Where the ylang-ylang trees twist scented like slumber, in the village of my grandmothers, strange birds nest. With long grey necks sinuous as river serpents, they rattle their beaks at women washing in the estuary. To steal such a bird’s eggs, it is said, will curry the favor of Mulangu. This lure, and the sweetness of the fowl when roasted, has led to a gradual decline of the race. Though once proud, surrounded by sharp-beaked sentinels, the king bird has grown sorrowful and lazy with his people’s deterioration and no longer snatches at thieves’ eyes. In my grandmother’s day, only a strong ghali-ghuchi woman would harvest the eggs without fear. After many seasons of loss, even my mother could succeed at such a task.
I love my mother as the perfume of our islands loves the sweet sea breeze, but she herself has told me – her gifts are weak tea poured from a cracked teapot. The teapot, perhaps, which her mother’s mother acquired abroad on a desert night, enamored of the stars and a traveler’s curling beard. She traveled broadly, trading her charms along with minor enchantments, healing herbs. The salt merchant’s son asked only for a kiss and a curling pod of vanilla bean to match his beard. Or so I have been told. I hold the teapot in my hands each morning to pour our tea, trace the leaf my ancestress swore on for fertility, and cradle the brown clay. All things, the women of my line say, can be made from mud. Even children.
A simple spell, really, the spell of making. Take a lump of clay from the estuary, mix in a pinch of sand from a tidal pool. Make use of a cardamom pod and some ylang-ylang flower. Say the proper words. Do not say them inland, however. There are few in the Comoros who keep to the old traditions. My family is one of those remaining. Everything her mother taught her, my mother taught to me. That is the way of our family, as steady as the passing of the seasons. Mother to daughter the knowledge is passed. Mother to daughter.
And so to the story of how my mother made me.
My mother, childless, could never learn the spell of making. Though my grandmother cupped her hands steady over the clay, coaxed the certain words from her lips, the spark of magic was dim. When her luck was right and the breeze true, my mother could make a mangrove leaf dance in the wind. She could make the shape of a cormorant with her hands. But a ghali-ghuchi woman she was not.
“When the tide is low and the moon is at the horizon,” my grandmother told her steadily, “That is the time. The king bird, so sad, will cover his head with his wing. He will ignore you traipsing in his kingdom, the moon rising like a giant egg over his shaded head.” My mother, listening, fingered the crack in the old teapot. “In the nest at the base of the ylang-ylang tree, you will find three eggs. Avoid the egg that is golden and the egg that is pure white. The small grey egg, the egg that looks sour and wants you to ignore it, that is the egg for growing.”
Grandmother stood amidst the drying herbs, a white scarf cinched neatly around her head. “Bring that egg to me, daughter, and we will see what we will see.”
As my mother tells it, tiny silver fish were singing in the estuary on that night of nights. The rack of salt was thick among the mangroves, the tide a slow shush as it hushed in and out of the pools. No clouds marred the bright moon, rising heavy as an egg about to crack. On a mound of sand, to the right of the ylang-ylang tree, in the middle of the tide-dried plain, the king bird sat and wept.
My mother said his feathers were the bright of the tiny singing minnows. His dark cap of mourning lay tight against his head. His great wings rustled as he wept, in long piteous tones.
As her mother had commanded, my mother ignored the king bird. She walked, bare feet squelching in the tidal mud, to the roots of the ylang-ylang tree. As splendid as the salt that racked the air, the ylang-ylang cast its sweet, arborous perfume into the night. The little yellow flowers tickled my mother’s nose, tossed pollen in her hair. Amid the tangled roots, at the nest of thatch, my mother knelt and gasped.
“Oh, Ayo,” she later told me, “I have never seen such beauty as that gold egg. Never a sunrise so on fire, never a new bud so sharply lit. I wanted it more than my mother’s cooking, more than a new skirt.”
But my mother, though lacking in charms, was no fool. When her hand hovered over the gold egg’s apex, she felt worms writhe in her stomach and knew better. When her hand moved to the white egg, spotless and more splendid than the moon, her feet began to ache as though cracked. When her hand paused over the grey egg, piteous as it was, the wind hissed sweetly, tossed ylang-ylang blossoms on her cheek.
