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Mists of the Serengeti

By:Leylah Attar

Mists of the Serengeti
        Author: Leylah Attar

       
         
       
        
IF YOU HAD asked Jack Warden what his favorite things were before that afternoon, he would have reeled off a list without hesitation: black coffee, blue skies, driving into town with the windows down, Mount Kilimanjaro wreathed in swirling clouds in his rear-view, and the girl who owned his heart making up the words to the song on the radio. Because Jack was absolute and precise, as clear as the African Savannah after the rain. He'd weathered his share of storms-losing his parents as a child, losing his college sweetheart to a divorce-but he knew how to roll with the punches. He'd learned that early in life, on dusty safaris in the Serengeti, where hunter and hunted played hide and seek amidst tall, swaying elephant grass.

Jack was a survivor. He got knocked down, but he always got back up. And the times when his daughter visited the coffee plantation over her summer break were golden days-mud-squelching, popcorn-munching, frog-hunting days. Jack had the kind of presence that turned heads when he entered a room, but on those days, he was like the sizzling crack of a thunderbolt-all lit up from the inside.

"Lily, put that back," he said, as she opened the glove compartment and pulled out a bar of chocolate that looked like it had just been dragged out of a sauna.

"But it tastes so good when it's all melted like this. Goma leaves it there for me."

"Goma is ninety. Her brain is about as mushy as that chocolate."

They laughed because they both knew that Jack's grandmother was as quick and sharp as a black mamba. She was just full of eccentricities and marched to her own beat. It's what had earned her the name Goma, from the Swahili word for drums: ngoma.

"Lily, no. You'll get it all over your costume. Li-" Jack sighed as her chubby, eight-year-old fingers tore through the foil. He could have sworn he heard Goma laughing from the foothills of the mountain, as she sat on the porch. He smiled and turned his eyes back to the road, taking a mental snapshot of the way his daughter looked-big-eyed and curly-haired, in a rainbow tutu and sunflower hat, with chocolate smudges around her mouth. These were the moments that got him through the long months when she was back in Cape Town with her mother.

As they entered the roundabout into town, Jack rested his elbow on the window frame. His skin was tanned, much like the tourists who rolled in from the beaches of Zanzibar, but his color was permanent, earned by years of working outside under the Tanzanian sun.

"Are you going to record the dance recital?" asked Lily.

It was an unspoken agreement between them. Lily spent entire afternoons making him and Goma watch and re-watch her performances. She gave them scorecards, and the numbers slowly inched up, because she wouldn't let them leave until she got exactly what she wanted out of them. 

"Watch it again," she'd say, because they had obviously missed her perfect timing here, or the double tap there.

"Can you sign me up for more lessons?" she asked.

"Already done," Jack replied. It meant an hour-long drive to Amosha and back, on half-baked roads riddled with potholes, but watching his daughter dance made his heart grow ten times its size. "Is Mum going to enroll you in dance class when you get back?"

"I don't think so." It was so matter-of-fact, with the same kind of acceptance she had adapted after learning her parents were going to live thousands of miles apart, that Jack felt a sharp pang of sadness.

He had met Sarah at the university in Nairobi. They were both away from home-young, free, and hungry. He could still remember the first time he'd seen her-black-skinned and sophisticated-her sleek, shoulder-length braids falling around her face as she took the seat next to him in the lecture hall. She was all city-girl, he was all country-boy. She liked to jot things down-goals, plans, lists, dates. He liked to live day by day, hour by hour. She was meticulous and cautious. He was exuberant and impulsive. They had been doomed from the start, but when does that ever stop anyone from falling in love? He'd fallen hard-as had she-and what a ride it had been. In the end, the isolation and unpredictability of life at the coffee farm had been too much for Sarah. But Kaburi Estate was Jack's livelihood, his birthplace, and his legacy. Its raw, rushing beat pulsed through his veins like rich, dark espresso. He knew Lily had it in her too, that hot, frothy swirl of magic and madness. It was why she loved to dance, and there was no way he was going to stand by and watch all of her pure, vibrant essence get washed away just because she spent the majority of her time away from the farm.

"Maybe if I get better grades this year," Lily continued.

