Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf’s a flower; But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay. -Robert Frost
We decided it was the best place to study flamingos, but camping was Samson’s idea. He inherited a wrangler jeep from some sort of uncle up north. I was at the lake lodge where we did most of our research when he dreamt up the idea. Sitting on the lawn by the lake, everyone heard the jeep long before they saw it splutter by the grounds. Samson reversed clumsily into a parking spot, the popping and banging interrupting the habitual clinking of tea drinkers and the noises of the lake. Moments later, he was crossing the lawn with sprawling strides that were almost clumsy, heedless of the beady-eyed old ladies angrily eyeing him. Upon reaching my table, he peaked over my shoulder at a sketch of aquatic herbs before plopping himself into the chair next to me. A moment passed and I felt his eyes passing over me and the lake.
“So…” He began, pretending to squint at a flock of geese somewhere to my left. I didn’t look up.
“I just got a new jeep…” He drummed his fingers against the mahogany table and cleared his throat. I smirked down at my sketch.
“I know. I heard it. The whole city probably heard it, Samson” I replied, still not looking up. A beat of silence and a crash sounded as a waiter in the lodge’s depths dropped a tray of stainless-steel teapots.
“Want to do something fun?” He asked me, glancing back at the commotion before leaning toward me. Oh Samson, I sighed, abandoning my sketch and raising my eyebrows. He paused, knowing how I hated dramatic pauses, then,
“Let’s drive up to Lake Logipi.”
“Oh no, I’m not driving anywhere with you if it involves that rolling pile of shrapnel you just parked.”
“Come on, it’ll be great – it’s completely isolated – none of these watalii and mzungus—” he gestured at the tea drinkers, the words seemed alien on his tongue “—Flamingos in a really natural habitat – think about what an experience like that could do for your paper.”
A hippo chuckled and sighed.
“C’mon Samson, that place is a deathtrap – it’s like 60 degrees in the day and there’s barely any water – what happens if we run out or you accidentally spill it all? Besides, there’s plenty to study here.” Samson slumped in his chair and we turned back to the lake. A mosquito nagged at our heels in the gathering dusk and the last of the tea drinkers left as the crickets began. I returned to my sketch, but now I was the one stealing glances. He frowned, drummed his fingers again and stopped. He crossed his arms resolutely. I already knew what was coming,
“I don’t care what you do, I’m still going if you don’t.” And so, I had to.
At daybreak we met in the parking lot. It wasn’t unusual for us. Lake wildlife is usually the most active at dawn and Samson was already there when I arrived, leaning against the boot of the car, his hat over his face. This was how we caught a few more seconds of sleep. He had a nasty habit of leaning, I thought as I approached. The jeep had been polished, but its white coat curled and flaked in the dim morning light, revealing glints of rusted grey beneath. Samson raised his head at my footsteps. The jeep croaked. I had a vision of it disintegrating as we drove, and I tried rubbing the night out of my eyes.
He smiled and took my canvas bag.
‘Morning, msafiri!” he said as a chorus of birds sounded. I greeted him.
“So…” Samson had a nasty habit of starting unpalatable thoughts with ‘so.’ I groaned.
“No, it’s a good ‘so’– I promise—it’s just a slight change of plans.” He circled to the front and pulled at the jeep door, scattering flakes of corrugated metal onto gravel. A young woman smiled at me from the passenger seat, smoothing her hair. “This is Cordelia,” Samson said, looking at me the way the birds at the lodge did before they hopped onto the tables and grabbed at your scone. I could tell he was excited, “Oh—and her brother Jim.” He gestured to the tinted windows of the backseat, where I met a steady, slightly unnerving gaze. We acknowledged one another with curt nods. I resisted a frown and climbed into the backseat with Jim, tripping over a derelict ice box Samson had filled with dusty bottles of Stoney’s. The engine sputtered to life.
“Can I just say,” Cordelia said, turning her head to look at us in the backseat, “I’m so excited to see these flamingi – I heard no one has ever been up there and gotten a good look!”
“Flamingos.” I told her. She turned more, her puzzled expression resembling an owl’s, “The plural of flamingo – flamingos not -gi.” Samson shot me a rare warning look in the rear-view mirror. “It’s an honest mistake…I’m sure” I said, but this was going to be a very long trip.
