In a room without furniture, the flies have nowhere to land. They flit from wall to wall, winged dirt, smearing the air around them.
Alice stops in the middle of the room and drops her bags to the floor.
The village, her guidebook says, is drab and hot as blazes. It has the distinction of being a big producer of manioc root. Its name, in Malagasy, means “waiting for a wife.”
From her front porch, she watches flies crawl across an old woman’s face as she naps beneath trees. Alice cannot name this strange flora. The landscapes of the southern hemisphere are illegible to her.
The old woman’s mouth twitches in her sleep.
They say it is too hot for fleas. On the plateau, where temperatures dropped to the low 50s in July and she had shivered through rushed bucket baths beneath unfamiliar constellations, there had been fleas.
Her empty house was once a classroom. It smells strongly of chalk.
From her backpack, Alice pulls out a stack of photos and a roll of tape. She arranges photos on her wall, centering them in the dark rectangle where a chalkboard used to hang. She stops midway through the stack and looks at a photo of a man drinking coffee on a porch. She sets it aside, then changes her mind and hangs it up with the others.
The windows of her barren room have no glass. The flies let themselves in. Outside the window, past a printed cloth tacked to the wooden frame, she smells pigs. The first morning, she hears pigs squeal in the darkness. Their joy at the slop bucket sounds like pain.
After a month, furniture is delivered to her house in a cart. A bedframe, a table, two chairs and a bookcase. The bookcase is of course an indulgence.
Underneath the new bed, the rats make a nest. They scurry across her mattress in the dark of night. And it’s not noise, but movement, that wakes her. Between her and the rat there is only the thin gauze of a mosquito net. The rat’s eyes glow in the beam of her flashlight.
Routines are established. Alice wakes to the screaming of pigs. And sleeps to the scampering of rats.
She gets lice and buys expensive shampoo to treat it. Her ankles are ringed with the scars of infected flea bites.
Alice can’t sleep when it rains. She listens to rain drum against the tin roof. A corner of her latrine crumbles beneath the onslaught of water. Mud bricks are left exposed.
The mail plane arrives on Wednesdays. She goes to the post office during the mid-day break at school, waiting for letters that, mostly, don’t come.
He writes: I met someone. (I’m sorry).
She places a trap beneath her bed. Four nights in a row, she is startled awake by the noise of it snapping shut. Four mornings in a row, she bribes children to dispose of the bodies. A student gives her a kitten. It is the size of a full-grown rat.
She writes back: I hear rain in the middle of the night and wonder whose house will fall down next.
Bats settle into the rafters of her classroom.
There is nothing to do after nightfall. Wooden shutters are barred over every window. Stray dogs have empty streets to themselves. Insects hover around the naked bulb suspended from her ceiling. She sweeps them up each morning.
The smell of chalk clings to her clothes and hair.
Alice is twenty-three years old and strangers come to her for help. She learns to say “I’m not a doctor.” She cleans their wounds anyway. She removes dirty bandages and peers at rotting flesh. Antibacterial ointment is poured over infections. A man knocks on her door and walks in to her house with a razor blade. He hands her the blade and she understands that he wants her to cut a worm out of his foot. It is visible beneath his skin. She cannot help any of them. She gives away hydrogen peroxide, butterfly sutures and Band-Aids. She repeats that she is not a doctor.
There is no glass in her window to keep out the smell of pigs. Photos fall to the floor as chalk dust dries out the tape.
In the village called “waiting for a wife,” people ask why she is unmarried. Some name eligible bachelors. Others wonder if she’s been cursed.
A whistle hangs above her bed. Children play with it each day. Each night she wipes it clean.
One morning, she finds a cockroach in her coffee filter. It disappears into a corner, behind a tank of propane gas. She rinses the filter, fills it with coffee, and lights the stove with a match. The kettle does not whistle. Sweetening her coffee with condensed milk, she takes it outside to drink on the porch.
In the heat of the day, she brushes away the flies that land on her hair. On her face. On her legs, stretched out across the bed for a mid-day nap. Days it is too hot, too close for the mosquito net.
“Fly season,” says the director of the elementary school.
Each day begins when she unbolts the shutters. Voices, and light, and flies stream in through the window. What sounds like pain is just the rapture of pigs.