M is writing a novel, is passionate and committed. Every free moment that opens up she runs to the computer, dives back into her world of ghosts and empresses, translates French phrases, asks for help with spelling. I watch her devotion, jealous and amazed. Following all the advice of the best writers, she puts me to shame, has become my role model.

At the Indian Ocean, I watch Phil and the girls floating in the wide blue water. Their laughter carries across the wind, the sand, as they wrestle, splash, hold slimy sea cucumbers in their hands. There is no one else in sight, only their four dark silhouettes changing shape in the sparkling light.

We play volleyball in the living room with the red balloon J got from the dentist, set our dining room chairs in a long row to be the net, tease each other about our skills.

The girls have started making perfume. They pick flowers, rosemary needles, mint leaves, crushing each combination into colourful pulp. They gather all their most beautiful containers and jewelry boxes, fill them with the murky water of their concoctions, label them with poetic names. We smell each sample, buy them with one shilling coins, dab their earthy scent on our wrists. Weeks later I find containers of old flower petals in the fridge, being preserved for another (forgotten) sale.

J wants to bake meringues, flavour them with rosewater and lemon. She moves carefully through the kitchen, but I am impatient as I wash dishes, wipe up spilled egg yolks, watch my morning slipping away. Tears slip into the dishwater, and I don’t know if they are my frustration or my guilt at being frustrated. Later we savour the meringues, perfect, pale yellow and pink.

I am driving with a friend after dark when we see an animal, a mongoose maybe, but longer and fatter than any mongoose we’ve seen, run across the road through the beams of our headlights. It has the rich black and white stripes of a zebra, moves like water low to the ground, disappears in the bushes. We are both stunned, stumble over the words to best describe the mysterious creature.

I reach to turn on the shower water and jump back when a tiny baby gecko, shorter than my thumb, drops from the tap and into the bath. I try to direct the water away from it so it can scramble to safety, but a moment later am distracted when another identical gecko jumps from the curtain above my head and narrowly misses my shoulder. I laugh at my tiny scurrying shower mates.

J and P use a turquoise skateboard as their main mode of daily transportation in the house, from the stairs to the table, from the entrance to the couch. They roll back and forth, calm, nonchalant, like mannequins on a conveyor belt. I wince when it bangs into the sliding glass doors, narrowly misses the violin, but am proud of their confidence, their poise.

Something is happening with the sunbirds. There are so many around the house, diving from plant to plant, swooping in through the doors. Phil remarks that at everyone window of the house there is a sunbird flapping its metallic blue wings, chirping loudly as though desperate to be let in. We don’t know why they want to come in so badly, what has shifted in their population or our yard to attract so many. One flies in through the open door, lands on the back of a chair, then hops to each piece of furniture, observing us. It decides its work is done and glides out through the front door. We laugh, baffled, try to remember how miraculous it is, that curved beak, those shimmering feathers.

P walks down the hallway an hour after her bedtime, holding a pink stuffed pig. She walks into the darkened guest room for a few seconds then comes to the living room and announces that she can’t find it, has been looking everywhere. I realize she is asleep, caught up in a dream search for an object she can’t quite articulate. I ask her if she wants help finding her bed. She nods and wipes her blond wispy hair from her face. I tuck her back in under her down comforter, covered in hearts, smile at this glimpse into her private dreams.

M recites Shakespeare, practices writing in cuneiform, teaches us songs in Spanish. She is discovering so many ways of speaking, comes alive with so many possibilities, ways of voicing the ideas teeming in her head. She carries a music stand outside, sings songs from old musicals to the birds.

The girls practice gymnastics in the yard on two old tattered mattresses. They blare Disney songs from speakers, choreograph elaborate routines long after the sun has set. Phil and I are called to be the audience, shine headlamps on them like spotlights.

The monkeys are brave these days, hungry. I come home to find two of them sitting outside my door, watching me as they peel the bananas I had just bought, the ones that were to become banana bread this afternoon. I throw a ball at one of the monkeys. He barely flinches. Takes another bite of my banana, saunters onto the roof. Whose to say I’m not the intruder here.

