Cartwheeling in thunders.., p.1
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       Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms, p.1

           Katherine Rundell
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Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms



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  To my parents

  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!”

  SIMON WALKED ACROSS THE VLEI, dragging a stick in the dust. Will had disappeared yesterday without warning. In the middle of a particularly good race on horseback she had just swerved away, over a stack of firewood and off. It was one of the hazards of being her friend, that you might be left for hours, days—even, once, a week—waiting for her to return, while she rambled over the bush, singing softly, eating fruit, telling stories to aloe plants and birds. She was a funny one, and there was nothing you could do about it. But he was bored, so bored. Practicing roundoffs was no fun without her, nor was tracking the men working in the fields; and there was nobody to steal bananas from the kitchen garden. Simon kicked at a dung beetle in the path. He sighed, and kicked, and sighed again.

  And then the day tore open. A scream shrieked across the vlei; there was a shattering, clattering cacophony of fear as birds took off from the trees. It came again; it was a shriek of inhuman agony, hammering against the still air, beating against his skin and raising goose bumps, and Simon was no coward. He hurled himself after the sound, running hard and fast and with long strides, leaping over tussocks of grass, bringing a foot down on a thorn and gasping with pain, reaching the tree where the screams continued to sting the air, his mouth sour with a horrible, unfamiliar fear—

  And it wasn’t Will. Of course it wasn’t. That was the first thing; and as relief hit him, Simon doubled up, clutching a stitch, retching. It was a group of boys, and they were holding—not just holding; he retched again, this time in disgust—torturing a monkey, pulling at the arms, snatching out the legs into an agonizing straight line, the boys snuffling with snot-bubbling amusement.

  This was absolute cruelty. And Simon hadn’t known Will for all those years for nothing. He knew how to deal with absolutes. He tightened his body into hard readiness—balled his hands, clenched his toes, locked his elbows—but when he spoke, it was softly. “What—d’you think—you’re—doing?”

  The boys paused, alarmed by the sudden boy with his lips folded back in a snarl.

  “Stop it! Stop it now.” Simon’s voice was steady. He raised one fist. “Now.”

  The tallest of the group, who was wearing lace-up shoes and so was probably a rich city boy, shifted awkwardly.

  “We’re just playing, ja?” He sneered, sizing up his tall, thin, dusty opponent. “And actually it’s none of your business, farm boy.”

  “No. No, actually, you wrong.” Simon flared his nostrils. “It is my business, city boy.” They stared at each other, both ugly with dislike and working themselves into heavy, rhythmical breathing. “But if I’m just a farm boy—and just so’s you know, I’m a horseboy; I look after Mr. Browne’s stable—then you won’t be afraid to fight, ja?” Simon’s skin felt stretched with his anger. The boy was a good year or two older than he was and built like a boxer, stocky with fat and muscle. Now the boy hissed, half in fear and half in exasperation, and he thrust the monkey into the hands of the boy behind him, where it struggled, shrieking a high cry of terror.

  “Stupid. You’re stupid. Penga. Stupid horseboy. I promise you, hey, you do not want to fight me.”

  “No, actually. I do.”


  “Ja, actually.”

  Simon leaped, and at the same moment the boy leaped, and they thudded together in midair, but the boy was heftier, and grunting, he knocked against Simon’s chest and pinned him to the hot earth, rolling Simon’s face in the dust. He snatched back the monkey and held it tauntingly, high over his head. “So come get it, horseboy.”

  There was a crashing of undergrowth, a rearing horse, and a choked cry—

  “I saw you, hey! You’re foul!”

  A thumping of feet as a body dropped to the ground.

  “Foul! I saw you! How dare you?”

  A small brown fist connected with the boy’s triumphant cheek, and a brown foot knocked the legs from under his
solid torso.

  “Foul! You’re foul!”

  The boy looked up. Standing over him, looking down and vibrating with rage, was a small white girl, with a large mouth and heavy eyebrows and brown eyes flecked with anger. She held the monkey, clutched with one hand to her chest.

  “I won’t kick you.” The voice was strangled, shrill, jagged with anger. “I don’t kick dogs. So I won’t kick you.” Will drew a breath. She could face irate horses, and knew what to do with snakes, rats, and baboons. Humans were more difficult. “But you can’t do that.” Will swore. “You can’t just tear stuff apart, right? You foul . . .” She felt angrier than she’d ever been, and she was sweaty, and drawing breath was a struggle, but she gasped, “The monkeys . . . you dare . . . they’re good and they’re fragile and they’re golden.”

  “Golden?” Even lying in the dirt, the boy managed to look incredulous.

  “Yeah. Golden. Precious. You . . . you’re . . .” Will found she had no words, so she hocked back her chin and spat, accurately, onto the boy’s forehead. “Unlike you.”

  And Will was up on Shumba again, bareback. In a few moments, she would feel properly victorious. For now, she only wanted to cry. The monkey was whining in her lap, so she licked a finger and stroked down the disordered fur. It was beautiful, gray and velvety soft. She said, “Si? You coming, hey?”

  “Ja. In a minute,” said Simon. “You go on. Meet at the tree house, ’kay?”

  Shumba was hard to wheel around without reins, and it would be so bathetic and terrible to fall off now, so Will thundered on in a straight line. She was going the wrong way for home, which was foolish, but now that the boy was down and the monkey was safe and held with one hand inside her shirt, her anger was trickling out of her. It went so slowly that she could feel it. It was, she thought, like having had cement in her veins, but now the blood was coming back.

  The monkey chattered, and scratched against her skin. She whispered to it, just soft noises at first (because what did you say to a frightened monkey?). And then when it still cried, Will whispered, “Hush, monkey. Hush, beauty. Hush, dear heart,” and it grew quiet, lulled by the rocking of her steady riding. Will was free to listen to the beat of the horse’s feet and the swish-swish, swish-swish of the three-foot-tall grass. The grass in Africa speaks, and now, she thought, it sang to her, “Hush, beauty. Hush, beauty.” And scratches and bruises could be dealt with later. For now, she was victorious and alone, and there would be ice-cold chocolate pudding at lunch, and she had the solid warmth of a horse and a baby monkey, and the road was pure sunlight.

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