Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Huge Roses: Chapter Ten, part one

American nurse Tory Bird, visiting Amsterdam with her sister Jane, meets Dr. Maximilan van den Nie whilst giving first aid to an injured English tourist.  After a lovely weekend, Tory returns home to the United States, daydreaming of the handsome Dutchman.  To her surprise, Max arrives in Tory's New Hampshire village a few weeks later!  Their paths naturally cross in the small town, but his request that she accompany him to France and Namibia to care for an elderly friend throws them together more than either one had hoped.

Installment One - Installment Two - Installment Three - Installment Four - Installment Five - Installment Six - Installment Seven - Installment Eight - Installment Nine - Installment Ten - Installment Eleven - Installment Twelve - Installment Thirteen - Installment Fourteen - Installment Fifteen - Installment Sixteen - Installment Seventeen - Installment Eighteen - Installment Nineteen - Installment Twenty - Installment 21 - Installment 22 - Installment 23 - Installment 24 - Installment 25 - Installment 26 - Installment 27

THE HUGE ROSES (working title)
copyright 2014 by Betty van den Betsy; not for reprint or publication without permission


There was indeed snow on the ground, though no more than a dusting.  Still, as Tory and Max met up after clearing customs, she saw that many of the people in the terminal had hats and gloves, as well as heavy coats.  “It looks like it may be cold out,” she speculated.
“It has been below freezing for several days,” he informed her, and stepping outside the sliding doors she felt the cold air as familiar and comforting.  They were walking toward a dark gray sedan pulled up to the curb, guarded by a large, dour-looking man in a black wool overcoat and cap.  He smiled when he spotted Max, and came toward them to take most of their luggage.  “Henk kindly brought my car along for us,” Max explained, and Tory expressed appreciation.  Then an exchange of Dutch, keys and currency took place, Henk sketched a salute, Tory waved, and they parted – Tory chivalrously ushered into the sublime comfort of her first Rolls Royce ride.
They didn’t have far to go, and accomplished the drive in the well-bred silence of the luxury car, making plans for the next day.  Tory assured Max that her visit two months earlier had allowed plenty of time for museums and sight-seeing, and that she would be very glad to fit into his family’s routine during their short visit.  They relapsed into a comfortable silence as they drew near the city, until Max broke it with an exclamation.  “Tory, I entirely neglected to ask whether you might be comfortable staying at my home.  My mother is there, as well as the staff, and we shall all do our utmost to ensure you feel welcome and at home.”
“I’d be delighted.”  What more could she say than the truth?
Tory wasn’t certain she would want to drive through the narrow, often short and frequently-winding streets of downtown Amsterdam, but Max was clearly at home there.  They were on one of the main thoroughfares – the Prinsengracht? – when Max turned down a side street, under an archway and into a quiet cul de sac with just six townhouses lining its street.  Tory was particularly taken by a wide brick house with a pretty, curvy gable.  She could have guessed that would be the one where Max would pull up and park.

Not much more than 24 hours later, they were back in the Rolls, headed for the airport.  The visit had been short, but educational.  This was how the other half lived, apparently:  very nicely indeed.  They had arrived to a warm greeting in a foyer that looked like something from a Vermeer oil painting.  Both Max’s mother and her butler, Wim, had been on hand to welcome them, and Wim had magically disposed of their luggage.  The guest room to which Mevrouw van den Nie escorted Tory was a charming mix of old wooden furniture and modern comforts, in shades of blue and cream.  As tempting as the high mattress and puffy eiderdown looked, or even the damask-upholstered chaise by the window, she was not the least tired, and chose to head back down the ornately-carved staircase after a hot, scented bath and a change of clothes.
Max had also bathed and changed, and he and his mother were sitting in one of the front rooms entered from the foyer.  Tory barely noticed the thick rugs, silk curtains and dark wooden mantelpiece before being distracted by two dogs.  She crouched down and held out a friendly fist as a huge, grinning Bouvier and a small, sleek mutt approached her.  Max introduced them as Juniper and Tooantoo, and Tory made much of them before taking a seat on Queen Anne-style sofa upholstered in pale green that toned with the deeper greens and occasional raspberry splashes in the high-ceilinged space.  “I am so very comfortable,” she replied when her hostess asked whether she had found all she needed in her room.  “Your home is lovely.”
“Max shall show you everything this evening,” Mevrouw van den Nie decided.  “Now we have a nice lunch almost ready, and in the afternoon I shall spend a few hours with baby Julius.  You are both welcome to join me in the visit.  Joke will be with us, of course, but she appreciates a chance to step away now and then, and to have some conversation.”  And so they chatted, at first in the drawing room, about baby care and child-rearing.  The subject took them into the dining room, where they enjoyed a rich mushroom soup, followed by spinach crèpes and green salad, with a fresh lemon tart for dessert.  Tory, enjoying every morsel, chuckled to think what the twins would say about a three-course lunch!
A short stroll through the city brought them to Joke’s home, where baby Julius was fast asleep.  Max’s sister was quite like him:  the same height, cheekbones and blonde/blue coloring, but with the prominent nose and heavy eyelids softened to beauty.  She was delighted with her child, and even more so to be done with her first pregnancy.  “We run to large families, we Van den Nies,” Joke said, “but my husband’s family must have its influence.  He has only one brother.  What about you, Tory?”
“Two sisters and a brother, spaced out a bit.  I thought four was about perfect when I was girl.  Of course, two of them are twins.”
“So your mother had that less trouble, only pregnant three times” Joke asserted.
“I think with twins you just trade one sort of trouble with another.  One pregnancy, but two babies.”