The girls have created a skateboard game that involves levels of difficulty, one girl spread out on the floor, the others trying to maneuver around her. They cheer for each other, cry when their fingers get rolled over, fall and shriek and laugh. I swallow my warnings, try not to watch.

A common bulbul has built a nest in the hibiscus bush by our porch. I am talking with a friend, sharing parenting sorrows and wiping away tears, when she sees the babies, two small heads with beaks wide open, a wriggling bug hanging from the mama’s mouth (I recognize her as another mother doing her best). She flies away and the small feathery shapes duck down, disappear, waiting.


The girls practice magic tricks, pore over magic books, collect coins and cards and homemade wands. Phil buys them new decks of cards in shiny gold boxes, like cigarettes. They hold them with reverence, deal the cards out into piles over and over, amazed at the power of conjuring magic.

I sit in a corner booth with a friend, feel tears pool against my eyelashes as we tell the truth about mothering and marriage and conversations with pious, perfect friends. My coffee turns lukwarm between my hands as the relief of honesty fills my lungs.

We let the birdfeeder sit empty and every day, the bronze mannekins land on the terracotta edge and shake their heads in disbelief, small quivering movements. In this land of drought and helplessness in the face of people dying of starvation, I am ashamed to have even failed in this small thing. I pour small seeds from a plastic bag, am grateful that the mannekins keep returning.

I read about trees and can’t believe how much there is to learn, how wide their mysteries. I trace my fingers over dark knots in bark, whisper apologies for careless nails we’ve hammered into so much flesh, regret the rocky and lonely locations I’ve chosen for trees in my yard. I stop to tell a tall smooth tree about the anger I haven’t shared with anyone and before I go find that I have kissed the cool trunk. When did I become someone who kisses trees? Why did it take me so long?

M picks up my phone and exclaims over its capabilities. “This,” she lays it in the centre of the counter, “is proof that the world is going crazy.” I smile at her old soul, stir colourful vegetables in a cast iron pan.

The girls draw portraits of faces over and over, piles of paper faces growing on the dining room table. J has drawn me, though my eyes and hair are black and unfamiliar. I wonder at her image of me. P’s girl is crying and colourful, like a sad Raggedy Ann. M’s face has eyes at the top of her head, stylized and funky. They draw and colour and argue over pencil crayons.

I give up my conviction to not buy hard plastic and buy two shiny new plastic buckets for the drought. A basin for dishwater. Two buckets in the bathrooms. We collect bath water, sink water, dip into the brown soapy water with a plastic jug to flush the toilets, water the plants. We still have more water than almost anyone in the world. I am puzzled at the memory of flushing without thinking.

We play Sleeping Queens on the back porch. J always wins. We play Spot It and Shut the Box and King of Tokyo and Deer in the Headlights. These are the games of choice these weeks, though I can’t always muster the energy to play them. I already regret the chances I’ve missed.

The girls watch my play practices, know the lines better than the cast, skip behind plants and boss the middle schoolers around. We string stars between branches, tape long leafy vines to a gold moon, wrap delicate wires around fairy ears.

I wait for reports about my aunt dying on a far away continent. One day she has stopped eating,the next, she’s revived,is walking. We watch her totter on the tightrope between worlds.

M and J decide to make mango pudding for our tea time, want to do it on their own without a recipe. They stir sugar and flour, puree mango pieces, pick small mint leaves. They pinch chocolate shavings from the bottom of the chocolate chip bag and argue over whose turn it is to stir. We eat the cool sweet pudding out of small bowls on the back porch, the girls eyeing us with pride.

I watch a bee eater snap a bright blue butterfly in its beak, carry it back to a branch of the potato tree. The butterfly is big, too big for the small beak. The bird works with determination, trying to somehow shove those fluttering wings into its own body. I am struck most by the colours, the metallic green of the bird’s feathers, the shimmering blue of the butterfly wings, am amazed to watch the one colour disappear, become a part of the other. Now, incredibly, the bird holds the fragile blue of the butterfly in its own green body. I notice I’m not sad at the butterfly’s death, more amazed at the fusion of life.

Phil calls us to the backyard. It’s raining. We all stand on the brown grass, look up at the clouds, darker than we’ve seen in months. The rain falls in small individual drops, not enough to make us wet, stops before it really begins. We set a purple bucket in the yard, an overly optimistic gesture. The bucket remains dry. We keep waiting.

