Casting with a Fragile Thread: A Story of Sisters and Africaby Wendy Kann
In this poignant, lyric memoir, a sister's tragic death prompts a woman's unbidden journey into her turbulent African past.
A comfortable suburban housewife with three children living in Connecticut, Wendy Kann thought she had put her volatile childhood in colonial Rhodesianow Zimbabwebehind her. Then one Sunday morning came a terrible phone/p>/b>… See more details below
In this poignant, lyric memoir, a sister's tragic death prompts a woman's unbidden journey into her turbulent African past.
A comfortable suburban housewife with three children living in Connecticut, Wendy Kann thought she had put her volatile childhood in colonial Rhodesianow Zimbabwebehind her. Then one Sunday morning came a terrible phone call: her youngest sister, Lauren, had been killed on a lonely road in Zambia. Suddenly unable to ignore her longing for her homeland, she decides she must confront the ghosts of her past.
Wendy Kann's is a personal journey, set against a backdrop as exotic as it is desolate. From a privileged colonial childhood of mansions and servants, her story moves to a young adulthood marked by her father's death, her mother's insanity, and the viciousness of a bloody civil war. Through unlikely love she finds herself in the incongruous sophistication of Manhattan; three children bring the security of suburban America, until the heartbreaking vulnerability of the small child her sister left behind in Africa compels her to return to a continent she hardly recognizes.
With honesty and compassion, Kann pieces together her sister's life, explores the heartbreak of loss and belonging, and finally discovers the true meaning of home.
Sarah Erdman, author of Nine Hills To Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village
"Wendy Kann's book - like Jeannette Walls's the Glass Castle - kept me up all night. It's one of the most beautifully-written, harrowing, compassionate non-fiction books I've read in years. Written with fierce love and a kind of sun-forged courage, it's heartbreaking, almost unbearably real, and incredibly hopeful."
Alexandra Fuller, author of Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight and Scribbling The Cat
"I was very affected by this accomplished memoir. Wendy Kann, with often heart-breaking and evocative detail, has brought back a small gem from her colonial experience of Africa." Carolyn Slaughter, author of A Black Englishman and Before The Knife: Memories of an African Childhood
"Wendy Kann's courageous memoir is marked by loss - of a mother and a father, of a country, of a sister. Her work is remarkably free of sentimentality. Instead she writes eloquently about her and her sisters increasingly desperate struggle for love and sense of belonging in a family disintegrating at the same time that a brutal civil war breaks out in Rhodesia. She vividly captures the fear and denial and disbelief of her fellow white countrymen in the years preceding independence. Though painful at times, her journey back to Zimbabwe and her reclaiming of her childhood years in Africa is a gripping read." Lisa Fugard, author of Skinner's Drift: A Novel
"Kann writes brilliantly about sisters: their frictions, their intimacies, and, above all, their binding loyalty, even when time has moved them continents apart. Her memoir takes us on an emotional helter-skelter, from the entitlement and raw racism of her African childhood, through troughs of poverty and abandonment, to an ascendant understanding of what means to live and love. Reads like a sequel to Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight and Doris Lessing's memoirs." Rob Nixon, Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin and author of Dreambirds
One of the most beautifully written, harrowing, compassionate nonfiction books I've read in years. Written with fierce love and a kind of sun-forged courage, it's heartbreaking, almost unbearably real, and incredibly hopeful.
[Wendy Kann] writes from the perspective of a daughter and a mother, with a twinge of regret but not the gnawing homesickness of other writers cursed and fortunate enough to have been raised on that remarkable continent. The book's refreshingly crisp, uncloying, practical tone makes you feel empathy for a woman who lost her sister in a faraway land.
This is more than a touching story of personal tragedy. Wendy Kann paints an unapologetic and thoughtful view of a different kind of minority. She is first a settler: a white Zimbabwean, brought up in a privileged but dysfunctional cocoon of expats, alcoholics, and hardbitten farmers. She is later an improbable African immigrant: a Western-looking woman bewildered and alone on the streets of New York. Her candid treatment of race is refreshingly free of political correctness, her tales of bridging cultures are insightful and thought-provoking, and her family's searing history is penned with honesty. Best of all, her lovely words reflect an introspection and grace that are sometimes borne out of so much hardship.
