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You Had Me at Habari (Prologue)

"...and the sun swelters on the horizon, its orange embers igniting the savannah grasses into color like a thousand glowing candles..." Beatrice Tyler glanced down at six-year-old Elsbeth, nestled beside her on the front porch swing. Her head of chestnut-colored curls lay against Beatrice's arm and the beautiful little girl had her eyes closed. Dark lashes, like velvet fringe, contrasted with creamy, caramel-colored cheeks. Anyone else might have taken her tranquil pose for sleep, but Beatrice knew better. Periodically stumbling over the pronunciation of a word, she continued reading in her slow Mississippi drawl. "...The evening symphony begins. Somewhere in the distance, atop a powdery knoll, the great cats bellow. Their booming roars roll across the Mara plains like waves upon the shore. To the east, I hear the yipping and yelping of hyenas, ready for the hunt. And nearby, the bark-like braying of zebras reminds me of feisty Highland donkeys. As the sunset fades, thunder echoes down the mountains. Joyous music; we need the rain. Relaxing on my veranda, I fill my lungs with cool, moist air. It's good to be home." Beatrice sighed. The sinking sun cast a soft glow on her daughter’s face. As she closed the back cover of the book, Elsbeth stirred. Beatrice looked into trusting violet-blue eyes. "Did you like Savannah Joy, baby?" With an accent thick as the air on a summer afternoon, Elsbeth said, "Yes'm Mama. That ‘un was the best." "Y'little polliwog! You said that 'bout Anne of Green Gables and The Flame Trees of Thika." "Ohhh, the flame trees was the best, but they's all wonderful, Mama. Ever' one that library gives you." “Soon enough, you can read on your own.” Beatrice gazed wistfully at the back cover. "Mercy me, ain't she a beautiful woman?" Elsbeth craned her neck. "She’s like one o'them fancy ladies on the cover o'them magazines in Mawby’s store. Is that her boy there, Mama, the one in the book?"

Beatrice squinted at the fine print below the photograph. "Says that boy there is Alex, and yes'm, he surely must be Missus McCord's son, same as in the story. Mmm-mm! He's a fine strappin' boy. Gonna be one dandy marrying man all grown up." Elsbeth drew her dirty, shoeless feet up to the swing’s seat. Beatrice looped her right arm around the girl’s slight shoulders and pushed off from the sagging porch. The rusted chain creaked with the meter of the swing. Elsbeth pointed toward Beatrice's knees. "Look, Mama, you gots a spider on your dress." Beatrice glanced down at the small spider crawling across the faded daisies. Her naked feet broke the swing's glide. “I have a spider on my dress,” she gently corrected Elsbeth. She laid her fingers in front of the spider and it climbed onto her skin. She placed the spider on the boards beneath the swing where it scurried into a shadow. "Mama spider's probably on her way home to her family." Elsbeth cocked her head. "Spiders git married?" "All God's critters get married and have babies, one way or another." "Will I ever git married, Mama?" "Lordy, child, you are but six years old! There's a big world outside these woods. And you have your whole life before you. But when the time is right, you'll be married for sure." Beatrice squeezed Elsbeth. "And I ’spect you'll be marrying a fine man, just like that Alex." Smiling, Elsbeth snuggled close to Beatrice. As the sky dimmed, they listened to the crickets in the surrounding woods.

