Hurtling down the side of Ngorongoro Crater, in a safari truck with no brakes, Tara clutches her talisman. Below the road is a drop of several hundred meters.
“We are between the worlds,” the priestess chants, circling the Winter Solstice fire. I imagine my daughter circled by the goddess’s arms.
Nehalennia languidly raises one knee.
Sitting by the fire, sipping hot chocolate, I reread the postcards. The first one shows a Swahili town on the coast of Kenya. My daughter writes of her excitement at meeting new people, trying new foods, learning a new language. Another describes a land without seasons as she knows them, of days and nights of equal length, of astonishing sunrises and sun- sets, of unfamiliar constellations.
Caring friends ask about her. I tell them, “She’s having a wonderful time. I got another card from her today. Can you - believe she’s swimming in the Indian Ocean while we’re making clouds with our breath?”
Walking on the hot, golden sand, slipping her body into the warmth of the Indian Ocean, Tara feels at peace. “This is exactly where I want to be.” Black-haired children swim beside her. Two little girls grab her arms and pull her farther out. Laughing and splashing, they play together in the warm water, attracting the attention of more children. Back on shore, children surround her, curious about her language, her ways, her differences, poking her skin and touching her short red hair.
Before she left, I give her the talisman. “It represents Nehalennia, the Celtic goddess of travellers,” I say. “Will you wear it?”
“Will a Celtic goddess have any power in Africa?” Tara laughs. “She’ll wonder where she is.”
Friends ask about her journey, say she’s brave, express concern for her safety. I tell them, “She had all her shots and took along a medical kit. She’s got a water filter and a mosquito net. She’s ready for anything - anything predictable, that is. It’s the unforeseen that’s the challenge. But I know she’ll be fine.” I wave good-bye with a mittened hand and trudge through the snow to my car. “Goddess, I know you give the traveller courage. You will support Tara, no matter what the winds of chance blow into her life.”
It’s 5:00 a.m. when her phone call wakens me, just 4:00 p.m. there. As I shiver in my nightgown, she sweats outside the post office, using the only telephone in town. I can hardly hear her. We shout across the world at each other. I yell, “How are you? Are you well?”
She yells back, “I’m fine, now. I saw a local doctor, and got something for my stomach. I’m leaving for Arusha tomorrow. That’s in Tanzania. I’ll be on the road for a few days, and then I’ll go on safari. I might not be able to call for quite a while.”
“What was wrong with your stomach? Are you still taking the medicine? What’s in it? How long will it take to get to Arusha?”
“I can hardly hear you. I’ve got to go. The man said I had 3 minutes to use the phone. I’ll write. I love you.” “I love you, too.” Dial tone. I hug the receiver, rocking back and forth. It was delicious to hear her voice, terrible to not have her here beside me.
“Goddess, keep her safe,” I pray.
They choke back the dust as the matatu races over the bumpy road. The women, dressed in theirfinest colored kangas, earrings and bracelets gleaming, cling to their seats and the rails, their babies dozing and rocking on their backs. Children stare and smile. Tara moves closer to her companion, making room for a sleepy child on the seat beside her. The little girl leans her head against Tara’s arm and sleeps.
“No, I haven’t heard from her lately. She’s on safari now. In Tanzania.” I sip the hot chocolate by the crackling log fire. “Yes, I sometimes allow myself to worry, but I know she’ll be fine.” My own words reassure me.
The Serengeti Plain is covered with species of every sort. Grazing zebras, snorting, awkward wildebeest, frisky gazelles, and ivory-bearing elephants share this wild grassland, where they’ve fed for millennia. A breeze touches the feathers of a flamingo. A hippo rolls over in the mud to cool its other side. A buffalo, gracefully curved horns framing its serious expression, looks up, then returns to grazing. A leopard, draped over an acacia tree branch, dangles its forepaw and closes its eyes. Drowsy lions sprawl across the safari road, sunning themselves. The safari truck stops at the “simba rocks” for the travellers to eat and rest.
“We are between the worlds,” the priestess chants. “We are in a place of magic and wonder. The goddesses are all here with us. You may speak to them.”
I inhale the scent of cedar boughs as I stare into the Solstice fire. “Hold my daughter in your loving arms, Great Mother. Guide her travels, Nehalennia, and endow her with your courage and wisdom.”
Hurtling down the side of the Ngorongoro Crater, the brakes on the safari truck give out.
The goddess Nehalennia shifts her gaze. The undulating curves of her body, the drifting sands, hold new interest. Here is a mother, and here is a daughter. They are beings connected, who move to the rhythms of the sky, the sea, the earth. She smiles. So easy to protect this daughter from destruction. Languidly, she raises her knee.
A slight rise in the ground slows down the safari truck just enough for the driver to get the vehicle under control. Tara clutches her talisman. It burns her fingers.
“Of course I wasn’t afraid,” Tara says, laughing. She is leaning against me, recounting her African adventures. “What could have happened? I was prepared for anything. Except for that time on the crater when the brakes gave out.”
“They what?” I demand. So she tells me the story.
Elizabeth Wray is a writer living in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.