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.
There’s nothing better and nothing worse than doing what you love. When Elmer first stepped off the train, he expected the heel of his boot to sink into rich black soil, with the sky rippling out smooth in all directions. He was right about the sky but wrong – so wrong! – about the soil. It pushed back against his step, the clay willful as a sinner.
But Elmer held a piece of paper with his name on it, and that piece of paper yielded him one-hundred acres of the Northern Sacramento Valley. And so he set to farming his land.
“G’shaw,” Maude said one day, coming through the screen door and wiping her hands on her apron. “He’s done it again.”
Her husband Clyde sat riveted on the stoop. “Well I’ll be,” he agreed.
For Elmer had, in fact, done it again. He had harnessed his horse to the plow and ridden all night, slicing open the frowning soil all the way to the edge where his property kissed that of Maude and Clyde.
At that moment when the sun stops dawning and starts shining, Elmer was in the act of unhitching his horse. Fatigue ran down his cheeks like tears.
“Come in for some coffee,” Maude hollered. She listened as her own voice dissipated over the flat valley floor. Nothing in sight for miles except the row of eucalyptus that the Bjornstroms had planted as a windbreak, and fifty miles to the west, the start of the coast range.
Elmer wiped his brow, leaving a dusty streak just above his eyes. He held the horse’s bridle loosely in his hand.
“She makes the best ‘jacks this side of Minnesota,” Clyde added helpfully.
With careful steps Elmer lead the horse to hitch and climbed the steps to greet Clyde with a handshake. “You’re very kind.”
Clyde beamed and the two men followed Maude into the house.
“This land isn’t friendly,” Maude commented. She placed a hot plate before Elmer.
“But it’s land and it’s mine,” Elmer said.
“That’s what I say as I fall asleep each night,” Maude said, winking at her husband who sat across from Elmer.
Clyde forked a bite of pancake and spoke as he chewed. “Old Man Johannsson’s got some contraption he’s been fiddling with. He says it can do in three hours what your horse did in twelve.”
“A mechanical combine, except for plowing and planting.”
“Exactly. And he’s got a mechanical combine too.” Clyde swallowed his coffee.
Elmer chuckled between bites. “Gaw, I’d have to sell my land in order to buy one of those.”
“There’s a co-op forming,” Clyde continued. “You can come on as a member.”
Maude returned from the kitchen, refilled the mugs, including her own, and sat with the men. “I’ve been arguing with Clyde here about that damn co-op.”
Elmer’s eyes flashed between husband and wife. “How’s that, now?”
“They make you guarantee your share,” Maude leaned toward him, her auburn hair tumbling forward. A strand plopped into her mug and with a careless laugh she withdrew it, patted it dry. “And what have we got to guarantee? So they want to put a lien against the land.”
In a show of clean white teeth, Clyde grinned. “My wife’s the careful one of the two of us. She’d prefer I work to the bone than shackle our land with a lien.” His grin widened into his green eyes, and up onto the ledges of his high narrow cheekbones.
“Well, at least I’m no fool,” Maude countered, but she was smiling too. Her husband took her hand, squeezed it.
Elmer ran his fingers through his hair. It felt both oily and gritty with dirt. Somewhere below all the grime, his hair burned platinum blonde, a brightness to match the ice-blue of his eyes – a color so light that one could almost see straight through it.
“You still living in that shack?” Clyde shifted comfortably in his seat.
“Sure am.” As if looking for a glimpse of the makeshift dwelling, Elmer cast his gaze out the window. “I built a little barn – a stall, really, for the horse, and tacked on a room at the back for me. That’ll do until I bring in a crop, and can afford a proper house.”
Maude rose to collect their plates and moved toward the kitchen. “Well this isn’t charity, but you can stay here for a bit,” she said over her shoulder. “We’ve got a spare room in the back – it’s cozy, but it’s got four walls. You can stay till the crop comes in.”
“Or until a baby comes,” Clyde called after her.
“Won’t be any baby until you make me rich,” she threw back. Elmer could hear the smile on her face, wrapping itself around her words as they flew from her lips.
