Corner Of Heaven
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The sun was just beginning to stretch across the wakening landscape, as I sat wrapped in my grandmother's quilt on our porch. It was early. This was my regular routine. I was surrounded by all of my favorite comforts, especially the big cushioned chair that held me in close. My family never knew that I came out here just before dawn. It was my secret. In Africa, families tend to be large. Mine was no exception, but I differed from my family members. My grandmother, who was the head of the family, had always told me that the land was more mine, because I belonged with it. I never knew what this meant. I never asked either. When I was born, she named me Jata (Jah tah). In Swahili this means Star.
I thought briefly about my grandmother as I sat gazing at the golden and green patches of earth that had suddenly come to life. My grandmother was sacred to us. Older and wiser, my very best friend. In just a few short hours, she would be up and working harder than anybody else. Her name was Jasira (Jah see rah). She was outgoing, her hugs were gentle, her ways were firm.
Her name meant bold and courageous. As I thought about this, I felt a smile stretch across my face.
All at once my eyes grew heavy and I found it hard to focus on the zebra that had made her way to the waterhole nearby. The faint buzzing of beetles in the grass made me sleepy. I climbed back up the stairs and into my bed still wrapped in my grandmother's quilt.
After waking and dressing I met my family across the stream, and up the slope that contained a perfect little walkway. The blazing sun warmed the back of my legs and I took a deep breath.
We were headed to work as I followed behind my father through the long grass. My attention was continuously caught by the hopping of the little grass bugs. Glancing quickly around I realized that my grandmother wasn't with us, and I knew why.
Sure enough, as I entered the lodge, I found my grandmother Jasira cooking up a storm in the kitchen. She turned to find me standing there and motioned for me to join her by the stove. She kissed me softly on my forehead, and as she pulled away, I focused on her deep dark skin, that had been creased from the sun and the years from working.
The others were all scattered, catering to the people at the lodge.
I left my grandmother and wandered out into the long hallway.
There, I saw our sign proudly displayed. "Rhino Safari Lodge".
The only home I had ever know.
My grandfather had founded the lodge on a popular game park, giving tours of the savannah and it's magnificent creations. After he passed away, my father had taken over.
My brother Zende (Zehn-deh) was four years older than me. He hated having to grow up here. He had told me once that there was a whole world out there that we weren't getting the chance to see. I didn't care, neither did my grandmother.
"Why would you want to leave?" she asked in Swahili. "The world is a mess,
no matter where you are, if you are home, you are in heaven. We are lucky enough to build our home here." Pembe kwa Peponi. This is our corner of heaven.
Within an hour the lodge was active. My job at the lodge was simple, I had to keep and eye on my baby brother Farhani (Fah-hah-nee).
Mama told me after he was born that the people who stayed at our lodge were on vacation. The last thing that they needed to deal with was a crying baby, no problem there. Farhani means happy and Grandmother Jasira must have known that he would be. She had searched for just the right name.
I played on the floor with Farhani by my feet. He practically disappeared underneath his big diaper. He was the cutest baby that I had ever seen.
He would crawl away, then stop and lay down.
The whole time he did this, he was laughing, then his chubby little legs would carry him back. He would lean over and blow little wet bubbles on my arm. This made me laugh. After awhile, my attention drifted from Farhani to what else was going on in the lodge.
My father stood in the hallway, ready to go out on the plain.
I heard Zende pulling the jeep around to the front of the lodge.
My father was alone, this was my perfect chance I left Farhani to his laughter and snuck away.
"Baba..." I watched as his big, broad shoulders turned towards me.
"Yes, Jata. What is it?"
For one second I hesitated, I had asked him the same question for a year now and every time I did, the answer was the same.
"Can I please go with you and Zende today? You've never taken me on a trip and I..."
My voice faded when I realized he was shaking his head.
"I'm sorry, Jata, it is too dangerous and you're still too young. Stay here and help your mother."
He trudged away and my mother stepped out from around a corner, she has seen the whole thing.
