Remember when you roll down hills, Brother, don't forget us. Many people don’t write letters, don’t send anything, but you’re too distant, and I wish we were closer but there’s no time left.
Remember your surroundings and protect your organs. Grab on to the edges of the universe and try to stay, to avoid further damage, to breathe. Not panicked breaths; slow ones, the kind you need when the world is rushing towards you, piling up.
If you spot a tree in the midst of all that, you’re a lucky one.
Farming, I find, is not for me. I sleep too much and I eat too much, and I breathe too much and I die too much, so you don't have to listen to me, not after all the times you revive me and keep me going. I’m a mess. Most of the time, I speak to the void and the shadows there.
I still can’t believe all the presents you send, Brother, like the skinsuit you gifted me. I slipped into it too comfortably, the fat and blood warm. My elders smiled and said they will do the treatments to graft it on my body, so I can finally look like I’ve reached puberty. I appreciate the gifts, but a letter wouldn’t hurt. Maybe two words scribbled on a page, crumpled up and sent across the world so I can cry that you replied me and show all my friends that we’re discussing and—
Am I asking for too much? I’ll stop now.
Farming, as I was saying, is not for me. It’s a slow process, but I get bored and leave. This comes easy because I’m a natural-born quitter, not trying to sell the maize at the market. But you wouldn't know much about that, because if you did then you wouldn't be winning awards and sending gifts like puberty skin. It stretches with me each time I grow bigger, feel the world too small, the air too thin to breathe.
Maybe I should be there. With you. Winning prizes. Not quitting. Open air, open world, where no edges will make me feel small. Where I won't have to wear something like puberty skin to feel grown. And there, I'm sure, we could talk. We don't chat a lot, and we don't know each other well, and we're not close enough.
See, maybe the best bonding moments could come from competition.
On bulletin boards, you look like what I can never be. Bloodied nose and broken ears and cracked skulls. Your worst crack was when your neck twisted almost all the way round and your skull was so bashed in that your body was past skeleton, brain peeking through. You grinned when you came out of the operations, but your body looked like hello, this is me; I’m not here long, I won’t last.
And then you hugged me so hard and I breathed in the scent of your fulfillment and I needed what you had too.
“You’ve grown so big,” you said, brittle and breaking.
I wanted more time to talk with you when you left for port next morning. The elders and I watched your then recent match all night by way of flipping live-sheet paper, like animation; how your body rolled and rolled through the hilly landscapes of Ebenido. How your body was greased up in oil so you would never stop spinning down the hill, all the way towards victory or death.
The best part about you is that you always find a tree. When you get to it, your hands always press so tight against what saved you from wear and tear, from endless destruction, that you levitate above the ground for a minute like a flag caught in the air, just long enough to smile before a fall. You always succeed, move on, and I get gifts, but that's not enough.
I die again this week from trying to roll like you, when I should have been plucking weeds and breaking soil. That's what happens: dying, only when the emotional and physical stress of the world is too much on me. It’s either by my will so I can breathe or just unpredictably, like that. We don't know why it happens, but we lived in the gutters for a while, full of mutation and rot, so we suspect that as the cause. But sometimes we appreciate my deaths, and other times we do not.
I couldn't catch my breath in the open air and just fell off the cliff and right into the middle of the marketplace. Sickly noises, too snappy, came from my body and the colour black stayed too long.
Luckily, from all the trees you latch on to, I get pulled out from the dirt again and again. Your trees serve as a source of rebirth. Burying me is part of the process for my return. Your power from those gutters connects us; each time a prize tree from your rolling is sacrificed, I breathe again.
We discovered this long ago. I can only be revived within a week lest I die forever.
I come back from the earth, dragged apart from the roots, same age: naked, and ashamed. I come back tasting slaps from elders’ hot hands and passing round ink when they write letters to you on how you must give up more of your trees for my survival, preserve them for later if this happens again.
Of course you do, you have to, and for weeks I read the gossip papers on how you always fall behind. How you win and win and win but still: position the same. Rank the same. All because of lost trees. And columnists pen stories about how township folk shouldn’t bet on you because you’ll never grow and never change.
