Bethany wakes and looks out the window. Up the rounded hills fog crawls in, woolly as a blanket. Orange soil clumps along the steep cliff and the pines drip with moisture. The equator belts the sky but here, in the escarpment overlooking the Great Rift Valley, you must wear a sweater. Bethany reaches for hers, its thick yarn familiar to her touch.
She pads to the kitchen to observe the morning rituals, sweater in tow. A large pot simmers over the charcoal-burning jiku, chai ready to be served hot in a tin mug. Rice has been spread over the dinged charger, where fingers are separating the good from the bad. A loaf of bread is set next to a tub of Blue Band margarine.
There is a chill in the air. Bethany slips her arms through the sleeves of her sweater. It is green, a color dark as the forest surrounding the orphanage. The sweater hangs long and her child’s fingers barely extend beyond the cuff, which is tattered and soiled.
Swiftly Bethany slides out the doorway and into the yard, joining the children already at play. She swings on a rope hung from the ancient jacaranda tree. She swings so high that the feathery leaves brush her toes. For a moment the sun breaks through the fog and her sweater is rimmed in gold.
Below her feet lies her kingdom. A trodden yard rimmed with bright grass and guarded by a wooden gate. The crowing of a rooster. A faint breeze coiling between the pines. The flapping of wings. Bethany flying above it all, a queen –
Breakfast is called. The headmistress and the house mother serve the children chai and bread spread with Blue Band. Bethany dips her piece into the mug and is reprimanded.
The wazungu arrive early today. They come every Saturday, three or four college-aged youth with skin as bright as porcelain. The headmistress’s neighbor’s daughter works at the hospital in Kijabe, and the foreign interns volunteer to visit the orphans up the hill. Today there are three, two boys and a girl. They spring lightly from the tall door of the Land Rover and beam at the sight of the ramshackle yard and rotting kitchen door.
From behind the orphanage wall Bethany watches them shake hands formally with the headmistress. They introduce themselves to the other children by patting them on the head, as if the children were Ndorobo and not Kikuyu. One of the mzungu boys spots Bethany. Quickly he moves toward her, smiling broadly. He is tall with bony shoulders and long fingers and all his limbs look narrow. His chocolate brown sweater is emblazoned with the word “HOPE,” in all caps. Its sleeves are rolled over his elbows. The peek-a-boo sun gleams off his russet hair and his eyes are so green that Bethany wonders if they are made of grass.
“Hi there, little girl,” he says through a huge grin. All his teeth glow white against his pink lips. Bethany counts them, entranced.
“Seventeen,” she pronounces. Immediately she turns her back and dashes across the yard. The jacaranda tree grows from the far right corner of the yard and the hillside is cut back to allow a flat play space. Beyond the retaining wall lies a wild slash of foliage, and a dilapidated fence, both of which serve as the property line between the orphanage and the shamba behind it.
The mzungu watches her go and she does not look back. She is finished speaking. The headmistress insists that if the orphans speak with the wazungu, soon they will speak English as well as Pastor Joseph at A.I.C. But Bethany hates Pastor Joseph’s shouting and his manner of spitting out the words of his sermons, and she has no interest in sounding like him. Instead of speaking, she prefers to play volleyball with the wazungu. They are so tall that without jumping or throwing they can place the ball over the string tied between the fence and the house.
Here is the mzungu girl now, bent double to hear two of the smallest children. Bethany runs past them, her legs whirling. She clambers up the retaining wall and over the old fence, pulling the volleyball from the rotting trunk where she stashed it. Her cuff catches on the wood and a piece of yarn snakes from her sleeve. Carelessly she tucks it back inside.
“Let’s play!” she hollers, barreling back down the hill. She tosses the ball toward the other orphans who have clustered around the wazungu. Instantly the children disperse, chasing after the ball.
“He’s on my team,” Bethany declares, pointing to the mzungu in the brown sweater. He is the tallest mzungu. The boy grins as if he has been given the world, and quickly they are winning the game.
When they have won, the headmistress tells the children to sit calmly and speak with the wazungu. They speak with the wazungu, but as it is very hard for children to sit calmly, quickly they are both speaking and playing.
“Did you eat scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast?” Bethany asks the mzungu girl.
A funny look crosses the girl’s face. “No,” she confesses, a little sadly. “I haven’t had that kind of breakfast since I left the States two weeks ago. I wonder if I can find bacon at Nakumatt.” She turns brightly toward Bethany. “Do you like eggs and bacon?”
“I don’t know. Here we eat chai and bread for breakfast.”
“I’ll bring you some,” the girl promises.
“No you won’t,” Bethany says, and continues to play.
The mzungu in the brown sweater bumps into Bethany as she races toward the swing. He looks down at her. She stops. She pauses to think.
“Your sweater is the color of my eyes,” she says. The mzungu looks down at his sweater.
“So it is,” he agrees. “And your sweater is the color of my eyes.”
“Yes.” She takes off her sweater. “You wear it.”
He laughs and takes off his brown one. “Then you take mine.”
“Ok,” Bethany agrees. She spies the headmistress hurrying over. The house mother is speaking to her in Kikuyu, saying, “But what of the other children?” The green sweater is in Bethany’s outstretched hand.
The mzungu takes the sweater and pulls it on. The crown of his head barely fits through the hole. The yarn stretches taut across his chest and the hem stops abruptly mid-torso. The other children laugh and run for the glee of it. The mzungu gives a goofy smile and bobs his sharp shoulders rhythmically.
Bethany now holds his sweater in her hands. It is made of cotton, very unlike the yarn knit of her former sweater. Slowly she slips into it, feeling the cotton catch on her short hair. Inside the sweater feels soft as a cloud, outside smooth as a blade of grass. The hem reaches past her skirt. The cuff dangles several inches past her finger tips. Noticing it, the mzungu kneels and rolls it back until her fingers pop out. As he does, Bethany gently tugs at the loose yarn of her former sweater that he is wearing.
The mzungu stands, looks at her. He laughs. “It’s a perfect fit,” he says, but Bethany distrusts his confidence.
“You’ll grow into it,” says the mzungu girl. She pats Bethany’s shoulder.
Bethany looks down. Her bare feet are brown. The sweater reaching over her clothes is brown. Her hands and fingers are brown.
The headmistress and the house mother exchange looks, but they say nothing. This is a good sign. Bethany wants to keep her new sweater. She stands tall. She smiles.
The wazungu are piling back into the Land Rover. The green-eyed boy extends a green arm to wave good-bye. “Thanks for the sweater, Bethany!” he calls.
But she is not there. She has already scrambled up the retaining wall and over the fence. She is standing on the old trunk, arms outstretched.