The sky glows pearly grey, blurry lines sliding above the tree line. The birds sing from behind leaves, their songs foreign and indistinguishable after my months away. I feel my absence, the way I forget to notice which bird is hopping through the branches of the dying potato tree, the way I see the trees as an indiscriminate crowd, forgetting names, details. There is a plant growing in a ceramic pot beside my porch that has grown so tall over these months that I can’t remember if it even was there when I left. Its red petals bend in clusters like Christmas ornaments,or plastic marbles. A flock of white birds dive low in the valley, disappear behind the banana trees before I can recognize them, remember their names. I have poured new millet seed in our terracotta bird bowl, but no birds are coming to eat them, wary of this stranger’s offering, not willing to pour out trust so easily.
We walk up the hill to the school, M dressed carefully in new jeans, new earrings. P skips beside her in yellow flipflops, her hair bending in unfamiliar curls. An Egyptian goose stares sidelong at us through its black rimmed eyes, lifts in a flash of white feathers. P decides it must be too cold here, it will fly somewhere warmer.
I drive my niece and her friend to an orphanage. The women there ask them if they are strong enough to lift the buckets of wet laundry, wait and watch to see if these teenagers will pass the test. The girls laugh, act nonchalant, walk away down the brick lane, young boys trailing them on tricycles. I drive away through the gate and wonder if I should be leaving them, if I’m running away from the tests I might not pass.
J is so excited to bake brownies for her cousin, a farewell offering before tomorrow’s departure. She heaves our biggest glass bowl onto the counter, collects ingredients from the cupboards, fills measuring cups like a careful scientist. It is only when we are about to bake the batter that she mentions casually how she used all the baking soda. We realize she has forgotten about teaspoons, has used only cups in this recipe…half cup baking soda, half cup salt, quarter cup cream of tartar. We lick the batter, grimace, decide this batch might do better outside. We walk together to the banana trees at the edge of the yard, dump the bowl into the grass. J hopes the animals don’t get stomach aches from eating it.
Two men walk back and forth along the edge of my yard, talking in quiet kiswahili, huge yellow rocks on their shoulders. They are carrying the rocks from the pile on the driveway to the other men sitting in the grass behind the hedge where they are making gravel by chipping at the rocks with small steel tools. I have never appreciated the immense effort of hand crafted gravel. Later, I walk gingerly down the graveled driveway, wonder about the hierarchy of jobs in this world.