Circling the Sun
A NovelLarge Print - 2015
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For British East Africa, war meant stopping the land-greedy Germans from taking everything we believed was rightfully ours. Large portions of the protectorate had become battlefields, and men everywhere—Boers and Nandis and white settlers, Kavirondo and Kipsigis warriors—had left their ploughs and mills and shambas to join the King’s African Rifles.
The women did all the carrying and the hoeing, the weaving and ploughing. They cared for the animals, too, while the warriors hunted or prepared for the hunt, oiling their limbs with rendered fat, plucking small hairs off their chests with tweezers kept in pouches around their necks. These totos kneeling on the ground would one day aim not at gourds but bushpig, steenbok, lion. What could be more thrilling?
“Mother and Dickie aren’t coming back, are they?” He gave me a pained look. “I don’t know.” “Perhaps she’s waiting for us to come to her.”
The three main characters together in less tumultuous time:
“You can see how I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” Karen said. “Denys wants to be buried here.”
“A pair of eagles have an eyrie somewhere nearby,” he said. “I like the idea of them soaring nobly over my carcass.” He squinted into the sun, his face brown and healthy, his long limbs throwing purple shadows behind him. There was a single line of perspiration running along his back between his shoulder blades, and his white cotton sleeves were rolled over his smooth, tanned forearms. I couldn’t imagine him any other way but this: every inch of his body absolutely and completely alive.
“The Kikuyu put out their dead for the hyenas,” I said. “If we could choose, I think I’d take eagles, too.”
How close people could be to us when they had gone as far away as possible, to the edges of the map. How unforgettable.
“What was it that drew you?” I asked him.
“About Kenya? Nearly everything. I think I’d always been looking for an escape route.”
“Escape from what?”
“I don’t know. Any tight-fitting definition of what a life should be, I suppose. Or what I should be in it.”
I smiled. “Should isn’t a word that suits you, is it?”
“Worked that one out already, did you?”
There are things we find only at our lowest depths. The idea of wings and then wings themselves. An ocean worth crossing one dark mile at a time. The whole of the sky. And whatever suffering has come is the necessary cost of such wonders, as Karen once said, the beautiful thrashing we do when we live.
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One of the elders swept me up, murmuring a string of charmed words, and tying a cowrie shell ceremoniously to my waist. It swung on a leather thong and was meant to resemble the closed cowrie shell between my own legs and to ward off evil spirits. When a Kip girl was born, they did this. I was the white to resemble the closed cowrie shell between my own legs and to ward off evil spirits. When a Kip girl was born, they did this. I was the white daughter of their white bwana, but something unnatural had happened that needed setting to rights. No African mother would ever have thought to abandon a child. I was healthy, you see, not maimed or weak. So they stamped out that first start and gave me another as Lakwet, meaning “very little girl.”
“The whip shouldn’t have been more than a gnat for Paddy (the lion that attacked Beryl,)” Bishon Singh told me.
“What do you mean?”
“What is a whip to a lion? He must have been ready to let you go. Or perhaps you weren’t ever meant for him.”
“Have you ever seen stars like this? You can’t have. They don’t make them like this anywhere in the world.” Above our heads, the sky was a brimming treasure box. Some of the stars seemed to want to pull free and leap down onto my shoulders—and though these were the only ones I had ever known, I believed Denys when he said they were the finest. I thought I might believe anything he said, in fact, even though we had just met. He had that in him.
Denys read on, his voice rising and falling, while a leopard moth that had got caught in the curtains stopped struggling for a moment, and realized it was free.
“Perhaps,” he said. “Or perhaps I’ll learn the difference between a boy’s dreams and a man’s.” He paused, and then said, “When I marry, my father will live again in my sons.” He sounded so arrogant, so sure of himself. It made me want to challenge him or put him right. I said, “The man who wants to marry me is very rich and strong. He lives near here. He built his house in three days.” “A proper house or a hut?” he wanted to know. “A real house, with shingles and a pitched roof, and glass windows.” He was silent for a moment, and I was sure I’d finally impressed him. “Three days,” he said at last. “There is no wisdom in such hurrying. This house will not stand long.” “You haven’t seen it.” My voice rose with irritation. “How can that matter?” he said. “I would ask him to build another dwelling, just for you, and to take more care.” He turned away, dismissing me, and said, partly over his shoulder, “You should know I have a moran’s name now. I am arap Ruta.”
“Ah,” he said, and then repeated a Swahili phrase he’d challenged me with years before, “A new thing is good, though it be a sore place.”
Bit burrs. Tongue-tying. Saddling for exercise and saddling for races. There was shoeing and bandaging, conditioning and equipment. I had to learn to read track surfaces and stakes sheets, and calculate weight allowances. I had to know the diseases and ailments forward and back—bowed tendons and splints, foundering, bucked shins, bone chips, slab fractures, and quarter cracks. Thoroughbreds were glorious and also fragile in very specific ways. They often had small hearts, and the exertion of racing also made them susceptible to haemorrhaging in the lungs. Undetected colic could kill them—and if it did, that death would be on me...
How dreadful it would be if everything toppled you and you folded in. Rain, for instance, not to mention the loss of a husband.
" ... Does Ben suspect (of affair?)”
“I think so, not that we have the bad taste to talk about it. He’s got his own entanglements, too.” She gave me a complicated smile. “You’ve heard the joke, haven’t you? Are you married or do you live in Kenya?”
“Maybe not everywhere, but the rules are different here. It’s sort of assumed you’ll have dalliances or go crazy…but discretion still plays an essential part. You can do anything as long as the right people stay shielded. And the funny thing is, that doesn’t always mean your spouse.”
By her estimation, an affair was as de rigueur for the colonists as quinine tablets were for fever—a way to weather or temporarily forget marital unhappiness.
The pilgrims and the lost often did look the same, as Denys had once told me, and it was possible everyone ended up in the same place no matter which path we took or how often we fell to our knees, undoubtedly wiser for all of it.
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