The only letter we get back from you after that is hasty and angry, stabs through paper. They will never hide such notes from me, never coddle me, the elders of this family, not when children must know their worthlessness and the problems they cause.
I’m not doing good. Oniaka says I lost a sponsorship. So many opportunities for more attention and money gone. I’ll have to do some grunt, menial, first-level challenges to get back to where I was before. Are we sure he can’t roll for his own life?
I swallow my guilt when I read the paper. It goes down in my throat, hard and painful, but I respond.
“Well, why can’t I?” I say, through choked, unconvinced words. “Why can’t I roll?”
“Because all children will make income but not in the same way,” my mother speaks, rubbing my cheeks. “And not in the same amounts. And, at this, you will fail.”
“Don’t pretend like you really want to do it,” my uncle spits angrily, like he's killing souls. “I know you’re only begging because it’ll take the guilt off your back.”
“It’s a disgraceful profession,” my mother says, raising my chin. “But the ugly things your brother does keep us from being gutter rats. That’s why we forced him. Scars make us whole. One child we do not know, and the other is good and fine. The other can take the pretty jobs that pay small change but give good reputation.”
I try to talk and shout but I am hushed. Then I am beaten, whipped in several places over the kitchen counter because scars still make us whole, and I can’t die again, not in any way, not when it risks my brother so much. Still, I burn under the heat of my elder uncle’s cane, screaming the whole time through.
The cane snaps into my skin and pieces of it embed themselves inside me. My mother holds my uncle’s hand firmly to tell him it’s enough but he’s too into it. The elders pass around new canes each time one breaks against my skin and I cry bloody tears, promising to never die again.
“I think he learned his lesson,” my mother says.
“This isn’t half of rolling,” my uncle barks, the elders chuckling and nodding. “The martyr wants punishment so bad—”
I can’t feel my skin when the number of times the cane whips me becomes countless, and tears become too dry. The new feeling that comes is the taste of blood when the pain’s too much and the cuts on my skin can’t heal. Frail little thing, me, and I can’t keep up, so I grow heavy, then I go weak.
The next tree sacrificed does not come in vain. My uncle is fed to dogs and snapped up as meal in pit toilets too hot on a summer day. My mother gives me a coat of power as a consolation gift, then she rubs out the pain from my skin. She tells me many things, like how nothing will stop the plans she has for me, how recklessness will not be tolerated, how this is our chance to start over.
Still, I burn. In all imagery, in all ways mentally. I am screaming and weak, just barely there.
I tell you the truth that children are beaten because children are beaten. We give no alternatives. We give no excuses, not when we can discipline so many other ways. We give nothing in return but the begging in our hands when the anger becomes too much and the grave becomes too deep.
In the ruling of a leader we do not like, you are outlawed. The statement is made and we watch through the flickering animated papers, faces filled with dread. A stamp is put up like a flag and hangs across the market square, close to the place where they sell the fish that mother likes and the soup leaves that are cheap. That’s where everyone who can't afford personal flick-papers sees your sport is banned and shakes their heads and starts their judgement.
All forbidden things taste better, some say, and all rebellions go underground, so that’s what you do. Your sport and its supporters are a community: all you hill-rollers stick together. You find less obvious hills in poorer areas or further away towns where they won’t easily reach you; you make the game fast so nobody sees the sport going on and reports to the empire.
We count the money that you make while coins are dropped into my hands from my new government job every month like rice grains. My government job: civil service, organizing files of dusty old paperwork concerning the dying agricultural sector. While you suffer and toil and grunt through work, and we read you and read you and read of your tales, I am paraded around in my politics position around the community. Parties are held and toasts of my success are made and neighbours praise me. Neighbours talk ideas with a big money man while all my government coworkers, not knowing these ways of surviving for themselves, sleep in discomfort. Sleep in bedbugs and heat and scratch paper covers. Sleep in jobs with no security, working in broken buildings filled with rubble and parasitic insects because it’s near the gutters of pollution and stink, chopping food without nutrients while we eat good. While we breathe freshness. While we survive better.