I was very affected by this accomplished memoir. Wendy Kann, with often heart-breaking and evocative detail, has brought back a small gem from her colonial experience of Africa.
Wendy Kann's courageous memoir is marked by loss--of a mother and a father, of a country, of a sister. Her work is remarkably free of sentimentality. Instead she writes eloquently about her and her sisters increasingly desperate struggle for love and sense of belonging in a family disintegrating at the same time that a brutal civil war breaks out in Rhodesia. She vividly captures the fear and denial and disbelief of her fellow white countrymen in the years preceding independence. Though painful at times, her journey back to Zimbabwe and her reclaiming of her childhood years in Africa is a gripping read.
Kann writes brilliantly about sisters: their frictions, their intimacies, and, above all, their binding loyalty, even when time has moved them continents apart. Her memoir takes us on an emotional helter-skelter, from the entitlement and raw racism of her African childhood, through troughs of poverty and abandonment, to an ascendant understanding of what means to live and love. Reads like a sequel to Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight and Doris Lessing's memoirs.
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Read an Excerpt
CASTING WITH A FRAGILE THREAD (Chapter 1)
Lauren, my youngest sister, was killed in a car accident on a straight and lonely road in Zambia in 1999. By then I was so comfortable in my American life, so warm in its assumptions, that her death felt like a betrayal. Where I live, in Westport, Connecticut, people don't die. Mothers work on the PTA or spend their days, as I do, absorbed in how to improve downtown parking and which plants are deer resistant. On my kitchen table I have a large flat desk calendar and in it I write my three children's play dates and my school, car pool, and social obligations--but I am still notorious for double booking and forgetting things. My friends usually put me at the end of the class phone chain--the system we have for letting people know about snow days and whatnot--because they know it's a little risky to put me in the middle. I make an effort to stay intellectually active. I read a lot. Helping my children with their homework keeps me thinking, and I always listen to NPR during my long hours in the car to and from their activities. My husband fills me in before bed with stories from the New York Times, if I'm not asleep before he is. By the time Lauren was killed, it had been years since I had worried about whether people whom I loved might live or die.
For most of my childhood, death was background noise, like a TV left on in an empty room. I was born the oldest of three sisters in 1960 in Salisbury, Rhodesia, a teapot-shaped British colony in Southern Africa that is now Zimbabwe. When I was five, the country's two hundred thousand white settlers declared themselves independent from Britain with the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, or UDI, as we called it, in an effort to guarantee permanent white minority rule. By then, there had already been alarming changes to the old imperial world: colonies had crumbled, communism loomed, adults around me spoke in nervous whispers about Europeans killed in the African countries to the north of us that had "fallen."
Technically, the Rhodesian civil war began when I was six and lasted until I was twenty, but initially the African leaders of the nascent rebel factions (including Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's current president) were disorganized and easily contained by rigorous emergency legislation imposed after UDI. By the time I was a teenager, however, the conflict had spun out of control, leaving Rhodesia embroiled in a bloody racial clash that lasted until the end of 1979, when warring parties grudgingly agreed to an uneasy peace through British-sponsored talks at Lancaster House in London. Robert Mugabe was ultimately voted into office through democratic elections; nationalists renamed the country Zimbabwe. Up to thirty thousand people, black and white, died in the struggle for independence.
Growing up in Rhodesia, there were layers to my experience of death. Not all death was war-related, but it all was part of a more general death hum that seems to hover forever in Africa. There was the drone of faceless names I didn't know. There was the gasp that came with the death of other people's relatives and acquaintances. Then there was the punch that came with the death of those I knew well and loved--my family, my friends.
But at twenty-four, when I arrived in New York, it was as if my childhood had never happened. A path diverted, a faucet of tears turned off. Americans are without a mental image of Zimbabwe, and in its place are only fumbled associations. In Manhattan, when asked who I was I would reply, "I'm Wendy; I'm from Zimbabwe," to which a response of empty eyes would be returned. I began to feel invisible.
It's difficult even for people who live in Africa to see the continent clearly. Our heads are so choked with images of white foreigners adventuring under a romantic sun or haunted black children with distended bellies teetering on skeletal legs that myth tangles itself up with truth like ancient and overgrown wisteria, hiding and distorting what's really there.