"Here comes your papa," Beatrice said, hearing the rumble and sputter of the old tractor. Slowly making its way along the rutted drive toward the house, it carried four passengers silhouetted against the orange sunset. Minutes later, the motor shut off. Three pairs of feet, belonging to boys seventeen, fifteen, and twelve, labored up the porch steps. "Hey, Mama. Hey Elsb'th," each boy said as he passed into the house. Nate Tyler brought up the rear. Elsbeth reached out to the lanky man in faded overalls. “Hey, Papa!” "Hey, sugar!" Nate groaned as he lifted her. Beatrice shook her head. "She's gettin’ too big for you to be hefting her like that. Elsbeth, let go of your papa and stir them beans. And light them lamps, please. And draw water for your brothers’ washin’. They smell bad as goats!" Nate lowered Elsbeth to the planks and she scampered into the house. "Their papa don't smell much better." But Beatrice smiled. "Move over, woman, this here goat's a settin' down." The old swing groaned beneath his weight. He took off his hat, sweat-stained along the band. With knotted fingers, he smoothed the thinning black strands across his scalp then swatted a mosquito sucking blood from his dusty forearm. "Tractor broke twice today. Barely got them fields plowed." Beatrice kissed her husband's sunbaked cheek. "But you did." "I swear woman, how you stay smilin'—" "Guess what! A lawyer man come here today—” “A lawyer man. What he want?” “Say he’s passing through to L’il Rock and saw my sign on the road. So I shown him my three done quilts and he say his wife has a…boo-teek…and she can sell what I sew. He gives me a fancy little card with his name on it. He ask how much and I ask if twenty dollars a piece is okay and he gives me thirty dollars a piece on the spot!" "Thirty dollar each? That’s…” “Ninety dollars!” Beatrice didn’t mention the dollar he gave Elsbeth just for being cute. "I want to buy paper and colored pencils," she said, before her husband had the money spent. Nate looked sternly at his wife who nervously fingered the small gold locket gracing her neck. "Why do you go on like this? You encouragin’ that youngun ain't gonna do her no good." "But she has talent. And she's smart. Her teacher says she reads real good like in fourth grade.” "Readin’ ain’t gonna help Elsbeth. She's a girl, and tainted at that." Beatrice turned away, still rubbing the etched heart like a worry bead. "Now, Bea, I love Elsbeth like she's my own, and you know that's God's truth, but facts is facts. One day she's gotta learn 'bout her mama and papa. And giving her pencils and reading her 'bout places she ain't never gonna see—" Beatrice pushed the book underneath the worn cotton of her dress. "—is jus gonna make her miserable unhappy. The best she can hope for is a decent boy who don't care 'bout her blood. Thank God for them eyes of hers." Nate took her right hand in both of his. "Truth is, Honey, Jimmy Davis talked to me last week 'bout pledging Elsbeth—" Pledging? That ain’t been done for years.” “Elsbeth needs takin’ care of. She needs a husband, and then children to live with when she’s old.” “But Elsbeth is barely six!" "You was crawling on all fours when we was pledged," he gently reminded her. "And birthin’ my son at fourteen." “Times are different. Elsbeth can get work.” “Nobody gonna hire Elsbeth ‘cept maybe for layin’ down whiskey. And there ain’t nothing wrong with the old ways. Families know families. Elsbeth and Earl will know each other a good long time and there won’t be no surprises.” "Earl? The boy's a half-wit! And he’s eight years older. I thought you was pledging Elsbeth and Jacob."

"Listen here, Beatrice Josephine, just 'cause Earl don't take to books like Jacob, don't make him a half-wit! He’s hard working and decent-looking and he’s stayin’ on the farm so you can still see Elsbeth. Jacob ain’t gonna stay ‘round here and he don’t need help findin’ a wife. The Davises are church-goin’ people and as good as we can expect.” He paused. “We can use that hundred dollars.”

“She’s worth more than that!”

"Now, Bea, you know I ain't never gonna make Elsbeth marry if she don't want, but there ain't no reason she can't be happy with Earl. You can make her see that."

Beatrice looked at Nate with green eyes threatening tears. "She deserves better."

Nate surrounded his wife with sinewy arms and pulled her against his chest. "I ‘spect we all deserve better, Darlin'…" He stroked the graying hair on his wife's head while her bony shoulders trembled. "All right, Bea, all right. If it means that much, buy them pencils and paper. But don't go thinking she ain't getting pledged."

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