A day you come to visit is when I realize what we are doing. A day you come to visit is when I strip down from grace to grass and my mother holds your cheeks like you are winning. Is when she tells you how proud we are of you and how you are the star when you are clearly not. I speak of how I dream to be like you, how I'm practicing and doing farm work, and you send gifts like more pieces of skin which graft with mine and make me look more mature.
When the neighbours ask who you are, we deny you behind your back and speak of you as nothing, because only your money is something.
When old neighbours ask after you, the ones that remember the firstborn, there is a story. One where it was raining. A storm was coming and you were out playing and Mama tried to grab you but it was too late.
The story works, because your scars and your musculature give you a different look. One that she and the elders can make many tales with.
The days I go to the office in the pillared buildings, I see too many suspicious people that look nothing like my coworkers staring at me. They try to fit into the background, but I’ve been talking to the shadows too long to not notice them hiding in the corners. I report these findings to my elders and they tell me to shut up and do my penniless work and keep up my act. They tell me to keep looking shiny and not cause problems and not disturb them so we can keep living lavish.
So, I keep my head low and do my duties and collect the salary that is nothing. I turn around as an object and realize that is what I have always been, and I’m forced to live with that fact. I laugh with coworkers and graft more skin to make me look older and more important. Because age is a sign of respect and we cannot do without it.
“Did you hear? The ruling chief is coming!” a coworker tells me. I nod and go home to tell my elders, who pace around for some minutes and then know what to do. They whistle at each other and move at quick speed, and I allow them to deconstruct me.
“You must look like what you make,” they sing, when they take off the power and the clothing and the ceremonial jewelry and leave me back with the basics. The coworkers that look at me in the days after are left reeling from my turnaround, confused as to my glow-down. Pale and doing the good work is how the ruling chief sees me. She nods her head but doesn’t believe it.
When she greets me, she leans into my ear. She says, “My workers have been here all month watching you. You’ve been looking very … expensive. Above your pay. Did you think you could get away?”
I freeze up when I feel the hands around me, the workers marching me over to my house to come search my property. And Mama. And the elders. And as an object, I can only panic when I can’t run away to my controllers, but I know that distractions are always good and I can’t let them ruin the life we’re living, so I do what I know how to do.
My elders praise me after I greet them for the diversion I caused. I’m still feeling drowsy when they tell me what happened. The ruling chief’s workers came running in, panicked about my collapse on their way here, and the elders managed to hide the money in all that confusion. The elders clap for me, drunk and happy that we’re not going back to poverty. I feel sick.
And you, sibling, actually send me a letter instead of a gift. Normally, I’m used to the time you spend angry after I knock you down again from having to take your trees, these periods spent praying that you’ll forgive me. But this time, it’s not like that, and you want to get a drink.
I show it to the elders and they disagree. It’s too soon after a close call and you’re such a risk. They’re even furious that you want to be drunk when you haven’t been winning matches lately. I burn again and I break when I have to tear the paper to shreds, when I have to deny us the chance to be close. The chance to talk. The chance to be siblings, because we never once were, and we never are, and you left too soon, and you work too hard.
Too hard to be considered this.
So my heart breaks, and I talk to shadows all night instead of you.
You come to visit at a bad and unexpected time so Mama does her best to hide you. You do not understand what is going on, so you mistake it for emotion, and I bury my head into my palms because I cannot watch this.
You wonder why you drop your bags at the door and I do not take them from you, or help remove the ropes you used to bind the traveling sacks to keep them from tearing, but the neighbours are watching, so Mama makes you do all of this yourself.
You try to tell her tales of your exploits but she hushes you to stop talking and sends you up to your room where she says I will bring food. From there, she gathers herself and me since we are cohorts. Mama grabs my hands and pushes leaves into my palms.
“Something to make him sleep while we go out for dinner.”
My eyes widen in horror. I almost want to throw them away, stomp them with my feet, but I fear the torture that will come from doing this that will make me burn again. “How long will he be out?”
“Long enough,” she says, her face clear as it gains irritation.
