The sticky juice of an equatorial mango trickles down your fingers. You are six, but that doesn’t stop your grandfather from giving you a long machete with which you hack down the mangoes from the mango tree. Somewhere off in the distance your mother, clad from head to toe in protective white sun-gear, shrieks at the sight of you with the curved knife. She runs inside to berate your grandfather, but he just shrugs, mumbling something about how this is how things are done in Africa. Your mother turns, infuriated, to your father for whom this lazy savannah mansion was once home. He wanders outside and pulls the knife from your hand.
“Where did you get this?” he asks.
“Grandfather,” you say.
The side of your father’s mouth twitches, but he says nothing. He tugs the knife from your grip and lops a mango down for himself, catching it in his palm. He shows you how to use your fingernails to make a slit in the tough skin, and scoop the fruit out. You walk back together, each slurping the cool juice, the machete locked firmly in your father’s hand, your hand in his.
Your younger brother is crying somewhere in another room, his nose bleeding from the elbow you accidentally rammed into his face. Your grandmother and a maid run off to get band-aids and gauze, and your grandfather points you to his study. Your parents are visiting Mombasa, Kenya’s famous beach town, for the weekend, and you have been left to the jurisdiction of your grandparents. You are nervous because although you love your grandfather, you are scared of him.
You had been teaching your brother how to shoot sling-shot when it happened. You jammed your elbow back, showing him just how quick you’re supposed to pull, but he had snuck up behind you without your knowledge. Your elbow collided with his face, and his hot blood sprayed onto your canvas shirt. You both yelled, and you tried to quiet his screams and smear the blood off his face as you dragged him back to the house, praying your grandfather might not see.
But he had, and now you stand, head bent towards the regal tiger-pelt rug. You are afraid to stand near its lifeless head, so you stand between its two front legs.
Your grandfather’s study is full of pelts, skulls, and other taxonomic trophies, the tiger-pelt rug being neither the most impressive nor the most costly.
Your grandfather is the last person you would ever want to be disciplined by. One time, your brother got two D’s on his report card. There had been a delay with the registrar at the school, and they sent the grades late, so your mother insisted they be forwarded to Nairobi instead of to your sunny home in Santa Monica. When your grandfather found out, he wanted to beat your brother with the paddle he had used on your father, your uncle, and your aunt. But your mother refused. Instead, he made your brother kneel in the church pews for four hours straight— two for each D he had gotten. He had made your brother repeat Hail Mary’s until, at which point, he told your brother to repent in silence.
Another time, you broke your grandmother’s favorite vase while playing baseball. Your grandfather asked who did it. You lied and said it was your brother. He sent you to the deck of the house and made you scrub the white stucco tile till your hands were raw and bloody. The maids pitied you, but he forbade them to help. He sat in the shade, chewing tobacco in his wooden rocking chair, as you sweat in the hot, African sun. You were only saved when your mother found out and pulled you inside the house, yelling at your grandfather, “Are you out of your goddam mind, Alu?!”
Now you rub the palms of your hands together, reminded of the last time you stood in this study awaiting punishment. Your grandfather does not look at you, instead lighting a cigar he pulls from the top drawer of his desk.
“Christopher Theodore, did you mean to hurt your brother?” Your grandfather insists on calling you by your first and middle names (he told you once that they were both good strong names, and that you should be proud of both). He is the only one who calls you that.
You shake your head.
“The Lord will know if you’re lying.”
You say nothing.
Your grandfather seems satisfied with your answer, but you have yet to be dismissed. “Your brother is soft like your mother…He is not like us.” He points to the stuffed cheetah behind him. “You see the cheetah, he must work to run fast.”
You nod. “But what happens if he does not, Christopher Theodore?”
You think you are supposed to answer, so you say, “He dies, grandfather.” You imagine your grandfather gunning down the cheetah in his camo jeep.
“Yes. You see, in Africa, that is how things are settled—there is always someone just a little bit faster, a little bit stronger right behind you… So you must be careful with your brother over, here—you must stick together—understand?”