There wasn’t much to do, even after Julius awoke and had a meal.  They took turns cooing over him, and showing him their fingers and pressing his button of a nose, and Joke took the opportunity for a leisurely shower.  She also fixed a light tea for them, with speculaas and slivers of buttery bread topped with sliced cherry tomatoes.  The sun had set by the time they left, promising to return in the morning, and Amsterdam’s lights twinkled beautifully against the evening sky.
“Since we’re here,” Tory proposed, “I’d like to pick up some chocolates.  Everyone loved the ones I brought home in October.”
“I shall have a very short nap before dinner,” Mevrouw van den Nie said.  “Max will help you find a shop.”
And so, after seeing his mother home, they set off toward the shopping district.  “Did you have any place particular in mind?” Max asked.
“There was a shop called Pompadour that won raves.”
“I know that one.  It’s just along here, and I agree their wares are excellent.”
Half a dozen small boxes acquired, they headed back toward the house.  “Aha,” Max exclaimed, turning her toward one of the narrower canals that brandished a colorful sign, “we have ice enough to skate now.  I must believe you’ve skated.”
“Since I was in diapers, I think.”
“We’re sure to have skates to fit you.  Shall we have a go after dinner?”
“Yes, please!”  Her face lit with glee, and Max caught her hand and began to hurry along the cobbled sidewalk.  As soon as they regained the house, Max vanished to confer with his mother, who willingly offered babysitting services so Joke and her husband would be able to join them on the ice.
“We must move quickly,” Mevrouw van den Nie explained.  “We cannot be sure the ice will last.”
“Will you join us?” Tory asked.
“Maybe for a little while, after Joke has her turn.  She has not had much exercise these last few days.”
Dinner was another three-course meal, this time beginning with an avocado salad, followed by sole Véronique, roasted new potatoes and lemony green beans, and concluding with fresh berries over chocolate sorbet.  As delicious as everything was, Tory enjoyed the skating party even more.  They had returned to Joke’s apartment to meet the other couple, and Joke had happily offered to loan Tory something shorter in place of her calf-length overcoat.  Tory had been stunned when Joke threw open a closet to reveal at least a dozen overcoats in various lengths and colors.  Her hostess chose a car-length coat in a dark, silver-grey color, and a luxurious blend of wool and something furry – mohair or angora, Tory guessed, burrowing into the wide collar.
At the canal, they laced on their skates, and glided out into the throng of happy Amsterdamers.  Joke and her husband, Henrik, who clearly adored his wife and son, joined hands and sailed along, perfectly synchronized.  Tory, suddenly self-conscious, clasped her hands behind her back and headed toward a french-fry vendor on the other side of the waterway.
“You are ready to try some of our patat, Tory?” Max asked, gliding beside her.
“Just sniffing for now.  I had some when I was here in October, with curry mayonnaise.  I liked the curry better than the potatoes, I’m afraid.”
His laugh seemed to warm the air around her, so she put her head down, remembered Joke’s closet and its myriad coats, and skated deeper into the crowd.  When a little girl bumped against her, she was glad of the distraction.  Max slid toward her as she waved away the apologies of the child’s parents, and they greeted him warmly, switching to English as he introduced her.  They were Radmer, Elisabeth and Julianna, and the parents seemed almost as thrilled to see Max as their young daughter was.  Julianna crowed with laughter as the doctor lifted her into the air, then set her down and twirled her around gently, skating out of the crush of people a bit.
Elisabeth turned to Tory, her plump cheeks glowing with cold and exercise, and pleasure.  “He is such a wonderful man, your Doctor van den Nie,” she said, as Tory wondered whether to explain.  Before she could frame the right words, Elisabeth continued, “Our Julianna was in terrible shape two years ago, with damage from a car out of control while she bicycled just by our house.  The surgeon gave us no hope, but the dominee knew of the clinic, and sent us there, to Dr. van den Nie.  We thought to sell our little house to pay for the very best for our baby, but he would take no fees, and he spent many, many hours in theater with her many broken, small bones.  Now you see her, today – it is all thanks to him, and we can never express all our gratitude.”
Tory smiled, wondering if she had understood the meaning behind the other woman’s somewhat broken English.  Would she dare ask Max to explain?  He would be certain to downplay whatever he had done.  She contented herself with enjoying the exercise for now.  The five of them skated together, playing games with Julianna, trying figures and enjoying short races, with Joke and Henrik joining in after a bit.  Tory elected to go back with those two, while Max waited at the canal for his mother.  He seemed to understand her thinking; when she announced her decision, he murmured, “Of course.  Tired ankles, no doubt, or some other excuse.”
“Another look at the baby,” she countered, and shoved her feet back into her boots.  An offhand question or two to Joke confirmed what she had thought:  Max worked at a clinic for low-income patients – in fact, Henrik explained, he funded it – and frequently provided his services free of charge to those in need.  Tory felt the warmth of his generosity glow in her heart.

In the morning, over bread and cheese followed by toast spread with chocolate, Tory enjoyed seeing Mevrouw van den Nie’s eyes sparkle as she discussed her brief foray on the ice.  She had danced with her son, she reported, “until my ankles began to ache just a bit.”  Max’s chuckle inspired Tory to a quick glare.
After one more brief visit with baby Julius and his parents, she and Max headed to Schipol and the flight back to Boston.  It was beginning to seem natural now that everything should go smoothly when they were traveling.  Tory was tempted to ask whether he had ever experienced a delayed flight – and realized the tension of spending so much energy managing her impulses had frayed her usual good temper.  Uneventful travel was not a reason for snarky commentary!