I sit on the Lamu couch and fold gold embossed origami paper into lopsided peace cranes, trying to conjure hope with each careful crease.

P has propped a small note up on the coffee table “I lov you, famale. You mak me smuyl.” Under the note is a brown envelope full of carefully folded drawings. She pulls them out one at a time, hands them to each of us, pictures of flowers and sunshines and trees in bright marker colours.

I carry a plastic bucket of bath water across the lawn in the early morning to water my favourite palm tree. I notice how wet the grass is and wonder where all that moisture comes from in this time of drought, heat. The ground is hard, the dirt in the flower beds cracked and dusty, but the grass is cool and wet beneath my bare feet. It’s the first time I remember being deeply grateful for dew.

J and her friends decide to institute International Baby Day. She wraps the doll M made for her in a sweater, the doll with the orange yarn hair, the purple bonnet, the stuffed sock body, and tucks her into her backpack, secretly when no one is watching. Later after her secret plan has unfolded without a hitch and she no longer has to worry about me interfering, she tells me about the day, the baby, the way the girls played with their dolls during recess. Her doll is still strapped to her back with a green cardigan like a Kenyan mama.

I read Peter Duck to the girls before bedtime. The words are difficult, the sailing lingo tedious. But the girls don’t complain as they colour pictures of Harry Potter wands, draw trees with curlicue branches. P has been drawing guinea pigs on all her pictures for months, small round creatures with curved legs and small smiles, her signature work.

I duck my head as I hang laundry on the line, hoping no one will see me, notice that I used my washing machine during this time of so little water. Each clean piece of clothing feels decadent, a luxury that I’ve stolen.

After supper the girls beg for a Family Game, something involving hiding and chasing around the yard. We decide on Big Black Bear, Phil gives into the pressure to hide because he is scariest, fastest, loudest. We run around the house, hold hands, shriek into the fading evening light. I remember playing this game as a child, running through the farmyard with my cousins, scared of older brothers, the thrill of danger.

New birds have found our birdfeeder, though we don’t know why or how. Grosbeak weavers with long necks, bold white foreheads. They scare away the smaller birds, the firefinches and mannnekins that have been at home here so long. We all gather at the sliding glass door, move slowly, observe these new dynamics, these rowdy new neighbours.

J is memorizing the locations of African countries. She stands with Phil looking over the Rift Valley and points across the vastness. Over there is Rwanda. Somalia is that way. Tanzania over there. She is finding her place on this wide continent.

We carry heavy wooden chairs to the middle of the lawn, watch the immense sky over the valley turn every colour. The sun becomes a fireball, then hides behind the clouds sending rays of heaven in every direction. We point at cloud shapes, colour shades, rain falling in the distance, dust devils swirling at the other end of the valley. The girls pause their movie, come outside, exclaim and point, still willing to be amazed by this land of their childhood.

At night P wants me to stay close, to trace letters on her back, to sing lullabies. Her bed is lined with stuffed animals, she holds a small reading light. Wants “fancy hugs” and extra kisses. Tomorrow she turns six, this child who used to fit below my ribs. Today when I walked her to school, she kissed goodbye early, insisted she’d run the rest of the way herself, is making me less vital to the workings of her day.

We run to the soccer field in the dark, just before bedtime, to watch P fly her new kite. She calls, laughs, runs to the far end of the field, disappearing into the darkness. We all take turns, following her careful instructions. M wears a Moroccan scarf that sparkles in the street lights. P and J do floppy handstands on the hard earth, legs spread wide. Our cheers echo across the silent parking lot.

M and J work secretly each evening, drawing shimmering pictures with gel pens on black paper- pictures of leaves and swirls, floating hearts and hatching eggs. They are making a boardgame for their sister, yell too harshly whenever she tries to see what they’re doing, work with urgent creativity.

The girls and their friends write clever plays to perform for us, plays about witches and fairies, vegetables, and lots of dying. They stuff pillows up jackets, tie scarves around their waists, work through their biggest fears. We laugh and applaud, wish we could save them from all that dying, all those fears.

