There are many ways to find family and home, as three very different women—an unmarried American anthropologist, a lonely ex-pat wife and an infertile Maasai woman—discover as their paths cross in unexpected ways in sub-Saharan Africa. First-time novelist Adrienne Benson, who grew up living in several African countries and now calls Washington DC home, depicts the Kenyan landscape, and the resident people, lovingly but unsparingly in The Brightest Sun, published this week by Park Row Books.
LEONA ARRIVED at the manyatta in a little, dented Renault 4 she purchased, with cash, from a departing French expatriate who she’d met her first night in Nairobi. She drove the distance between Nairobi and Loita hesitantly. It was her first time in Africa and the small car didn’t feel like it would offer protection from lions or elephants or any other wild game that might lurk in the yellow savannah grassland she drove through. The drive terrified her so much that she promised herself to stay in the manyatta and only use the car for emergencies. But after a few weeks the dry dust made Leona’s skin itch, and the nearest water source, a little tributary of the Mara River, was low and thick, too muddy to bathe in. Leona didn’t miss much from home, but she did miss the feeling of a shower, the water soaking her hair and skin. She couldn’t stand the way her skin felt, the way her body stank. She wanted a hot shower. She wanted to immerse herself in soap and water, to scrub her hair and fingernails and wash the spaces between her toes. Her yearning to be clean was visceral.
So, only six weeks after her arrival, she packed an overnight bag and drove to Narok to spend the night at the Chabani Guest House. The hotel was small and cheap, mostly used by safari guides and the occasional shoestring tourist or traveling Peace Corps volunteer. But it was clean, and with electricity, running water and a real, if old, mattress, it felt luxurious to Leona. The sky outside was darkening and cool when she arrived. The purple dusks in Kenya were short; night came quickly. Leona turned on all the lights in her room, and laughed at how easily they flicked into brightness. The manyatta had no electricity. After she scrubbed the dirt from her skin and scalp and stood under the warm, rusty water until it ran cold, she dressed in clean clothes, the one set she hadn’t worn yet, saved in the bottom of her suitcase. Until now, she’d only smelled it occasionally. The scent of the American detergent lingered in the fibers and reminded her of home.
She felt new and lighter somehow, cracked free of her dusty shroud. With the smell of floral shampoo still lingering in her hair, Leona went down to the hotel’s café to order a drink.
The bar was wooden-walled and dark. The only light came from a string of colored Christmas tree bulbs—the big ones people back home wrapped around outside tree branches—and a disco ball revolving slowly above a central space where people could dance. There were no dancers that night. Maybe it was still too early.
Leona chose the bar stool farthest away from the only other customers, a white couple, both about her age, maybe a little older. Leona didn’t like small talk so she avoided making eye contact with the two. But she hadn’t seen other white people for weeks, and she found herself unable to keep from glancing up at them. The two were clean; both neatly dressed, which made Leona think they might be tourists. But the woman turned slightly, and Leona recognized the logo of a well-known anti-poaching foundation on the front of her T-shirt. The woman was pretty. Petite and blonde with a sunburned spot on her nose and rosy pink cheeks, she watched the man intently as he spoke, his body movements fluid as he gestured with his arms, acting out the story he was telling her. The man was attractive, square shouldered and blond with large, tan hands. Leona forced herself to look away and focused her concentration on gathering the right collection of Swahili words to order a beer. She felt the sudden lightness of joy when the barkeep slid a sweating, brown Tusker bottle her way. She didn’t bother asking for a glass.
The beer—after so long without alcohol—made her feel luminous and unencumbered. The couple laughed loudly and Leona glanced at them again. The blonde woman was standing, holding out a bill, which the man waved away. He turned to the barkeep and said something in rapid-fire Swahili. Then he turned back to the woman and laughed again. Leona heard him say; “Now you’ll have to meet me again, next one’s on you.”
Leona watched him watch the woman walking out of the bar. She wondered if anyone had ever watched her with that intensity.
Halfway through her second beer, she found she didn’t mind when the blond man slid his stool closer to hers and offered to buy her another drink. As they talked, the ease of English after the months and months of only rudimentary Maa made Leona giddy. Normally a reserved, quiet person, she felt almost drunk with the millions of words she could so easily pluck from her head and toss out, like confetti.
“You’re a flirt,” she said. “Your girlfriend barely left.”
“I am a flirt.” He nodded, smiling. “But you’re wrong. She’s not my girlfriend. I met her here tonight. Interesting girl, though. Working on antipoaching—elephant protection.”