 A bit of a nap and an in-flight romantic comedy restored much of her sunny outlook.  The discovery that Jaap was waiting for them at the terminal with the rented Mercedes, so Max could handle the two-hour drive home, helped even more.  She gladly claimed the rear seat, stretched out and fell asleep again, awaking only when something in her body sensed the quiet, comfortable sedan was slowing from highway speed to a pace in keeping with small-town streets.  Soon enough, she was waving goodbye to the two Dutchmen, Jennet and Hal wriggling around her legs.  Jaap’s presence had ensured that she and Max said goodbye pleasantly, without any sentimental reminiscences.  On Monday morning, she resumed her usual routine.
Dr. Bachmann was busily interested in the events of her working vacation; Millie was avid for details.  She had met Max shortly before he and Tory had left, and been pretty much bowled over by his courtesy, tailoring and size.  When she learned Tory had visited his home, she wanted to know all about it, with a view to informing the renovations she had in hand at her 19th-century gingerbread cottage.  “Well, it certainly wasn’t Victorian,” Tory told her.  “Mostly older, I think – Queen Anne and Regency and Georgian things, but all blending with each other.”  She had been relieved that their skating party kept them too busy for the house tour Mevrouw van den Nie had suggested.  She probably would not have held up strolling those warm and beautiful halls and rooms in company with Max.
Tory shared her safari photos, and a box of Dutch chocolates.  Colleagues and patients oohed over both – as well they might.  She was surprised, as she always was, at how easily she resumed everyday life after the sharp disruption of her established schedule.  Her brief, packed visits to Paris, Otjiwarongo and Amsterdam felt half-imagined.  She relived her adventures dreamily at the kitchen table, writing thank you notes to all her kind hosts.  On Wednesday, a thank-you note arrived from Max, containing an invitation as well.  Would she accompany him to a Christmas gala at the Pops Orchestra in Boston on Saturday evening?
Well!  Tory had seen the orchestra’s galas on television – they were fundraisers, repeated over many nights each December – and knew they were black tie events, with grown-up dancing.  She had yearned to go since she had been a little girl, to wear a wide-skirted dress and swirl along the dance floor.  She would be wiser to decline, but the next morning, picking a time when she could expect to get voice mail, she phoned Max’s number and accepted the invitation.
She followed up with a phone call to Jane, to invite herself for a visit on Friday and Saturday nights, explaining that she would need to go dress shopping on Saturday morning – or Friday night, if she arrived early enough, or both.  She was not going to settle for less than the dress of her dreams.
When Max returned her call, her brain was so stuffed with fantasies of swaying romantically in candlelight that she could barely speak.  She did manage to provide Jane’s address, and agree to be ready at 7:00 on Saturday evening, when he would collect her.  Then she pushed herself into the sitting room, and collapsed into the overstuffed chair there.  Hal and Jennet rallied around, and she soothed herself with patting them and expressing her tangled thoughts aloud.
“One night.  Not even the whole night; just a few hours.  Everything perfect:  romantic music, an evening gown, he’ll probably wear black tie, there’ll be candles and flowers and Champagne and dancing.  It’s the perfect culmination of a late-adolescence crush, with everything like a scene from a movie, even the man.  For four or five hours I’ll pretend we’re in love, and living happily ever after, and he doesn’t need to know what I’m thinking, and it’ll be pure fun and fantasy and I’ll remember it for years if not forever, and I’ll make sure it’s a happy memory.  I’ll never do anything like it again, and I don’t need to, and most people never attend a gala dinner dance in their lives, so I really can be perfectly happy about it.  And real romance isn’t waiters and orchestras and truffles; it’s walking the dogs and sitting up with a sick kid and apologizing when you track in mud and not minding if he’s grumpy at supper.  But one perfect night will be pure fun.  That’s what it will be:  pure fun.”
That decided, she phoned Emma and ensured the dogs and the house would have a caretaker for the weekend.  Her battering ram of a sister, for once, blessedly asked no questions.  She spent the evening brushing up on her foxtrot and jitterbug, which she had fortunately learned in the swing-dance club at college.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Huge Roses: Chapter Nine, part two

American nurse Tory Bird, visiting Amsterdam with her sister Jane, meets Dr. Maximilan van den Nie whilst giving first aid to an injured English tourist.  After a lovely weekend, Tory returns home to the United States, daydreaming of the handsome Dutchman.  To her surprise, Max arrives in Tory's New Hampshire village a few weeks later!  Their paths naturally cross in the small town, but his request that she accompany him to France and Namibia to care for an elderly friend throws them together more than either one had hoped.

Installment One - Installment Two - Installment Three - Installment Four - Installment Five - Installment Six - Installment Seven - Installment Eight - Installment Nine - Installment Ten - Installment Eleven - Installment Twelve - Installment Thirteen - Installment Fourteen - Installment Fifteen - Installment Sixteen - Installment Seventeen - Installment Eighteen - Installment Nineteen - Installment Twenty - Installment 21 - Installment 22 - Installment 23 - Installment 24 - Installment 25 - Installment 26

THE HUGE ROSES (working title)
copyright 2014 by Betty van den Betsy; not for reprint or publication without permission

Over Renna’s protests, they did their own washing up, and when that was done, Tory peeked out the window.  “I think the safari people are here,” she exclaimed.
Indeed it was they, and the four friends hurried outside to meet Joshua, their guide, and his assistant, Elijah.  Elijah was quiet and seemed shy, with limited English.  Joshua was just the reverse, promising them a three-day party.  “With animals.  We must hope for some good sightings, right?”
Their baggage quickly stowed amongst the safari gear, they hopped into a comfortable van with plenty of room and well-functioning air conditioning.  Elijah drove, while Joshua described their itinerary for the trip.  They would spend several hours driving to Etosha National Park, stopping along the way to pick up a few provisions.  For the next two days, they would spend most of their time driving through the park, spotting kudu, eland and other antelopes, as well as elephants, lions, zebra and maybe a rhinoceros if they were lucky.  Watering holes at the park lodges would allow them to watch for more game in the evenings.  Of course, even before they reached the park, they could expect to see warthogs and antelope along the road.
