Kitseba and the Raphus
I will tell you of the Bird Woman.
You know her?
You have heard her tales? You know of her voyages?
No? Then maybe you don’t know her.
You could not know her until you know of all of her voyages from start to end.
You will tell this tale too. So sit still and you may hear something worth hearing.
The Bird Woman was still called Kitseba.
The Spirit Man who named her must have known what fate she would follow.
The furthest she had been was to see the Baobabs. The great trees of the plains. They grew beyond the dry lands and through the wet passes. She considered herself quite a traveler. There were old men who had not walked to see the big trees. This was in the land called Madagascar.
This was many voyages ago.
This was the home of your greatest grandmother’s mother. This is the last story of there. But the first story of us.
Was she of the first People, the Vazimba? Who knows?
She never told your greatest grandmother.
That the land continued past the flat plains and giant Baobabs to turn into endless water Kitseba could not imagine.
The old people never spoke of a voyage. So she did not imagine where the land ended. The old ones spoke only of the seasons and the hunt.
And of course they told their tales. The tales of the People.
So you are not the first children to have your morning wasted by an old person’s stories.
But there were no tales of the long voyage. If Kitseba was Vazimba, it was many years later and the people had forgotten their very first stories.
But Kitseba would never touch rice, so there it is. I think she was Vazimba. As you will see, voyages were in her heart.
The old ones continued to speak of rain and sun and hunts. Always there were more old people talking and fewer young ones to listen.
Travelers from other parts of the highlands would come.
And you can be certain that Kitseba was always jealous of these travelers. They would come and tell of the rice growers.
More and more rice growers. Fewer of the People. And always the sun and rain and the hunt.
Until the time when there were no more travelers and Kitseba saw the rice growers for herself.
I will not tell you of Lemur the Trickster or the battles of Tsiotany. Of how they befuddled the rice growers for a time.
Those stories stayed in the highlands and are not our stories.
What was Kitseba doing as the rice people advanced? Can we blame the young Kitseba for what she did next? Only if we blame every youngster for their youthful hearts. And we have the advantage of knowing her fate.
She was tired of the sun and the rain and the hunt.
Now hush and listen well. This is an important part. Remember this full tale but if you only remember a part, remember this part.
Kitseba put her early travels to shame. The horizon always looks lighter than the road behind. So she followed her whim.
Others say that she was pushed from the nest, as they say. Pushed out by the rice people. Perhaps they are right and that without that push the Woman would never have taken her voyages.
She crossed the dry lands and the wet passes. She walked the avenue of Baobabs and stopped when there was nothing to walk on but water.
She saw where the rice growers had started. Here were growers of bananas and black wood and goats. And the growers of buildings too.
Kitseba could not count them. She knew there would be no end to the rice growers. Only an end to the People.
How long does the excitement of a new place last? Not past the growling of an empty stomach. Not through sleepless nights on the street.
I do not say that Kitseba was homesick. She was made for traveling.
But she had traveled as far as she could until she could learn to walk across water.
I will pass over those years quickly. Towns do not really change. The people change. The buildings change. Ships come and go. But do things change? Not in any way that one person notices.
Kitseba was able to fill her stomach. She found a small room and did not sleep on the street.
She went back and forth into the forest. She knew the plants. Long ago the birds and lizards and other beasts had told her the good plants and the bad.
The rice growers did not know the forest or the good plants.
She sold the plants she found. She could clean without complaint. And did.
She could always make money from the sailors too. And she did.
That is how she made money to eat and pay for a room. Though she never touched the abundant rice of the rice growers.
It was rice that ruined Madagascar. A forest is home when the variety of life explodes.
When rice takes over, everything tastes like rice.
I know you think rice is good but you have not tasted the freshest fruit and the nuts of the year or scrabbled for plants.
But the forest provides easily for one. It does not make you rich. Nor does cleaning. And sailors are the last to make you rich.
Those were the long years. The town did not change. Did Kitseba?
Were things bad in town for Kitseba? No. Were they good? No.
For someone of Kitseba’s nature, two nos were certainly not good enough.
For there was the ocean forever changing but unchanged. Always the water that could not be walked across.
Was it one sailor whom she followed onto the big boat? Or was it years of sailors talking about what was over the horizon?
Or did she once again get kicked out of the nest by the endless unchanging days?
However it was. She had not learned to walk across water. So she went the next best way.
But listen closely now because this is the most important part of the story to remember.
Maybe she did not know it but the month on board the ship was necessary to give Kitseba the strength to do what she did next.