Clyde’s fingers drummed the handle of his mug and an old clock ticked stiffly from its place on the bureau. The warm meal and hot coffee combined to ease Elmer’s aching shoulders and thighs. He took in the quiet room, the worn sofa with matching ottoman, the green-papered walls and the sturdy dining table. The kitchen door swinging like a pendulum and Maude’s quiet singing as she washed up. Finally his attention returned to Clyde, who was grinning at him from across the walnut wood table.
“It isn’t all that bad, really,” Clyde said.
Elmer nodded. “But I’ve got to do things my way, I’m afraid.” He drank the last of his coffee and stood to go. “I appreciate all this,” he said with a vague gesture, and Clyde knew what he meant. They shook hands in parting.
It was a brutal summer. Elmer and his horse had tilled and planted all spring, setting up the ditches and rows so the canal would overflow the land and nourish the rice. But the summer was dry, bone dry. Elmer took to hauling gallons of water from the river at daybreak, before the sun hammered the world flat and still. His feet cracked and his shoulders grew tight and gnarled as a tree trunk. But one day he noticed the small green tips peeking out of the water and he felt reborn.
When it was time to bring in the crop, Elmer did not sleep for three days straight. He borrowed a scythe and a son from the Bjornstroms and worked until the last bushel had been entered into the distributor’s ledger. He was given a small advance for his crop and he threw himself onto his mattress and slept for 22 hours straight.
Maude had resigned herself. “The land’s legally yours, so I suppose there’s no stopping you,” she said with a shrug. With Old Man Johannsson’s machine and crew, their entire crop was harvested in five hours flat.
Clyde sat whistling on the stoop. When he leaned forward just so, he could catch a glimpse of Elmer’s shack from around the corner of the house. “When that boy wakes up, I’d like to invite him to supper.”
“I don’t see why we haven’t invited him sooner,” she called from the pantry.
“Well I didn’t want you falling in love with another man just yet.”
Maude could be heard laughing. “That’s always a risk,” she declared, and Clyde grinned into the sunset.
By next summer, Elmer had built his house. Clyde and the Bjornstrom boys helped out. In exchange, Elmer worked their crews after he brought in his own harvest. Then the following summer, Elmer expanded his barn, purchased another horse, and talk spread that he was going to take a wife. But if he had been considering matrimony, the woman never reciprocated, for when planting season rolled around again, he was single as a stick.
And a good thing too because that year the drought began, and it lingered for four years straight. The ground cracked and shattered in the heat, and the crops came in weakly. Maude turned twenty-five and the sugar for her birthday cake nearly cost her her wedding ring. Or so she tells the story. Instead of selling it, she took up a job teaching in the town five miles away.
“Snotty little brats,” she asserted as she served roasted quail and garlic rice.
“The little beasts adore her,” Clyde said proudly.
Elmer cut into his meal with a satisfied sigh.
Eventually the drought caught up with the people’s pride, and one by one, farming families fell into bankruptcy. The Johannsson co-op increased their fees to cover the gaps. But that just accelerated foreclosure and within a year the co-op owned a third of the land around Riverton.
Elmer’s crops weren’t any better than his neighbors’, but his costs were low, so low. He managed to feed himself and two horses and bring in the harvests at a profit. Quietly he began to build a savings to buy more land.
Six months before the rains broke loose, Clyde’s farm broke the bank. He showed up one day to tell Elmer man-to-man. But when Elmer pulled open the screen door, Clyde’s pride seized his throat and he found himself saying, “Come over for dinner, there’s a roast in the oven.”
Elmer dug out a bottle of the rice wine he fermented in the soil beneath his house. At dinner they all partook and each sip tasted sweeter, each bite more savory.
Finally Clyde set down his knife and looked straight through Elmer’s blue, blue eyes. “Our farm’s under.”
“Jesus Christ,” Elmer swore in front of a woman for the first time in his life.
Maude nodded vigorously in agreement. “We’re moving west, to a place called Santa Rosa. The Bjornstroms’ middle daughter married a man out there. He owns land, farms it himself. Said they’ll hire us until we’ve got our feet on the ground again, for as long as we need.”