I nod and mix the leaves in with your drink, not adding all because I don’t trust the dosage that Mama gave me. Then I run upstairs to the bedroom with a tray. You are resting with your feet up, smiling at me then grabbing my hands. On the dressing table there is a game spread out, clay balls and many small bowls they can be sorted into.
“I thought we could play,” you laugh, patting my leg.
“I’ve been seeing this game a lot—old men and children on doorsteps,” I say, settling into the conversation because it’s so easy to talk to you. “It looks so confusing.”
“No,” you laugh again, drawing out the word. “This game is my childhood—well, what I had of a childhood … I’ll tell you what’s confusing, though: akpapa. Everyone says: the seed tastes better than the fruit! Or only eat the pulp! So much that I haven’t been able to taste the thing.”
I want to say more, but it’s like my mother knows that if I stay too long I won’t do the job. She calls out my name in our language and I can only put the tray down.
“Eat,” I say, voice hollow as I leave the room.
Mama tells me later you’ve been knocked out. I mask my emotions and go for dinners where our mother tells all the good tales about me to make the neighbours jealous, and their eyes go to slits. They mutter generational curses on us, but my elders rebuke these as they smile and eat, hands discreetly snapped over their heads and taken to the ground while the night goes on.
We come back too late after midnight. Before I can leave to my room, Mama grabs me and sits me at the table. She’s a little drunk but never enough that we can’t have a discussion.
“You need to handle your brother. Make sure he doesn’t interact while he’s here. It’ll take time before I can convince him to leave, so I need you to make sure he doesn’t reveal himself and what he does,” she demands. The elders stand by her side like pets and nod.
“He wouldn’t do that. He knows they outlawed it,” I reply.
“You know how he likes to be a star,” my mother says, hands in the air. But I don’t know who you are and who you’d like to be. “I tell him that everyone’s so proud of him in this community—”
“They’re not?” you say from the stairs, the words slow and filled with betrayal. I scream when I see you because my walls come crashing down.
“You’re dreaming, dear,” my mother sings, going to you with a worried look on her face. She takes your hand. “Go back to bed.”
You push her hand away, eyes wide and nose flaring. I can’t breathe. This place is too small, too clustered with the release of secrets never meant to be revealed.
“I’m a disgrace?” You burn now, slowly deciding with your feet if you want to run away or stay. “But Mama, you said I should do this. This is what you wanted.”
“You can’t think about these things emotionally,” my mother sings sweet, but it’s not working. So she goes on the defense. “I told you not to visit. You weren’t supposed to … be here. Life’s not pretty. Do you know how many diseases you caught when we were living in mold and dirty gutters? You were already tainted! Someone had to provide so we could stay in this nice place. I didn't make this world to be like this. To have the jobs that pay well be the ones that are crimes. But I have to live in it, and I have to be smart so I don’t fall again. Because I can’t do it. I won’t go back to the gutters. It could have easily been your younger brother doing this and you being our cover, so don’t take it personally.” Then she breathes, happy, like in her rambling she’s finally found something to latch on to. “Don’t take it personally.”
“I should go, since that’s what you want,” you say. I muster up all my courage to talk to you as you climb up the stairs. Somehow, I have to make this right. I reach out, running after you.
“Just wait …” I say, and you stare at me for a second, eyes full of anger, and push me down the stairs. I fall, tumbling, memories flashing before me; dead inside, bones breaking, cracked.
You don’t send gifts. I reach out, again and again, but you don’t reply. Endless letters and unsent ones filled with apologies and explanations with me talking and rambling and finding all the ways to make things better.
We’re all on edge, waiting for the next month to see if you’ll come through with the money. Mother sends letters demanding that you do, screaming at you to be the mature one. To be the one that takes care of her and deals with your emotions.
But the money still arrives and she breathes easy, like this is over. But it is not, so I choke on my emotions.
Work is difficult for me. The office has been reduced, workers fired after being painted as the faces of corruption. They are the ones causing the pain and suffering, as the ruling chief describes them, but it only makes me wonder what kind of cheating must be going on at higher levels above me if I only get paid this small, unlivable fee. This grain of rice that one can’t invest in or build a life in, except one made with shoddy construction and broken dreams.
