The sky glows pearly grey, blurry lines sliding above the tree line. The birds sing from behind leaves, their songs foreign and indistinguishable after my months away. I feel my absence, the way I forget to notice which bird is hopping through the branches of the dying potato tree, the way I see the trees as an indiscriminate crowd, forgetting names, details. There is a plant growing in a ceramic pot beside my porch that has grown so tall over these months that I can’t remember if it even was there when I left. Its red petals bend in clusters like Christmas ornaments,or plastic marbles. A flock of white birds dive low in the valley, disappear behind the banana trees before I can recognize them, remember their names. I have poured new millet seed in our terracotta bird bowl, but no birds are coming to eat them, wary of this stranger’s offering, not willing to pour out trust so easily.

We walk up the hill to the school, M dressed carefully in new jeans, new earrings. P skips beside her in yellow flipflops, her hair bending in unfamiliar curls. An Egyptian goose stares sidelong at us through its black rimmed eyes, lifts in a flash of white feathers. P decides it must be too cold here, it will fly somewhere warmer.

I drive my niece and her friend to an orphanage. The women there ask them if they are strong enough to lift the buckets of wet laundry, wait and watch to see if these teenagers will pass the test. The girls laugh, act nonchalant, walk away down the brick lane, young boys trailing them on tricycles. I drive away through the gate and wonder if I should be leaving them, if I’m running away from the tests I might not pass.

J is so excited to bake brownies for her cousin, a farewell offering before tomorrow’s departure. She heaves our biggest glass bowl onto the counter, collects ingredients from the cupboards, fills measuring cups like a careful scientist. It is only when we are about to bake the batter that she mentions casually how she used all the baking soda. We realize she has forgotten about teaspoons, has used only cups in this recipe…half cup baking soda, half cup salt, quarter cup cream of tartar. We lick the batter, grimace, decide this batch might do better outside. We walk together to the banana trees at the edge of the yard, dump the bowl into the grass. J hopes the animals don’t get stomach aches from eating it.

Two men walk back and forth along the edge of my yard, talking in quiet kiswahili, huge yellow rocks on their shoulders. They are carrying the rocks from the pile on the driveway to the other men sitting in the grass behind the hedge where they are making gravel by chipping at the rocks with small steel tools. I have never appreciated the immense effort of hand crafted gravel. Later, I walk gingerly down the graveled driveway, wonder about the hierarchy of jobs in this world.

The girls play Playmobil for hours, sorting small beads and sequins into piles of money, counting the real money in their plastic jars and dreaming of new Playmobil sets. I boil eggs, hang laundry, water my ivy, find comfort in physical tasks, wonder how long my children will find a home in their imaginary world.

P and I walk to the flower vendor. She carries a Blue Band container for her new bottle cap collection. When we pass the guard at the gate, he asks her what she is collecting, admires the one rusty cap in the container. We are startled by a barking dog behind a fence, notice garbage piled in the ditches, buy red and white carnations for her sisters. On the way home, the guard stops us, drops two bottle caps into P’s collection, has tripled her treasure.

The girls argue over whose turn it is to roll dough through our pasta maker, watch the long floppy sheets grow longer with each turn. They spread them on parchment paper, poke crooked rows of holes into them with a fork, ready to become imperfect matzo for tomorrow’s seder.

I am on the back porch, writing messy pages in a cheap lined notebook. M sits down beside me, opens a matching notebook, writes another chapter of the book she says she wrote in her dream last night. It is a romance about two people meeting at a wedding. We write in silence side by side. I write longer than I had planned, unwilling to break this tenuous connection.

P and J pack grapes and string cheese into plastic containers, gather notebooks and pens, shout goodbyes as they begin their day of sister exploring.

We squeeze onto the Lamu couch to watch the Lego documentary, eat rosemary popcorn, exclaim at people’s creativity. Near the end of the film M says “I’m totally going to build more Lego after seeing this,” and as soon as the credits are over, all three girls run to the Lego basket, inspired, unable to restrain themselves from creating.