“A vineyard. With a winery attached,” Clyde clarified.
“And you’ll both be hired?” Elmer imagined Maude’s red hair gleaming between the green vines.
“They hire plenty of women over there. It’s a different kind of work, not like this plowing and harvesting. There’s pruning and picking but the vines are there, year over year. Besides they’ve got a cellar, and I know for a fact the Bjornstrom girl works in the cellar so if worse comes to worse there’s work for me there, I’d expect.” She took a deep drink of her wine and refilled the three empty glasses.
“So Old Man Johannsson gets your land too?”
Clyde sighed and Maude nodded. “You gambled right about that co-op,” Clyde conceded.
Elmer tapped at his plate with his fork absentmindedly. “Santa Rosa. It can’t be too far. I’ll come visit.”
Clyde grinned. “You’re a damned fool, Elmer. You know well as I do that you can’t go leaving your farm unattended, not when you’ve worked so hard to keep it.”
“In winter then.”
Clyde merely shrugged. Maude was chewing slowly, her eyes on Elmer, and a softness dancing across her face.
“I can’t imagine living out here without you and Maude,” Elmer felt the words slip out unguided.
Again Clyde’s magnanimous smile. “You’ll find a way, Elmer. You always do.”
Maude disappeared into the kitchen and returned with hot peach cobbler piled high with fresh whipped cream. “To celebrate our friendship,” she declared and smiled at Elmer. And the look he gave her fell warm and close over her whole body.
When it was time to bide goodnight, husband and wife escorted Elmer to the front stoop, Clyde’s arm around Maude’s waist and the bottle of rice wine lying empty on the kitchen table.
Clyde shook his hand. “We’ll stop by before we leave for Santa Rosa.”
Maude detached herself from Clyde to kiss Elmer on the cheek. “Find yourself a good wife,” she whispered.
Elmer swallowed hard and slipped into the darkness. Clyde and Maude stood hip to hip on the porch until the lump of his back faded into the night. Slowly they returned to the house, their heads close as if sharing a secret.
On the edge of his property and theirs, Elmer paused. He dug a toe into the coddling dirt. The moon waxed ivory above him and silver stars speckled the horizon. His land lay calm, the flooded paddies reflected the sky and pocked with the dark ridges of his ditches. He followed their zigzag across the shimmering water until they arrived at the base of his house, which sprouted from the mirrored land like a forlorn island. It was dark and heavy against the night, like a closed eye. Without looking back, Elmer walked home.
On the Tuesday before election day, the men filled up the town square, a flood of life and limb. The man went along, rushed along with the crowd, to repay the fact that there was a crisp $20 bill in his hand. A fat stage swallowed up the south end of the square. A fat man swallowed up the space on the stage, and he shouted into the microphone. “When I am President, I will… You my brothers understand! Yes, together we must… against tyranny and oppression… for jobs and for our wives… “
The other men participated. Boos for the opponents, hisses for the incumbent, and ecstatic euphoria for the politician. “That’s all? That’s all he wants for $20?” The man asked one of the men whose elbow jammed eagerly into his left rib when the crowd let loose a reckless cheer.
“Yes, because this is a democracy,” his informant replied.
“This is not correct.” The man said to his friends when they gathered over pitchers of beer on the walk home from the rally. “The politician wants more than just our cheers, for $20.”
“No, no that’s really all he wants— democracy, you know. He wants democracy, and so he has bought it.”
“Impossible. $20 a head, and thousands of us attended—and he’s had rallies every day for three weeks, in different towns. He cannot be so rich.”
“Men are very rich, just not men here.”
And another friend added, “It is a—what do you call it?—an investment, because if he does not pay, he will not win.”
The man’s eyes lit up with comprehension. “So who repays his investment when he wins?”
In response he received nothing but shrugs. “That is what happens when you win, that is all.”