The sailor people had names. Dutch. Portuguese. French. Though they all pointed the same way to their homes. They all agreed too that the other direction held the unknown.
I think it was this that made Kitseba follow the sailor onto the big boat.
And remember that often from the worst of times come the best of things.
When she had dreamed of crossing the sea. Her footfalls were soft and the waves were like crossing the hills. Rolling and soft.
The great ship was not like that. It was hard waves. Hard floors. Hard food. Hard men. Hard days.
Certainly on the boat nothing ever changed. She could not even see the water change.
The stars and moon told that it was a full month. She had to look twice to believe that they had approached land. She was only convinced when the men smiled and were less hard and cruel.
The Bird Woman went ashore on the second day after the men had checked out the shore and found no danger.
I call her Bird Woman now. I think she became herself the moment she stepped ashore.
This place we can find on the map. Mauritius. It was not called so then but that is where we can find the start of our stories on the map.
When my great grandfather told these stories he did not tell us where they were.
We had had fewer voyages then. I don’t know who added the maps and names to this story.
We have had many voyages now. The People are spread far. That is why this part is so important to remember.
It is not the voyages that separate us but they bind us.
We are the Bird Woman’s people. No matter where we settle.
That we move and sail is but a tribute. Still. We carry her blood.
We carry her spirit. We know of the birds. Though we do not know where they ended up.
That is skipping ahead. I will not do that again. But pay attention here. This is my favorite part.
Once on land and certain of their safety the men returned to their cruelty.
That is not my favorite part. Listen another moment.
Perhaps it was the drink or the fresh water and the plentitude of food. Perhaps it was because the island was free of all human life and virgin. Perhaps because of the silence of unchanging, the island felt like the big boat. Perhaps because of all of this the sailors returned to their hard ways.
This is the part. My favorite.
This was not the boat and the Bird Woman could feel it. She could feel the change though she could not see it.
She could hear the forest whispering change.
She felt the ground quake with it.
The parrots screamed it.
The lizards slithered under rocks away from it.
And then the ship rats scurried past. They pulled the shadow of change after them onto the island.
The ship sailed away.
The Bird Woman watched it from a hillside. She had not gone back to the cruel hard days.
The creatures of the forest had called to her. Had called her Mother of Birds. Bringer of Fog. Weaver of Reeds.
This is not me jumping ahead. I said I would not do that again. The beasts knew her fate and called her to it.
There were parrots. Small and green. Hook billed and inquisitive. Red and green tufted. Blue that made the limbs sink. Yellow that hid trees.
There were lizards. Smallest camouflagers forever changing color. Legless. Crested. Quick and slow. Great slow armored grazers.
There were the ones that called themselves Raphus. The Birds. Great and round. Gray. Blue black and brown. Tufted white tails and flightless. Shining heads from piercing eyes to yellow beaks.
Finally she heard speaking worth hearing.
The parrots spoke to her of sun and rain.
The lizards spoke of the hunt.
And the Raphus spoke to her of all things.
There was one small shack left behind. Used to shade their food, the sailor men, and smoke their meat. The sailors had left this behind. This and footprints. This, footprints and many bones.
They had left the Bird Woman behind too.
Had they noticed? The Bird Woman knew well enough that they hadn’t. The women aboard the big boat were like the cargo. Nameless. All the same. For one purpose.
She had never been called Kitseba aboard the boat. Not even by her own sailor.
In the month aboard the boat she had lost her name.
The Raphus gave her a new name.
Did she really talk to the Raphus? My great grandmother’s grandmother when she told the story said yes. She was but a few generations removed from the Bird Woman’s childer, so how should I say differently? She was the closest to the first of our stories that I know of.
Of all the creatures that spoke of the Bird Woman the Raphus were the most talkative about the change. And of the past.
They were the givers of our mother’s true name.
They of all things were the guides to her destiny.
They told her of the secret words for rain. For sun. For fog.
Kitseba was no longer. The Raphus taught her all the lore of the hills.
What fruit to eat. What plants were good and what plants were bad.
The parrots and lizards added their part and soon the Bird Woman knew all of the magick of the island.
Kitseba was the Bird Woman.
The Bird Woman will finish this tale.
One year or two passed. Or five. Why is that important? The Bird Woman was alone and she heard the lizards. She heard the parrots. She heard the Raphus. And she heard the dark new language of the rats.
She spent only a few nights in the smoke shack when there was hard weather. She soon learned that the leaves of the forest provided cleaner and more thorough shelter. The smoke shack smelled of bad change.
