Thirty miles away from the stamp of our feet and the crash of our laughter, an eagle flies over the capital city of Antananarivo. He banks away from the sun, fleeing the urban shout of the underlying concrete. He cuts a sharp UFO against the blue. The beating of wings arrogantly defies the city walls, marking a penetration into raw, open Madagascar. A jealous, malevolent wind grabs and snags messily at feathers and talons.
It is a while before he finds us on a hilltop against a limitless backdrop of dormant green. He barely acknowledges the undulating human mess below; ants scrabbling about a burning ant hill. Our thoughts below follow the eagle for a moment before his movement vanishes into the savage electric blue of the celestial oil-on-canvas.
Our heads lunge back into the hot pandemonium. Today is The Turning of the Bones, and we are about to awaken the dead.
My lips are wrenched apart by an army of determined fingers and I am thrust mouth first onto the end of a gargantuan glass bottle. This is Tokagasi - Madagascar's answer to absinthe. My mouth is hastily flooded with the aggressive bite of the angry liquid as it kicks and stabs at my tongue and teeth. Gulp. The stampeding squeal of music suddenly rockets skywards in heightened hysteria. The hot, clammy oranges and reds of the sand under my feet waltz into shapes as my eyes refocus. I melt with the day into a Dali-esque hallucination of loud poster-paint hues, screaming smells and explosive kinesis.
At the heart of the mêlée dances the oldest woman in the village. Aged eighty, people whisper that she is older than time itself. There are hundreds of teeth in her effervescent smile: twenty years have passed since the shrouded limbs of her husband were cried and lamented into their grave, and tradition has proclaimed it time for a reunion. She will once again look upon his body, laid under the sun alongside the bones of other ancestors, and narrate to him joys and hardships of recent, before bidding him one final goodbye.
Hastened breaths echo shovels hacking at the sand at the foot of the tombs. Our vibration and pulse drill through the ground, spilling a long forgotten din into the burial chambers below. They know that we're coming.
Tokagasi taunting my sobriety, throwing foot after foot at the perilous downward steps, I am greeted by the sleeping dead. Blue marker pen marks the bones belonging to the old woman's husband and we set about passing him towards the sun. Chants and cries announce his rediscovery, and arms and fingers scramble and clasp pell-mell to touch a long lost friend.
He has seen better days. He no longer knows form; arms, legs, shoulder, knuckles reduced to unordered bumps under material. But grins and teeth and eyes say "It's him!" He glides over the heads of the living and into the dance.
Life has welcomed his bones once again.