But man left dissatisfied, despite the $20 in his pocket. Why does the politician need nothing more than cheers and votes? There is something missing, something off balance. The man went to work in his field. He saw five men approaching. He looked long enough to count them and guess their weight, then bent down, working slowly and rhythmically, as he weighed his options. No weapons in their hands, so they will kill me with my own farm tools. If I run, they will know that I know. If I stay, I will be dead. If I hurry to town and sound alarmed, no one will believe me, for they love the politician’s twenty dollars. If I hurry to town but say nothing, they will come again tomorrow, or at night when I am sleeping.
He moved quickly but not suddenly. Fast go his feet, down the trail, to town. The men could not keep up with him, because he knew the trails better than they do, because they were from out-of-town. In town he bought his friends beer. They said:
“Already he is spending big!”
Confused, he asked, “Already before what?”
“The lottery! Haven’t the men found you? You won!” They congratulated him.
The man shook his head. “I don’t play the lottery. They have lied to you.”
“That’s what we told them. But they showed us: an official letter. You have been the one who has been lying, old friend! And we, nothing but the fools who believed you. Ten thousand dollars!” Again they congratulated him.
“But I did not play the lottery. They are lying to you,” the man repeated. “Why do they want to hurt me? I am nothing but a farmer.”
“Hurt you? Yes, money is very heavy, but it will not hurt you!”
“They cannot be serious. It is impossible. Because I have never played the lottery. My wife will not let me.”
His friends calmed suddenly, eerily. “Now she cannot stop you.”
He remembered that his wife is dead. “Yes. But still I don’t play the lottery.”
“You’re a stubborn fool. They offer you ten thousand! You can own this town with that!”
“What did they want? Why are they looking for me?”
“To give you the letter, old fool. And then to take you to the city in their car—maybe it is your car that you won as well?—so you can collect the money.”
“I will not go.” The man could see the five men walking up the main road. They had been lost 20 minutes. “I will not go.”
But he did go. Because the letter was signed by the politician himself.
The car rolled up to a demanding mansion—one that insisted that you look it over twice before you look away. It sprang up out of the red clay as misfit as a harlot at midday. Still, the man went inside. He did not even wait for his escorts to tell him what to do. He did want he wanted. He threw open the car door, tumbled out, hurled up the steps, yanked open the door, and--
The politician was waiting. “Scotch?”
The man took the glass, and drank it in one gulp. It tasted expensive.
“I see.” But the politician’s expression did not change. It still said, “I win.” “You are a liar. I do not play the lottery.”
Now the politician smiled benignly. “I know. I know that and everything else about you.” “I don’t care what you know about me. I care about what I don’t know about you.”
The politician laughed. “If all men were as honest and direct as you—“ but he stopped mid- sentence when he saw the man’s face. “Fine. I am a politician, running for the presidency. Your town lies at the social and cultural heart of your province. Your province is the key to the presidency. If you love me, then I will win. If you like me, I might win if your neighboring province also likes me. But if you distrust me, I have no chance.”
The man’s face remained hard as stone. “And?”
A sigh. “You are just a farmer, yes, but a respected farmer. You have no position in town politics, and no family or relations to bias you, so everyone in your town trusts you. You are honest, and you have no one worth lying about or to. Oddly, your isolated social status places you in the throbbing heart of the highly complex social network of your town and, by extension, your province.”
A double shot was poured, but the man did not drink it. He dumped it into the pot of a plastic house plant. Annoyance began to show through the politician’s slick expression. He kept speaking.
“You have been seeding distrust for me in your town. And this is after I paid you $20 as a thank you for being my friend!”
“I am not your friend.” The man held out the $20 bill, still as crisp and new as when it arrived in his hand the day before. Tactfully the politician ignored it.
“So I have entered you into the lottery, my private lottery, and you have won. Ten thousand dollars, just for you. All you must do is shake my hand.”
“I want to go home.”
“No, my friend, the car must be cleaned and all its mechanics checked before we return. I am afraid you must stay here tonight.”
“If you intend to kill me, you should consider killing me in broad daylight. Only cowards strike at midnight.”
Stunned, the politician balked. “What? Excuse me?”
“I have said what I have said.”