But feeling invisible was painful, so I put aside my Zimbabwean identity--like a party dress boxed and wrapped in tissue paper, only to be taken out on special occasions when I went home--and began to cultivate an American self. For years my new identity felt uncomfortable, like a different dress full of prickles and stays, a corset too tight that sometimes made breathing difficult. Eventually, I stopped looking longingly at the closed Zimbabwean box for something that fitted more easily, as what had initially been painful slowly settled into a dull but manageable throb.
Then Lauren died.
Everyone who dies is remembered by their loved ones as beautiful, but Lauren truly was. She had a particular way of moving that was graceful and deliberate, exuding a sense of, if not serenity, then the feeling that nothing could perturb her. My middle sister, Sharon, who still lives in Zimbabwe, says it was as if Lauren never quite inhabited her body but, instead, seemed to wait lightly outside of herself. Once, when Lauren leaned over to pull a heavy wooden case of beer out from under the bottom shelf on the pantry floor, a huge cobra that had been lurking there reared up and hissed in her face. Richard, her husband, told me she simply wiped her hands on the back of her shorts and went back to the breakfast table, sighing in a ho-hum sort of way. "Richard, there's a cobra in the pantry," she said, while she buttered a piece of toast, as if commenting on the weather.
I can still picture her slow-moving almond-shaped eyes, flawless skin, and high, pronounced cheekbones. She had dark blond hair, which she had highlighted when she lived in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital city, where there are hairdressers, and she used to flick it away from her face with a soft hand in a shy self-conscious manner. Her smile was broad and showed equal amounts of perfectly straight and white upper and lower teeth, which she was proud of and careful to floss.
When Lauren was happy and smiled in that broad way, she was at her most beautiful. When she wasn't happy, which was a lot of the time, she was no less beautiful, but after you first gaped at her you felt her emptiness, a too-long pause that would occur as she floundered in her head, trying to think of what to say. She grew somewhat more certain after she married, but even then those who met Lauren could sense her quiet panic and might grow uneasy and move on, leaving her to drift back into a shadowy periphery, where she was more at home anyway.
She met her husband, Richard, at a party in Wedza, a small and prosperous farming area east of Harare, about ten years after the Rhodesian war ended. It was just like Lauren to drive for three hours alone from Harare on a dark road, on which huge trucks with no headlights rumbled dangerously and abandoned buses waited shrouded in darkness, to go to a party hosted by people she didn't even know. When she called me in New York to tell me about it I muttered maternally at her recklessness and she laughed, explaining that she really needed to meet a new crowd.
Coincidently, Richard didn't know the hosts of the party either. He was from Zambia, an immense country to the north of Zimbabwe that rolls out to almost touch the middle, more unfathomable parts of Africa. There are not many white people in Zambia. Richard, a naturally shy young man then in his late twenties, grew tobacco on the same isolated farm in the southern part of the country where he had grown up.
As Lauren described to me years ago, Richard and two other Zambian bachelors, each still percolating on the warm beer and banter from their daylong drive south, boisterously outdid one another to impress her. But she was most intrigued by Richard. His startling blue eyes were difficult to ignore, his skin was tanned a deep russet, and she felt it still warm from the sun when he draped a self-consciously possessive arm around her shoulders. Fascinated by the romance of isolation, she caught the subtle scent of his loneliness and was touched, in a way, by its intense magnetism.
Lauren and Richard arranged to meet again, a few weeks later, at the elegant Victoria Falls Hotel, on the Zimbabwean side of the Zambian border. Victoria Falls is quite far from Harare, so Lauren flew north. Richard made the long journey south on a potholed ribbon of road in his overheated farm pickup. I remember her telling me how strange their meeting was; Richard's formerly smooth words seemed cut off by the unfamiliar necktie that he had quickly pulled out from the back of a drawer for the occasion, a formal dinner that was regularly interrupted by the noisy clinking of glass and silverware. After coffee Lauren suggested they walk the grounds, and they did, both wondering what to say, the sound of the falls faintly thundering through the far-off trees and the crickets shrieking loud and close.
