Mama warned me about The Safari when I was just 11 years old. She said, “June-bug-June, The Safari is wild. The Safari is wild, just like your father.”
He played the banjo on one knee and sang with a twang. He loved my mother, and I like to imagine he loved me. He was not from here.
That’s about all I know.
I am 17 now and I drink coffee and wear my hair in long, dark braids knotted with blue ribbons that trail behind me like wings. I like to imagine my father’s voice saying, “You are just like your mother.”
I spill coffee on the napkin to my right. It leaves a caramel stain, the color of my palms, on the bright, white surface. “No matter,” Mama says and scoops it up with her coffee-ground fingers and red nails.
I don’t often leave the apartment; I sit in the padded windowsill instead. I like to think of it as my perch. I sit and watch the people and their animals blend together below. I am a bird with blue feathers and a caramel beak with red talons. I am just like Mama.
She often perches next to me and says, “June-bug-June, The Safari is wild. Don’t you bother your mind with conquering it.” And then she kisses my forehead gently and lightly.
My father left a kiss on my nose once. It was harsh and dark. I think it left a stain. “No matter,” Mama lied.
As the night eats away at the sun, The Safari below empties. I watch as a bird from above. The starlight dances in the puddles of melted ice left by fish vendors. Mama says she loves that part of the night; she always has and always will.
I prefer the moon. I know this will make her cry, so I keep quiet and cross my legs. When she is not looking, I sneak upward glances at the bright, white circle. Sometimes I see a face. It reminds me of my father.
Mama pours me hot water and drowns a teabag below the surface with her coffee-ground finger. The leaves bleed red into the water. The steam smells of hibiscus. I close my eyes and blow the thin cloud away. It lingers near her bosom before dissipating into the dim, blue atmosphere of our apartment. Mama places the tea in my palms. It warms them and burns my tongue when I sip. I sip and sip, again and again, forgetting the pain as I go.
Mama is finished with her tea long before I. She always drinks it when the steam is still thick. I imagine it is because she is strong.
Across the ocean, on another continent, divided by a tectonic plate, the father sits looking up at the same moon. Sometimes he sees a face, and it reminds him of his daughter.
The nights are cold above The Safari, so Mama and I share a bed. I often imagine it into a nest instead of counting sheep. The mattress is full of scavenged twigs, silver and gold, that we wove together with our caramel beaks and red talons.
We fill the gaps with shed feathers, blue and gossamer in the moonlight. This is where we lay our heads.
And that is usually where I fall asleep.
But on some nights, I lie awake much longer than Mama, and I look up at the moon. He is watching over us. I know it. I wish I could tell her he has not forgotten and then maybe she could find enough forgiveness in our little nest to make room for one more.
Mornings are short. We sleep late and poke at bits of cereal. Then Mama leaves for The Safari. I go to my perch and watch her from above. She sells delicately woven rings, silver and gold. The same shade of the reflected starlight. I think that is why she prefers the stars to the moon. They remind her of what she loves.
The father sleeps through his mornings, deliberately avoiding them. His mind only knows the reddening of the afternoon sky and the darkness of the night; however, today he is up. The sky is blue and foreign. He has done his best to forget the morning sky that he loved once upon a time in The Safari.
Bells ring and Mama returns for a late lunch. She brushes the sand from her thick lashes and sits down. She pulls a fish from her pack and pulls a piece off for me. It is dried and salted. I savor the first bite on my tongue, allowing it to moisten before swallowing.
Mama is done before I. She always gives me the bigger piece.
There is still sand on her hands when she twists the doorknob leaving me for The Safari once again.
The father sits with his legs crossed, a habit of his daughter’s. He would not know this though. One often forgets these things in order to erase the pain after love is broken.
He does not know what to do with this unexpected morning. The nothingness forces him to remember. He remembers her and her coffee-ground fingers weaving silver and gold on the streets of the market, The Safari.
His father sent him there to sell his silver fish, chilled by ice and stained with pink blood. The stall that had been reserved for him was next to hers. He complimented her handiwork. She vaguely responded; she already knew she was brilliant. It made her rude, and he should have been offended. He only admired her more.