“Ah, I have no desire to hurt you, or to see you hurt. I want you to be happy. Why else have I offered you ten thousand? It is plenty for you, for your farm, for your whole town! They know you have won it. Take it, spend it on them. They who love you so dearly! Take it, drink it, eat it, buy a new home and another wife—my condolences—and a car!”
But the man remained silent.
Seeing that his anglings and needling were going nowhere, the politician changed tactics. “My sources tell me that the schools in your town are desperate for new textbooks, and for a new roof. Perhaps you can even build a new building? Think of the children who will remember you for giving them the gift of knowledge!”
“If I cannot go home today, I want to go to bed now.”
The politician stepped back. “Yes. I understand. A full day of work, plus such shocking news to hear that you are a rich man. Yes. It is heavy, isn’t it, money? Heavy but happy. The burden men gladly shoulder. You will carry yours well, and make many men proud to see how you do.”
“I want to go to bed.”
“Think of the money as you rest. In the morning we can talk again about what you have won.”
In the bedroom, the man unfurled on the bed like a lion stretching. It was a king sized bed. The empty space to his right reminded him of the woman who used to sleep by his side. He rolled over so that he was in the exact center of the bed. No empty space to remind.
Above his head, a ceiling fan clicked quietly. He watched one of the blades slowly circulate. It started on the left, swung to the right—so opposite of where it began—then whipped back to the left. And again, and again, and again. Circles, endless circles.
He stared at the fan as darkness crept over his world, and fitfully he fell to sleep.
“Breakfast for thieves, a feast for kings!” exclaimed the politician as he sidled up to the table. The man entered the room and stood silent in the doorway until the politician noticed his presence.
“Good morning! You have slept well, I can tell because you look so youthful and vigorous, like a man ready to take on the world. Tell me, what’s your fancy for breakfast? My cook is the absolute best in the nation. Literally—she’s been ranked.”
“I will take the money.”
“Ah. Good man.” The politician tried hard to keep his eyes on his plate, to not make a big deal out of this sudden change of heart. He was almost annoyed to not have the chance to use any of the ploys he had connived to convince the man to take the money. “Pull up a chair! Feast with me! We are both very lucky men, yes! Lucky to have fate wink down at us with an eye full of gold.”
“No thank you. I want to go home. I will take the money.”
“Certainly.” The fat politician paused. “I will be honest with you. I want you to the take the money. Yes! I am pleased for you that you will take it. But I do not understand. You are not taking the money because of anything clever I have said. You are not taking it because you are greedy. I think you are smart to take it, but I do not understand where you have become so smart so quickly.”
The man gazed blankly at the politician. “There is no air-conditioning in this mansion.”
“No. I hope you were still comfortable?”
“I stared at the fan all night. Do you know something? The blades move from one side, all the way over as far as they possibly can to the other, and then they move back again. All night. That is how they make such lovely cool air for me. By being what they are not, over and over again.”
The politician blinked. He almost understood.
“I will leave now.” The man repeated, and then he left.
The man stood on the fat stage, trying to fill up the space the way the fat politician had filled up the space. But he could not. Cleverly, he called out for a few select friends: a respected elder of the community, a young woman known for her hospitality, and a very young boy who had recently won a scholarship to a top high school in the city. Then he began.
The politician spit back the Scotch into his glass. He could not believe it. But it was true. There, on television, was his good friend, the man from the country who had won ten thousand dollars. There he was, on television, telling the world that he was running for president against the fat politician. Him, the country farmer! And the crowds roared their delight.
No, it could not be, but there it was. It was so simple, really, and so brilliant too. This farmer understood what the politician had told him. He understood it too well. But the politician had not fully understood what the man had told him. Not until now, when it was far too late to try to change the clever man’s mind. The politician sighed, running his fingers through his hair.
“Well,” he consoled himself, “I did what seemed best. But I was not the best at this game. Oh no. He outsmarted me.” The politician accepted his defeat with surprising grace. He sat in sadness for a moment, thinking of what he could have been by himself. Then he called to his aide, and made a plan.
