Memories are complex and delicate things. Our brain must take information and encode it, reshape our neurons and create a neural pathway. If this isn’t done just so, a memory can be lost forever to the whims of just one molecule. To remember something we walk down that pathway again, retrace the synaptic steps. If we never revisit this path it becomes overgrown, inaccessible, we forget. Every time we retrace our steps we have the potential to, and often do, alter the path slightly. We leave new footprints. Our passage accidentally crushes some flowers out of existence, reshapes the petals of another. Our emotions bleed up through the trail as we wear it down, leaking into the memory, coloring it, altering it. Happiness rubs along the neurons like a cat, quietly softening a sharp corner here and there. Sadness drips from our fingertips and nostalgia springs up where it lands. The lighting fades out to a soft, idealizing, pink. Time and recollection physically change the chemistry that is a memory.
I’m waiting for time to delicately photoshop some of the memories we’ve made in the last few months. To take away the sharp, exasperated moments; the annoyance with the truck or a person; the ache of a scalp from brushing wind tangled hair. All the little things that once seemed so big, and fade them out until all that’s left is the good stuff. The things I never want to forget.
I hope I always remember our first safari, the first time we drove into the Mara.
“This is Marco, he is a real Maasai warrior. He used to kill lions, so that is why he enjoys going on the safari now.” Zach, our guide, introduces us. Marco hops in the front seat and inclines his head slightly to us. Marco has changed out of an orange t-shirt and jeans into traditional Maasai dress for our safari into the Maasai Mara National Park. A long strip of red plaid elegantly winds around him like an intricate sheath around a long, slim blade. He jingles softly as we pass over bumps, the delicate metal chains & circles hanging from the beaded belt he wears across his chest. It’s that soft, surprising sound of broken wind chimes tinkling from the last porch in a ghost town. His eyebrows are knotted up into a tight furrow and I watch secret muscles work in his forehead to untangle them as he says, “Hello.” I’m not sure if it’s a real smile he flashes or if his lips do not quite stretch over his teeth, before he turns forward again.
We cross into the Mara and antelope in fantastic colors and whimsical shapes dot the grass in every direction.
“Oh my god… is that a zebra?” I stage whisper this to Zach and we pull to a stop.
A small group stands rimmed in gold by the soft evening light, swishing their tails. They are short with pot bellies and mohawks and these impossibly vivid black and white stripes. I can’t believe they’re real… and wild… and so gorgeous. I snap my mouth shut as soon as I realize it’s been hanging open. Many stand together in pairs. One facing north and the other south, their necks touching with each is watching the evening fade into night over the other’s rear end.
“Why do they stand like that?”
“It is a gesture of love.” Zach says.
Marco & Zach speak in Swahili and Zach bounces excitedly in his chair. Marco points, I hear simba.
“We will see many zebras.” He doesn’t say zee-brahs but zeh-bras. We pull away and I watch them grow smaller as the savanna spreads out around us.
“Matthew, do you wish to see something? One of the big cats maybe?” Zach whispers back to us, a huge grin on his dark, impish face.
“Yeah, yeah definitely!” Matt stands and looks out of the open top of our Land Cruiser. We’re bouncing down a barely visible track.
He grips the steering wheel and watches our faces, waits for us to see what he appears to have conjured out of the softening night air. We don’t for a moment and then I see a movement, less than eight feet from us. A lioness is laying in the grass, eating the still-bleeding haunch of a wildebeest. She is a brilliant gold and seems to stand out from the dullness of the grass. I don’t know how I could have seen anything but her. Her claws flex out and her lips pull back exposing long yellow teeth, she tears a dainty bite of the meat off and looks up at us fully for the first time. Her eyes are watchful, intelligent amber over bloody whiskers. Her nose flares. That’s the thing I hope I never forget, that flare of her nostrils as she watched us. Because in that moment reality broke and something better came rushing in to fill the gap. Somehow I had wandered into an imaginary place where you could see something better than yourself.
I don’t know how long I sat there in a daze, watching her eat through the open window. She stands up and carries a huge chunk of wildebeest with her. You can see her shoulders roll gracefully under her coat as she walks away. She’s big, her paws the size of dinner plates. It’s surreal.
Marco watches her intently, you can almost hear the crack of his gaze breaking away under the tinkle of his sash as Zach backs up and we start driving back to camp.
That night I lay under the mosquito net in our little cabin, you can hear them in our bed, the lions roaring. I wonder if they’re close. I’m scared to let my feet from under the covers, something feels loose and shivery inside. Like the little cap you spend all your growing up on, the one that seals away the monsters and fairies and mysterious ghosties into childhood broke with that sniff of a lioness. It broke and suddenly they’re all thrillingly real again. Just when I start to drift off my skin is does it’s best to crawl off my back as a hyena lets loose a burst of unhinged laughter.
I hope however many times I walk that path it stays vivid and sharp. The zebras, the antelope, the lioness. Don’t let me forget her whiskers, the outline of her nose. I hope they remain bright and never fade into something less than one of the most special moments of my life.
I hope I never forget the moment I realized we were really here, in Africa. And it really was magic.3