And there it was again. Structure, form, function, discipline. Not that it was a bad thing for a kid, but anything that fell outside those parameters was cut and discarded. Jack had watched it rinse his marriage of joy, until it sat like a colander full of thawed out, freezer-burned vegetables, with no color and no flavor. Sarah had left little room for joy, for simple moments to just be, and now she was doing the same thing to Lily. She had a plan in place for their daughter, and it did not include pursuing personal passions.

"Well, baby girl, your mum is right." Jack turned to face her. "We both want you to do well in school. Work hard on those grades when you get back. But today, you dance! And when you-" He blinked as a burst of light momentarily blinded him.

"Lily, you're going to use up all the film," he said.

"So?" Lily pulled out the milky Polaroid that was starting to develop, pointed the camera at herself, and snapped a shot.

"Give me that camera."

"No!" She squealed and pushed him away with sticky fingers.

"Ugh." Jack wiped the chocolate from his face as they passed crooked shops with Coca-Cola and Fanta signs, archaic trees with bright green canopies, and patches of red, volcanic soil. "You got it all over the camera too."

"I can fix it." She took off the hat that Goma had sewn for her and wiped the camera clean. "All good!"

Jack smiled and shook his head as they turned into the mall where her dance group was performing. It was a short, informal production for family, friends, and weekend shoppers.

"Come on. Miss Temu will be waiting!" Lily jumped out of the car as soon as they found a parking spot. Saturday was the busiest day at Kilimani Mall, and there was also some kind of convention going on.

"Hold on," said Jack. He was almost done rolling up the windows when his phone rang. It was one of the staff from his farm, asking if he could pick up a few supplies while he was in town.



       
         
       
        

Lily came around to his side of the car. The window was tinted, so she pressed her palm against the glass and peered inside. She made funny faces at Jack until he hung up.

"Let's go, baby girl," he said, taking her hand.

The recital was being held on the lower level, in a small hall off the food court. As they made their way there, Lily stopped in front of a balloon vendor.

"Can I get a yellow one for Aristurtle?" She tugged on one of the helium-filled balloons.

Aristurtle was Lily's pet tortoise, who had remained nameless until Goma started calling him that because of all the grand questions Lily consulted him on.

"What is Aristurtle going to do with a balloon?" asked Jack.

"You know how he's always getting lost?"

"Because you let him roam all around the house."

"Because I don't like caging him in. So, if I tie a balloon around his shell, we'll always know where he is."

"You know, that is so absurd, it makes sense." Jack laughed and pulled out his wallet. "We'll take a yellow one."

"Sorry, they're six in a bouquet," the man replied. "I have other singles, but I'm all out of the yellow ones." He gave them a curious glance, but Jack was used to it. It had started when he and Sarah were dating, and had continued after they'd had Lily. A mixed-race couple with a biracial daughter. The contrast seemed to fascinate people.

Jack glanced at Lily. Her eyes were fixed on the bright, sunny ones. "Fine. I'll take all six."

As he bent down to give her the balloons, she wrapped her arms around him and squeezed. "I love you! You're the best daddy ever!"

A flurry of strangers milled around them, but Jack was hit with a sweet stillness in that moment, a surge of warmth and purpose in the middle of an ordinary day.

"Don't tie them to Aristurtle all at once or he'll fly away," he said.

Lily giggled and broke away, taking the escalator down, the balloons bobbing around her like golden sunburst.

"Lily!" her dance instructor called, when they got to the recital hall. "You look great!"

"It's a rainbow." Lily twirled around, showing off the tutu that Goma had made. "My favorite."

"It's perfect." Her instructor turned to Jack and smiled. "Hello, Jack."

"Miss Temu." He nodded, instinctively taking in her lithe dancer's body and smooth cocoa-powder skin.

"It's Mara," she corrected, as she had done many times before. She had made her interest in him clear, but Jack knew better than to mess with the dynamics of his daughter's dance class. In a room full of mothers, he was the only father who showed up with his child. They fawned over him, not just because Jack was a powder keg of testosterone-his voice, his hands, his gestures-but also because of how playful and nurturing he was with Lily. It drew them to him, and Jack had learned not to stir up any jealousies by keeping all his attention on Lily. 

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