You nod, and he returns to his cigar, motioning at the door.
Ngorongoro Conservation Park, Tanzania
Your mother suggests you take a family safari. Your grandfather grumbles and complains, but eventually packs everyone into a large caravan and he drives your family across the border to Tanzania.
It is your first safari. In the hostel, you must sleep in mosquito nets and every morning you are awoken by the screeching of baboons. The tour guide gives you noise makers and instructs you to rattle them in the mornings to scare the baboons away. The baboons screech and scream and yammer, beating their pink, hairless bottoms in response.
The trip is supposed to be nine days long, but it will soon be cut short on the seventh by your grandfather. That day, you are all at lunch, breaking in a sandy picnic spot in the shade of a small hill.
Your grandfather has been irritated this entire trip. He is jumpy and on edge, and you notice he has been smoking a lot, which he does when he is unhappy. At lunch, he excuses himself for a cigarette, and you watch him climb the nearby hill and vanish over its crest.
You say you have to use the bathroom and you peel off after him, probably knowing you shouldn’t, but you slip away unnoticed. You follow him away from the camp and over the hill, and into the narrow valley. You hide behind a rock and you see your grandfather staring up a tree.
Something moves up in the branches, and you see the blurry outline of what looks like a bird. Your grandfather freezes. What happens next happens very quickly. The bird launches itself out of the canopy, and it is enormous— a hawk you think. Your grandfather sprints after it, arms pumping madly, a small pistol glued to his right hand. You hear a loud crack, and the bird tumbles out of the sky. Your grandfather slows then, and bends over, his hands on his knees, catching his breath. But your grandfather appears dizzy, swaying as he walks towards his kill. Even from here, you can tell he is breathing hard, clutching at his chest. And then he collapses— falling to the ground. You scream but he does not move. You run back to the camp, shouting and crying, dragging your father and the tour guide back to where your grandfather fell.
Karatu Hospital, Tanzania
You were all helicoptered out of the game park. If you weren’t so concerned about your grandfather, it might have been cool. In the fall, you tell no one at school how you cried on safari. In the helicopter, the doctors give your grandfather CPR and he is breathing again.
Once in the hospital, the doctors rush him off to an emergency room, and you wait in the lobby with your mother and brother. Her arms are draped around you. You appreciate her touch.
An hour or two later, a doctor comes out, and in broken English, says you can see your grandfather now. He is sitting up in bed, talking, his eyes a little bloodshot and tired, but other than that, he is fine. Grandmother holds his hand, and runs her fingers through his greying hair.
“Grandfather had a heart- attack. But he’s okay now,” she says. You are happy, and rush up to his bed to hug him.
“Maybe if he would quit it with this blasted poaching business, we wouldn’t be in this mess,” my father says under his breath. “Do you know how much that fine is going to cost you, dad?”
Your grandfather waves a hand at your father and cracks a wry smile, “Well it was all worth it, wasn’t it? I got it the damn thing!”
Santa Monica, CA
The doctors have linked your grandfather’s heart attack with carcinoma, which your father explains is a type of lung cancer. Since the heart attack in Tanzania, your grandfather has been told to stop smoking. He wears nicotine patches and chews tobacco instead. He also has been told to stop vigorous exercise, and over the phone, he tells he you just sits and watches the game now.
Your grandparents have been to the states intermittently since then for your grandfather to receive what your father calls “treatment,” which you know makes him feel very ill. Even though he is only in his sixties, he can barely walk after his treatments. His hair falls out and his skin becomes papery and see-through. You are scared to look at him.
Your parents cart you and your brother and your grandmother off to the hospital to visit him after one of his sessions. You all cram into the hospital room, and for a little bit, it seems as if you’re all back in the ornate drawing room in Kenya, just as things had always been. But you notice that your grandfather’s hands shake and his eyes close for just a little bit too long when he blinks.
Your father says that they will go get lunch from the hospital cafeteria. You make to leave, but your grandfather pulls you back, saying, “Christopher Theodore, won’t you stay for a minute?” You glance at your parents and they say they will bring something back for you so you shrug and take the seat by your grandfather’s bed.