“Then,” she would say, laying her hand to my smooth hair, “my ears stung with joy and I knew my mother was right.”
On the day of my birth, my grandmother opened a box. Wondrously carved with all manner of flower and fruit, with children and animals traipsing through strange cities, this box contained my grandmother’s most precious herbs. Opening the lid, she produced a vanilla bean curled like a desert merchant’s beard, grown from the plant her own mother had harvested. She brewed sweet syrup from this bean, and singing songs to stir the moon, she poured three drops on my egg.
With a delicate shiver, it cracked and out I tumbled, a small grey bird.
Cupping me in her hands gently, my grandmother prayed. The shells hanging in the doorway tingled and chimed. The guinea hens in the yard scratched and pecked. The hinges of the wooden box creaked shut.
When her prayer was finished, my grandmother wrapped me in a mangrove leaf and made tea. At the first pour, an infant’s wail erupted through the house. My grandmother smiled knowingly. My mother wept and rushed to grab me.
My hair the grey of a water fowl’s feathers. My eyes the black of night water. My beauty like the rush of ylang-ylang at the shore. And every part of me male.
In protest, my grandmother did not eat for a week. On the seventh day, as my mother tickled my smooth cheek, grandmother petulantly ate rice.
“I have named him Ayo,” my mother announced decidedly as she played with my toes.
“There would be more joy in me if he were a she,” grandmother declared, spitting out an uncooked grain.
“Mulungu gave me a son! Who am I to question?”
Raising herself with a sigh, grandmother answered, “If Mulungu—blessed be his name—had given you anything, it would have been a girl. This boy is a joke played on an untrained woman. I should have gone myself.”
At her words, my mother’s breath caught. Little toes wriggling between her fingers, even joy could not contain her tears.
Laying a hand to her head, my grandmother sighed again. “No matter. He will be a ghali-ghuchi. I will see to that.”
My mother tells another story of her grandmother, years after she traded vanilla and a kiss for our teapot. In this story, my great-grandmother stands weeping at the ocean, her back bent with age, her long grey hair still scented with vanilla.
“Why was she weeping?” I always asked.
“She was old,” was my mother’s answer, with a shrug. “Her daughter no longer needed her teaching. And the birds were dying.”
“My grandmother always said we would eat this island up with our greed.” My mother pounded cassava as she spoke. “Only when all the beauty was gone would we understand what we had done. Then, even all the work of every ghali-ghuchi, all the prayers of every imam will do nothing. We will stand on sun-kissed sands drenched with the tang of plow animal and salt, the mangrove gone, the eye seeing clear through to the mountains.”
“My grandmother, facing the ocean, declared, ‘They will wail for the lack of perfume. I will wail for the lack of life. But, I will be dead, so no matter. Bury me under the ylang-ylang tree so that I may help something new grow.’”
My mother finished pounding, wiped her brow with a rag. She looked at me, still only a child the first time she told me this story, and smiled, “And that, Ayo, is exactly what we did.”
Mulungu, I have learned, has little to do with the training of a ghali-ghuchi woman. Or man. From my youngest days, the moon was my second mother, the wax and wane of the tides the rhythm of my breath. The crabs that scuttled through the sands scrawled messages with their claws. The great grey estuary birds did not rattle their beaks at me. They silently watched me, left feathers for my eager hands.
“Bind your hair just so,” mother told me, pulling my grey hair back, my grandmother always watching. “Put the feather in the plait and your eyes will see far. Tie it to your breeches, and your legs will not sink in the mud.”
My grey hair grew long and straight. As my family’s custom dictated, I never cut a strand. At market, the fishermen’s wives watched me closely, their daughters mouths delighted shapes of pleasure at the intricate buns I sported like the caps of birds.
No boy could match me at swimming or at running. No girl could make a sweeter whistle from a bamboo reed. Though I was much loved, or at least much coveted for my grace, I grew alone, without sibling or equal.
The strange grey birds flew low over the house each evening, and I watched them, silent as their long beaks sang songs to the night.
At thirteen, when I became a man, my grandmother gave me a present.
The package was small and wrapped in a mangrove leaf.
