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June 28, 1992|ALICE WALKER | "Going to Meet the Murderer" is excerpted from "Possessing the Secret of Joy," published this month by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. The character of Tashi-Evelyn appeared in Walker's previous work, but it was only after researching the worldwide practice of female circumcision that Walker decided to make Tashi's life the focus of a novel. "I took long walks, thought about it a lot," she says. "(This) book had to be treated with great care." Walker, 48, who lives in Northern California, is now at work on a documentary on the subject: "There are 75 to 100 million women alive today who have had this done to them. I have one small hope, that (because of my book) one little girl somewhere won't have to experience genital mutilation."

A WEEK AGO I WOULD NOT HAVE EXPECTED M'Lissa to still be alive. But yes, according to a year-old Newsweek, she was not only alive but a national monument. She had been honored by the Olinka government for her role during the wars of liberation, when she'd acted as a nurse as devoted to her charges as Florence Nightingale, and for her unfailing adherence to the ancient customs and traditions of the Olinka state. No mention was made of how she fulfilled this obligation. She had been decorated, "knighted," the magazine said; swooped up from her obscure hut, where she lay dying on a filthy straw mat, and brought to a spacious cottage on the outskirts of a nearby town, where she would be within easy commute to a hospital, should the need arise.

After being brought out of her dark hut and into the sunlight of her new home--with running water and an indoor toilet, both miracles to the lucky M'Lissa--a remarkable change had occurred. M'Lissa had stopped showing any signs of death, stopped aging, and had begun to actually blossom. "Youthen," as the article said. A local nurse, a geriatrics specialist, ministered to her; a cook and a gardener rounded out her staff. M'Lissa, who had not walked in over a year, began again to walk, leaning on a cane the president himself had given her, and enjoyed tottering about in her garden. She loved to eat, and kept her cook on his toes preparing the special dishes of lamb curry, raisin rice and chocolate mousse she particularly liked. She had a mango tree; indeed, the photograph showed her sitting beneath it; she sat there happily, day after day, when the crop came on, stuffing herself.

In the photograph M'Lissa smiled broadly, new teeth glistening; even her hair had grown back and was a white halo around her deep brown head.

There was something sinister, though, about her aspect; but perhaps I was the only one likely to see it. Though her mouth was smiling as were her sunken cheeks and her long nose, her wrinkled forehead and her scrawny neck, her beady eyes were not. Looking into them, suddenly chilled, I realized they never had.

How had I entrusted my body to this madwoman?


A FLAG FLEW ABOVE HER HOUSE, THE RED, yellow and blue vivid against the pale noonday periwinkle sky. I was not her only visitor; there were cars parked in the postage-stamp parking lot, neatly screened from the house by a rose-colored bougainvillea, and a tour bus was halted by the road. The passengers were not permitted to disembark, but were busy taking photographs of the cottage from the windows of the bus.

I was met on the porch by a young woman who had not been mentioned in the Newsweek article: slender, with smooth dark skin and shining eyes, as lovely as a freshly cut flower. I explained I'd known M'Lissa all my life; that she had in fact delivered me into the world, having been a great friend of my mother and in fact mother of the entire village. I explained I had come from America, where I now lived, even though Olinka by birth, and that I hoped to spend time with M'Lissa, perhaps after her other guests had gone.

What is your name? she asked softly.

Tell her it is Tashi, Catherine's, no, Nafa's daughter, who went to America with the son of the missionary.

She turned. Out of habit I glanced down at her feet. As she moved away, I saw she had the sliding gait of the "proper" Olinka maiden.

Within minutes all of M'Lissa's guests poured out of the house, as if scattered by her cane. They scrutinized me as they passed. Perhaps they thought me an important dignitary. As their car motors were turning over, shattering the quiet, the young woman returned.

You may go in, she said, with a smile.

What is your name? I asked her.

Martha, she replied.

And your other name?

Mbati, she said, her eyes twinkling.

Mbati, I said, why do the people come here?

The question surprised her. Mother Lissa is a national monument, she said. Recognized as a heroine by every faction of the government, including the National Liberation Front. She's famous, she said, shrugging her shoulders and looking at me as if puzzled I didn't know.

I do know that, I said. I read Newsweek.

Ah, Newsweek, she said.

But what do they talk about with her?

About their daughters. About the old ways. About tradition. She paused. It is mostly women who come. You may have noticed this by the people who just left. Women of a certain age. Women with daughters. Frightened women, often. She reassures them.

Oh? I said.

Yes. She knows so much and says such bizarre things. Why, do you know, Mama Lissa claims there was a time when women did not have periods! Oh, she says, there may have been a single drop of blood, but only one! She says this was before woman's capture.

I couldn't help laughing, as Mbati was doing.

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