciousness; the false apologies murmured over and over like a prayer in the dark.
The raffia ropes cut into Afua's shoulders as she dragged the plow along another row, slogging through the cracking mud of the fallow paddy beneath the hot sun. Last row before she broke for a meal, but the thought brought her no joy. She reached the end and shrugged the harness off using her elbows and chin to assist.
Talata, Zaza, and Alakamisy were already resting in the shade of the mango grove when she reached it, their clean legs stretched out on the soft grass, passing around a jug of water.
Afua smiled at them with her teeth only. "I wish you an excellent day," she said. Sometimes only telling lies had its advantages.
They three giggled as Talata pointed to one of the trees. "Are you hungry, Anaombe?"
Afua turned, already knowing what she'd find. Her leaf-wrapped lunch sat in the crook of a tree, tied to a branch by the cord she used to carry it from the village. She could use her fingers in small motions to untie the knot, but she'd have to jump up and use her arms to pull the packet down since her hands wouldn't grip long enough to matter.
"Are you thirsty?" Zaza joined in on the taunting as Afua stood with clenched fists, staring up at the food.
She was parched, her throat thick with dust and heat. But all that came out when she spoke was, "of course not, I've never been less thirsty."
At home she could just nod or shake her head, ignoring the pursed lips of her mother and her father's unhappy eyes. Here though, she had no such protection or understanding.
The sound of men and oxen on the road drew the girls' attention away from Afua. Around the bend and through the far baobab trees came two white oxen drawing a magnificent cart decorated with yellow and indigo patterns cut into the wood.
"A noble," Tatala said breathlessly. "I wonder if he's a king?"
Afua had taken their distraction as an opportunity and was using her fingers to quickly unhook her lunch, jumping up and down to pull the packet from the branches before the girls turned back again. She got the leaf-wrapped rice down, balancing it on her breasts, tucked beneath her chin.
It slipped down and broke open on the ground as she looked up and saw the man in question leap free of his ox-chair and stride toward their little grove. He was as tall as any man in the village, with tight dark curls braided through with silk and glass beads that chimed together as he walked. His face was broad and handsome, and as he approached, she met his gaze and saw his eyes were brown-gold banded with orange, like the andasibe flowers growing in the groves along the western cliffs. His robes were silk, shining red and yellow and green like a beetle's back beneath the high sun.
"Manakory," he said in greeting, his voice soft and deep. "We are on our way to Jofodiafotaka. This is the correct road, yes?"
"It is," Talata said, tossing her braids over her shoulder and stepping forward. She thrust her breasts out against the bright cloth of her dress.
The king, for Afua thought he must be one of the Ambaniandro kings, ignored Talata and stepped into the shade, looking directly at Afua. She looked down at her muddy feet and the spilled rice in front of them. He was only curious because he didn't know her.
The witch's potion had worked. Afua knew what this stranger saw, why he was so curious. She'd come down from the cliffs in daylight, the pain gone from her limbs but with only lies upon her lips. No more the bow legs and lizard's face, gone her uneven skin and coarse hair. Afua stood graceful and tall with smooth dark skin and golden eyes. She was easily the most beautiful woman in Vazimba.
But the price was too high to overlook. Soon the admiration and surprise faded and the ridicule returned. No man wanted a wife whose hands couldn't grip a tool or hold a child, nor did anyone care to talk to a woman who couldn't speak anything but lies.
Afua bit her lip and looked up. The king still stared, head cocked to one side like a monkey's. He saw a beautiful woman in a rag with muddy feet and thin arms. He didn't really see her, no one did. She stared right back, shame making her angry as next to her the three girls started to giggle again.
"What is your name?" the king asked.
"Anaombe," Talata answered for Afua, glaring at her before moving forward so that she almost touched the king. "She pulls the rice plough like an ox, but different." Talata smiled, trying to draw him into the joke.
I am Afua, who traded truth and skill for beauty, she whispered in her mind.
"I am Ratsibahaka," Afua said aloud, making fists with her useless hands. She couldn't stand the taunts, not in front of the considering eyes of this stranger. "I am queen of the Lemurs and all this land you see is mine."
Behind the king some of his slaves, the andeva, milled about, and they laughed at her words, but the man raised a hand and they fell silent, turning their attention back to the oxen.