“This present is for you and not for you,” my grandmother advised, sitting down to peel avocado.
“When I was a child, my mother took me to the city to trade dried fish and spices for our needs. She was a very good trader, with a keen eye and tongue.”
This was not new information about my great-grandmother. I turned the package over in my hands, examining the leaf for any tears, trying to see inside.
My grandmother cleared her throat and I grew still. “On this day of days, my mother did something very odd indeed. She had only bartered for a fraction of our needs when a very dark, very bent old man approached us. He wore no beard or mustache, only a cap on his shaved head.
“‘Assalamu Alaykum,’ the man spoke, his voice as sweet and bewitching as the ylang-ylang blossoms, despite his age. ‘Mother, I have something that might interest you.’
“My mother smiled politely, but gripped my hand tightly. My mother was always careful with religious men.
“From within his simple robe, the man produced a garment the likes of which I’d never seen. It was red and gold, so thin I could see the dark of his hand behind the silk. It sparked like flaming tongues, like flowers speaking in the night.
“My mother eyed the old man, licked her lips. ‘That is a fine garment, sir,’ she said, ‘surely beyond my reach. I have only pepper left, and this vanilla bean.’ At this, my mother produced from our baskets a delicately curled vanilla bean, lovely as the back of a young girl’s neck.
“The old man breathed a rumbling sigh, answered in his musical voice, ‘It is a fair trade indeed. I have heard of such vanilla…’ And here he paused and said nothing further. The trade was conducted in silence. We immediately left the market and walked home.”
My palms sweated around the mangrove leaf.
My grandmother took down a jug of rice, measured what was needed for our supper. “I was never allowed to wear this garment. My mother said it was charmed. She made me swear to one day pass it down to a true ghali-ghuchi woman. Since I have none to pass to, at least none that I would call woman,” and here she smiled, a smile that cracked my heart with joy, “I give this beauty to you. One day you will give it to your wife.”
My hands trembled as I unwrapped the leaf and let it fall. The silk within reminded me of fire licking at rice pots, of sunlight flashing on the ocean, of the tender insides of ylang-ylang blossoms.
Later, as my grandmother and mother slept, I wrapped the cloth around my bare chest, and bit my check to keep from crying out with joy.
My mother, one eye opened to the cool night, watched.
I sometimes dreamt of my great-grandmother sitting on the roots of the ylang-ylang tree, her lap overflowing with vanilla bean. In my dreams, I would walk to the ylang-ylang tree, bare feet squelching in the mud, and lay my head in her lap. My great-grandmother would smile at me and break open a pod, revealing a small, grey seed. In my dreams, an estuary bird would raise his great wings and I would awaken, my heart rustling like ylang-ylang blooms tossed by the wind.
On my seventeenth birthday, knowing my loneliness, my grandmother told me, “It would please me, Ayo, to see you happy. Of any woman in this world, is there one you could call your wife?”
I watched my grandmother carefully and shrugged.
My mother drew one hand across the wooden box’s lid and did not speak.
My grandmother narrowed her eyes at each of us in turn and frowned. “Fine! I will take care of it.”
That night, my grandmother spoke to the moon. “My grandson is the finest youth alive. See his speed and cunning! Even though a man, he is the finest ghali-ghuchi since my grandmother.” Her grandmother, it is said, was so strong that the birds of the air bowed to her, the beasts of the earth crawled trembling into her hands, the fish of the sea leapt gracefully on her plate, praying to be eaten.
The moon peered from behind a wisp of cloud and asked, “But does your Ayo desire me?”
When my grandmother woke me from my slumber, I frowned. “Though beautiful, she is all together too cold and full of holes. Is there no other mate for me?”
My grandmother told the moon, “My grandson must have the finest wife in creation. Who is stronger than you?”
With a cool sigh, the moon answered, “This cloud that covers my nakedness also hides my light. She is stronger than I.”
Awoken again, I sighed. “But the cloud is altogether too moist. Who else?”
So my grandmother asked the cloud, “Who is stronger than you?”
And the cloud replied, “The ocean breeze who hurries me along is a heady mistress. Perhaps she will suit your grandson.”