"Come here child." She took my face in her hands and hugged me gently then she led me back to Farhani. My mother's name was Rahma (Rah-mah). Compassion. I watched as she glanced out the window then left us alone.
Slowly, I also made my way to the window.
A part of me felt angry, I knew what my father had meant.
I was too small, not too young. Out in the yard Zende helped a lady into the jeep and I could barely stand it.
"So perfect." I mumbled to myself. Zende was strong and firm.
My father's name was Elewa (Eh-leh-wah) which means very intelligent.
I knew that I should have respected his wishes, but I couldn't help feeling cheated, for the first time I hated my name.
"Nothing special." I said sadly, resting my head gently against the cool window pane. "That should be my name. I wish that I could be out there."
The jeep pulled away from the yard, kicking up a little cloud of dust.
I was pulling myself away from the window when I felt a tiny hand touch my leg. Farhani was looking up at me with big, wet, brown eyes.
I suddenly felt guilty. Bending down, I pulled the chubby baby into my arms.
"I'm sorry, Farhani, if I have to stay behind I'm glad it's here with you."
He blew another bubble and laughed.
The days went on like that.
Every morning I continued to sit on the porch. One morning, I was shocked to find Grandmother Jasira come outside too.
"Is this what you always do?" she questioned in Swahili. I nodded.
"Do you mind if I join you?" Of course I didn't.
We sat watching the plain in silence.
This was my space, had it been anyone else sitting beside me I would have been crushed to have to share it. But there was nothing I'd rather do more than sit quietly with my very best friend.
I had just closed my eyes, when my grandmother nudged me.
"Jata, look." I opened my eyes, and rubbed them to be sure I saw what I did. Just a few feet in front of us was an adult elephant.
"She's amazing." I breathed. Grandmother Jasira nodded.
"She's special." I turned to her, noticing the reflection from the waterhole was glistening in her dark eyes.
"Why?" I questioned, and to my surprise, she didn't answer.
Instead, she patted my leg, ran her soft hands over my long black hair and went back into the house.
With her gone, I stared at my new found friend who had turned his immense face to look at me.
The elephant continued to come every morning, sometimes Grandmother Jasira would join me. One day she asked me what I was going to name the elephant.
I hadn't thought about it.
"I wouldn't really feel right naming her." I admitted to my grandmother. "I was taught that animals belong to the earth. What right do I have to take that away?" I turned to her and realized that her eyes were downcast. For just one second I wondered if I had done something wrong, but when she raised her head she was smiling.
"Special Jata." she whispered it so quietly I assumed it wasn't meant for me to hear. Then her voice raised, "You are right child, but this elephant is yours. She has been given to you as a gift."
I was confused.
"But who has given her to me?" I asked and pulled the blanket up around my shoulders.
"She has," my grandmother said. "Why else would she keep coming back?"
We both turned then to the elephant.
The sun was just rising over the far mountains and the outline of her made her seem even more important on the empty landscape. I must have stared too hard because I thought that the elephant looked like a rain cloud that had settled over a scorched field. All at once it hit me.
"Janna (Jah nah)," I blurted out "It means Heaven, I am the star and she is Heaven."
Grandma Jasira didn't see my elephant the way that I had but she nodded and accepted my idea anyway.
"Janna sounds nice, treat her well as I know you will and she will take good care of you."
Janna let me get close to her.
Now, instead of sitting on the porch, I ventured out in the early morning to wrap my arms around my elephant. Her trunk was rough, but she would lift it up and tickle me with it.
One day, grandma mentioned how close we were getting.
That was the worst second of my life, I realized then that at some point Janna would probably leave me.
Because of Janna I had trouble focusing on Farhani.
Every time I tried I would make my way to the window to check if Janna was there. She never was.
I would have to wait till morning to see her.
Then the morning came that was different.
I sat on the porch for hours but Janna didn't come.
When the sun finally showed up I was still in some sort of shock.