"The name fits better than calling you an ox, I should think," the king said with a smile.
"She always lies and cannot do anything of use," Talata said quickly.
Afua glanced her way and wondered that her former friend could not see how bitterness had taken the softness from her own good looks. But now that she couldn't say the truth of anything, Afua felt she saw far more than she'd ever noticed that handful of years ago.
"I wish you luck, then, Lemur Queen," the king said with a tiny smile playing like a sunbeam across his wide mouth. He toyed with a strand of orange beads at his neck. "Be kind to your subjects when next you meet one," he murmured and winked at her.
His eyes curious and oddly heavy on her skin, he backed away and finally leapt back into his ox-chair as gracefully as he'd descended.
Talata rounded on Afua, kicking the packet of rice at her feet. All the angry words she might have said were lost as Afua turned and ran, sprinting across the rice fields. Some days she almost didn't mind their cruelty, because at least then they talked to her, if only to taunt.
The moment had changed with the king. He'd looked at her, truly looked, as though he'd seen past the pretty face and ragged clothing, the mud and lies and down to the hollowness beneath. He'd seen her truly, and still gazed as a man might gaze on a woman he desired.
The king's gaze had opened a hole in her heart and she refused to stay and let Talata prod the wound. Oblivious to the shouts behind her, Afua ran until her chest felt as though it would break and then she collapsed upon the ground, tears cutting hot streaks down her aching face as she poured her grief into the dust and sunlight.
The lemur showed up two days after the Ambaniandro king had come through, tearing a hole in Afua's carefully constructed defenses. Since that day, Talata and Zaza had avoided her and she them. The mango grove was quiet and Afua tucked her rice cake between her knees, sitting doubled up on the ground so that she could lean forward and take bites. The mangoes were ripening, heady sweetness floating in the air around her, but she didn't even try to pluck and eat one or touch the heavy fruits on the ground.
The mongoose lemur appeared in the trees, the rustling leaves startling her. He was as long as her arm, with sunset cheeks and gold-orange eyes. His curious face leaned out of a tree, blinking at her, and she wished she could offer the funny creature a bit of rice.
He chattered in a friendly way and climbed down closer as she sat very still. When he was almost within arm's reach, Afua dared to speak softly.
"I am the queen of lemurs," she murmured, shoving away the pain in her heart as her words conjured the handsome king's smile. "I can give you all the mangoes in this grove, my loyal subject." She made a loose gesture with her arm indicating such. It was too difficult for her to eat the slippery, juicy fruit, after all. No harm in magnanimity.
The lemur, who she decided to name Komba, seemed almost to understand and immediately dropped to the ground, catching up a ripe fruit in his hands and ignoring the angry bees as he climbed back into the trees.
Afua finished her meal, brushing the grains of rice from her rough smock as she stood. She almost asked Komba if he'd join her again tomorrow, but her cheeks flamed as she realized how pathetic she would look talking to a forest creature. She shrugged her way back into her harness and wondered when she'd grown so lonely. The answer hovered in her mind and she shoved the smiling king away. She couldn't speak the truth, but neither could she hide from it herself.
Komba returned the next day, and the next. She finished the close fields, glad that the men and ox teams sowed the flooded paddies north of the village, leaving her to her work in peace. Her hands couldn't hold the plants or weed the rows, nor even guide an ox. She pulled her makeshift plough each day and walked the distance to the mango grove to rest in the shade and tell her lemur stories.
After the first few days she gave up trying to hold her tongue around the inquisitive beast. She wove him stories of her kingdom and adventures among the lemur people. Komba acted like no lemur she'd seen before. Not shy at all and out in the middle of a field in daylight, his wide eyes seeming to take in every word she said, reading every gesture.
In the second week of his strange visits, he came close enough for her to touch. Afua gently brushed his fur with the back of her hand and Komba didn't spring away. Instead he peeled back the skin of a mango and offered it to her.
She was sitting in her normal curled position, her rice cake tucked between her knees so she could lean forward and chew on it. When Komba turned to her, ripe fruit dripping in his little hands, she froze.
For a long moment she stared at him and the lemur stared back, fruit upheld like an offering. He broke the tension by chattering at her impatiently.
