On the grounds of the house into which Maya was born in the Ngong’ Hills in Nairobi, there stood a tall jacaranda tree that reigned over the garden in the back. It spread its old branches far to shield the flower bed on one side and the veranda on the other, settling its longest twigs comfortably on the edge of the red terra cotta-tiled roof of the house. A ring of sundry chalk-washed stones decorated the border of the flower bed where giant spotted sisal plants grew, and hibiscus trumpets and clusters of bougainvillea adorned the light of the air with splashes of red, and pink, and orange accents, sending their papery petals to litter the grass as the season gradually matured. When the jacaranda tree bloomed, its small tuba-shaped flowers came out in dense lilac clumps and, from afar, transformed the weathered tree into a cloudy dome of layered pastel halos that danced in the breeze. The falling flowers of the old tree, together with the bougainvillea and the hibiscus, covered the ground with a soft carpet of wilting petals, in some places so thick that even the bright yellow and black weaverbirds who rarely ventured below the middle branches of the jacaranda tree sometimes felt safe burrowing into the floral carpet to harvest from the bounty of worms and larvae in the ground, secure that they were hidden from sight.
This was Rosie’s domain. He spent almost all his time spying on the unsuspecting birds, field mice, and toads, waylaying them in the labyrinth of shrubs and succulents in the flower bed. He would weave in and out of the maze of sisal plants, hide behind the white-washed stones, and sneak through the bushes and floral confetti to pounce on the hapless little creatures of the field when they least expected it. Before he ran away, long before Simba, Coco, and Kendo Nagasaki – David’s three dogs – came to live with them, Maya never imagined Rosie leaving the grounds, little guessing that he probably knew the whole countryside, including the forests of the surrounding hills. Ma Ruth, their grandmother, complained that he was wild, and Maya always felt rather proud whenever she heard these grumblings.
“That cat will hurt one of my children one day, I guarantee,” Ma Ruth seemed fond of repeating. “You can’t have a wild animal running around in the house, on the house, all over like that.”
For Rosie could sometimes be heard on the roof, knocking terra cotta tiles askew, jumping from the branches of the jacaranda tree, or making his way to one – not that he could not just climb up the trunk. No. Rosie was, above all things, a very clever hunter; he clearly thought it better to stalk his prey up where they lived.
At the base of the jacaranda tree, there lay the foundation of a thriving ant colony from which long, long caravans of ants issued forth, coming and going all day every day, except during the Rainy Season. The caravans carried loads of breadcrumbs, leaf cuttings, bits of soil, and unidentifiable odds and ends along a single file that led to the tree, brushing past an equally purposeful file of ants who had already delivered their cargo and were now outward bound for more. The road was narrow, and traffic was thick: the formicine multitudes bumped along one another as they met, stopped for a moment as if in greeting, wheeled about and went on their way, without ever losing their bearing. David liked pouring water in their path or putting pieces of leaves and sticks in their way to see how far they would scatter. Hehra, the baby, did not really know what they were doing—she was so young. Esther, who came between Alex and Maya, spent almost all her time running after Hehra whenever she wasn’t asking David questions. Maya stayed close to Alex. She believed that Alex knew more than David and was much kinder too. Every time David tried to scatter the ants, Maya watched thrilled as Alex reversed his twin’s work. Hearing her giggle, David blamed Maya, complaining that she did not respect him like she ought, threatening to tell if she continued to spoil his experiments, eager to impress upon her the vital importance of what he was trying to do.
The ants had built narrow tubes of long passages and secret chambers along a deep crack in the bark of the jacaranda tree closest to the house. When the thin walls of their structures peeled off, the flakes fell to the base of the tree in delicate heaps. The children were fond of collecting these flakes to nibble on, and their great-grandmother Mamma Akoth, her graying eyes bright with mischievous joy, usually picked the anthill flakes with them, sifting through the ruins for the driest, sunbaked bits. She said that in them was a powerful medicine that soothed the aches in her joints and helped children grow stronger. Alex told Maya that the real reason Mamma Akoth loved these particular gathering expeditions was because, for her, there were few things as delightful as the subtle electric taste of the bone-dry loam soaking up the saliva on their tongues, exuding the thrilling, delicate aroma of cottony clouds on a sunny day, the concentrated taste of new rain on parched soil.
Rosie’s tastes ran more to young shoots of grass than to formic ethers, and the endless trail of ants could not hold his attention for long. He preferred to worry little birds and mice in the garden, sometimes catching them, although he never ate the kill. He brought his trophies to Maya, obeying some primitive provider instinct endowed him by his ancestors. In exchange for his tributes to her, he accepted the food that she put out for him in the kitchen. He was not really a house cat and he was rarely seen indoors except for this necessity. He was a fine cat, full of surprises, and far better than Bruno, the baby Hehra’s overfed black and white fur ball. Rosie was even better, Maya thought, than Serena, Esther’s pampered Siamese. Serena had lived with them ever since anyone could remember and behaved as if the house belonged to her. When Bruno and Rosie came along, both of them from the neighbor’s new litter, Serena deigned to let them be brought into the house without much ado. The infant kittens emerged from beneath the thin blanket that covered them in the housemaid’s basket, unsteady on their still-new paws, and Hehra’s nearly two-and-a-half-year-old heart instantly fell in love with the pink-nosed, eye-patched, black-and-white fur ball. Hehra took the delicate animal under her wing, naming her Bruno after her favorite Monday Night wrestler. It didn’t matter that David made fun of both of them and said that Bruno was a silly name for such a delicate creature who, as it turned out, was a girl anyway! Hehra did not mind. She adored her new pet and took a prodigious deal of care of her despite David’s teasing.