Years later children at the Provincial School of Knowledge, which had become the best school in the nation thanks to a generous donation by a local politician, came to know this event as the alliance of the Prince and the Pauper. A fat career politician humbly serving as Vice to the President, a once-lowly farmer who had the luck to become the greatest man in the country’s history. The children sang songs about the prosperity the two men brought for the country, in the form of contracts for foreign investment. They ran down roads built with money dug from the earth. They rode in cars greased by the sweat of their country’s soil. They laughed at the foreigners who came, never for long, but always long enough to dig and suck and build, then leave.
The President himself became fat, too. He slept every night on a king-sized bed. But one thing he did not change. He never installed air-conditioning in his bedchambers. Instead, at night, he was lulled to sleep by the clicking of a simple ceiling fan, circling slowly left to right to left again.
I slipped into the world through the narrow lips of a prayer. When finally my limbs grew plump and my blood flushed through my veins, it was already too late; but that is that. I swam in the crystal lake and felt clean.
My uncle taught me the art of dressage and my childhood reverberated with the snap of bone on clay. The soil in the back acre cracked, splintered, regrouped, swirled. I sat high on the horse’s back, knees tight against the flank and shoulders thrown back. Together, we danced.
On my tenth birthday the mayor gifted me a horse. He had once been the proud leader of the dressage troupe, his cabinet littered with trophies. But the day his daughter’s body was found face down in the river, he lost all appetite for beauty. I inherited the dead child’s horse and joined the mayor’s former troupe.
We performed at holidays, at cultural events, at competitions, at private gatherings, and above all, at parades. On my saddle I floated, twirled, paused, reversed, accelerated – all in the space of three seconds. My horse and I sank and spun on a sea of lightness. Above me the applause lifted like the morning fog.
When my horse grew too old to dance, I knew I too had grown too old for something, and I pondered what. I took my horse up the mountain to think, alone. My father had drawn me a map of the foothills, how to arrive at the campsite without car or boat. My horse and I climbed gently, slowly, both knowing the coarse trails would weary his fine hooves. Both knowing this trip would define us; the lips speaking, speaking and myself emerging from them reborn.
We arrived above the snowline of Magalia and picked a path to the small lake. Its waters gleamed pure as memory, the sky pulled back from the land in a silver arc. For the first five hours, we were alone. I reduced myself to my simple humanity and glided through the waters. My horse grazed in the shade of the glen. I flopped onto my back and above me stretched the sultry sky.
A sudden splash interrupted my dreams. Turning I saw a man, his forearms flashing with each stroke as he swam along the opposite shore. He seemed not to heed me and I, in turn, ignored him.
That evening I built a campfire behind the boulders set several yards from the lake. I grilled trout and slices of salami. My horse stood calmly at the edge of the fire’s licking reach, his tail flicking the shadows. After dinner I secured his line to the trunk of a tree, allowing for several yards of slack, and took my pan to collect water from the lake. Its surface unrolled darkly between the forest on either shore, save for one orange streak laid like a ladder on its surface: the reflection of the man’s fire. He had built his fire on the beach, at the place where I knew the sand wore deep. Momentarily I paused to watch his flame heave and sigh over the waves.
That night I dreamed of the lips, their mute prayer tumbling forward in time with the tapping of dressage. I saw my horse prancing on the top of a bald mountain, his mane furious with motion, his rider leading him deeper and deeper in a complex and powerful sequence. But in my dream my feet were planted like trees and my arms, reaching for him, transformed into flowering branches. Without my touch my horse danced on, on, on with the strange rider.
In the morning, the man had disappeared. So too had my horse.
I walked two days to arrive home, and was not surprised to hear that the mayor’s body had been found, not far from the still-warm flesh of my horse, crumpled at the base of Eagle’s Peak from whence they had fallen.
Today I am old. I live with the white noise of many memories. At night when all is silence except the shrr shrr of the trees, then I return to that narrow place of my birth, where the lips speak to me in the sharp clapping language of my horse’s hooves, dancing still.
As read at Flash Fiction Forum, May 2016
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