Afua leaned forward slowly, her heart beating like ceremony drums against her breastbone. She stuck out her tongue, the tip touching the mango flesh, tasting the fruit's sharp tang before she pulled back. Komba didn't retreat but held the fruit steady. Braver, Afua leaned forward again and this time took a bite. Juice ran down her chin and she gasped as the warm fruit slid down her throat.
She laughed, the sound rough and startling to her. She was too proud to chew fruit on the ground or make a mess of her ragged clothing with it by trying to eat it on her own, but here she sat, the queen of the lemurs, being fed by her faithful Komba.
Bite by bite she finished the mango, using the back of her hand and her tongue to clean the sweet residue from her chin and neck.
"Komba," she said as the lemur licked his own paws and chin. There was so much more she wanted to say, but the words of gratitude and joy were true and so they stuck in her throat like paste. Inside her heart filled up a little, the hollow ache ebbing. She poured all the emotion she could into her eyes, grateful for any kindness so freely offered even if Komba couldn't possibly understand.
She got up early the next morning and danced her way to the fields, ignoring the disapproving looks of the men rising for their own work. Her strong feet beat a rhythmic joy in the red earth and she shrugged into her harness, pretending the coarse raffia was silken thread and the plough weighed no more than a heavy robe of state.
She left off her harness at midday, after spending the morning working and willing the sun to speed toward zenith. The grove buzzed with insects as more mangoes dropped heavy from the trees. Soon the children would come and gather the fruits away for drying, but she and Komba had a little time to enjoy those that ripened early.
"Komba, worst lemur in my kingdom!" she called out as she entered the grove.
Happy chatter quieted the birds for a moment as he swung down from the dark leafy crowns and came to rest on a low branch beside her. Afua tentatively rested her fingers on his back and he leaned into the touch. Thirst pulled at her and she reluctantly broke the contact.
Drinking from the water jug was always awkward, but she'd mastered grasping the smooth ceramic in her forearms and tipping it on her knees much the way she had to eat. Komba came down and she tipped the heavy vessel for him, laughing when he splashed some back at her.
"You are the worst part of my day," she said.
He tipped his head to the side and bared his teeth. She used her mouth to re-stopper the jug, uncaring how awkward she looked in front of her Komba.
Komba climbed part way up the tree as she reached to roll her rice packet up her legs and get into her eating position. Movement above him caught her eye and she tried to cry out a warning.
Green and brown, with a head like a spear, the deadly vine snake, a fandrefiala, darted down from the branches overhead, disturbed by Komba's playful movements. Afua lunged to her feet too late.
The spear head struck Komba in the shoulder and the lemur screamed, twisting to attack. Blood sprayed crimson on the branches as his teeth cut into the snake. Coiled together, they fell.
Afua grasped at mangos and then fallen sticks, trying to keep hold of something long enough to help her friend. She might as well have been trying to hang onto the stars in the sky or lift her own reflection from water. Every cry, straight and true from her heart, jammed in her throat, jerking and striking like the snake in Komba's jaws.
Then they stilled, Komba's soft body heaving, the snake dead and bloody and still. Afua threw herself to her knees, scraping the dead snake from the lemur's body with her hands and arms, bending low over her friend to see how badly he was hurt.
Fiandrefiala poison was deadly to a man and Komba was so much smaller. Tears burned down her face. She'd seen this before, as a tiny child when one of her uncles had been bit. He'd screamed and screamed until the witch came and offered to heal him. But whatever she'd asked of Afua's family, they hadn't been willing to give and her uncle had died, swollen and ugly.
The witch, Mpamonka. Afua hadn't been back up the cliffs since that night when she'd broken the witch's jar. Even thinking of the shadowed woman sent spikes of terror through her belly.
Mpamonka had offered to save Afua's uncle. For a price. A price too high. But now, for Afua, what price was too high?
No no no no, not my Komba, not my only friend.
She gathered him in her arms, shoving him over her shoulder as she would a sack of rice or her harness straps. Her hands gripped nothing, but her arms and head held his little body well enough.
Afua ran as quickly as she dared in a shambling, awkward gait. Voices called to her as she skirted the village, but the only sound she cared to hear was the soft painful whine of Komba's breathing. He grew heavier as she went, his body seeming to elongate while threatening to slide down her arm.
