Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms
WILHELMINA KNEW THAT THERE WERE some houses that had glass in every window and locks on the doors.
The farmhouse in which she lived was not one of them. If there was a key to the front door, Wilhelmina had never seen it. It was likely that the goats that wandered in and out of the kitchen had eaten it. The house was at the end of the longest of the farm roads in the hottest corner of Zimbabwe. Her bedroom window was a square space in the wall. During the rains, she sewed plastic bags to make a screen and stretched it across the frame. During the heat, the dust blew in.
Years ago, a visitor to the farm had asked Will about her window.
“Surely your father can afford a pane of glass?”
“I like to be dusty,” she had said, “and wet.” Dust and rain made mud. Mud was full of possibilities.
The farm roads were bald and red with the settled dust. They were walked daily by Captain Browne, owner of the farm, driven daily by William Silver, foreman of the farm, and ridden daily by Wilhelmina, William’s only child.
Wilhelmina rode better than any boy on the farm, because her father had known that to ride before you can walk is like drinking from glass bottles of Coke underwater, or hanging by the knees from baobab trees: disorienting and delicious. So Wilhelmina grew up running under horses’ bellies and tripping up into horse manure and tugging handfuls of her long dark hair when horseflies stung. The horseboys living in the tin-roofed cottages in the staff quarters never wept at horseflies—sometimes they swore in a leisurely, laughing way in Shona—“Ach, booraguma”—and Wilhelmina was sure that she was the equal of any boy. She was faster than most of the boys her age on foot, too. And she was many other things: When the men on the farm talked about her in the evenings, they needed handfuls of “ands” to describe her: Will was stubborn, sha, and exasperating and wild and honest and true.
• • •
In the morning light of late October, Will was crouched on the floor stirring a pot of methylated spirit and water. Meths, applied to the feet, hardened the soles and made living shoes. There were six assorted chairs in the airy sitting room, but Will liked the floor. There was more space. Will had widely spaced eyes, and widely spaced toes, and was altogether a favorite of space. Her talk was spaced too, she knew—the slow talk of the African afternoon, with good gaps of silence.
Will heard the clatter of hooves and a hungry whinnying. That meant William Silver was home from his early-morning gallop over the farm. Everyone in that part of Zimbabwe rose early. The main part of the day’s work had to be done by lunch, and October was the hottest month. The heat melted the roads into tarred soup; birds got stuck in it.
The sitting room door opened, and a hairy face peered round it. Will felt the door open before she saw it; it was joy. Dad was back; she jumped up in one single movement, all speed and legs, and hurled herself into his arms, wrapping her feet around his waist. “Dad!”
“Morning! Morning, Wildcat.”
Will buried her face in her father’s neck. “Morning, Dad,” she said, her voice muffled. With most men, Will was
tense-muscled. They left her half-marveling and half-wary, and she made sure to keep her few steps of distance. She hated having to shake hands with the unknown skin of strangers; but Dad, with his muscled softness, was different.
“But I thought you were gone for the day, hey?” said William.
“Ja. Ja, soon. But I wanted to see your face first, Dad. I missed you.” Will had been out at the tree house last night, asleep in the largeness of the night air by the time her father had gotten home. They could go for days without seeing each other, but she thought it made the happiness, when they did, sharper—more tangy. “But now”—she scrambled up—“I can go, ja. I haven’t fed Shumba, and Simon’ll be waiting.” She turned at the door, wanting to say something that would mean “I love you. Goodness how I do love you.”
“Faranuka, Dad!” Faranuka. Will’s Shona was good, and “Faranuka” was Shona for “Be happy.”
• • •
Simon was waiting. Simon was Will’s best friend. He was everything that she wasn’t—a tall, fluid black boy to her waiflike, angular white girl. It had not been love at first sight. When Simon had arrived to train as a farmhand, Will had taken one single look and with six-year-old certainty announced that, no, she did not like him. He was flimsy. That
was because Simon had enormous bush-baby eyes, tender trusting pools that seemed to hold tears just ready to fall from beneath stupidly curled lashes.
But it hadn’t taken long for Will to see that Simon was breathing, leaping, brilliant proof that appearances are deceptive. In fact, she knew now, Si was a stretched-catapult of a boy, the scourge of the stables, with a hoarse laugh much too deep for him, and arms and legs that jerked and broke any passing cup or plate. His dislike of the tin bathtub, and his reveling in the softly squelching Zimbabwean mud, meant that Simon had a distinctive smell. He smelled to the young Will of dust and sap and salt beef.
Will had smelled to Simon of earth and sap and mint.
So with such essential aspects in common—the sap, most obviously, but also the large eyes and the haphazard limbs—it was inevitable that the two fell in sort-of-love by the time they were seven, and by the time their ages were in double digits, they were friends of the firmest, stickiest, and eternal sort.
Simon was the one who had taught Will how to bring her horse to a gallop on the home stretch to the stables, yelling “Yah! Ee-yah! Come on, slowcoach!” And he taught her how to swing herself round to the underside of the horse’s neck and ride upside down so that her long hair was coated
with the flying dust, and her cheeks slipped into her eyes.