The hotel pool was bright and deserted, with umbrellas carefully folded and loungers stacked. Lauren laughed unexpectedly and started to unbutton her blouse. She then slipped off her skirt and sandals and stepped out of her underwear. She paused for a long time, quite naked, a little heavier than she liked, her painted toes curled over the edge of the pool, smiling at the water. She let him look at her, young breasts happily unrestrained, tiny goose pimples, shocked and alert, covering her with a fine invisible down. Then she dove in with a small splash, her form cracking and quivering in the illuminated white ripples.
LAUREN WAS WORKING AS A SECRETARY FOR TABEX, THE TOBACCO auction floors in Harare, when she met Richard, a job she felt no qualms about abruptly quitting when I sent her a ticket to visit me in America. I had just had my first baby and spent those long stay-at-home hours lecturing her. I knew Lauren, how much she enjoyed what we in Zimbabwe called a "townie" life: movies and pedicures, cappuccinos (nothing an Italian would recognize), and salads at trendy places for lunch. She had watched a lot of Dynasty as a teenager and sometimes still tilted her chin and tried on those upper-crust mannerisms. Once, for a wedding, she rented an enormous feathered hat from Reps Theatre, which she wore with aplomb, blocking views at the church, tickling polite noses in the car, bobbing like a baby ostrich at the luncheon that followed. And she didn't do it as a joke.
I reminded her that even in Zimbabwe, where most farms and their communities were wealthy and established, a farming life was a lonely one in which men and their African labor took on the challenges of the land and left little, really, for their wives to do. Black servants took care of the children and housework. White women kept themselves sane with sewing groups and gardening clubs and flower-arranging circles. They drove trucks long distances, their hairlines full of dust, to visit female neighbors for tea and cake, desperate to confide frustrations with kids or husbands--impatient to forget their isolation, or grumble how hot it was, or wonder aloud, to another white woman, about whether or not it might rain.
I admit I didn't know a lot about Zambia then. In my mind it was one of those limitless slabs of Africa that baked quietly under the relentless sun. Though it had rich copper deposits near its border with Congo and enough fertile land to be plucked up as the British colony they called Northern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe was Southern Rhodesia and then, after Zambian independence, just plain Rhodesia), it never attracted many white settlers. It was too far--well, north, and the malaria was unmanageable, so Britain gave it up fairly easily in the early sixties when nationalists made a fuss.
Many of the girls who boarded at my high school in Salisbury came from Zambia. During the war, Zambia supported freedom-fighter or terrorist camps--it's hard to find the right word for them now--and Rhodesian troops staged dramatic bombing raids on Zambian soil. The thick Zambezi River marks the boundary between the two countries. In those days, the bus that took the Zambian boarders home wasn't allowed to cross the bridge spanning the bottomless gorge where the river becomes the Victoria Falls, so my school-mates were dropped off in their brown pleated skirts and turquoise blouses and instructed to drag their heavy trunks over steamy concrete and steel into their different and dangerous world.
"Is there at least a club in Choma?" I asked Lauren, on one of those afternoons in Manhattan. Every African farming district I'd ever heard of had a club--a few tennis courts for the ladies or a Sunday afternoon of mixed doubles and a hall-like clubhouse with a long bar at one end. Farmers showered and combed, darkly sunburned, uncomfortably formal in long pants, sipped beer there on Friday or Saturday nights while their wives fussed in the kitchen, swatting flying ants off the beef Stroganoff and pinching moths out of puddings. Parties at rural clubs were notoriously festive, with children sleeping in corners or shrieking on the rickety playground long after midnight. Eventually, somebody's husband would grope another woman or vomit into the flower bed, which gave the district something to gossip about for weeks.
Lauren said that there was a club in Choma, and, during Richard's childhood when Zambia was still Northern Rhodesia, it had once even hosted black-tie dinners, but she laughed now at how hard that was to imagine. The club building still existed, but only just. The swimming pool had been empty for years; its sides collapsing in great concrete lumps atop tufts of grass that pushed through the cracked, chalky bottom. There was a Coke machine--Lauren laughed at my surprise (even Zimbabwean clubs weren't advanced enough for Coke machines)--but then she added that it didn't work. Desperate women sometimes, but not often, drove hot hours to the Choma club to meet other white wives on the potholed tennis court there. It was risky, communication being what it is in Zambia, to plan a game. Too often, one would simply have to sigh and drive those long hours home again after slapping mopane flies and mosquitoes, enduring the whimpers of balding kaffir dogs and giggling hellos from scampering bone-thin children practicing their English, who would be intrigued, in a place where nothing changed, by a mazungu, or white woman, with a tennis racket.