He buried his attention into his work. He should forget her. He traded his silver, bloodied fish for rusted, silver dollars. He felt the heaviness of the coins as he rolled them along his knuckles, a common trick mastered by fidgety, young merchants.
It had become second nature as things often do.
Work in The Safari ended early for Mama. It had begun to rain, and she still had yet to patch her awning. She hurried the woven chains inside and vowed to sew the patches that night.
I sat excitedly by her side, flipping a button from the sewing basket across my knuckles. Mama tells me to stop. She says, “June-bug-June, it is better to be still and wait like a bird. Do not waste your energy being restless.”
Like your father.
I know that is what should come next, but it doesn’t because he hurts her too much. So she chooses to forget and lets the numbness cancel out the pain.
He makes me hurt Mama, and sometimes I hate him for that.
The father now remembers the rain that came that day and how she let him share her awning. And how later that month they would share a promise and two rings cut from the same chain. And how they would share the nest and nine months later they would share a life.
I like to watch mama sew. Her red nails loop calmly around the string and steady the needle. I imagine her caramel beak worked similarly when she wove our nest and saved feathers into pillows.
Night is coming and while she concentrates I sneak a smile to the moon. Sometimes I imagine him wink back. It is our secret.
Night has fallen, but the father does not sleep. His eyelids are heavy; they beg him to sleep, but he shakes his head. He will not sleep until the moon sets early in the morning. Only then, can he sleep. Only then, will he allow the darkness erase the blue morning.
He finds a coin on the floor. It is only a penny and much lighter than the ones he used to receive in The Safari. It takes him a few tries to grow accustomed to the foreign weight, but it becomes second nature as things often do.
Mama yawns. One more patch to go. I lie in our nest waiting for her. I watch her fingers and then the wick as it is swallowed by the wax and then her fingers again. It is a comforting and consistent cycle.
“Again! Again!” I hear my younger-self begging. He picks me up and swings me towards the sky. It is blue.
This is my only memory of him. In his eyes, I can see the vibrant sparks and yells of The Safari. This is where she draws the comparison.
I put the memory on repeat in the back of my mind. “Again! Again!” the past echoes.
Staring back at the father are Mama’s concerned, angry eyes. He needs to be a father; he needs to stop being so wild, to stop fidgeting. He needs to settle down. She takes off the ring and shoves it into his fist. It hurts. The memory always hurts. It hurts so much he almost gives into the call of sleep.
He could surrender, but he chooses not to. Sometimes it is nice to feel the pain. It reminds him that he is living.
Mama is finished. She crawls across the nest and burrows in next to me. She is tired, and I can tell her fingers are sore. Someday, I will weave and sew for her, when her joints are too old and too tired and need to sleep so that they can forget the pain.
Her breaths slow. She is dreaming of flying, probably, and smiling softly. I like to imagine she frees herself to be wild in her dreams. Her blue feathers soar above the stars alongside the moon.
I fold my fingers so they project the shadow of a bird onto the wall. The moon and I often play like this when Mama is asleep. He gives me his light and I tell him what Mama is dreaming. It makes him smile, I know, because he gets to be with her again.
This game is our second secret. We play until I fall asleep, and then he swings me in my dreams.
“Again! Again!” the past is echoing.
The pain is too much, and the moon is too bright. The father draws his blinds. He lies on his bed and tries to forget the blue, the caramel, and the red. He lets sleep wash over him. He forgets the silver bands that her fingers wove. The memory turns to nothingness and the pain numbs.
It is better this way.
Mama is grateful for the nights when there is no moon. “Oh, June-bug-June,” she says, “do not mourn the darkness; it signals beginnings. Someday you will be grateful too.”
I trust Mama, but I will always mourn the missing moon.
The father forgets The Safari.
It becomes second nature.
Someday, I will go out into the wild and sell silver and gold promises in The Safari.
Someday, Mama will be gone. She will be free to dream. I like to imagine she will let her blue wings guide her to the moon, and they can rise and fall together, eternally, and I will watch them from my perch above The Safari.
It is better this way.