“And dust devils,” Max noted, then described the two they had seen on the previous day.  Everard and Adela confirmed his description, and Joshua shared several stories of whirlwinds he had seen.  Tory, feeling dazed by the dramatic changes of scene she had experienced in less than a week, gazed out the window and listened to the music made by various voices around her.  A couple of tiny steenbok, their huge, striped ears flickering constantly, bounded along by the side of the road, zigzagging wildly as if the van were a cheetah or some other predator seeking to eat them.  She was relieved when they vanished into a stand of bush some distance from the tarmac.  That relief grew, oddly, when Joshua informed them that steenbok often traveled in mating pairs, male and female sticking together.  ‘It makes them seem more like me,’ she thought, and then realized that made no sense.
They came to a small town eventually, and stopped at a grocery store.  Joshua and Elijah would be responsible for their meals, “but if you like a tipple with your dinner, you’ll find a nice selection here,” he assured them.
“I like looking through grocers and drugstores and ordinary places when I travel,” Tory mentioned as the four tourists entered the store.  “They make me feel more connected, or something, I guess.”
“I never traveled much until I met Everard,” Adela replied.  “Except around the U.K.  But it’s a great idea.  I never much liked the idea of shopping on holiday, but a browse ’round the shops would be interesting.”
“Just the difference between a butchers’ in Sevenoaks and one in a Dorset village is instructive,” Everard added.
“I imagine the butcher here would be singularly educational,” Max said.  Tory blanched at the thought of steenbok fillets on sale, but the conversation quickly turned to wine and beer.  She did not feel she had much to add, beyond approving a plan to drink South African wines with their dinners.  She was aware that the country’s vineyards were well-regarded, and looked forward to trying their output.  In the wine aisle, as the others reviewed their choices, she became aware that Max was looking at her quizzically.
“So quiet, Tory.  I feel sure you’ll have an opinion here.”
“Not really.  I’ve heard good things, but can’t think of anything specific.  I like red and white and rosé if it’s not too sweet.  Does that help you narrow it down?”
“Invaluable,” he teased.  “You forgot to mention sparkling wine.  Could you get into the mood for something celebratory?”
“Depends whether I get to see elephants,” Tory replied, getting into the spirit.  “We could toast your cousin’s coming baby, since poor Elsa doesn’t get to do so herself, except with seltzer water.”
“Or toast to Neil’s safe escape from Fleurie Gold,” Max proposed, straight faced.
“He’s re-christened her Floozie Goldigger, actually,” Tory laughed, and immediately flushed crimson.  “Oh, no, I’m so sorry.  I didn’t mean that.  It’s just Neil being silly, and Emma egging him on, and we all really liked her, really.  I am so sorry.  It doesn’t mean anything.”
“I cannot imagine any of you actually like that superficial, unpleasant woman,” Max said, unfazed.  “Tory, please tell me you are fibbing.”
Tory stared at him, flummoxed.  “But you like her.”
“Not at all.  Categorically.  You wound me.”
“You’re always so nice to her, and she likes you.”
“She doesn’t know me from Adam, as you say.  And while I am unwilling to be discourteous to anyone, and I may very occasionally have ulterior motives in not discouraging unwanted advances, I do not like her.”
Tory continued to stare, her mind’s gears grinding as they made the sudden switch.
“Although I concede she may very well have some wonderful qualities.”
“Her subtlety,” Tory wisecracked, and again blushed immediately.  “Sorry!”
But Max was laughing.  “Probably not that.  Please don’t guard your tongue with me.  I greatly admire your quick wit, and the way you keep your temper with humor.”
Tory realized that Adela and Everard were taking a turn with staring.  “What are you two on about?” Adela asked.  “Some American friend?”
“Floozie Goldigger,” Max answered, deadpan.  Tory cracked up.  “Not one of the highlights of a visit to the White Mountains,” he added, grabbing several bottles of pinotage from the shelf.  “Everard, can you recommend a sparkling wine?”
“This one’s quite good,” his friend assured them, adding three bottles to their shopping basket.
“So, Adela, since you admit your travel has been limited, may I recommend that you plan a visit to New Hampshire?  The woods, mountains and lakes are beautiful, and the people singularly hospitable.  Have I told you how Tory and I met?”  As they made their way to the checkout line, Max entertained the others with the story of Frank Bailey’s broken leg in Amsterdam, and his own subsequent arrival in Bristol.  Tory dashed down an aisle that seemed to contain cookies, and emerged triumphant to rejoin the others at the register.
“I love chocolate digestives,” she explained.  “They’re hard to find in Bristol.”
“Oh, goody; I love them, too,” Adela replied.  “But I can survive a week or two without them, so I shall plan a visit to your neck of the woods.  I’ve never been to America.”
“Neither have I,” Everard added, as if surprised by the discovery.  “I wonder why not.”
“You’ve got so much to see just in Europe,” Tory excused his omission.  “And it’s so much easier to nip from Amsterdam to Barcelona or Rome and find a completely new experience, than fly to Boston and find that it’s not that different from where you started.”
They had made it back to the van by that point, and Joshua joined the discussion, describing a trip he had made through 17 European cities in a three-week tour that included his first attempt at skiing.  Since he had visited New York on another occasion, for an especially incident-filled ten days, they had little to do but laugh at his stories for the next leg of the journey.  Until Tory spotted a flash of white from her side window:  “Zebras!” she shrieked, and poked her finger against the glass.  “I think,” she added in a more subdued tone, but it was quickly obvious her observation was sound.  The beautifully striped animals were trotting quickly across the savannah, drawing closer to the road.