One of our banana trees falls, pulled over by the weight of its own fruit, its own self-sacrificing biology. The girls walk along its smooth trunk like a balance beam, pick green bananas from the long bunch lying in the grass, unfold the petals of its strange heart shaped flower. They remind me of medical students poking a cadaver, fascinated by the cracks and crevices that have never been theirs to access before. Soon Phil brings out a machete, hacks off giant leaves for the girls to use as sleds, fans. M brings out yarn and we tie the leaves together into a teepee. The girls play house under its curling leaves long after the sky has turned dark.

Phil and I read Flannery O’Connor aloud under the porch light, eat olives and cheese and watch the geckos crawl across the ceiling above us, tense with the possibility of their falling.

Every surface of the house is covered in small ants, some roaming aimlessly over countertops, the keys of my laptop, some condensed into steady rivers up and down the corners of walls, around the door frames. A determined contingent carries a dragon fly, giant and unwieldy, across the living room floor. P gives periodic updates on their progress. We admire their speed and teamwork.

After supper the girls collect mini hockey sticks, two pairs of secondhand roller blades and climb up the hill to the tennis court to play hockey. Their rules are elaborate. The player without skates is the referee, counts down from twenty before dropping the ball, is responsible for running around the fence to get the ball when it rolls off the court. After each goal, the one who scores drops to the cement and starts unbuckling the roller blades, peels off sweaty socks, passes them to the referee to take her turn in the game. Phil and I watch from the steps as their shapes turn blue in the fading light, laugh at their flailing limbs, the way J skates straight into the fence to stop every time.

Two ibises clatter to the lawn like heavy flapping blankets, their wings noisy and ruffled. They stab their long dark beaks into the ground, somehow find breakfast in all that unmowed grass. The light catches the iridescence in their feathers, like a silk scarf peeking out from under an old man’s baggy overcoat.

P and I fill our bag with a water bottle, two squares of chocolate and Frozen Uno and walk towards the forest. She wants to take one ride on the zipline, but then insists we hurry to the prayer labyrinth “I have so many prayers stuck in here,” she jabs at her forehead with her fingers, “that I just need to get out.” When we arrive at the labyrinth, she kicks off her flipflops, presses her hands together at her heart and walks slowly over the leaves and stones. I follow a few steps behind her, then she stops and whispers, “When we pass each other, let’s hold hands a bit.” At the centre we arrange flower petals into patterns on the stone cross, then hurry back around the winding path so we have time to play Uno. She wins every time.

J collects butterfly wings, notices them in the grass, the dirt, the gravel. She keeps them in the pocket of her backpack for weeks until she remembers to transfer them to the treasure box buried deep in her closet. When she finds a butterfly almost as big as her hand, yellow and still near the swingset, she shows it to her friend who has never held a dead butterfly, is speechless at its fragile colour. J tells her she can keep it, knows that earth treasures are for sharing.

Phil and I sit on the porch in the dark, watch a white tailed mongoose glide across the lawn in front of us, hold our breath as it disappears into the shadows.

P sits beside me on the couch, playing Princess Uno against herself. At the end of a round she claps and cheers, “I won!” She sips lukewarm peppermint tea, wears tights with pink hearts. Her ankles are covered with the scabs of scratched mosquito bites. She tells me she wishes she had three arms and hands so that she could carry snacks and drinks while she climbs things.

M fiddles fast and intricate melodies, amazes me with her talent as I lie in bed in the other room. But J comes to sit and the edge of the bed and announces that there are tears on M’s cheeks as she plays. Later when I ask about it, M smiles, shakes her head, will not allow us into her private sadness.

When I discover that P has cut crooked squares into all of my favourite pieces of origami paper, I’m furious, scold her loudly, bring her and her compassionate sisters to tears. Days later I see the pile of papers still spread across the guest room bed, brightly coloured patterns, small flowers and stripes. I gather the scraps together, snipped in a moment of five year old creativity, and bring them to the table. The girls and I arrange the pieces into small paper quilt squares, glue them onto a ribbon. I hang the garland above the kitchen sink, smile at the way art redeems us.