My motives for dissuading Lauren from Richard were not entirely selfless. I was lonely and wanted her to move to America. During her three months in New York I encouraged her to study, but she chose courses like Off-Broadway Theater, which left her lost in a sea of first-world inside jokes. I encouraged her to date, but one young investment banker I introduced her to spent the evening rudely checking the gold price on something demanding and electronic in his pocket.
Lauren, like me, was baffled by America but had no particular interest in grappling to find an identity that Americans could recognize. We laughed when a young woman on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 49th Street approached us to be part of a TV focus group; when we said we were from Zimbabwe, she said, "I'll just put down New Jersey." Later that same trip, Lauren was spat on by a homeless man on the A train, leaving an oozing oysterlike blob of yellow mucus wandering down the front of her shirt. She left New York in disgust.
LAUREN WAS MARRIED IN THE OLD PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH ON Enterprise Road in Harare and had her wedding reception in the Kariba Room of the Holiday Inn. Richard's Zambian friends packed their best clothes and drove south in pickups and station wagons stuffed with coolers, pillows, and orange peel. Delighted at the excuse for a party, they were nevertheless awkward with the bustle of Harare after their quiet farms. When they arrived, they tapped out quick cigarettes, sucking on them hungrily with uneasy sun-browned lips. Richard's best man, Darren, had long blond hair that fell past his shoulders and wore a string of crocodile teeth on a strip of leather around his neck.
Someone sat my uncle Mark, who was married to my father's sister and had been a cabinet minister during the Rhodesian war, right next to the disco. My uncle Alastair came all the way out from England and gave a speech about Richard, Coeur de Lion--"a colossus straddling the Zambezi"--that nobody understood. Later, when Richard reached far under Lauren's dress to throw her garter, as they do at Zimbabwean weddings, the guys rugby-tackled one another, breaking glasses and knocking over chairs in their eagerness to catch it and show who was who. At the end of the evening Lauren took off her veil and danced alone, swigging champagne out of a bottle, swaying her hips and smiling as she watched her wide wedding skirt swing in mesmerizing circles. She looked up and saw me staring at her. "Wend, let me introduce you," she said, holding my arm and leading me to her new, now more relaxed community, laughing together, intimate and warm. "This is Piers, Murray, Caroline, Penny--" Lauren said, smiling, and in that moment I considered I might have been wrong. Perhaps my hesitations about Zambia had been colored unfairly by the Rhodesian war. It seemed that Lauren might find a little of herself in that mysterious, distant part of Africa, so far away from where I was trying to build a life in New York.
THE CHOMA DISTRICT IN ZAMBIA IS A PLACE WHERE IF THE rains don't wash away the telephone lines, people steal them, since the wire is more useful than the phones (which hardly anyone has). So Lauren and I wrote intermittently and spoke when we could. When we did reach each other, our voices cracking and spitting through the airwaves, our conversations felt broken and unsatisfying, the line usually clicking dead before we had time to say goodbye.
Mostly, we caught up when I visited Zimbabwe. She would make the long drive south and we'd both stay with Sharon and laugh at how different our lives were. She was irritated about the inconvenience of sporadic electricity. She could only use her hair dryer for the few hours they ran the generator at night, which conflicted with preparing dinner. She nearly burned the house down when she hung her robe too close to a candle while taking a shower before dawn, when they started their day.
She complained about long-tailed rats in the toilet and big hairy spiders that came scuttling under the door after the first rains, forcing her to pick up her feet while watching a few precious minutes of generator-run TV. I've seen pictures of her, tagging sportingly along with Richard and his friends on boozy fishing trips, driving hours to particular sandy spots where the Kafue River was most blue. Desperate to protect her beautiful skin from the sun, Lauren spent those weekends under a tree on the riverbank, her head wrapped entirely in a sarong--bands of yellow and green swirled over her hair and under her chin, across her mouth, covering her forehead, and pulled up over her nose until the soft fabric touched the two dark rectangles where she had wiggled in her sunglasses in order to look out onto the river for when Richard came back on his boat.
