It is supper time but the girls are not here, so I leave Thai soup simmering on a small gas flame and walk down the hill. Before I can see through the branches i hear the shrieks and laughs of more kids than my own. At the bottom of the valley I find them, a pile of children, some gathering sticks, some climbing ladders. Penelope is standing on a flat platform high in a tree, clapping her hands, bracing herself for the wooden seat that comes flying her way. She grabs the rope, lifts bare legs over the wooden disc, and jumps off the platform, wrapping legs around the rope just in time, as Sean grabs the rope beneath her seat and flings her faster down the zipline than a mother can bear. She disappears into the branches, bounces as the pulley hits the rubber tire attached at the far end, smiles as the seat comes to a stop. When she jumps off to the ground, I close my eyes. But soon she is running back, pulling the seat behind her, leaping over the booby trap pits dug by neighbour boys. Then it is Josephine’s turn, she rides double with Eden, so much blond hair, thin limbs wrapped around themselves. Magdalene dances on the platform, brave and older than I remember. Over and over, children climb, jump, swing, fly. They solve problems, leap off the platform to hang on at the last minute, risk a hundred broken bones for the freedom of flight in a forest. I am jealous of their beautiful childhood.
Today we woke early, brewed coffee in a tall red thermos, packed giftbags and picnics into straw baskets. It is Magdalene’s birthday and we drive with friends across the city, still waking, to the game park. It is dry, so many browns and greens. The savannah spreads like old movies under a greyblue sky. A baby giraffe comes bounding over the grass from behind the trees, floundering towards her mother. Impala stare at as without blinking as we pass too close. Buffalo, with horns like bronze wigs, eat grass from beneath the car. When even the herds of zebra are no longer new, we park our car and lay masai blankets on the dirt by a drop off, look over the valley at a castle and a river, incongruous and enchanting. Magdalene wears a fairy crown, pulls homemade necklaces and dragonfly wands from old boxes wrapped by little sisters. We eat prosciutto and olives, fresh pineapple. The juice of passion fruit drips down our chins, makes our fingers sticky. I read a picture book about happiness growing and girls who climb mango trees. Magdalene closes her eyes to make wishes, blows out candles stuck into lemon scones. On the way home we are tired, girls lean into shoulders, close eyes. Happy BIrthday my Kenyan child, the one who makes my happiness grow. THe one who climbs mango trees.
This evening was so beautiful, so much laughter as Phil chased the girls around couches, up onto beds, tickling and capturing and tossing them into dungeons. But then after Peter Rabbit and goodnight kisses, I tell the girls that I am leaving for the evening, going to Art Cafe to write for a few hours, and Josephine’s heart shatters. She cannot let me go. I try all manner of cajoling and promises and cuddles but when my ride is waiting and nothing is working, Phil pries her from my arms and she screams and kicks and I leave, with tears in my eyes, wondering what lesson I’m trying to teach, how much my individuality is worth. I’m sorry precious fragile child.
Josephine is a tiny bird, her shoulder blades smooth reminders of wings. When she was three and missing her Kenyan home, she drew a mass of lines over and over on a small piece of paper. I asked what she was drawing. It was a nest. Her bones are light, thin. Some mornings she soars and swoops. Some evenings she huddles on the ground, afraid of first flight. I don’t know yet which bird she is. But i know she has evolved beyond my weighted limbs.