A great black hornbill flies by the table where I am typing. Its wings make exaggerated whooshing sounds as they flap through the morning air.

We are at Olerai House, lying on brightly patterned pillows beneath a tree of bougainvillea flowers. A three day old zebra watches us from near by, its legs thin as twigs, its fur pale and blurry. It darts after some Thompson Gazelle, already trying to be boss. The chef has prepared a heart shaped cake for M’s birthday, surrounds it with rose petals. We drink hot cocoa and eat sugary cake, watch giraffes lope by across a green airstrip. M wears her felt crown, 9 pink hearts stuck on the front with glue and love. The zebras come right to our toes, chew grass in our ears, line up like pageant contestants.

In the morning we drink our coffee in the cold air, slanting light. When the giraffes walk by, their steamy breath puffs around their faces. The girls swing on a cut out tire, run across the wet grass, add sugar to their cocoa. M and I walk out on the savannah, sit on a fallen acacia log and watch the giraffes walk right in front of us. It is her birthday. Her life is charmed.

When last year’s teacher stops M on the way to school and pulls a birthday card out of her pocket, M’s eyes are wide. She has already found a gift bag on the doorstop from a neighbour, a notebook and small tin treasure box. She walks away from the teacher and says, “Wow. If I get any more presents I’m going to burst.”

The girls are loud in the bathroom after their bath, shrieking, laughing. I ignore them, wash dishes, scrub counters. Then they come running into the kitchen, half dressed in pajamas, hair still dripping, to tell me “a truly awful story.” They talk over each other, stop to giggle, hurry to the punchline: J’s t-shirt fell into the toilet. They bend over with laughter, smooth tan bodies, shimmery in the fluorescent kitchen light.

E and Janey and I study M’s birthday bike in the light of the streetlamp. It is dark and windy, bats swoop by and chatter in the fig tree. E carefully wraps the bicycle seat in purple striped duct tape, her artistic offering to M’s birthday.

M and J walk up the hill toward school with their sides pressed together, their arms interlaced. M wears brown boots, a long skirt. J has a turquoise clip in her cropped hair, a gift from her sister. P holds my hand and whimpers, sad about the snack I’ve prepared for her, daunted by another morning with strangers.

Godfrey wears black rubber boots, sprays water over sikuma seedlings. He scrubs the sidewalk with an intensity I don’t understand, determined to scrape red dirt from old cement squares. Above his head hangs a new bunch of bananas, green and spiky in the morning sun.

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