She couldn't help but be bored on the farm after the roar of Richard's motorbike faded into the hot morning and left nothing to hear except the flies and the soft swish of dry grass in an occasional breeze. After a while, she chose not to accompany her husband on his fishing trips or bird shoots and, instead, waited alone in her farmhouse for long mind-numbing weekends. She wanted to plant a lawn, but they couldn't spare the water. She wanted to make curtains for their farmhouse, but there was nowhere to buy fabric or thread.
Meals became an endless and all-consuming chore. Sometimes Richard came home with fish or guinea fowl. Sometimes she persuaded him to slaughter one of their Brahmin cattle--peculiar-looking drought-and tick-resistant animals with long drooping ears and a funny bump between their shoulders. Every so often lettuce and tomatoes would ripen in the vegetable garden simultaneously and she could make a salad. But mostly, because she had no experience, she didn't time the vegetable garden right. For weeks at a time it would yield a glut of awkward combinations like passion fruit and broccoli or leeks and strawberries. If she had been bolder with the other district wives they could have helped, since they had long ago learned to pool their garden excesses and compromise with shortages. But Lauren didn't talk to them and they, for their part, quickly decided she was snooty.
Every week or so, she took the cooler and drove into Choma. On the way there, children with wobbling, wide enamel basins ran suddenly into the rain-ravaged dirt road to wave limp vegetables; she had to swerve into the bush to avoid them, cursing softly under her breath when thorn bushes squealed sharply against the side of her truck. Once she stopped, but Richard criticized her for it, alarming her with the possibility of contracting cholera from vegetables likely grown too close to sewage. He also warned her not to go into the butcher's in Choma, so she avoided it. Usually the garage on the main Lusaka road opposite the club had bread or chickens. The Super Store almost always had flour, soap, sugar, salt, candles, tea, and an unpredictable assortment of canned goods. On occasion they had a few packets of Zimbabwean pork sausages. There was one time she even found ice cream.
Behind the Super Store was a slow dirt thoroughfare where the buses stopped. An odd tumble of stores built of bare brick and corrugated iron offered warm Coke and thick African beer. A few men calling themselves tailors pedaled Singer sewing machines in a shady place, billowing up dust. There were stalls with noisy vendors hawking toothbrushes and watch parts, who by tomorrow would be selling something different, though it was never what you needed at the time. If you looked behind a swath of plastic sheeting with a faded drawing of a smartly coifed man stapled to it, you'd find a mirror and a stool on which sat a patient barber, swatting flies.
We spent a lot of time in those days discussing the possibility of Lauren's establishing a small business, partly because she and Richard were always short of money, but mostly because she was looking for a reason to be. She tried selling kapenta, a teeny dried fish with disconcertingly bulgy eyes that she had to first buy from Lake Kariba, five hours away. The local Africans walked for miles to purchase the fish but, never having more than a few kwacha, they could only afford one cup at a time. Lauren, in her impatient way, was driven up the wall by sacks of smelly fish in her small kitchen and by the streams of Tonga returning with warm, damp banknotes that they'd saved in places close to their skin, all for the profit margin of a penny or two.
Next she tried chickens. She had Richard's laborers build a chicken run near the washing line and then drove all the way up to Lusaka to buy baby chicks. She came home with her precious cargo as carefully as possible although, no matter how mindful she was, a frustrating number of fluffy yellow bodies were lying dead when, at the end of a long day, she opened the big box. Nevertheless, she had me vicariously involved in the complicated regimen of administering vaccines and antibiotics for the survivors, maintaining the chicks at specific temperatures, and fussing with lights, generators, and syringes, which would have her up at all hours of the day and night. Lauren spent weeks smeared with chicken poop and feathers, chasing squawking flapping birds, yelling and shooing at giddy long-tongued dogs, and fiddling with mountains of medication in tiny packets. And yet only a few chickens ever grew to maturity. Those that did had to be slaughtered and plucked, after which Lauren would find bags to put them in, pack the neatly wrapped cadavers in the cooler, and drive them all the way to the Super Store. Though the business didn't last, she was proud that everyone in the district who tasted one of her chickens said they were quite good.
