The bus shook. Each pebble its weary tires rolled across sent a jolt through the floorboards, lurching its passengers upwards. Most kept an arm, or two, extended towards the metal roof, bracing themselves for the next jump. Rays of light beamed through the dirt-spattered windows and filled the bus with hot, heavy air. It was the pleasant type of hot, the same kind as when you hug a freshly-printed piece of paper against yourself.
I looked at the glass of the window. At, not through. Little figures fluttered through the veneer of mud; could that be Santa Clause? I craned my neck. No, from this angle it looks more like a ship. Maybe a cruiser, I thought. I glanced downwards. Stuck in the outer crack between the linoleum-lining of the windowsill and the aluminum plate of the bus’ side was a bee. I spent the next few minutes thinking of ways the bee got stuck.
The bus sputtered and the brakes hissed to a stop. I peered ahead, abandoning the eternally-trapped bee from my thoughts. Aha! I knew the olive-green gate in front of me, although it looked more chipped and faded in-person than it did online. The driver exchanged a few words with a guard, who reluctantly turned, and began to drag the arms of the gate open.
Tall greenthorn trees cradled the pathway as the bus tumbled its way through. The path’s floor was sandy, decorated with puddles of mud and rocky outcrops, and lined with yellow-golden weeds that danced in the gentle sunlight. As we rounded a corner, the greenthorns closest to the road began to fade, and a pen of cows drew into focus. The cows lounged in whatever shade they could find. A few munched lazily on scattered hay, tails flicking back and forth, shooing away flies. Each cow had long yellowed horns that curved inwards, and in the soft morning light, the horns looked like halos. Behind the pen was a wide white building with a few columns jutting out of the roof. I wondered if that’s where the cows went to die. Like the bee died in the windowsill.
Minutes passed and we continued our drive through the farm. Small animals scurried through the golden brush and birds twittered overhead. As we turned another corner, the bus skirted to a halt once again. There was quiet chatter of relief as people neatented their clothes and grabbed their belongings, preparing to leave the terrible, bouncing bus. One of the passengers slid the door open, and slowly, the few people onboard began to file out. I got up slightly from my cracked leather seat to watch them leave. I was the only one to sit back down.
We were now in open prairie – that is me, the driver, and the awful bus that carried us along. In the distance I could make out the bloated trunks of baobab trees and wondered how far they continued into the horizon.
As the bus coughed and scuttled away, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the departed group. In front of the huddle stood a guide; dressed in pale khaki uniform, with a green front-facing baseball cap. Behind him, was a foldable table hosting a humble assortment of snack and beverage; a dozen or so shallow metal mugs, a bowl of rusks, two thermoses, and a plastic container filled with instant coffee and sugar sachets. I knew the group was there for a day-tour through the bush; I read it on the farm’s website. I knew I wanted something more immersive. The real-deal.
I tapped my fingers against the window in anticipation. The edges of the path were now purple and maroon with burst berries; the trees above willowed – the obvious bearers of fruit. Gradually, the path shifted upwards and of course, the bus creaked with complaint. We rocked back and forth up the slight hill, my back pressed firmly against the tacky leather of my seat. My heart began to pound like a bird trying to hum its way through my chest as the bus evened out and entered the clearing. I smoothed my skirt and clutched the handle of my suitcase. At the hiss of the breaks, I stood immediately, still hunched under the caved roof. Awkwardly, I walked to the front of the bus, gave the driver my quick “thank-you’s” and “have-a-good-day’s” and tugged the door open.
The ground that met my excited shoes was sprawling with life. Letting go of my suitcase, I crouched down to observe the intricate kingdom below. Coiling green stems and moss darkened by morning dew peeked through the worn cracks of pavement. Ants marched through the cracks, a few veering away to investigate pebbles or small mounds of dirt. Peeping out from beneath my shoe was a pointed white needle, and as I lifted my toe, many more needles revealed themselves. Now, which tree has littered the floor with such dangerous little things, I thought.
I stood from my squatting position, and gave my back a good side-to-side stretch. Lifting my gaze from the thorns below, I turned my attention to the lush environment of which I stood in the center of. The clearing was oval-shaped and leveled off into tall drooping trees that seemingly went on forever. To the left of where I stood was the sandy pathway the bus had whined and whinnied to cross, painted with springtime mulberries. Towering in front of me, still within the clearing, was a gangly tree. Its branches did not droop like the others, but instead fanned out from its stout trunk. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of nests hung from its branches like ornaments on a Christmas tree. Shielding my eyes with a cupped hand, I looked up at the branches. These branches would serve well if you were ever in need of barbed wire in the wild, I thought to myself. Any part of branch not occupied by a dangling bundle of twirled reeds was armored with spindly white needles. I made a mental note to investigate the dangling nest ornaments, and spun on my heel to see what was behind me.
There it was. The Mfiti Lodge.
The roof draped over the walls as if it was a sheet of pastry placed atop the house. The panels wove across each other, hanging over the brim of the front face and casting a slight shadow across the uppermost section. Tall beams of ebony wood ran from top to bottom. In fact, most of the house glimmered with dark polished ebony, except for the few windowsills which were caramel in color. A half-crescent window donned the height of the wall. Below it, the face bowed outwards like a hexagon cut in two. A modest pathway led to the door, which arched into a sharp peak and presented two looped brass handles.
As if summoned by my glance, the doors began to slowly groan open, the glowing gap between them widening with every screech of the copper plates against the floorboards. A pause. The silence of the air grew into a bloated minute of suspense. The only noise to pierce the silence was the lullaby of a far-off bird, humming melodically like a sorrowed bow against a violin. The doors began to stutter forward once more, and for the first time, I saw the patent leather shoes of Mister Francis.