I felt a hand on my shoulder.
"Jata," my mother stood above me "What are you doing out here?"
I searched my mind for an answer, but grandma called for my mother and coaxed her away.
I'm not sure, but I think that she must have known about Janna. Part of me was hurt, part of me was angry.
Where was my elephant?
I went in and got ready to go to work but my heart wasn't in it that day.
At the lodge I took the baby from my mom's arms and put him on the floor.
He sat quietly for awhile so I laid my body down.
My eyes closed but I kept picturing Janna on the plain.
My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the jeep.
I pushed Farhani out of my way. Baba was loading a bag of equipment into the back of the jeep while Zende stood next to him.
He acted so proud around the customers that I grew angry, I wanted to go.
If I stayed at the lodge, I would just grow to miss Janna.
All at once, I raced out into the yard.
"Baba, please can I go this time?" I asked.
My mother was sitting on the porch.
She and my father both turned to me they looked shocked.
Their faces told me that I had stepped over a line this time.
We were never to act that way in front of the guests.
Zende scowled, which made it all worse.
"You can't Jata...Mama's going with us this time."
My older brother glanced at my father as the jeep began to load with people. Baba nodded in approval but Mama seemed less than thrilled.
She would never go against my father's wishes so she stood and made her way to the jeep.
Something inside of me told me to go back inside.
My mouth wouldn't let me, I chased after the jeep which made it's way more quickly than usual.
"Please, Mama!" I screamed but the dust from the jeep's tires flew in my face. I begged and ran as hard as I could, they never even looked back.
Maybe it was that I missed Janna, or maybe my family had worn me out but I fell to the ground, tears streamed down my face.
I was weak, and thought that nothing in the world could have moved me from that spot.
I was wrong.
From somewhere Grandma Jasira called, her voice was frantic.
"Jata, where is Farhani?"
I stood now, realizing that I had left my baby brother alone. My heart sank.
I found myself running up the porch stairs and into the room where he had been playing on the floor.
My grandmother looked desperate.
"Jata, where is he?" I shook my head in frustration, how could I make such a stupid mistake?
That's when Grandmother Jasira went to the window. I'll never forget her words, or the way she turned to me with fear in her eyes.
"He's at the waterhole," she said, and again we ran.
Farhani had waded up to his chest by the time we had reached him. Grandma forgot in that moment that she was a little old lady. She thrust herself toward the frightened baby who didn't know just how much danger he was in.
All kinds of terrible things went through my mind.
I remembered crocodiles, and snakes and...
"Jata," my grandmother screamed "Grab my feet."
She had slipped and fallen forward in the water.
Unfortunately there was a small drop off, with one arm wrapped around Farhani, she used the other to keep her own head above water.
I leaned over, afraid to fall in myself and grabbed her legs.
I started to pull, but the weak feeling washed over me, I tried not to give up. Still, it was the hardest thing I had ever done.
Grandma Jasira began to tire, and I knew I couldn't do this alone.
From out of nowhere a huge shadow appeared behind me.
I was almost panicked by it until I felt a large trunk wrap around my middle. It was Janna.
She thrust herself backward,taking us along.
In just a few brief seconds, we were on the plain again.
Farhani ended up being just fine.
The rescue had taken a lot out of Grandma Jasira though.
We never told anyone about that day but I never stopped thinking about it. Grandma couldn't do much after that. She tired easily.
Janna remained with us constantly and I liked to think she watched over my grandmother.
I finally learned not to ask to go on the trip.
Grandma taught me how to take things as signs.
I figured that that day was a sign that I didn't belong on the animal watch. Instead, I belonged at the lodge.
Farhani may have been a good baby but he provided me with my own little animal watch.
I decided I was happy with him.
I also came to understand myself. What I did was just as important as the others. I knew now why my name did matter. It was part of what I was.
Janna also grew to be part of a connection that we shared and, for as long as we could, we all lived that way.
We were happy in our own little corner of heaven.
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