LAUREN SLOWLY LOST THE OUT OF AFRICA VISION OF HERSELF that I think had maintained her in the beginning. After a year or two, when I called in the evenings, I heard her softly close the door to the little room they used as an office, shutting out Richard and the drone of cricket on TV, before whispering to me that she was unhappy. She hadn't expected him to be so moody, she said. Sometimes Richard was attentive and loving, helping her plant an herb garden, carrying heavy buckets of precious water and patting down the mud, so she could make the elegant pastas with herb and cream sauce that she had once tried in a fancy Italian restaurant in Harare. (She never did find cream or Parmesan cheese.) Remembering the time when they had torn through the night to get an antimalarial from a far-off farm, she wistfully recalled the concern on his face as he kept glancing at her, huddled in blankets, sweating and shivering on the seat next to him.
But Richard could also be vindictive, even mean. Once, when she had helped herself to a square of chocolate sent to him by his mother, he snatched the rest of the bar up and angrily stormed outside to toss it into the fire that was heating the evening's bathwater. He then refused to speak to her for five lonely days. Silence was his favorite punishment. Sometimes it was hard, she told me, to tell whether the pounding she heard was the rays of the hot sun or her heart beating in the echoing emptiness. Once, at a rare district party, she left the women on the veranda talking about babies and vegetables and sat up at the bar instead, joking and flirting with the men. "It's time to leave," Richard said, appearing sullenly after a short while. But Lauren still had half a gin and tonic to go. Piers and Murray had pulled their bar stools closer to Lauren's and were smiling. She pouted, tilting her head. "Oh, no, can't we stay?"
Richard screeched away that night in a cloud of dust. Much later, Piers and Murray drove Lauren hours out of their way, back to her farm, Semahwa. The little farmhouse waited, crouching in the thick darkness.
"Don't come any closer!" Richard called from the black window, startling them all with his rifle glinting hard in the soft light.
"I think you should leave," Lauren told Richard's friends calmly.
"No...," they stammered, not getting out of the truck. Confused and surely still drunk, they were probably eager to go.
After a short while the taillights of their pickup sucked down to thin pink dots and disappeared with a soft pop. Lauren waited. Africa is not quiet at night. It creaks and groans, settling in on itself, like something eternal that breathes slowly and deep. Dry grass rustled nervously with a million eyes while the wizened watchman, who watched nothing at Semahwa, least of all the doings of the wazungu, the white people, hunched closer over his embers. Lauren sat down on a rock and hummed a little. It didn't seem to matter that her body was cold. Her spirit was very far away.
SO MUCH ABOUT LAUREN CHANGED EVEN BEFORE HER SON WAS born. Her pregnancy seemed to counter her old weightlessness, filling her with a certainty that hadn't been there for a long time. "I'm carrying a boy and his name is Luke," she had told me, long before she ever saw a doctor. When I met him months later at Sharon's house in Harare, Luke was a solid, bald baby who seldom cried. Although his eyes were a clear blue, like Richard's, he blinked them in a calm, unhurried way like Lauren. It was a funny coincidence that I had my third child, Sharon her second, and Lauren had Luke all around the same time, and we hooted as we balanced our combined squirmy toddlers into all sorts of cute cousin photos. We would tease Lauren, when Luke remained unperturbed by the ruckus, about how well suited he was to be a Zambian farmer, watching the grass grow. Lauren laughed, but she always seemed a little sensitive to what she imagined Luke's feelings might be and would scoop him up protectively. Once, when we had dozens of visitors over for an afternoon at Sharon's house in Harare, we were feeding the kids the nasty preservative-and-nitrite-stuffed red frankfurters that all Zimbabwean children love, when Lauren came out of the kitchen, primly, with a little bowl of steamed vegetables--only enough for her darling baby son.
Lauren and Luke.
SIX MONTHS AFTER THAT VISIT TO ZIMBABWE, IT WAS A SATURDAY in Westport. Mickey, the kids, and I had just come back from a weekend away, sunburned and insect-repellent sticky. Outside, the air had that salty-fish taste of Long Island Sound, while inside it was thick and stale from too-long-shut windows. When I heard Sharon on the answering machine, I knew the slippery pregnancy she had been holding on to for weeks was lost. I was surprised, however, when I called her and Lauren answered the phone. "Hi, Wend," she said in her calm, knowing way. I was relieved to find her there. She had driven the ten hours from her farm with Luke and Luke's nanny, Lucy, and we whispered about Sharon and her sorrow and all the support she was going to need. Lauren was lucky to have Lucy, I said, especially at a time like this. I knew Lauren had brought many women in from the tobacco fields or grading sheds to help her after Luke was born, but she had usually sent them back after a day or two. Lucy, Lauren had told me months before, was intelligent and learned quickly. Luke loved her, Lauren assured me now.
