by Finley Pines
Haji was preparing the room for breakfast, placing ironed white linens on the table and setting down teacups with floral patterns that would be steaming
with Earl Grey and milk in a few hours’ time.
"Good night," she called to the waiter as she exited.
"Yes, Madam,” Haji said.
She nodded at the Maasai guard, rifle slung over shoulder in the event of running into a lion or, worse, the dreaded Cape buffalo. His black skin
made him invisible in the darkness, save the sheen of his blue-and-red tartan shawl.
As they passed Tent Three, she tried to focus on the guard’s long gait. His size reminded her of William who would be waiting for her at the airport.
Now the memory of his thick frame made her think of competence more than staidness, and suddenly she longed to be weighted down by him.
The thought was a good distraction from the night’s events. The tan leather guest book on the end table had appeared innocent. But inside, she had
happened upon a familiar script, with long l’s and curving t’s. “Delicious soup!” he had written, and his signature had inked the page just days before
her arrival. She had seized the book for a closer look. Her haste had sent the adjacent candy bowl cascading to the floor with a clatter. At the sound,
the waiters had come running.
"Please, Madam," Haji said, kneeling down with brush and dustpan. He spoke with the same elegant tone he had used when serving dinner. "Pumpkin soup,"
he had announced, setting the bowl before her with white-gloved hand.
"I am so sorry," she said, still clutching the book to her chest. "So clumsy."
"Not at all," he said, disposing of the candy-bowl remains. Will Madam take her cocktail?" he asked, gesturing toward the drink cart.
“That’s right, my gin,” she said, eyeing the still-fizzing glass.
“Very good, Madam,” he said, turning to go.
"Haji, there is something else I need to ask.”
She opened the book and pointed to the familiar handwriting. “Do you remember this guest?"
"Yes, Madam. Americans, like you. On honeymoon, I believe."
"They stay in Tent Three."
"The one next to mine!" she cried. "What did she look like? The woman, the wife, I mean.”
“She was small, like bird,” he said. “She had, you call it, red hair.”
"Oh, I see. I’m sorry," she said, glancing down again at the book, "it's not your job, but was she very beautiful?"
The waiter appeared puzzled.
"I knew him. The man, I mean. He was . . . well, we were. It was long ago."
"Yes, Madam,” Haji said, brightening. “She was beautiful. After all, she is bride." Then he added softly, "But not so beautiful as you, Madam."
"So kind,” she said, looking away.
"Not at all, Madam.”
"Thank you so much."
Once alone, she opened the book. Thirty hours flying and two days crossing the Serengeti to encounter this familiar signature and, worse, the tiny
Last week they sat on this couch. They ate pumpkin soup, and did other things too, in Tent Three.
She sat a long time, the gin taking effect. Earlier, her tent had been a lovely vantage point from which to spy grazing giraffes. Now it seemed vacant,
and she dreaded returning. She reread the line, tracing the letters with her finger.
The fire in the dining room crackled, a ward against the night chill of these remote grasslands. The waiters were rolling silver in the hallway. She
concealed the guest book in a magazine and feigned warming herself at the hearth. She embraced the book in her arms like a dying baby. Slowly, she
opened it, gentle when ripping out the page for the last good-bye. After slipping the paper into the flames, she stood by the table long enough to
watch the words turn to ashes.