You help him with the T.V. and change the temperature of the room and make small talk. He asks you about school and if there are any girls you like. You say yes, and he tells you about how he met your grandmother. You say, “Grandfather, cut it out,” but you enjoy his love stories.
“Boy,” your grandfather says, “I have a favor to ask you.” He beckons you in close. You lean in.
“I need you to light this for me.” He holds up a cigarette. He points to the lighter in his jacket pocket. You hesitate. You grandfather continues, “Listen, Christopher Theodore, you must take what you want in this life…Life is too short to not.”
You light the cigarette.
You are visiting your mother’s side of the family for once. It is Christmas and you wish you were in Kenya, since you do not like Alabama— it is hot and wet and most of your mother’s relatives grab your face and tell you how much you have grown since you were a baby.
You are all getting ready for Christmas dinner. You wear paper crowns and there are Christmas crackers on every plate. Your mother’s brother, Bill, says grace, and in this household, everyone stands before eating. You find this odd, but you do it anyways.
Right as everyone is saying, “Amen,” your father’s phone rings. He looks at the phone and apologizes, smiling sheepishly as he steps out to take the call.
You sit down and are excited to begin eating. The table is loaded with buttercream mashed potatoes, honey glazed ham, and macaroni and cheese. Your mother seems happy for the first time in months, and you are a little bit glad you are here and not in Kenya for her sake.
Your father returns and beckons you and your brother into the hallway. You go.
He says, “Grandfather is dead.”
When you arrive, the house is filled aunts, uncles, great aunts, great uncles, and so on, but despite all the people, it seems still.
Your grandmother wears a floor-length black dress. Even in her sorrow and age, she is beautiful. You do not know this now, but this will be the last time you are ever in the house in Kenya again. Your grandmother will sell the house and will move permanently to the States as soon as she gets her VISA.
The priest begins the ceremony. Your grandmother has converted the drawing room into the funeral room and the coffin is at the front, propped open on a makeshift altar. You do not strain to see its contents. “Alu loved game,” the priest begins.
Everyone laughs a little. “He sinned,” the priest continues, “But he was a loving man.” The priest talks about mercy and forgiveness and how your grandfather was an upright and righteous Christian. He says that He calls your grandfather “strong-willed.” You all say “Amen.” Your father speaks and then your grandmother. You see your Aunt MaryAnne shed a tear in the corner of the room.
And then the service is done. Your father hands you a small rosary, and shepherds you to the line that is forming behind the coffin. You know you are expected to take communion and place the rosary in the coffin, but instead, you squeeze out of the line. Your father is too distracted to notice and your mother is perhaps to forgiving to care. Outside the drawing room, emerald curtains are pulled closed, giving the entire house a grainy greenish tint. You walk past the living room and see the vase you broke playing baseball that one time. You taped the pieces back together in hopes of your grandfather not noticing. You smile a little.
You find yourself in his study. You are no longer afraid to stand on the tiger pelt rug, and you almost welcome the earthy smell of his pelts and skins. The fur bristles under your touch, and you marvel that something so lifeless could feel so real.
You move behind the mahogany desk, and sit down. Your grandfather’s desk is a mess of papers and notes. You see an open bottle of India ink and a copy of National Geographic tucked below the rotating globe, pins stuck in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Nice—one for every one of your grandfather’s four children.
Judging from the fine film of dust, you gather that no one has been in here since his death.
You start going through his drawers—you find receipts from the laundromat, neat bank account statements, a Playboy magazine, which you think about keeping, but decide against, a small tin of tobacco, and a flask containing what you think is whiskey.
You close the drawer. You rise from his leather arm-chair and cover the length of the study in a few quick strides. Before you close the door, you pull the rosary from your pocket and you chuck it across the room. It lands around the antler of a stuffed gazelle right behind his desk. The beads rattle a little bit, but you think your grandfather would have been proud of the shot.