‘Remember, Charlie? In Hawaii? When we went to the beach at night and it started to rain?’
Rolph is talking to his older sister, Charlene, who despises her real name. But because they’re crouched around a bonfire with the other people on the safari, and because Rolph doesn’t speak up all that often, and because their father, Lou, sitting behind them on a camp chair (as they draw in the dust with little sticks), is a record producer whose personal life is of general interest, those near enough to hear are listening closely.
‘Remember? How Mom and Dad stayed at the table for one more drink—’
‘Impossible,’ their father interjects, with a wink at the birdwatching ladies to his left. Both women wear binoculars even in the dark, as if hoping to spot birds in the firelit tree overhead.
‘Remember, Charlie? How the beach was still warm, and that crazy wind was blowing?’
But Charlie is focused on her father’s legs, which have intertwined behind her with those of his girlfriend, Mindy. Soon they will bid the group good night and retreat to their tent, where they’ll make love on one of the narrow rickety cots inside it, or possibly on the ground. From the adjacent tent she and Rolph share, Charlie can hear them – not sounds, exactly, but movement. Rolph is too young to notice. Charlie throws back her head, startling her father. Lou is in his late thirties, square-jawed surfer’s face gone a little draggy under the eyes.
‘You were married to Mom on that trip,’ she informs him, her voice distorted by the arching of her neck, which is encircled by a puka-shell choker.
‘Yes, Charlie,’ Lou says. ‘I’m aware of that.’
The elderly bird-watching ladies trade a sad smile. Lou is one of those men whose restless charm has generated a contrail of personal upheaval that is practically visible behind him: two failed marriages and two more kids back home in LA, who were too young to bring on this three-week safari. The safari is a new business venture of Lou’s old army buddy, Ramsey, with whom he drank and misbehaved, having barely avoided Korea almost twenty years ago.
Rolph pulls at his sister’s shoulder. He wants her to remember, to feel it all again: the wind, the endless black ocean, the two of them peering into the dark as if awaiting a signal from their distant, grown-up lives.
‘Yeah,’ Charlie says, narrowing her eyes. ‘I do remember that.’
The Samburu warriors have arrived – four of them, two holding drums, a child in the shadows minding a yellow longhorn cow. They came yesterday, too, after the morning game run, when Lou and Mindy were ‘napping’. That’s when Charlie exchanged shy glances with the most beautiful warrior, who has scar-tissue designs coiled like railroad tracks over the rigorous architecture of his chest and shoulders and back.
Charlie stands up and moves closer to the warriors: a skinny girl in shorts and a raw cotton shirt with small round buttons made of wood. Her teeth are slightly crooked. When the drummers pat their drums, Charlie’s warrior and the other one begin to sing: guttural noises pried from their abdomens. She sways in front of them. During her ten days in Africa, she has begun to act like a different sort of girl – the sort that intimidates her back home. In a cinder-block town they visited a few days ago, she drank a muddy-looking concoction in a bar and wound up giving away her silver butterfly earrings (a birthday gift from her father) in a hut belonging to a very young woman whose breasts were leaking milk. She was late returning to the jeeps; Albert, who works for Ramsey, had to go and find her. ‘Prepare yourself,’ he warned. ‘Your dad is having kittens.’ Charlie didn’t care and doesn’t now; there’s a charge for her in simply commanding the fickle beam of her father’s attention, feeling his disquiet as she dances, alone, by the fire.
Lou lets go of Mindy’s hand and sits up straight. He wants to grab his daughter’s skinny arm and yank her away from these black men, but does no such thing, of course. That would be letting her win. The warrior smiles at Charlie. He’s nineteen, only five years older than she is, and has lived away from his village since he was ten. But he’s sung for enough American tourists to recognize that in her world, Charlie is a child. Thirty-five years from now, in 2008, this warrior will be caught in the tribal violence between the Kikuyu and the Luo and will die in a fire. He’ll have had four wives and sixty-three grandchildren by then, one of whom, a boy named Joe, will inherit his lalema: the iron hunting dagger in a leather scabbard now hanging at his side. Joe will go to college at Columbia and study engineering, becoming an expert in visual robotic technology that detects the slightest hint of irregular movement (the legacy of a childhood spent scanning the grass for lions). He’ll marry an American named Lulu and remain in New York, where he’ll invent a scanning device that becomes standard issue for crowd security. He and Lulu will buy a loft in Tribeca, where his grandfather’s hunting dagger will be displayed inside a cube of Plexiglas, directly under a skylight.