“This is a small herd,” Joshua informed them.  “I see eleven, maybe twelve.  It’s one of the advantages of the stripes, that they blend together and the lions can’t pick out one to kill.  There may be a lion or two tracking them now, since they wouldn’t usually be moving this fast in the heat of the day.  Elijah, let’s pull over here for a minute and see whether we see Mrs. Lion coming up after the group.”
To Tory’s great relief, the magnificent group soon slowed, and then stopped by a small acacia tree.  “Okay, so no lion,” Joshua decided.  Elijah murmured something, and his colleague shared it with the group.  “Elijah thinks maybe they were hurrying to get into the shade.  Believe it or not, that little bit of a tree can be a big relief at this time of day.”
There was not much farther to go to reach Etosha National Park, and soon they were driving through the gates.  They had to stop while Joshua handled their admission fees, and he spent a few minutes talking with the guards.  He returned to the van and jumped in, grinning.  “I always talk with the guards, the other guides, the officers about the animals and who’s seen what where.  That way I make sure you get as many good sightings as possible.  We are in luck – they tell me there’s a family of elephants just up the road.”  Elijah already had them back in motion, and Tory had her camera bag open.
Sure enough, less than five minutes later they saw, quite close to the park roadway, several adult elephants with two much smaller ones sheltering close to their mothers.  Everyone made appropriately appreciative noises, and cameras snapped away while Joshua explained the large tracking collar one of the adults wore.  Soon enough they downed cameras and just gazed out the open windows, awed by the size and splendor of the family before them.  When Elijah eventually re-started the van, it seemed to Tory as if even the machine was reluctant to move away from their first sighting.
Joshua assumed a solemn expression, turning around in his seat to tell his clients, “This is very lucky indeed.  My friend Joe was here two, three days ago with a small safari and they saw only two elephants – an old bull and a young one together – in a full day driving.  And here we have seen this happy family just minutes after arriving.”  His face broke into a happy smile again.  “I think we will have a very good safari for you.”
His prediction proved accurate.  After checking in to the lodge – where Tory found a very comfortable room, with a private bathroom and a balcony facing a large watering hole – they had a quick lunch of sandwiches at a picnic area, then got back into the van and drove around the park roadways for several hours.  In that time, they saw a little of almost everything the park had to offer.  There was a lion and lioness mating – very peculiar, and a little voyeuristic to watch, but Joshua was exultant:  “I told you this would be a lucky safari!” – more elephants, kudu and eland and springbok and oryx, a few giraffes, a few huge herds of zebra, one with ostriches intermingled, a social-weaver nest so big Tory was surprised it hadn’t pulled the parent tree over, and some ferocious but funny-looking wildebeest.  Tory was saddened by the sight of an elderly lion with a tremendous mane lying under a tree, looking like he might never leave.  Unconsciously, she put down her camera rather than photograph him, and reached one hand out to Max.  He caught it in hers and gave it a gentle squeeze.
The most excitement of the day, however, came when Elijah, already driving slowly, slowed even further as they passed a thick stand of thorn bushes.  He spoke quietly to Joshua, who began peering into the bushes, then announced, “Yes, Elijah, you are right!  There is a rhinoceros!”  The van halted, they all crowded to the windows on the rhino’s side.
“I see it,” Max said on a whispered breath.
“Let’s have the window open, but we are extra careful to keep our doors closed,” Joshua instructed.  “Mr. Rhino – I think he is a well-grown one, but not old yet – has sharp ears but bad eyes, and he is very curious.  If he wanders our way to investigate us, we must drive away fast.  This is a white rhinoceros, very big, and out a bit early to have his supper.”
Tory had spotted the rhino by then, very well camouflaged by the thick scrub in which he was grazing.  The brown-gray of the bushes exactly matched his gray hide, with its splotches of dried mud.  Stunned by the grandeur of the almost prehistoric-looking creature, she realized she was holding her breath, and slowly exhaled.  “It’s just amazing,” she murmured.  “I cannot believe anyone would kill that, just to get the horn.”
Everard replied quietly, “We actually hear of people in some countries offering powdered rhino horn to guests at parties, to snort.  It has no effect – you may as well snort your own fingernail clippings – but in some circles it’s a way to show off your wealth and disregard for international disapproval.  And the law.”  There was silence in the van as they digested this idea, interrupted only by the occasional click of a shutter.
Other vans, buses and cars were drawing up near them to share their find.  Reluctantly, Joshua and Elijah determined that it would be best to leave; they were concerned by the noise level emanating from some of their neighbors, and by the dark clouds massing.  Tory gazed behind her past the point when she could even pretend to make out the rhino’s hide behind his screen, then turned back to face front.  She caught Max’s eye as she did so, and smiled brilliantly, pleased to see he looked almost as euphoric as she felt.  Adela, from the seat behind Max, said, “What a beautiful smile you have, Tory.  It’s infectious – the best kind of infectious.”  Tory stammered thanks.
The clouds proved their worth, sending down a brief, hard rain as they drove back to the lodge.  Tory was delighted to stand out in the downpour, sending up thanks, before they went to their rooms to freshen up before reconvening at the picnic area 90 minutes later.  The rain had stopped, and Elijah was grilling various offerings while Joshua set up a table with condiments and chips.  Everard pulled their bottles of sparkling wine from the cooler and popped a cork.  “You’ll join us?” he asked Elijah, who smiled shyly and nodded.  “I know you will,” he joked to Joshua, handing him a bubbling glass.
