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.
Jeremy took up the gun and I smiled gamely. “Don’t think you’ll hit the mark,” I said.
He furrowed his brow, set the butt against his shoulder, and took aim. Nearby water spilled from the mouth of the fountain’s heavyset gargoyle. I narrowed my eyes, steadied my breath, and waited.
The shot rang out, loud and true. Fifty feet from where we stood, the bottom left corner of the target crumbled. Its heart remained intact. Hay burst heavenward and dust somersaulted through the air.
“Well damn,” Jeremy muttered. He handed the shot gun back to me.
I raised the gun and fired. The dead center of the target disappeared instantaneously: a perfect bull’s eye.
Together we sat on the lip of the fountain’s pool. I tucked the gun against my arm like a shepherd’s staff. Jeremy slipped the flask from his pocket, drank deeply and passed it off to me. The whiskey tasted of gunpowder.
About us the ruins of a castle buckled and curled. Its U-shaped corridors gave way to an untamed courtyard, in which we sat. Cracks veined the masonry. The windows blinked blindly down, the majority of their panes already stolen by quiet hands or broken by the hands of time.
Jeremy caught me staring at the decay. “Admiring my handiwork?”
I returned the flask. “You’re taking credit for Father Time’s hard work, are you?”
He laughed, his apple cheeks gleaming in the evening light. “I’ve got to take credit for something in my life, you know.”
The setting sun cast a gold strip along the roof’s ridge. I said nothing, but I was thinking of when Jeremy had been a little boy, his hair wispy. It was the summer after his mother had disappeared and we were walking along the river – the same one that flowed half a kilometer from the castle. He had run ahead of me, laughing at my cane with all the innocence of childhood. Then I heard splashing, and I saw water running through his white-blonde hair, and suddenly I was swimming too. My gimp leg kicking and my voice hollering. In that eternal moment, the feeling that I would do everything for this boy. My sister’s son.
Jeremy took a final sip of whisky and we began our stroll back home. We threaded through the former garden, its roses thorny and tenacious; under the distended portcullis; across the defunct cobblestone paveway.
Suddenly Jeremy turned to face his castle. Its beige face rose four stories high and it glowered back with the empty eyes of the narrow windows. He seemed to search for something along the surface and, finding it, he seized the gun from my hands and fired. A pane shattered on the third floor.
Pleased with his work, he returned the gun. “There,” he announced. “I have done that.”
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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