J’s arms are full- a blue kikoi, a journal, a pen, her Spanish fan. She asks if she can go into the trees to write for a while. I watch her go, wonder about her fan, am jealous of her time with the trees.

M listens to the Les Miserables soundtrack, sings along, dances with solemn concentration, plays the parts with the worst words over and over.

P writes love notes to her family on small pieces of paper. “I Love Ths Notbk”. Apologizes for being disobedient: “Soi Mom”. I find her squares of communication under the table, in my pockets, wish this stage could last longer than it will.

We drive to Naivasha, speed along the steep escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, swerve around donkeys and cyclists. One man has a huge silver cylinder strapped to the back of his bike, is swerving as he pedals centimeters from roaring lorries. I realize as we pass that he is also texting on his phone. The girls listen to Narnia books on CD, complain when Phil doesn’t give his usual commentary on the valley, Mt. Longonot. I grip the door handle every time Phil passes a matatu, avert my eyes from the rail-less drops along the shoulder.

The kids splash in the brown river that cuts through the ravine. The walls of the ravine are lined with layers of rock, every shade of green, vervet monkeys. We listen for the snort of hippos. The older girls find a log and start a ferrying business, charging the younger kids ten rocks for a ride down the river on their boat. We skip stones, discuss theology, remind the swimmers to not let the water in their mouths. The rocks are smooth and warm under our feet, our backs. The girls collect them in their pockets and empty chip containers.

At night the moon is so bright we don’t use flashlights, The world is blue, blurry and glowing. We pass chocolate and wine bottles around the fire, tell the stories that hadn’t been told in daylight, coaxed out by that unusual dark light.

A dragon fly lands on my computer, its spider web wings twitch, its rounded jaws in constant motion, its striped body pulsing with its lungless breath. It flies away and then lands in a new position, over and over, always perching on the edge of my laptop screen. I wonder what it wants to tell me, or if it is just showing off its miraculous body.

A firefinch lands on the clay bowl, pecks at sunflower seeds soggy from the rain. I haven’t seen one in so long, have forgotten its unexpected redness, the colour of blood, of pomegranates.

P and I brew a pot of dark Kenyan tea to house our new Kombucha culture, gifted from a neighbour. We name him Bucho, call him our new pet, exclaim over his large lips grinning through the glass vase. Later M runs from the kitchen screaming when she hears he is alive. “I thought you wanted a pet!” I call after her. “Not one that actually lives and eats!” P smiles and touches the glass with affection.

There is a gathering of birds beside the porch, in one instant I see a streaky seed eater, a robin chat, two firefinches and three bronze mannekins. I feel privileged to move alongside this grand society.

P rollerblades through the house, plays loudly on the plastic recorder hanging around her neck, stops only to slide down the stairs on her bottom.

I walk to the forest after the girls are in bed, stumble over bumps on the dark gravelly path. Security lights glow yellow behind the leaves, send long shadows over the ground. I am most surprised by the noise, the bellowing frogs, the screeching chorus of crickets. These days the headlines describe black holes, different dimensions, while I am astounded at the unknown universe that exists in the valley below my house, these night creatures, this noisy civilization.

The trees smell different in the night, the boundaries between their smells more distinct. My vocabulary of smells is so limited in the face of all this diversity, the scent of each tree’s breath: some are sharp, clinical, others are rounder, warmer. I hold their breath in my lungs. When I touch the smooth trunk of a small tree I am startled at its warmth, wonder if it is the afterglow of the Kenyan sun or the heat of its own growing.

This morning the rain falls in individual drops, a slow syncopation on the banana trees, the roof of the plastic car in the lawn. The birds call to each other across the valley, staying dry beneath the tree leaves, waiting for the flying termites to emerge from the wet earth.