Max raised his own glass and proposed a toast.  “To friends, old and new, and to the beauties of Namibia, and all those who work to protect this magnificent land.”  Tory nodded her agreement, and took a refreshing sip of the wine, which was delicious.
Soon they were sitting on camp stools, their plates piled high.  The sunset was transmuting the sky to a blaze of white-orange and pink, and Elijah pointed to the edge of the picnic area, where a jackal prowled hopefully.  “This is the best kind of jet lag,” she hypothesized to the group.  “Not the waking-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-thinking-it’s-lunchtime kind, but the kind where I walked the dogs in the woods of cold, sunny New Hampshire five days ago, and climbed Notre Dame in beautiful, noisy, cloudy France two days ago – three days? – and now I’m in hot, dry, astounding Etosha, watching a jackal.  Actually, I feel like I could get some kind of mental bends if this went on much more.”
“I once drove from London to the highlands – staying with a friend near Fort William – and I remember feeling terribly excited by the change.  I kept wanting to tell people, ‘I was just in London this morning,’ but of course they’d have thought me mad.  It’s madder that we don’t get properly excited about it.”  Adela clearly empathized with Tory’s experience.
“Tory, I wonder you might be willing to risk the bends, and add a stop in Amsterdam to our itinerary.  Joke has birthed a healthy girl, a week earlier than expected, and since I am already in motion, I should like to visit briefly.  My mother is eager to see you again, as well.”
“That would be, uhm, that would be great, I think,” Tory agreed to the change in plan.  “Wow.  I really liked Amsterdam.”  She chose not to ask any of the questions crowding her mind:  would she meet his family?  Would she stay at his home?  Before she could think further, Everard mentioned that there had been a freeze near his family’s home that week.
“So perhaps you may add skating in the Netherlands to your collection of activities,” he suggested.  Tory’s mind boggled.
After supper, they walked the short distance to the watering hole, where benches and seats were available for the park visitors.  The artificial pond was like a stage set, lit by careful floodlights, with the wide variety of animals moving in and out of the scene, changing positions and activities.  Four giraffes stood high on the hillside, seemingly too timid to risk coming down to the water.  Zebra and antelopes scattered when three elephants approached the water, to drink and to bathe, spraying themselves with their long trunks, over and over.  One of the elephants had only a single tusk, and Tory made a mental note to ask Joshua what might have caused that.  She and the others were largely silent as they watched, too dazzled by the sights before them to make conversation.  After an hour or two, Adela stood up and whispered goodnight, and Tory went the few steps to their lodge with her.
She showered briefly, put on a long sleep shirt, and shuffled out to the balcony, to gaze again at the pageant on display from there.  It really was mesmerizing.  So mesmerizing, in fact, that she didn’t realize Max was on the balcony next to hers until he cleared his throat.  She turned and smiled a greeting; he smiled back.  They both stepped toward each other – there was something about this place that made Tory inclined to speak softly, and it seemed Max felt the same way.
“‘Extraordinary’ seems a weak word in the face of this,” he said.
“I was thinking something like that.  But it doesn’t make sense.  They’re just animals, and to a Herero herder the deer and chipmunks and bears and foxes of my part of the world would be just as exotic as a giraffe is to me.  Or a moose!  Moose are exotic to anyone, I think.”
“I haven’t seen one yet.”
“They’re not that common.  You could go looking for one, or just set out on the Kancamagus Highway on your bike early in the day.  I almost ploughed into a fair-sized bull one misty morning.”
“Are they dangerous?”  Tory noticed a thread of alarm in his voice that surprised her.  He didn’t seem the type to take fright easily.
“They’re very big, and they can attack – antlers and kicking.  But it’s incredibly rare.  The only people I’ve known to be injured by moose are drivers who hit them.  It’s always best to take the turns slowly on secondary roads with woods and water nearby.  Mine looked at me like it didn’t much care for me, but I got turned around faster than I’d have thought I could, and pedaled away – Emma was behind me, and I didn’t want to shout, but she got the message when she saw me setting speed records zooming along the wrong way.”
Max chuckled, then pointed without speaking.  A lioness was coming slowly toward the water hole; the other animals scattering.  “Our lodge for tomorrow night is near a waterhole known for attracting rhino,” he murmured.  They watched again in silence for several minutes.  “Mesmerizing.”
“Like watching flames in a campfire,” Tory added, and felt his nod.  Curious, she asked quietly, “Will we stay in a hotel tomorrow night?  I hadn’t expected such luxury on a safari.”
“Perhaps I ought to have booked a camping safari – you saw the tents by the grill area.  Joshua and Elijah are in one of them, and we could have been, too.  I could have guessed you would be perfectly at home in a tent.  But given how short our visit is, I liked the idea of being able to see the watering hole from our rooms.”
“I’m not complaining.  This is amazing.”  She laughed lightly.  “Amazing.  Wonderful.  Magnificent.  I’m running out of adjectives, and none of them seem strong enough.”
“We’ve devalued them.  I vow never to call a dinner party ‘wonderful’ again, or talk about an amazing ice cream.”
“Well, Toscanini’s is pretty good,” Tory reasoned.  Max chuckled.  “I have got to get to sleep.  My body clock has no idea what’s going on.”
He reached a hand across the railings to take one of hers, and gave it a squeeze.  “Good night, Tory.”  Drawing her hand gently away, she turned and scuffed back into her room.
Once in bed, Tory thought about their conversation.  It had been so easy, so natural.  She was pleased to note that she had felt no overwhelming urge to throw herself at him.  Clearly, she was getting over her crush.  And he hadn’t tried to kiss her or even look at her, really.  He would make a good roommate, she thought; someone with whom you could unwind at night, chatting easily, before heading to bed, maybe with a warm hug, even a little kiss.  Of course, given his mouth you’d want to kiss him on the lips, she mused, and...