They swapped languages. He learned her Zimbabwean-twanged English and she—with tongue-poked-out concentration—the basics of his Chikorekore Shona. She showed him how to swim underwater for minutes at a time. The trick was to breathe in slowly beforehand—not a gulp, but patiently and through pursed lips, like sucking through a straw. Her feet became dark brown and hardened from years of barefoot races across the fields, and her nails were filthy.
Since last December, Simon had lived with his brother Tedias in the staff quarters, a block of brick huts and fires on the edge of Two Tree Hill Farm. The name, Captain Browne had said, rolling one of his cigarettes in tobacco-green fingers, was a kind of bad joke, because there were several hundred trees on Two Tree Hill, enough to obliterate the hill itself. In fact, he said, it would have been better named Just Tree Farm. Or Tree Tree Tree Tree Tree Farm. Ha-ha, Captain Browne.
But of course there were clear patches, made of brown grass and shimmering heat and anthills, and it was across one of these that Will now ran, kicking the backs of her feet against her bottom and singing. As soon as she was within shouting distance of Simon’s mudbricked home, Will gave her best Shona call.
“Ee-weh!” Shouting distance on that farm was at least a field-length farther than anywhere else, because the air was still and there were no cars except for the truck; a little noise went a gloriously long way. “Simon! Simon! You in, Si?”
• • •
Simon picked his nose in a pointed sort of way. He was squatting outside the hut just within the shade of the brown thatch roof, drinking Coke from a glass bottle. Tedias nudged Simon with his toe. He spoke in Shona, “Uchaenda. Up, boy. Off with you to the little madam.”
The “little madam” was an old joke. The shrill and imperious “madam” of the typical farmer’s wife couldn’t be further from Will’s brown and gold manners.
Simon threw an aggrieved pebble at Will’s feet. “Will!” He scowled. “Where you been? I thought you weren’t coming. You such a slowcoach, man.” She wasn’t, but he said it anyway. “Like a caterpillar with no legs. Was going to go off without you just now, madman.” “Madman” was Simon’s variation on “madam.” They both thought it was closer to the truth.
“Oh, sorry. Sorry, Si, truly. Sorry-sorry.” Will didn’t give explanations.
She stared up at Tedias, whom Will loved achingly. He was a hero, big and scarred and restfully silent. She had to
squint because the sun was strong now, beating in the edgeless blue of the sky.
“Mangwanani, Tedias.” She bobbed the curtsy she gave to the captain’s visitors. “Mangwanani” meant “good morning.” Her Simon did not need to be saluted, but Tedias, in his slow largeness, his bare chest, and his kindness to the dogs, deserved respect.
“Mangwanani, Will.” He pronounced her name like all the men on the farm, “wheel,” and her father had picked it up, called her Buck and Wheel, Cartwheel, Catherine Wheel. “Marara sei, Wheel? Did you sleep?”
There was a formal answer to that, but Will, to her annoyance, found she’d forgotten it. There were codes in Shona she hadn’t yet learned, and she quivered now; there was so much to know, there were subtleties that hung out of sight, things that she knew she didn’t know she didn’t know. She said, “Ndarara . . . ah . . . Ndarara kana mararawo.” I slept well if you slept well.
Tedias nodded with what seemed to be approval. (Though, you couldn’t be sure with other people, Will thought, staring up at his slow, heavy smile. That was a central rule to life, the one thing you could be sure of.) “Ndarara, Will, yes,” said Tedias. “I slept.”
Simon, Will could see, was growing tired of the formalities.
He finished his Coke, burped, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and threw down the bottle. He kicked it along the path. “Come on, Will. Madman mad-cat Will.” He hopped backward, so that each hop landed on “on.” “Come on, come on, come on, girl.”
But Will stayed in the sun, trying not to smile. Because Will didn’t take orders from anyone. She crouched down, making her most aggravating proud-face, and began scratching a W in the dirt with a long stick. A beetle lumbered up it and onto her arm, and she stilled herself, enjoying the tickling feeling of its thread-thin feet. It was deep green with shimmers of blue and turquoise, with pitch-black legs. She kissed it very softly. If happiness were a color, it would be the color of this beetle, thought Will.
There was a whistle. Will grinned. Simon’s whistles were so perfect that they could speak whole archways of emotion: shock, happiness, hot admiration, look out! This one said, “I’m waiting.” With maybe a hint of, “And I’m hungry.” They were planning a quick raid on the mango tree and a picnic by the rock pool. She should go, she knew.
But it was hard for Will Silver to keep firm hands on herself, because small things—dragonflies, earwigs, sticks with peeling bark, warm rain, those wonderful curls of fur behind the dogs’ ears—they had a strange way of making
time disappear. She had wondered, often, if other people felt the same way, but had never been able to explain it properly, that feeling of sharpness and fullness.
Simon whistled again. He meant it this time, Will could tell. She jumped up to standing, whipped up an imaginary horse—whooping her throaty, “Yagh! Yah!”—and tore past him. Will was fast, and proud of it. She ran tilting forward, tanned skin stark against the white-blue of the sky and the yellow-green of the grass. “Race you, Si!” she called, but she didn’t say where to.
Simon hurtled after her. She was uncatchable in this mood, like a bushfire, infectious and exasperating at once. She might run for miles and miles and miles.
As he threw his long legs after her, he cried, “Look at the little madman! Look at that dirt! Ach, pity our poor foreman—his little girl’s gone wild!”