P and I walk through the forest on he birthday morning. She carries a long stick and whacks it at every tree branch she passes, cheers when leaves fall. At every two-trunked tree she stops suddenly and stands at attention, tells me her kindergarten teacher told her to always stare at two-trunked trees for two minutes. Our progress is slow. When we find the prayer labyrinth, she picks small seeds out of seed pods, arranges them in a circle on the stone cross, rubs crumbly leaves between her palms for confetti.

M and her new friend tiptoe to the edge of the brown river that cuts deep into the ravine. They find a place to push through the bramble at the waters’ edge, lower themselves slowly into the cold water, take sharp intakes of breath as the water reaches their bellies, their shoulders. They swim across the water, work against the current that pulls them towards the rest of us, the shallows where younger siblings are splashing rocks. They are determined to cross the moving water, set themselves apart as brave and capable, reach the ledge on the other side that no younger siblings have touched. When they scramble on the far shore, they look small against the tall edge of the ravine, crouch in the dirt near some rocks, all elbows and knees pressed side by side, play tic tac toe in the dust.

We squeeze into the shade at the edge of the river, hand out crumbly scones and warm white wine. We listen for hippos, remind the children to beware of the current, pass around a ukelele.

P doesn’t want to go to school, cries and refuses to stand up when we start to leave. She wears a green bow in her hair, polka dot socks pulled high up her shins. I pick her up though she is too heavy, this baby of mine that has become a tall girl. She wraps her arms and legs around me like a small monkey, buries her tears in my shoulder, allows me to carry her up the hill.

There is a crowd of children playing tag in the backyard. Night has fallen and their shapes are blurry in the darkness, though their squeals and shouts are magnified. I watch the outline of J dart through the shadows, dodge the reach of the older kids. When she reappears at the edge of the pool of porch light, her hair is wild, her forehead glistening with sweat, her smile proud.

We sit on the porch and eat spicy olives that I’ve marinaded myself, my surprise for Phil after his long day. The dusky light slides through the leaves of the banana trees, through the blue and green glass beads hanging in long strings from the roof, through the Moldovan wine bottle Phil brought home from the store. The girls are playing at their friends’ houses. The yard is silent, the day folding in on itself for another night.

M wears a purple hoodie, lies beside me as I work, reading a book she’s read a dozen times already. She looks up every few minutes to comment on the sky, the ivy, the taste of her tea. I think of Rilke reminding us to love the things as no one has thought to love them.

P is eager to get to school, impatient with my conversations along the way. She needs to get to her new friend, needs to play with her as soon as possible. I get a quick goodbye kiss, then she runs to drop her backpack in her cubby, skips over to her friend who is being pushed on the swing. Soon P appears beside me, her face crumpled. She leans into me, whispers “She doesn’t want to play with me”. I hold her on my lap, watch tears slide down her smooth cheeks, am helpless in the face of so much heartbreak, such explicit rejection.

High in the burned out trunk of a eucalyptus tree above the labyrinth where I meditate each morning, there is a small brown stuffed monkey. Its lofty seat makes me laugh, puzzled. I call it the Prayer Monkey, nod hello to it when I arrive at that quiet place, hope some day I learn what it waits to teach me.

We walk to a small pond in the middle of the forest.Green lily pads like fat hearts rest on its glassy surface. Purple lilies, tall and surprising, reach straight to the sky, leave drops of colour on the water mirror. M and I sit in the shade on an old kikoi, watch the Jacanas strut in the shallows, their throats preposterously white. Just before we leave we recognize a Little Grebe with its long crimson neck diving into the water and we cheer at our good luck, our first Little Grebe, our place in this hidden society.

J and P come to the supper table covered in red dirt and sand dust. They are breathing heavily, disheveled and hungry. “We’ve just had a war.” They reach for the pot of rice and recount the afternoon’s battle with the middle school boys at the playground. “We used bows and arrows. We won.” They grin over their plates with pride.

There is a plastic food container with a lid in the fridge, filled with a purple-brown liquid that I can’t identify. Before I taste it I remember P, the day before, gathering petals from our flowers, picking small needles of rosemary, asking for a bowl. I smile at her beautiful soup, nestled comfortably among the vegetables.