Even beating her head with a pillow wouldn’t get these thoughts out of her mind, so she let herself imagine.  Eventually she drifted off to sleep, her dreams filled with lips and hands and whirling winds, and one seriously misplaced llama.
The next two days were much the same, with lots of driving and waterhole visits, a couple of brief rain showers, and more wonderful sightings.  There was a large pride of lions, including several adorable cubs, a brief zebra fight, some brightly-colored birds, one very rare black rhino, and interesting conversation forming a background for all of it.  Tory was able to send a couple of photos to family and the few friends she had had time to notify of her trip, and got a note back from her mother, asking what Max’s friend’s clinic was like, and how rigid the tribal structure was.  Max laughed when she shared that with him.
They returned to Otjiwarongo in time for the Nepala’s braai.  Adela had cheerfully invited their guides to join the party, but both of them looked forward to getting back to Windhoek, where they lived, and their wives.  Along with the others, Tory tipped both men, and shared a tentative hug with Elijah and a robust, noisy one with Joshua.  Despite their short time together, the men felt like friends.
There was no time for laundry, so Tory washed and changed into her khaki slacks and her least-dirty t-shirt, and fastened a string of multi-colored beads around her neck.  They drove together to Pamela Nepala’s house, where they found the party in full swing.  The air was rich with the smells of cooking meat, a three-piece band was playing dance music, and Mrs. Luisa was enthroned in a massive, carved chair in the middle of the back yard, looking ten years younger and infinitely happier than she had six days before, in Paris.  Tory and Max exchanged warm greetings with the elderly lady, and met several of her relatives and friends at once.  One of them, a handsome grandson, swept Tory off to dance while Max spent more time talking with his old friend.
The dancing was vigorous, and great fun, and the grandson introduced her to some cousins and sisters who carried her away to the buffet table.  She forced herself to try morsels of the zebra, eland and ostrich, but otherwise piled the potato salad high.  The importance of meat for sustenance in a desert environment was obvious, and three days with Joshua had taught her the value of hunting in managing wildlife and creating economic opportunity.  Still, she was glad to see that most of what her hosts were grilling was mutton and goat.
The younger Nepalas clustered around her a good bit, and they exchanged stories of their educations, and the career opportunities in Namibia and the rest of the world.  Several of them were studying science or human-wildlife conflict management, with a view toward taking part in the conservation and tourism industries.  One young woman was planning a Master’s degree in accounting, to advance further in the Chinese multi-national for which she worked.  Tory was almost as interested in exploring the differences in professional culture as she had been comparing the diseases common to Namibia to those in her area when talking with Everard and Adela.  Exploring commonalities and differences was one of her favorite parts of traveling.
After a few more turns on the dance floor, with a break for cake and ice cream, the party still seemed to be in full swing, but Tory was feeling the heat.  She headed back to Mrs. Luisa’s throne for a break, and waited patiently for the chance to talk with her.  She spent several minutes listening to a few of the discoveries her elderly friend had made about family and friends before she felt courtesy required she cede her place to the next well-wisher.  As she stepped back, Everard swooped down on her.
“Adela insists on dancing,” he said, leading her toward the area set aside for that.  Max joined them, too, and the four of them boogied enthusiastically for a couple of songs before Everard cried surrender.  “I’ve set up a surprise for the two of you tomorrow, and we’ll need an early start.  Are you willing to head back to the guest house soon?”
“Now, actually,” Tory admitted.  “I’d love to throw a few things in the washer, and peg them out to dry by morning.”
The others acceded, and they went back to cluster around Mrs. Luisa, waiting their turn to say goodbye.  She teared up when she saw them preparing to leave, taking time for a lingering hug with Tory, and a longer one with Max, during which she began to cry in real earnest.  “I know what you have done for me,” she told him.  “Not all, but I can guess at it; I know the Minjheer.  You are a blessing to me, you and your pretty girlfriend.  I am so grateful, more than I can say.”  Max smiled and kissed the weathered face before him, then handed over a snow-white handkerchief.
“Mrs. Luisa,” he said, “it was a real pleasure, and my very great honor.  You have been a blessing to me in more ways than you may realize.”  After promising to write, they walked back to the Land Rover.
Tory had her wish; they bundled their laundry together, and everything hung out in the desert air was quite dry by morning.  They loaded all of their luggage into the truck, and then set out with Everard driving to their mystery location.  Tory was still delighted to gaze about at the landscape – those termite mounds were spooky – and only idly wondered where they were headed as Everard turned off the paved road and onto a wide dirt one.  As she had the front passenger seat, she was able to alert the others to a magnificent scene that suddenly came into view around one steep bend:  a high, rock plateau on the horizon, stretching far out of sight to the north, and ending abruptly to the south.  Its height and colorful striations, as well as the thick cover of greenery topping it, made it an awesome sight in the sere, steady landscape around them.
“The Waterberg Plateau, I think,” Everard identified, then drove them through a high gate welcoming them to the Cheetah Conservation Fund.  He parked near a cluster of small buildings forming two sides of a courtyard.  The other two sides were defined by high chain-link fencing, with several adorably gorgeous, spotted cats within.  “We’re going to watch them run,” he explained with a wide smile.
They met a few staff members, and one explained, in a thick London accent, that they would need to put any bags or packages in a locker, and advised against garments, like scarves, that might blow about in a breeze.  “The handlers store food treats in their bags, you see, and we don’t want the cats to think you might be a food source.  And they’ll be chasing a fluttering rag, so best none of us flutter,” he said with dry but obvious humor.  Equipped with nothing but their cameras, the four of them followed him inside the fencing, where his colleagues had set up a small motor, with a rope like clothesline threaded through several pulleys marking out a track within the enclosure.