I called regularly, endlessly talking to Sharon about blood and babies and amniotic fluid. After a few days, Laurern answered the phone again. "I haven't asked how you are, Lol," I remembered.
"Did I tell you about the geraniums?" she replied thoughtfully.
"Well, I heard that in the south of France they grow scented geraniums, which they press to extract essential oils," she explained. "Geraniums also grow beautifully in the dry Zambian climate," she went on.
We never got to the part about where she would find or pay for the special kind of press or the little bottles she would need to put the oil in or how she would distribute it. But I liked the idea a whole lot better than chickens or smelly dried fish. I could picture Lauren inspecting her acres of scented geraniums, perhaps a little absentmindedly, with her slow-moving almond-shaped eyes. I could easily imagine the dusty fly-beleaguered farmhouse she'd described giving off the faint but pleasing aroma of geranium-scented oil.
A WEEK AFTER SHARON'S MISCARRIAGE THE PHONE RANG IN the very early morning, startling me awake, then abruptly stopping, prompting a brief expectant pause followed by a loud wail from the other room. Irritated, I remembered that Sunday was my day to get up with the baby. Mickey grunted and rolled over, pulling the pillow over his head. I shuffled to where Samantha was crying, pink-cheeked and disoriented in her crib, and while I lifted her little body out the phone rang again. I hurried to answer it, gritty sarcasm ready.
"Wendy?" It was Sharon's husband, Butch.
"Oh, hi, Butch," I said, wondering why, after fifteen years, my African relatives still didn't understand time zones.
"I've got some bad news for you," he said.
How bad could it be? I'd spoken to Sharon a dozen times in the past week. She was still shaky, but seemed to be recovering.
Butch hesitated slightly before he said the words. "Lauren's dead."
I must have made some kind of noise because suddenly Mickey was there, taking Samantha from me. Doubled over, I couldn't hold on to her. What do you say when your sister has died, Where? How? Words felt too light, too conversational. Butch continued to speak heavily, explaining that Lauren had died on the drive back from Harare to the farm. He understood Luke might be alive. He and Sharon were leaving for Zambia immediately. Richard knew nothing more. He had cried on the phone, Butch said, and had begged, "Please come," and "I can't cope."
The details would remain unknown for a long time. In Zambia, people communicate over two-way radios that crackle and skip, making it difficult to hear. That Sunday morning while we were still asleep in Connecticut a tangle of messages with burning electric edges and no resolution was carried on the waves. Anyone listening within a hundred-mile radius of Richard's farm knew there had been an accident involving a name that sounded like Duckett, Lauren's married name, but it could have been Beckett. Everyone was alert, unsure. A farmer close to the crash raced to investigate. So did the local veterinarian. Piers and Murray, Richard's friends, each many miles away in opposite directions, drove wildly to get to him.
Cruelly, Richard was oblivious a little longer. He was distracted and getting the house ready, ignoring the radio muttering to itself quietly in the small farm office. He was happy and excited that Lauren and Luke were coming home, eager for light chatter and warm bodies to ease the crushing loneliness of the bush.
It's hard to know what alerted him. A brittle word maybe, just caught, drifting into his awareness like a leaf. Somewhere in his pottering Richard became conscious of urgent voices; then something frozen expanded in his chest. His nervous fingers dialed Penny, a neighbor, who helplessly overflowed with what she knew. Richard stumbled outside, disbelieving, just as Piers and Murray arrived, scrambling from their vehicles and quickly slamming heavy truck doors. "What's going on?" Richard shouted, as they strode toward him, but still no one knew for sure, and the three of them stood paralyzed for long minutes in the dust and sun while the radios in their pickups crackled on callously and finally spat out a name. Duckett. It was definitely Duckett.
CASTING WITH A FRAGILE THREAD Copyright 2006 by Wendy Kann
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