In 1968, a disillusioned and heartbroken Lillian Carlson left Atlanta after the assassination of Martin Luther King. She found meaning in the hearts of orphaned African children and cobbled together her own small orphanage in the Rift Valley alongside the lush forests of Rwanda.
Three decades later, in New York City, Rachel Shepherd, lost and heartbroken herself, embarks on a journey to find the father who abandoned her as a young child, determined to solve the enigma of Henry Shepherd, a now-famous photographer.
When an online search turns up a clue to his whereabouts, Rachel travels to Rwanda to connect with an unsuspecting and uncooperative Lillian. While Rachel tries to unravel the mystery of her father’s disappearance, she finds unexpected allies in an ex-pat doctor running from his past and a young Tutsi woman who lived through a profound experience alongside her father.
Set against the backdrop of a country grieving and trying to heal after a devastating civil war, follow the intertwining stories of three women who discover something unexpected: grace when there can be no forgiveness.
The girl waits. There are only the silver threads of a spider web swooping precariously over the top left corner of a window frame. There are no rays of warm light seeping through cracked glass. There is no slight breeze, no swaying jacaranda branch heavy with purple blossoms her mother sometimes plucked before church and pinned to the brim of her straw hat. These simple luxuries disappeared hours, perhaps days, ago.
She is not sure how long she’s been curled up in the darkness, under the frame of a stepladder tented with a blue tarp. Long enough so that there is only the faintest odor of paint, turpentine and a piney cleanser. Long enough that her empty stomach no longer gurgles, and the certainty of a machete blade slitting her neck no longer brings up the sour taste of fear. For as long as she can remember, her family has lived with the threat of death—maybe today, maybe tomorrow—as if each day is a gift, easily snatched away. It occurs to her that fear is what has given the Hutus their power. The boys who sometimes shove her into the dirt while walking to school, and the men who come to take her father’s crops. It is some small comfort that they no longer have power over her.
She presses one eye against a ragged triangle of light, scraped open with a rusty nail. It only distracts her mind for a few seconds at a time but that’s enough to suppress the urge to run from this place. There is nowhere to run, nothing to do but wait. Nose pressed to plastic, there is only the shimmering web; no screams, no church bells clanging, no shattering glass, no gunshots that pulse behind her eyes, no ache in her groin, no pieces of prayers.
There is barely enough room, even knees pulled to chest, between the steel rails of the ladder. Still, the girl rocks back and forth, back and forth. She pulls an oversized flannel shirt down over bare knees and hooks it under curled toes. She hums without making a sound, the force of her breath vibrating in her chest, a Kinyarwanda lullaby her mother used to sing every night. Umama sings to her, still, louder than the bass pumping from a boom box, primal and urgent, too loud to be mistaken for music.
She waits, watching the web until the shiny black insect with spindly golden legs floats back into sight. It’s a relief to see the spider fortifying her home, spinning away. As long as the spider is in view, there is a small hope that the man who wrapped his shirt around her and told her to wait, to make herself small and quiet and hide somewhere safe in her mind, might also return.