Their guide explained that a cloth rag, fixed to the rope, was all they needed to persuade the cheetahs to run – “no scent, no flavor, just fluttering – like your cats at home.”  All four of them nodded.  He then drew a line in the dirt, asking that they stay right on that line, so everyone would have a good camera angle, and no one get separated from the human herd.  “And please don’t crouch down for your photos,” he advised.  “You don’t want to be obviously smaller and more vulnerable than anyone else.”
Another man opened a distant gate, and three cheetahs paced in, their long legs carrying streamlined bodies, small heads and long, thick tails.  One of the handlers strolled over.  She was holding a sturdy wooden stick, much like their guides, but with the bowl of a spoon on one end.  She welcomed them cheerfully, with a marked South African accent, and explained that the motor they saw would drive the rope line around the pulleys, and so drag the cloth along where the cheetahs would chase it.  “We’ve got three lovely girls for you to see today.  They all lost their mothers when they were quite young, so they never learned to hunt, and wouldn’t have good odds for surviving in the wild.  So we’ve reared them here, but of course we need to be careful with their diets, and make sure they get the kind of exercise they’d have in a natural way.”
At that, she raised her spoon in signal to the woman operating the engine, and the rag began to creep along the ground, then gained speed and flew past a standing cat, who slowly lowered herself into a crouch, her head tracking the rag.  As if in response to her movement, the cloth slowed, reversed direction, and sped by her again.  This time, the cheetah pounced, racing after the bait with perfect economy and power.  “She’s not getting to full speed,” their guide explained.  “We’ll see if we can encourage her to move a little faster.”  The rag changed course again, whipping right under the big cat’s body.  She fell for the trick, whirling around and powering after it, her long legs stretched out and her tail swinging to keep her on course around the tight corners of the track.  It looked as though she could catch the bait anytime she wanted, and after a few seconds’ running she did.  Her front legs reached out, the big paws grabbed at the cloth, and she lay down on the ground, claws in her toy.
The South African woman walked over, taking a meat cube from her belt bag and dropping it into the spoon.  She insisted the cheetah sit up, then traded the meat for the rag.  Tory restrained an impulse to clap with glee.
The handlers repeated the exercise until all three cats had run once or twice each, and Tory was sure she had some excellent photos, as well as several opportunities to forget her camera and just enjoy the extraordinary power and grace of the oversized kittens.  At one point, one of the cheetahs had taken a turn wide just to her left, and come within a few feet of brushing against her shins as she ran.  Their guide explained that humans had little to fear from cheetahs.  Since the animals are built for speed, they have neither the big heads and powerful jaws, heavy bodies, or sharp claws that make lions, leopards and tigers such effective killers.  Instead, they rely on speed and dexterity to catch small prey, and will run away from a fresh kill if another predator wants it – sometimes even if two or three buzzards approach.
The cats were tired by their morning exercise, and soon took to shady areas to rest as the sun rose higher.  Their guide brought them over to a tree where two cheetahs lay, and Tory thought she must be goggling as she stood just a few feet from them.
“Everard, thank you so much.  This was super-amazing.”
Everard smiled.  “You’re very welcome, Tory.”
“Photo op,” his wife declared.  “Give me your camera, Tory, and I’ll take a few pictures.”
“Is it okay to turn my back on them?” she asked the guide, who assured her that with the cheetahs tired out, and three handlers standing by, she would be fine.
“But don’t crouch down,” he added emphatically.
“You’re fine,” Adela said, “I’ve got a great angle.”  Checking in the cameras memory, she added, “I like several of these already.  Now Max, go stand with her.”  Tory barely noticed his arrival; her eyes kept flicking back to the beautiful creatures behind her.  They mixed the groupings up a little, taking photos of Max and Everard and cheetahs, Everard and Adela and cheetahs, Everard and Adela and Max and cheetahs, and their guide offered to snap a few of the four them together, standing just behind the animals.
That accomplished, they headed back to their vehicle, with a brief detour through the gift shop.  “Definite highlight of the trip,” Tory averred as they headed back on the long drive to Windhoek.  “Thank you again.”
Max added his thanks, with the observation, “It is amazing to see an animal so clearly built for its purpose.  I was fascinated by what our London friend told us about them, and seeing the cats run brought it all home that much more clearly.  Those extraordinary hips!”
They chatted and laughed over four hours of highway, Adela admitting that she was missing her kids.  Max admitted he was missing cold weather.  “The sun is lovely, and the few rain showers we’ve had have been refreshing, but I believe I am a northerner to my marrow.  My currently-overheated marrow.”
After a great deal of hugging, well-wishing and more promises to write, Adela and Everard left them at the small terminal.  Tory offered to guard the bags if Max wished to change his clothes; he did, and then took a turn with the luggage while Tory pulled off her shorts and t-shirt and put on her leggings and dress.  That accomplished, they checked Max’s one large suitcase, now nearly empty – he had left the other with Everard – cleared security, and settled down in the lounge to wait.
The flights were uneventful.  The food seemed especially bland, and the press of shops, goods and people at the Johannesburg airport almost bewildering after the open spaces of Etosha and Otjiwarongo.  Tory had purchased all the gifts she wanted at the grocers on the way to their safari and at the cheetah sanctuary, so she had no shopping to do, and was relieved when they boarded the plane to Amsterdam.  She dozed fitfully, waking too tired to read, or pay attention to a movie.  Instead, images of Africa ran through her dazed brain.
Many hours later, as they approached Schipol airport, she peered out her tiny window and saw what must be snow.  ‘Snow!’ she thought.  ‘This is ridiculous!’