And so, we drove. And drove. And drove.
The radio died before we reached the rift, underscoring what little conversation we could manage with an incessant zzzzzzzzzzzz. Samson fiddled with it. He banged on it several times, like it was an old remote, but to no avail. Cordelia pouted at this. She had a nasty habit of doing so – it made her look like a frightened fish. Come to think of it, she often looked more like an animal than a human. A patch of static suddenly became music, pulling me out of my thoughts, and then the zzzzzzzzzzzz died altogether. Cordelia remarked wistfully,
“Oh, how pointless and boring life is without noise.”
I opened my mouth to tell her that life could be just as boring with too much, but Samson suggested we play a game before I could. I gave him a clandestine smile.
The suggestion hung in the air with the tinkling of Stoney bottles and Samson cussing as he tried to keep the jeep from swerving into ditches and solitary cacti. It was clear and not at all comforting that he had little experience driving a stick. For some reason, no one could think of a game. Again, I resisted a frown. Each hour brought us deeper into the desert. Each hour resembled the hour before, but I couldn’t shake the sense that something uncertain was hurling towards us. I shook off an unanticipated wave of grogginess. I was there for Samson – to make sure he wouldn’t duel territorial cattle herders or wrestle a hustler or lose the two random civilians he had so irresponsibly brought on our expedition. Oh, Samson, you lovely fool, you. All faded in the gaping emptiness of the rift. Jim fidgeted, turning morose eyes to the dusty horizon. I had forgotten he was there. Between Samson and Cordelia, he seemed to disappear and the more I looked at him, the more easily I forgot him. Jim had hardly said a word since we left the lodge. Perhaps he was scared.
“Are you alright?” I asked him, careful not to bother Samson and Cordelia who had begun a discussion about Hemingway adaptations.
“Your first time camping? It’s actually quite lovely. The sky is spectacular away from the city. One expedition in the Ngong Hills, I saw twelve shooting stars, though a few of them were probably satellite dishes.”
“It’s not my first time.” I waited for Jim to continue. He didn’t, but gave me one of his piercing stares. A tingling began to work its way up my limbs. It was probably the A.C. – Samson had neglected to get it checked before we set out – but I got the funniest feeling Jim knew what I was thinking.
And I didn’t like it one bit.
The hours passed in comfortable monotony and visions of Logipi made us feel hollow. Even Samson, who rarely passed on the chance to make commentary, was silent. Hot, iron-tasting dust stretched endlessly before us, regurgitated into the jeep’s atmosphere by the rattling A.C. It made us sluggish, this metallic heat, and soon it was hard to think of anything other than the shades of dust pressing in on all sides. Disheveled and perspiring, we fell into a lethargic harmony. It was all we could manage to pass around the sweating bottles of Stoney’s from the cooler. I took a sip and swallowed a taste like blood and shifted, palms clammy, but somehow more relaxed than before. I was there for Samson…yes, for Samson. It was a lot easier to think so when Samson was only a thought, a vague figure fiddling with gears in the front-seat or checking the meniscus of a cylinder. I leaned my head against the window, the bumps having given way to smooth, cracked land.
I tried counting the fissures in the earth as we drove over it, tried to remember the constellations of cracks to sketch later. I had the strangest feeling I’d seen it all before, only underwater.
An hour to go and we approached Logipi, relieved but still unsure. Maybe it was our presence, but the lake’s rainbow shimmer seemed misplaced in this dry heat.
Suddenly the jeep grew silent. I sat up alarmed. So did Samson. And Jim. And Cordelia. It was a rare moment in which we all, including Samson, seemed to feel the same aggravation, the same annoyance at Samson’s impulsiveness.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, any hint of ease gone.
“I-I don’t know – we just stopped.” Cordelia looked worried.
“Well, start it up again!” I barked. Samson tried, but the jeep had given up for the day.
We had to make camp about half a kilometer from the lakeshore, which was still invisible, but was too hot to walk to. Grumbling, we clambered out of the car as one, a sticky mess of linen and limbs.
“We’ll wake up early tomorrow and watch the flamingos feed before the sun gets too hot. Then we’ll have breakfast and nap and try to fix the car,” Samson said, as he grabbed onto a hot rung of the jeep’s ladder, disguised a wince, pulled his sleeves over his hands and began climbing to the extra luggage tied to the top of the car.
