We string popcorn onto thread with small needles, eat some, drop some, tie our strings into long garlands to drape over houseplants. In the morning there are two birds in the living room, eating bits of popcorn off the rug. When I find them there, they chirp loudly, swoop through the porch doors to the potato tree, chattering about their good fortune.
M and J play so wildly in the bath that the water runs under the bathroom door, down the hall. I step in the puddle, scold them for their merriment,then remind myself that some day I will long for water in the hallway, this overflow of living.
An African Paradise Flycatcher flies low over the grass in front of me, its preposterous orange tail so long it pulls the bird down, tips her off balance. She beats her wings with determination, pulls that tail up to the lowest branch of the avocado tree, turns to bob her head at me and my small faith.
J agrees to watch P bike at the playground. She pours her mulled cider into a travel mug, walks behind P along the driveway, a small mother with tangled hair and big round holes in the knees of her tights. P rides her muddy pink bike, flowered duct tape around the handlebars.
The girls write cards for their teachers with my coloured sharpies, draw Christmas lights and flowers on the envelopes, tie shiny green ribbon around small gift cards, beg for time to write one more.
Overwhelmed by news headlines I go to the library, pile my arms with poetry anthologies. I spend my afternoon with e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, and Allen Ginsberg, though Ginsberg is too heavy for my fragile heart. I put his anthology by the door, return to Mary Oliver like a distant cousin.
After the girls are in bed I roll three red Santa hats into small scrolls, tie them with ribbon, my protest against the darkness. I tuck them into the dollhouse to be found in the morning.
A small praying mantis is living in the bathroom. I know I should try to help it find its way outside, but am growing accustomed to its company. I watch its legs, like new blades of grass, tiptoe across the mirror.
I drove once
down a road
so broken and weary
that it had given up altogether
trying to be a road
and resigned itself
instead to being
a memory of the day
the cars first drove fast
through this quiet village
and the people
stood up from the coolness under
the avocado trees,
came out from the shops
where they sold cornmeal and cigarettes
and warm Coke in glass bottles
to see how the cars sped by
smooth and sleek like the
fish eagle cuts through the wind.
The people did not stand up
when I drove through,
did not need to leave the shade
to watch my car claw its way out of
each pothole, to hear the spin of
my wheels, the rude coughing
of my black exhaust as it
creeped into the open windows
of their shops.
I do not remember
the name of that village
with the no longer road,
but I remember that beyond
the patch of red dirt that spread
beside the crumbled asphalt,
there were wild calla lilies
growing in untended bouquets,
lining the ditches like church aisles.
We drag in the outside table, faded, splattered with old paint, pull it close to the dining room table to make room for friends. On the stove there is a pot with wine and a pot with juice, both simmering with cinnamon sticks, cloves, the smells of Christmas. We ladle the hot drinks into mugs, though it is sunny and warm, drink them on the porch on old safari chairs. When the mugs are empty and the sun is setting, we sit at the long tables and eat Advent Soup, pass chips and vegetables, find comfort in small traditions.
Phil pulls the car to the side of the road and I step out onto a narrow muddy ledge, tiptoe to the street corner where two men come running through traffic towards me, holding huge bouquets of roses and unlikely flowers that I cannot name. I decide on big bouquets of pink roses, imagine the girls’ surprise after their ballet recital, splurge and add two bunches of agapanthus, stunning purple fireworks. I cannot understand the flower seller who asks for money, his teeth missing, his accent thick. I am distracted by his matted dreadlocks and our tight schedule, shove wrinkled shillings into his hand, run back to the car. I am so proud of my extravagant gift until we start driving and the car fills with a putrid smell. It is the water dripping from the flowers, all over my arms, my legs, the seat, the smell of sewer water. We pull into the parking lot of the Oshwal Auditorium and I open the car door, kick the flowers to the ground, run to scrub my arms and legs with soap. Later, the beautiful smelly flowers have disappeared from beneath the car. I tell the story to the girls on the drive home, assure them of my great intentions.
We sit under Christmas lights and watch The Polar Express, eat palak paneer and greasy bhajias around the coffee table. P is tense, hides her face, asks us to tell her when it gets better. When the movie is over, J says she hopes she can go on the Polar Express this Christmas, or at least get a toy train that moves by itself. Her eyes sparkle in the dim light, trusting and hopeful. I remember when she was four and she informed the neighbour kids that she believes in “Every kind of magic.”
P wakes up and shuffles down the hall, eyes mostly closed, stumbles against the wall towards our homemade advent calendar. Her sisters gather close behind her, watch her tug the small square of white paper from the wooden clothespin, try to be patient. “Open the present in the piano bench.” The promise of a present wakes P up, she runs to the bench and holds the white package tied with green ribbon to her chest. Inside, she finds a box of Toffifee, Christmas memories from before she was born. We all eat one, though we haven’t eaten breakfast. It is Advent.
In the evening we sit in a circle on the floor around a terracotta dish holding beeswax candles. J is hyper, silly, makes her sisters laugh. I shush her, try to keep smiling, wish she’d be quite and reverent (I forget sometimes that she is seven, that silly and irreverent is of course what she should be). We draw straws to see who gets to light the candle, blow out the candle, choose the songs. Eventually the candle is lit and P chooses to sing Hark the Herald. We say prayers. J sneaks matches, tries to light them. Finally M blows out the candle and we sit in the colourful glow of our small wire Christmas tree, bought a decade ago on a downtown Nairobi street.
There is a loud tapping on the hallway ceiling. I pause to listen, think it’s an animal, realize it’s the sound of water dripping in too many places. I stand on Phil’s shoulders, push open the square panel in the ceiling, watch water stream from the tank. We call for the girls to grab buckets and towels, our bedtime plumbing emergency.
P climbs out the dining room window before she has finished her supper, stands on the outside ledge and hangs on to the bars. “Look at the birds!” Two bee eaters, greener than I knew they were, sit side by side on the railing outside the window. They swoop to catch their supper, then land again on the rail. We watch in silence. Soon they turn to face us, show us their colourful faces, throats, tilt their heads. P waves at them from the window.