The girls’ dolls are spread across the house, long rows of small shoes along the edges of the coffee table, a picnic blanket spread under the potted plant. I don’t know if it’s more important that they learn to clean up or that their imaginary world remains intact. I regret how often I’ve intruded in their private universe.

Phil promises a piece of licorice to any girl who can make it half way across the slackline stretched over the yard. They practice over and over, argue about whose turn it is, fall and scrape ankles and knees, small wobbly acrobats.

A robin is collecting small twigs from my flower bed, its orange beak bobbing wildly as it tries to grab just one more stick. It lifts its wings, flaps into the low branches of the avocado tree, carries its treasure to a secret home.

When the delivery of our Indian food takes too many hours, we wait in the dark on the front steps, sing songs about the moon, the stars, the mongoose. We dance on the cool pavement, the girls in their pajamas, spin in circles and laugh at our improvised lyrics.

J reads a poem aloud from my favourite anthology, sounds out the words slowly- lipped, she-bear, cattails– stops to describe cattails to me, how they look like hotdogs, how there is a bouquet of them in her favourite Naivasha cabin. She drinks jasmine tea out of a grey clay mug, her nails are rimmed with dark dirt, there are holes in her leopard print tights.

P stops on the sidewalk, bends at the waist, bowing to a fat creamy slug. Its skin- do you call it skin?- is wet and translucent, crisscrossed with perfect delicate designs. Its antennae reach with slow elegance for messages in the air. We all gather around this creature of earth and water, an alien from a planet we’ve never considered, admire the way it eases across the cement, unfazed as it graces us with this glimpse of its slimy existence. We step over it into the grey morning.

The rainy season should have ended months ago, but the rainy season disregards this obligation, makes its own decisions. As P and I walk up the hill to pick up her sisters, rain begins to fall in thick roaring sheets. She shouts to me from beneath her umbrella, “Well, this is dramatic!” We laugh, watch rivers form in the gravel road, watch the shapes around us blur behind thick wet curtains.

We listen to opera in the morning, just because we never have. M sings so loudly as she makes her bed that I assume it’s part of the recording. I smile at the thought of famous opera singers as children, bellowing down the hallway.

J comes into my bedroom, jittery, restless. She says “My fingers just have to be baking. Please, mom, let me bake.” I smile at this impulse that is so foreign to me, swallow my complaints about a messy kitchen this late in the evening, give her permission to make pancakes. She recruits P and they giggle on wooden stools, spill flour, lick spoons mid-stir. Their secret ingredient is more than a cup of my imported chocolate chips. Their pancakes are buttery and chocolatey and completely their own. They clean up the mess and as I lick chocolate from my fingers, I am learning so many things about loosening my grip on their lives.

When P is sick, she fits under my arm, curls into the curve of my waist, settles her head against my ribs. I remember that she is still small, fragile, that she used to squirm beneath my heart, that our blood used to mingle in our veins.

The leaves of the banana tree flutter in the morning like shredded flags, long lines snipped into their sides in perfect symmetry, letting light shine through, bright and yellow. The stem curves gracefully, glows, the greens move like water.

J traveled all the way to Morocco to discover the smell and taste of rose water. Now she has her very own bottle, holds it like a porcelain doll. We bake pink meringues, sticky and soft like melted marshmallows. She runs her finger through the syrup left in the pot, picks small crumbs from the parchment paper, follows the smell of rose water around the kitchen, a scent she’s been missing all these years.

A bee eater glides by, parallel to the grass until it falls and spins, pulls up before it touches the grass, returns to its leafy throne with its unfortunate breakfast clamped tight in its beak, a termite who woke this morning unaware of the sacrifice it would make today unheralded, no martyr’s prayer, no saint day. The bee eater bobs its tail in gratitude.

M slips a small paper tile beneath my door, blue and purple water colour melted together, a shaky LOVE painted across the bottom, a telegram from a distant soul.

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.