“Look, instead of stressing–” Samson called from the top of the jeep, “–Maybe we should just vote on sleeping arrangements – there are two tents, after all.” He ruffled through the canvas bags tied to the car. The noise echoed eerily in the earthy silence. I squinted at him, shielding my eyes with my hand. The setting sun had turned him into a bodiless shadow.
“We always bunk together, Samson – and Cordelia and Jim know each other.” Samson nodded, “Anyway, are you sure both tents will fit on top of the car?”
“Sure!” His face disappeared behind the canvas bags. The energy in our voices didn’t suit this place. It seemed like the entire landscape was waiting, listening for new life.
“I think votes are an excellent idea,” Cordelia piped in, looking from me to Samson expectantly. I was liking her less and less, “it’s better to decide together – look at where all this undemocratic planning got us – besides, Jim kicks in his sleep sometimes.” Jim took a step toward the jeep, kicking the dusty tyre dejectedly. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but only sighed. Cordelia and I stared at each other.
“Perhaps we should vote on it,” she said, turning back to Samson, who was still searching.
“Great, we’re going to vote… about how to vote,” I muttered. She turned to me, a petulant frown building. But Samson’s voice sounded from the top of the jeep again,
“So…” and we both looked back up at him, “I may have miscounted the number of tents I packed.” Cordelia and I groaned, “on the bright side,” Samson began as he climbed down the dusty rungs “at least we won’t have to vote…”
We spent too much time setting up: pitching the single tent atop the jeep, setting up chairs, discussing the safest sleeping situations. Cordelia had forgotten the incident already and looked happy to be busy. How funny this little anomaly must have looked from above.
Jim sat in the jeep’s lengthening shadow, watching, and I decided to ignore him completely for the remainder of the trip. Staring was definitely his terrible habit.
By the time dusk fell, I was setting up a portable stove on a collapsible table. The sounds of flamingos nestling were magnified by the failing light and I was grateful for the noise. It was too quiet here…and too hot. I longed for the underwater feeling that had overcome me earlier and I missed our lake back home. There were no mosquitoes, no chuckling hippos. I looked up as a whiff of lemongrass drifted into our campsite and saw Samson and Cordelia exchanging whispers by the jeep. She was smoothing her hair, giggling every so often as he leaned against the car. My annoyance became indignance,
“Samson—” I called, interrupting their solitude, “—you said you’d build the fire a half hour ago and still there’s nothing—it’s getting dark!” I gave them a look that was mainly aimed at Cordelia, whose lips began to quiver. She shouldn’t be here. Neither should her weird brother. Didn’t they realize how irresponsible this all was? Out in the middle of nowhere. No cell signal. No police. No friendly campers or nomadic tribes to stumble across for help. All we had were flamingos and dust. And what was Samson thinking with this glorified baby of a girl, always smoothing her hair and pouting? I turned to find Jim hovering by the table and stifled a jump.
“Why did you come?” Jim asked, running the words together as if they were one. I told him I didn’t know what he meant, “—on this trip, you look miserable. You look like a shocked fish.”
“I study flamingos. It’s a unique environment for flamingos. Haven’t you seen them – they’re everywhere! I’ve always loved flamingos.” I snapped. He gave me a piercing look and said, “mm—mm.” Once again, I waited for him to react, to shuffle away or say something, but he didn’t.
Dinner was a quiet affair, part heat-exhaustion, part sullenness. Samson eating transformed into that shadowy figure I so loved. The settling night had brought a breeze with it. It sifted through our camp, bringing the sounds of the lake closer and I felt myself grow calmer, hazy, like before. I prodded at the food on my plate, looking over at Cordelia who was nestled near Samson. I swirled a sip of Stoney’s around. Cordelia noted how she had never seen so many stars at once, though she complained ceaselessly about the rustling of the unseen flamingos half-a-kilometer away, ‘What – if they’re watching us—out there—somewhere in the darkness.’ One squawked after she said that and we all smiled, even Jim. I started to feel like we were underwater again. I had a sudden urge to tell them about the feeling—like I had been here before,
“You know—” I blurted out before I could stop myself and I told them. They sighed, too contented to laugh, but I felt my cheeks burn. Jim gave me another one of his looks. They were becoming a strange sort of comfort, a silent validation that perplexed me. Maybe it was the cold. Cordelia scooched closer to Samson.