Afua tucked him in closer, curling her arm up to her head. Her vision blurred with tears but her feet knew the path, climbing upward into the green shadows of the jungle, beating a desperate, uneven tattoo on the grassy path.
The witch's hut loomed and this time Afua showed no hesitation. Her lungs burned and Komba's bulk felt as though he weighed near as much as a man, bending her double beneath his strangely heavy body. She let him down in front of the hut and cried out in a wordless yell for the witch.
The woman who emerged from the smoky hut looked hardly older than Afua's three and a half hands of years, but she wore silks and ropes of necklaces carved from ancestor bones.
"The thief returns," the witch said, her voice like moonlight and running water and gravel crunching beneath cattle feet.
Save him, save my Komba, I'll pay any price. "This is a useless thing," Afua's words came out all wrong. "I hope it dies."
She fell to her knees beside the now man-sized Komba, whose fur was turning from yellow and rust to yellow and green, bright like a beetle's shell. She pushed the truth of her heart into her eyes, begging the witch with every tear to see the truth she couldn't speak.
The witch raised red-brown brows and knelt beside the giant lemur. She touched the swelling snake bites and shook her head. "Fandrefiala?" she asked.
Afua nodded vigorously.
"I can cure this, but the potion requires a sacrifice equal to the deed." The witch had a sly smile on her face which struck deep into Afua.
Anything, she thought. "Az. . ." she tried to say, the word curling like chips of wood over coals on her tongue. "Az… af… ady." Please.
"I would need a drop of your heart's blood," the witch said.
Afua hesitated but then Komba whimpered again, the sound deep and almost human. His fur was fading, leaving dark, smooth skin in its wake in places and rich silks in others. Afua touched the silks and recognized the pattern. Her king, the smiling man who'd looked into her eyes and let her be who she was.
Komba. Her loyal subject. Komba, her Ambaniandro king.
"A drop of blood is nothing to me," she whispered, knowing that a drop of heart blood was only gained with death. But her life was useless, chained to a plough and ridicule. If she could do one beautiful thing to make up for her vain act and her wasted life afterward, then perhaps her ancestors and Zanahary would have mercy on her when her spirit rested in the bones.
The witch rose without another word and fetched a carved chest from within her hut. Afua steeled herself and bent low over Komba's chest, listening to his shallow breathing and the soft whine of pain contained in his throat.
"Veloma," she mouthed in his delicate ear, brushing her lips along the soft skin of his now fully human face. Goodbye.
Mpamonka brought a needle carved of bone and a tiny silver hammer. She pulled Afua away from the king and tore her thin smock down the center. Afua closed her eyes and put up no resistance. She conjured the taste of the mango on her tongue, the bubbling joy of Komba's gift of friendship, given so easily and without price. Afua hardly felt the tip of the needle as it touched her skin, aimed between her ribs, above her full breast.
"Miala tsiny aho," she murmured the apology in a trance of memory and regret, hardly aware of the words as they flowed like honey across her lips.
The air suddenly turned too bright and white hot sparks leapt from her skin. Her belly felt again like it was full of ants and her tongue twisted in her mouth, curling and uncurling. Her hands made fists so tight she felt her ragged nails cutting into her skin, raising the metallic scent of blood in the air. For a long moment the world was pain and wind and fire and Afua couldn't tell if she were about to burn or fly.
Then it was gone and she heard the burble of the mountain spring nearby. She tentatively moved a toe, testing to see if she still lived. Her toe obeyed. She licked her lips, tasting mango and blood.
A warm hand, big and human, slipped into her own. Afua opened her eyes and found the Ambaniandro king kneeling over her. Her eyes flew to his throat, but it was smooth and clear of wounds. She looked around the clearing and found that the witch's hut had disappeared. Wide-eyed, she sat up.
"Komba," she said, her voice a harsh rasp as she turned back to the king. She flushed then, kicking herself in her mind. That was only a stupid name she'd given to a lemur, not one fit for a king.
He smiled and his fingers twined in her own, gripping tightly. "Ratsibahaka," he said, "my lemur queen. I don't remember much of this day, but I think you saved my life."
Afua took a slow, deep breath. Then she squeezed his hand, her fingers closing around his own. "As you have saved mine," she murmured, sitting up.
Hands entwined, they smiled at each other beneath the warm and glowing sun.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 16th, 2012

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