I covered my face with my hands, certain I would not sleep that night, and retorted, “Too dry by far! Is there no other?”
Then my grandmother, growing weary, asked the wind, “Is there any woman you bow to, as potent as you are?”
“The ylang-ylang tree,” the wind replied. “For though I rage and rage, she bends and shakes her flowers to the earth, and in the morning stands tall again.”
I uncovered one eye at my grandmother’s words, peered up from my mat at her shadowed frame. “A most worthy bride this perfumed tree, but her fragrance makes me sneeze. There will be no mate for me.” And covering me eyes, I fell asleep again despite my loneliness.
My grandmother sat down in our door frame with a huff. When it was certain she would ask no longer, my mother stood and walked, barefoot and squelching in the estuary mud, to the ylang-ylang tree.
“I am sorry he will not take you,” my mother told the ylang-ylang tree as its blossoms stroked her cheek. “Is there any woman more worthy than you?”
The throaty rush of ylang-ylang stained the night as the tree replied. “The birds which nest at my roots make their home despite my protests. They steal my flowers for their beds. They roost among my branches. They far outmatch me.”
At these words, a great grey head snaked from behind the ylang-ylang tree. On long, marvelous legs, the king bird emerged and bowed to my mother. Despite her shock, her heart beating in her chest like a darting fish, my mother returned his bow. She forgot to tell him he was no woman.
I awoke to the sounds of my mother and grandmother arguing.
“Ayo must marry and bear us a daughter,” my grandmother raged, each word a hard grain of rice in her mouth.
A strange rattle replied, as if two long shells clacked together. Something rustled in the house, more feather than flesh, and I opened my eyes and rose from my sleeping mat, uncertain.
My mother stood apart from my grandmother, her arms crossed at her chest. Her eyes flashed with a fire I had never seen, the fire of strange, magnificent flowers. “Ayo will have his choice, no other,” came her sharp reply.
The king bird rustled his wings again, his great capped head held still, his night water eyes watching me.
“But there will be no more daughters,” my grandmother moaned, her strong shoulders sinking.
My mother moved towards my grandmother, laid a hand on her head and replied, “Perhaps the time of daughters is done.”
Then, the king bird spoke, his voice as sweet as the ylang-ylang blossoms, saying, “No.” He bent his head and hunched his shoulders in a shuffling bow, looking suddenly very old. When he stood, beauty flared back to him and he said, “Perhaps the time of daughters is not yet done, little sister. I have need of a great ghali-ghuchi woman if my people are to survive. Or a man.” And his beak clattered with scented laughter. “What say you, Ayo?”
My limbs hungered for cool, broad air. My legs ached to walk without sinking across the estuary plain. My mouth watered for sweet fish. I thought of our island, empty, and my heart ached like a broken shell. I thought of our island, full, and my heart swelled like a cresting wave. I walked to the king bird, touched his great grey neck reverently, his feathers as soft as the rarest silk. “Mother,” I whispered, “he pleases me.”
As was her duty, my mother replied, her eyes lit like the sun, “Then he is yours.”
“You will teach my people the ways of the ghali-ghuchi,” the king bird replied as my grey hair lengthened, the roots turning into calamus. “You will nest with me in the roots of the ylang-ylang tree,” he spoke as my barbs strengthened, legs thinning to stalks and arms flaring wide. “We will row through the stars at night, say hello to the moon and the cloud and the wind who you have spurned in my favor, and by day smell the ylang-ylang’s blossoms. I hope they do not make you sneeze.” The king bird laughed again and I echoed him, my beak clattering with joy. Our feathers the color of water fowl. Our eyes the black of night water. Our beauty like the rush of ylang-ylang at the shore. And every part of us male.
As my mother and grandmother watched, the king bird and I walked through the estuary mud, our toes barely sinking. When we took flight, on that morning of mornings, our wings beat together.
I saw my mother often after that day, though we rarely spoke. She swept the yard, singing, or stood in the doorway wearing a fine silk skirt. As I trained the great grey birds’ chicks, showing them how to make ylang-ylang blossoms dance on the wind, my mother flashed like fire. My grandmother, sucking rice through her teeth, was pleased.