There are impulses one fears in the middle of the night, particularly when camping in the wild. The worst might be the smothering blanket of soggy air that builds in a tent shared by four people. I awoke with a start. For a moment I forgot where I was and the alarming forms of Samson and Cordelia on either side made it even harder to breathe. I wondered what it was that woke me, afraid of what I might recognize alone in this darkness. I lay still, trying not to wake anyone else, hoping to fall back asleep, but Oh—
—oh, the breathing was unbearable.
I yearned for the underwater haze again. Resolved, I unzipped my sleeping bag and scrabbled delicately over Samson; whose breath was the warmest of them all.
Moments later, I felt earth crumbling beneath me. The stars, in their millions, were blinding after the dark heat of the tent. They sang in cold voices far above. Squawks and flaps echoed from somewhere across the water, but I didn’t look down yet. It was louder than the daytime. The scent of lemongrass wafted by again and something pulled me toward the lake. I hesitated, looking up. It was the same something that had pulled me from my sleep and I began walking. Each step seemed easier and I had the impression I was floating rather than walking. I still hadn’t looked at the lake, but I felt a sparkle in the corner of my eye. A reflection of the stars, perhaps. The lake was fifty meters from me. I resisted the urge to look a little longer. Somewhere deep in my gut, the tingling from earlier began. The cold voices began another verse and I finally caught sight of the lake.
A gasp froze in my throat.
The shimmering puddle of petrol I had sensed became a gigantic gasping mouth among crusted ancient lips. Suddenly the lake was a lot bigger than anything I ever saw. It swallowed desert and dust and sound, pushing life out of every crevice.
And millions of flamingos illuminated Logipi’s dark waters, writhing and squawking and tossing and flapping against the lake shore, they looked like an overturned nest of woodlice. Their movement in the night made the glowing water look like it was boiling, expanding, spilling out of the earth like it did thousands of years ago.
The flamingos glowed in the iridescent colors of the lake, banishing all darkness. Looking at them, I don’t know how anyone could ever have thought of flamingos as awkward or clumsy. They danced to the starlit voices above. I watched them, entranced, circling now, here and there, their glowing wings pulsated in perfect harmony, growing larger. The very air around the lake seemed to tingle with light. By the time I registered myself I was three feet from the water’s edge.
And as I stared across the water, mesmerized, a dark mass emerged from it – a jagged cliff we missed in the daylight. Atop it, I could almost make out a familiar figure, brandishing its arms like a conductor in a ballet. I squinted, my eyes growing more accustomed to the strange light. The flamingos were glowing, lit from the inside. I could make out every detail. A sudden pang of melancholy made me crumple, though I wasn’t sure why. The flamingos were irreverent. One more step toward the water. I was so close I could touch the birds, their shimmering wings so like the voices above. The underwater feeling overtook me and I saw my hand, vapidly alien glide out before me.
One flamingo turned a silver eye to me. It cocked its head, like it was listening for something. Could it hear the same cold voices? Then another turned. And another until the entirety of their dance surrounded me. As I took a final step toward the silver-eyed flamingo, the birds opened their wings and the gentle light of their veiny bodies became a thousand quivering suns.
I reached out for the tip of its beak and it lowered its head toward me, nuzzling my palm. The point it touched began to glow. Twinkling at first, then growing blindingly brighter. The light stretched out across my skin, illuminating it like a map of the rift. I felt longer, taller, more graceful and the melancholy was replaced with an urge to laugh. Funny how similar it seemed to the cracks in the ground. The glowing had spread across my entire body, pulsating in harmony with the chorus and the flamingos’ dance. The cold voices crescendoed. I felt my arms, my neck, my legs stretch further and grow softer. The soft tingling grew stronger and I saw myself evaporating in a shower of feathery sound. Feathers grew out of me, like ivy, spreading light across my outstretched body. I flapped my wings once, twice, and as the cold voices swelled even louder, I launched myself into the night, streaking light across the sky in search of the ephemeral song only I and the million flamingos below me seemed to hear.
Noor Ender is a fourth-year Humanities student at BCB. When she’s not indulging in her cottage-core daydreams —usually ones by the sea—you will find her reading, cleaning, or watching miscellaneous Crash Course videos.