When Bruno was still a small enough kitten, Hehra, newly adept at walking, although still inclined to tiptoe, carried her everywhere in the crook of her elbow the way she saw people carry infants. She never let the cat sleep anywhere but on her pillow by her cheek. She fed it so many sweets and treats that soon the cat became too fat and heavy for her to even lift, so Bruno waddled behind her everywhere all day long. When Hehra sat down, Bruno curled up at her feet or balanced on her lap, shifting to find a comfortable spot whenever Hehra moved. The cat grew rounder and softer every day, quickly dwarfing her doting mistress and becoming more like a baby than a cat as everybody soon joined Hehra in spoiling her.
Rosie was completely different. He was small and sinewy, jet black, with a dot of white fur on his forehead slightly right of center. On the day the houseboy who ran errands for the maid brought the kittens to the house, swaddled and covered in the maid’s basket, Maya came home from Kindergarten to find that Hehra, who had not even started leaving the house to go to school, had already claimed the cuddly, pink-nosed, black-and-white darling. Esther had just started Primary Three, the highest class in Junior Primary, and she believed that it gave her the authority to arbitrate the dispute that flared up between Maya and Hehra. Esther thrust the unwanted, scrawny black cat on Maya, trying to convince her to give it a name.
But Maya simply wanted Bruno, and not the boney thing with the lackluster fur. Unlike his adorable sister who was soft and playful, the black kitten was quite gaunt and rather lethargic, indifferent to the saucer of milk Maya offered him; given to listlessly sitting by himself on the floor or the sofa, or wherever else he was put. Maya thought that it wasn’t fair that she only got the ugly runt just because of timing, while Hehra got the beautiful kitten. The runt did not have much to recommend him, and Maya was too angry to even bother naming it. She would just as easily have called it Cat. So, Esther once again intervened and gave it the name “Rosie” because she wanted to make it bloom. She even asked Mamma Akoth to sing him a Song of Becoming so that he might one day grow up to be great in grace and wisdom and strength. The pageantry of Rosie’s naming drew all the children close, and opened Maya’s eyes and heart to empathy for her new cat.
Maya did not know yet that she, too, had been born a runt. Unlike her sister Esther, Maya was not a beautiful baby. When Akoth first brought her home, she appeared somewhat disfigured in her thin, blotchy skin. Her time in the womb had been fraught with repeated assaults from physical trauma and the toxic potions that Anna consumed as if daring the still maturing baby inside her to defy death. And it had. Unlike Alex, Maya’s body survived a second day, and the spirit that crossed the threshold of life into the world bound by Time found a quiet, albeit inordinately small, home there. For despite her unhappy start, Maya was not a sickly child, nor was her body, for all its unsightly immaturity, unable to thrive on its own.
Claimed by a lingering spirit it was not clear that she could even thrive. Akoth did not know how to teach Opolo how to be a guardian, and neither did Nyanaam who had lived for ninety Long Rains and known the ways of Medicine Healers. Nyanaam understood the spirit of being a guardian ancestor according to custom long before she entered that realm. Opolo had none of that deep tradition to offer because he had not even lived a whole solar day.
After he answered the call to be Maya’s guardian Spirit, the privilege was his alone, even if he did not know what it meant. But Alex was fascinated by Maya, and he stayed close by her side. He watched Mamma Akoth bathe the greyish brown infant, balancing its head on her wrist while the rest of its body lay on her palm, hovering over the basin. He attended the ritual daily, enthralled by the tiny limbs that fitfully came to life the moment they made contact with water. The first time he saw it happen, he feared that the bath was too hot and that perhaps the baby was injured. Akoth just laughed and said that the water actually made the baby happy; and until she could learn to laugh and talk, pumping her arms and legs was the only way she knew to express herself.
So Alex started to teach the baby how to talk, or rather tried to coax her to talk. He wanted to know what she thought, if she thought, so he was thrilled to find himself wandering inside her infant dreams, although he did not quite know how it happened. He wanted to hear if her thoughts came in words, if in fact they had forms that shaped into words. He sat by the baby, day and night, talking about everything he could see around him, everything he had ever heard about, everything he could think. He repeated songs in the baby’s ear, glowing with delight when he saw her listening, her attention arrested by his watery chant. He repeated stories that Akoth told, changing them every time, forgetting some details and adding some new ones. Although he now slept with the baby instead of with David, he still followed both his twin and Esther to their schools sometimes, especially when Mamma Akoth walked there in the morning, just to hear more things that he could tell the baby. He would watch people and listen to their conversations, follow animals of the air, and of land, and of sea, and then come back and tell his little baby everything that he had seen. Akoth listened to his young, tireless voice in quiet amusement. He may not have known what a guardian Spirit was supposed to do, but everything that he did do ensured that his little charge became robust despite having been born a runt.
Esther made sure that Maya fed Rosie, the cat she had refused to name, and it wasn’t long before an understanding grew between the reluctant pair of girl and feline. In fact, Maya grew quite fond of him, and even rather proud. He eventually outgrew his lethargy, although he still kept mostly to himself. He also became the most accomplished hunter any of them had ever seen. He regularly brought Maya a frog or a mouse or a weaverbird he had caught, perhaps to show off, perhaps to share. David found Rosie’s offerings to Maya disgusting and never missed a chance to harass the cat whenever he saw him. Even though David liked to make fun of Bruno, he, like everyone else, doted on the docile fur ball and spoiled her every chance he got. Rosie did not seem to mind being overlooked and, but for occasional visits to Maya, kept to himself in the garden and in the forests beyond.