A year went by.
A boat landed. Found a shattered shack. Scattered and buried. Rebuilt it. Used it for smoking their hunted meat. Added water to the big boat and went away.
Five times this happened.
Had the Raphus asked her to destroy the shack each time? Did she talk back to the Raphus and do what they said? Who am I to discount an old telling of this tale.
But it is certain that each time the boat left there were fewer Raphus. The ones left spoke louder each time. The Bird Woman missed the many quiet voices of the Birds.
I think she scattered the shack to calm the Birds that were left.
This is a very important part of the tale.
When you forget the rest of my tale and I am buried. Remember this.
After six ships and the Bird Woman knows how long, one stays.
This is not Dutch, nor French, nor Portuguese.
Everyone aboard is a different color. They could be sailors from the spot they all point to over the western horizon or they could be rice growers.
The Woman gasps. They could be People. Dark as the highlanders.
And they stay.
The great boat rolls away but the smoke shack is rebuilt.
Planks out into the ocean get built
Many buildings go up. Here is a town.
I should tell little of this part. It is another town.
One town is like another.
Can we blame her for going? Live five years on an island and tell me.
She is pulled back to the shore. To the people.
I will tell this quickly because the story of the Bird Woman is not in the town.
We have plenty of stories in towns.
She becomes a local hero. How could she not? She braves the forest. She knows the healing plants. She knows seasons. Some say she does not know the weather. Some say she makes the weather.
Soon there are more buildings. Soon the smoke shack holds the lizards. And soon the smoke shack holds the parrots. And always the building holds the Raphus.
The new people learn to brave the forest. They make new names for the lizards. New names for the parrots.
They call the Birds Dodo because they are innocent and the men are cruel. All of the new people call them this. No matter where they point for their home.
I am getting bogged down in the town too. Like the Bird Woman did.
I said I would not stay in the town long.
There is a Highlander. A sailor. Now a settler. He is dark. He is strong. He speaks to her in the old language. He is a traveler.
They settle. She loves and soon has a son. Then soon a daughter. They grow quickly as children do in towns.
Then another big boat. They plant their bananas and cane and the goats browse into the forest.
The parrots, lizards and Raphus scream.
She does not hear them. The forest goes quiet to her.
But her highlander is a sailor. He becomes hard and cruel in the town.
I do not need to say why she leaves the town. She leaves heavy with a daughter who is born in the hills.
There is the first of your stories. The Raphus are your nurses. The chameleon, the first of your toys. The parrots your first wireless.
I think it was when the Bird Woman went into the hills again that she truly found herself.
Here is the most important part of this story. If you cannot tell any other part, remember this, this, this is the most important thing to happen to the Bird Woman.
She went back into the hills and had her daughter there with the aid of the lizards and parrots and seen to by the Raphus. They welcomed her back. I think they had never stopped speaking. The town was too loud.
This was the daughter who heard our first tale. She was the first of our line.
But the town and a sailor are easy temptations. A year later a last daughter is born in the hills.
We listen to both of their stories. But the elder of the two stayed with the Bird Woman longer and tells the story complete.
Our greatest father is written out of our tales. He drowned looking for something in the ocean.
But two daughters stayed with her.
She taught them healing. She taught them plants. She taught them birthing. She taught them all that the beasts had taught her.
But never, and she knew, did they learn the language of the beasts.
Rats and goats were the same to them as parrots and lizards.
I am ready to tell you the end now. Hush and listen closely. This is the important part.
One of the daughters went to town. It was the youngest I think. We know so few of her stories.
She did not come back.
The Bird Woman did not look for her.
The town did not send its quarry back. The entrapped must free itself.
The youngest daughter had never been strong willed.
She would stay in town.
This is the part. You can forget the last part.
Now the talk of the beasts became loud again in her ears.
The parrots could fly away and told of another town on the other end of land. They saw lizards there but no Dodos. The rats chased them and the men struck at them for their feathers. They spent more and more time in the treetops.
Their voices went silent.
The lizards could hide and spy.
They told of the fields that spread while the forest disappeared. The fields that devoured their homes. They saw parrots in the sky but no Dodos.
They spent more and more time hiding under rocks and changing their colors.
Their voices went silent.
Even the lizards and parrots called the Birds Dodos. It shows you that something was wrong with them. I think that is part of why they went silent.
So the last left was the Raphus.
The Raphus could not fly. They could not hide. They could not swim. They could not withstand the change.
