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The Children

The next day, Shay doesn’t receive a visit from the girl, as she half expects to, but while she sits reading after lunch she hears a subdued hubbub from the far end of the garden, near the gate to the beach. Soon, Tumbu, the old man who fills in as factotum when there are few guests in the Red House, calls out to her that there is someone down by the water who wants to speak to Madame Shay. When Shay asks who, he mumbles confusedly that it is someone from the Grande Terre.

Squinting against the high-tide wind that rattles the palms, Shay follows Tumbu’s grizzled head and bare, wiry back down to the seawall at the end of the garden. There she finds waiting a tall, unbelievably handsome teen-age boy whom she has never seen before but recognizes immediately, for he is almost a twin of Harena. He has the same fawn coloring and sculptural nose, but his eyes are the clouded turquoise of certain Alpine lakes, which gives him an oddly blind look in the blazing subequatorial sun. He is barefoot, dressed in long shorts and a tattered Italian football jersey, and his sandy hair is clipped close to his skull. Shay greets him in French, asking him his name, and invites him into the garden, but he stands staring at her with those eerie eyes and replies in a Malagasy dialect that Shay doesn’t recognize.

“He doesn’t speak much French,” Tumbu explains, rather condescendingly. “His name is Didier, and he is from Morondava, far south of here, and he wants to see the mother of his father, who is the Italian Leandro.”

Didier will come only a single step inside the Red House gate, so Shay stands with him near the threshold, and, as Tumbu interprets, learns that the boy is sixteen and was born, on Anjavavy, to a young woman of the southern Sakalava tribe, named Adi, who worked as a hotel maid. Leandro never lived with Adi, but “he loved her” and, after the boy was born, paid for her to return to her family on the big island, promising to join her there. Of course, he never appeared or contacted her, and eventually, leaving her son with her people near Morondava, she found work at a shrimp farm in Mahajamba Bay and soon afterward died there of malaria, as so many do in that harsh line of work.

A week ago, word somehow reached Didier’s grandmother that Leandro’s mother, and possibly Leandro himself, had arrived at the Red House on Rokely Beach, on Anjavavy, and that finally the Italian father wanted to lay eyes on his children. So Didier left Morondava and travelled north, for four days and nights, by foot, bush taxi, and ferry. Once on Anjavavy, he walked the six kilometres from the port to Rokely Beach.

As Shay listens, she becomes more and more furious. With herself, with Giustinia, and with a tall Italian phantom who seems to have been summoned up from the ground beside her. Now that she has seen two of Leandro’s children, she can imagine exactly what he, the absent father, is like: his aristocratic height; his useless blond beauty; his addict’s vacant face; his idle concupiscence; his suzerain’s habit, bred in the bone, of taking whatever he wants; his ruthless indifference to everything that isn’t the chemical in his veins.

And now, she wonders, what to do with this magnificent son out of the famine-ridden south, who has travelled across land and sea, chasing a rumor? A rumor that she, Shay, helped start?

“Does he know Harena? His sister?” Shay demands of Tumbu.

“He knows who she is.”

As the boy continues to stare at Shay with those mineral-colored eyes, panic seizes her. “Tell him,” she says to the old man, “that his father and grandmother are not here. That the woman who was here is not Leandro’s mother, and she is gone now, anyway. That woman is only a friend who knows the Italian family of his father. She is a friend who promises to look . . . who will help find . . . No, tell him that I myself will help . . .” Shay stammers in confusion, suddenly gripped by a cinematic vision of snatching this beautiful youth out of his present life, as if she were conducting a helicopter rescue at sea. In an instant, she pictures schools, clothes, university, some grand career, where that flawless face would gleam in the high marble halls of European tradition. Later, she will tell herself that this is a maternal impulse, but it is as selfish and intoxicating as sex.

That Didier shows no surprise or disappointment increases Shay’s confusion.

“Ask him what he ne,” Shay tells Tumbu. “Money, food, a place to stay?”

Soon, the old gardener, with a hint of a dry smile, informs her, “He ne nothing, Madame. He has a job as an apprentice mechanic, and in two or three months he will go to Mahajanga to work on trucks.”

“Will he stay now with his sister—with Harena?”

“No. He’ll go back home immediately. You can”—the old man pauses, and then announces in a formal tone, as if affording Shay a rare privilege—“you can pay the price of his journey.”

Shay doubles the sum, but even so it is a laughably small amount. When she gives the notes to the boy, she notices that his hands, too, are beautiful: long and slender, though already rough from labor, and scarred with what appear to be burns. As she comes close to him, he suddenly looks her straight in the eye, with an intensity that feels like a blow, and says something in a low, forceful voice.

“He wants to know,” Tumbu says, impassively, “why it is that his father has not once come to look for him.”

Shay stammers that Didier’s father has been sick for many years in Italy.

And, before her shame at this transparent falsehood has evaporated, the boy coolly bids her farewell and turns away. Shay watches his tall, sculptural figure and cropped head departing down the three kilometres of beach, skirting the incoming tide. He walks like a king in exile, seeming to cast a sort of furious solitude around himself. And, as he grows small and disappears in a distant crowd of fishermen, she thinks of how much the life of an island is about watching for those who arrive and dreaming of those who depart. About waiting, sometimes forever.

Madame Rose Rakotomalala and Shay’s other friends on the island are of the opinion that Leandro has fathered no more children in Madagascar. But in the following days Shay gets jumpy whenever she hears visitors arriving at the Red House; she has visions of an army of gorgeous bastards pouring into her garden. She tries to avoid places where she might run into Harena, whose face grows more and more piteously crestfallen as the weeks pass with no word from Giustinia. One morning in September, just before Shay leaves for Italy, she sees the girl at the Fleur des Îles, heavily made up and dressed in a theatrical Comoran lamba and headdress, deep in conversation with a quartet of South African tourists. Clearly she has thrown herself wholeheartedly into her money-changing, and she nods to Shay with haughty indifference.