art by Liz Clarke
No Gift of Words
by Annie Bellet
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.