They spoke of the sun and the rain and the hunt. They spoke of many other things. Fire. Nets. The cold of an empty nest. The noise of rats and cats and men. The dead quiet of the fields.
So it was then.
Now listen well. This is the best part to remember for it tells the strength of the Bird Woman.
The Raphus could not hide like the lizards and could not fly like the parrots.
Their voices grew louder.
So the Bird Woman became their wings and their shelters of stone and their camouflage.
She knew the words to make a fog. The men could not see the birds.
She knew the way to sweep away their smell. The rats could not find their nests.
She knew the charms to make the eye fail. The cats could not catch them.
But always there were fewer.
The voices that remained were louder yet.
She heard them night and day.
One year maybe? Then the elder daughter left.
Could you blame her? The mother had not spoken to her for a year. Had not answered. A young woman cannot stay in the hills with a ghost wandering amongst birds.
But she had the very beginnings of our story. She remembered and repeated. That is a hint to you.
Did the mother notice her daughter go? Maybe a year later when all the forest had gone quiet and the only voices were the Raphus near her home.
It was time for another voyage. Why did she think that a traveler could stop?
She could smell the fields nearing. It smelled like rice.
She was ready to travel again.
The birds would not stand on a hard boat. They would be treated cruelly on a man boat. They would not even board.
Nor would the Bird Woman. She could not take a hard cruel voyage.
That boat would not take them to the right place anyway.
Give me just a few more moments before rushing away.
This is the very end and the part you must be able to retell.
She made the boat. She knew the words to bind the reeds together. It was broad and long and would be soft and loving on the waves.
It had a spot for each Raphus and eggs were settled and secure.
She lade fruits and all of the goods of the forest. Water and water and water. It was in all of her pots and jars and skins.
She passed over the boat and scared away the rats. The boat was home. Home to birds and home to the Bird Woman.
It was only a small change to make a wind rather than a fog.
The Birds became quiet.
Not like the lizards and parrots who had stopped speaking. The Birds were quiet like a dream on the cusp of morning. They were quiet because the ocean provided the sun and the rain. Because there was no hunt. Because there were no cats or rats or nets or fires.
And the Bird Woman was quiet with them.
She was on her last voyage and worried not that the ocean was endless but that the ocean ended all too often.
I will not ask you to tell me what you have learned this morning. My grandmother always did because her great grandfather always had. But I will not.
Unless a voice comes out of that chattering wireless, it means nothing to you, but think on this.
One day you will need to tell the story and your grandchilder may want to know what it means.
One minute and you will hear the meaning and the end.
The boat did find the end of the ocean. Land. An island.
There was no ruined smoke shack.
There was no town.
The Bird Woman heard once again the lizards and the parrots.
They cried a welcome to the Raphus. They did not call them Dodos. They were beasts of the forest still.
And it was welcome. The water was gone. The fruits were gone. All the goods of the forest were gone.
The hills were cool. The hills were free of smoke.
The Raphus each found a spot in the forest. The eggs were settled and secured.
The forest called to the Bird Woman. Called to enjoy its coolness. Called that the fruits and plants and lizards and parrots would become familiar to her.
But change seeks change. Travelers draw travelers.
The Bird Woman could draw travelers like herself. If she stayed and built a home. This would be like the smoke shack. Soon others would see that this was an island worth building on. And they would come.
Or the Raphus could draw travelers like they. Displaced and renamed. Other beasts of the forest could find sanctuary here. Speak and be heard. Hear their true names. And they would come.
So here it is. This is the last part.
The Bird Woman did not lade the boat with fruits or goods of the forest or water. She did not step foot on the land. She did not want to draw others like herself.
There is only a small change between summoning a small fog and a big fog. This fog covered the island around. The men would not find it. The rats would not smell it. The cats would not pass it.
The Bird Woman began her last voyage. It would not last to find the end of the ocean again. She knew it. She had traveled far enough.
She drifted away from the island fog. She drifted into the final fog that comes at the end of each life.
The Raphus were quiet. Not like the lizards and the parrots of Mauritius. Not like a dream at the cusp of morning. They were quiet to the world. Muffled and hidden by the fog.
And that is what you should know. That the sacred is there. Even if kept secret and quiet.
That is why you are hearing this tale and not the younger children.
For they are young and would go shouting this story through the streets; but this is our story and not for others.
I could have told this shorter. But you would not have remembered that.
It is important that you remember this.
Sacred things can be saved if they are protected and kept secret.
The Bird Woman is our secret story. Her voyages are our map and not the map for others.