They purposely avoided names. It didn’t come up at first, names hadn’t mattered, and anyway Leona, after weeks of being a curiosity among the Maasai, wanted the anonymity. As an anthropologist, she constantly had to study, observe and ask questions. Now, with this man, she wanted to suspend words and curiosity and talk. Later alcohol erased the curiosity of names, and the next morning, slow and headachy, Leona felt exposed. She wasn’t new to sex, she’d had a couple of boyfriends during her college and grad school years, but they drifted into, and then out of, her life like ghosts. She’d never, though, slept with someone she’d just met, and under the weight of her headache and nausea, she was ashamed of what she’d done. She wanted to disappear. Sex was a fraught thing. Hard for her to indulge in, an unsettling mix of pleasure and fear.
The man was breathing evenly and heavily next to her, and she had to very carefully slide from under his arm and out of bed. She found her clothes and dressed quickly. But the door creaked when she opened it, and she heard his voice, sleepy and rough. “Going to leave without a goodbye?”
“I have to go back,” she whispered.
“You mean you have to come back to bed,” he said, patting the empty mattress beside him.
Leona turned back to the door and grasped the handle again, pulling it open. When it clicked shut behind her, she raced down the hall to her own room and tossed her shampoo, razor and yesterday’s clothes in her bag. She’d planned to stay in Narok for the day. She wanted to have the hotel do her laundry, and indulge in a big breakfast with coffee. But now she changed her mind. She was embarrassed. She hated feeling out of control, and she was ashamed of herself for letting it happen. She lived by the mantra that it was best to be alone—less difficult, less complicated. She didn’t want to see the man again, or look him in his eyes. She thought she’d see her own shame there, reflected back at her.
Outside the hotel, the morning street was almost empty, but already the air smelled like wood smoke, frying dough and rotting produce. She opened the trunk of her car and tossed her bag in.
“Is it me, or are you running out on your hotel bill?” a voice called, and when Leona turned, he was there. He was dressed and his feet were shoved into unlaced boots. “I have to go up to Solai today. Can’t put it off. But I’ll come to the manyatta as soon as I’m done there. I’ll find you.”
Leona felt the bubbling up of terror deep inside her. It was always this way. Even in college, and graduate school, it wasn’t the sex that made her most frightened, but the aftermath. The first time she’d seen a therapist, it only took thirty minutes of talking through her background before the therapist said, “It sounds like you’re not sexually frigid, but emotionally cut off.” She’d never gone back for another appointment.
“No,” she said, “don’t bother with that.” She inhaled consciously. The panic made her breathing shallow, the imaginary walls that closed in around her made her lungs tense and ineffective. The man was standing close, looking down at her. His eyes were calm, and his face open. She could smell him—warm skin and sleepy breath.
“No, I want to,” he said. “I had fun with you last night. No reason we can’t see one another again, is there?”
There was always this dread when a man wanted to get to know her. She wasn’t normal in this way. Other women her age wanted boyfriends, wanted to marry. The idea set off an alarm in Leona’s mind. It always had. She could share physical intimacy, but the notion of allowing herself to want anything else, to be vulnerable in any other way, tore her in two—yearning and revulsion. She wanted to be normal and allow someone to love her, and to return love, but the fear was always too great, and it always won.
She couldn’t look at the man’s face when she answered. Instead she glanced sideways, pretending to watch a mangy dog rolling in the dust. “I’m not interested in a relationship,” she said. It was her typical line, worn thin from use. She wondered if it sounded as implausible to him as it did to her.
“Who said anything about a relationship?” the man asked. His lips turning up into a grin that made Leona’s pulse quicken. “I’m just talking about seeing you again. Maybe reprising our night.” He raised his eyebrows suggestively. He was flirting. Leona felt that hollow ache she always felt at moments like this; the ache of wanting something she was far too terrified to actually reach for.
“I have a boyfriend.” That always worked. Even so, Leona didn’t wait to see if his face changed, or if his voice hardened into understanding.
She turned, climbed into her car and slammed the door shut. She might have heard him calling, but she couldn’t be sure. She sped off as fast as she could toward the manyatta. She didn’t look back. She didn’t glance into the rearview and see him standing next to his truck watching her leave. She didn’t want to think about how she’d feel if he never really came looking for her.
Excerpted from The Brightest Sun, by Adrienne Benson. Copyright © 2018 by Adrienne Benson. Published by Park Row Books and reprinted with permission from the publisher.