The whole place is on alert. I send monthly allowance spreadsheets on how much I’m spending. The higher-ups still suspect me. I downgrade my clothes. My coworkers eye me suspiciously, wondering how I didn’t get caught, how I’m still here.
I still read you. I cannot watch the channels; they were disconnected because of illicit activity. I notice an article concerning you. It says that that you did not stay this time, and my world stops immediately. You did not find a tree, and I can’t breathe anymore with this revelation. You just kept rolling, bruised and battered like a pancake, and they can’t find you and they can’t reach you.
I can’t handle this. I can’t do this. I can’t move on because you were everything, and I need you, and where are you? Crying out of my office is all I know how to do, weak and pained and so lost. And I crave the dark and done distraction of falling again, of breaking once more, of feeling so emotionally and physically ruined that I can make my body crack. But I can’t, but I can’t, but I can’t do that, not when you’re gone. Not when we don’t know where you are and you can’t revive me.
So I stay.
I try to say nothing to the elders because I want to believe they’re still reading you. I want to believe that they still know you. They still love you. But it’s too hard, painful being lips, shut. Two days later, I show them the paper, then I quietly leave the room. I don’t care about their reactions.
I can only kick up land and scream and curse all throughout the day. When I come back into the house, it’s too late. Mama is rocking silently in a chair. We don’t even share eye contact when I pack my bags and go out in search of you, to trek the land and underground to find you. And she doesn’t stop me when I slam the door shut.
Because you’re not gone. I can't choose to believe that, not when we haven’t had our bonding moment, our sibling love, our actual relationship. Not when we haven’t shared our interests and haven’t laughed together and fought because we loved each other.
The people underground won’t tell me anything other than the fact that you are dead. I don’t believe it, so I keep moving. It’s so spacious underground, lined with wood and mud. It’s livable, so colorful, so violent, watching people who play this game rub out the scars from their bodies, fight, and curse.
But being here is a revelation. Underground, I find your community. The friends that loved you. The partners who rolled with you. The bartender who served you. He leads me to the pieces of yourself that you created here.
Like your room. It’s lavish but empty without you. Desolate. Filled with memories and some pictures that I don’t know about because of how far we were apart.
“I expected more things,” I say, voice low and pained, as though if I’m silent enough I can hear you. As if I could just listen then I’ll find you.
“What’d you expect? The time he’s been gone? Lucky it’s not cleared out already,” the bartender curses.
“Oh.” It is all I say and can do: react.
“Take whatever’s left and get out before they steal more,” the bartender says, moving away.
“Wait,” I shout to him. “How do you know my sibling’s place?”
With a grunt, the man comes back. His eyes look weary. “There were a lot of parties thrown here. Everyone was mostly drunk for the life of them. But I do remember one time your sibling said something beautiful about our world here. About how when he reached a tree, it was the perfect view to see the next city, and the next city, and places three miles over. That was the best part of it, the chance to see the world. That was the part that moved him.”
The room looks different after he says that. I’m awestruck. I still wonder how much of you there is. How many stories will be told. How I may never hear them, because you aren’t present, and I’m slowly giving up hope.
So I weep.
I roll. I enlist, get a tour round the hills that I will fall on and all the obstacles in place, meet my competitors for the beginners’ round. I settle into your room. Make my strategies and place my bets and get people that help advertise the game above ground.
I let the match organizers grease my body and rub chalk on my face. Let them graft dead skin of former competitors on all the challengers, beating the drums as my body does the work for me, through all the heat and all the snow and all the other passing seasons.
And as an object, this suits me.
I can’t die, not without you to revive me, so I’m careful in the games that I partake in. I have to be in control, emotionally and physically. My prize trees don’t work to renew me, not the ways yours did. It’s the little connection that we had that keeps me going, and it’s the hope of that keeping me alive.
See, we are never in the same place at the same time, Brother, and time has passed, but I still search for you with what little hope I have. Listen, I can never seem to find you, not in the cracks nor crevices, but at least now I hear rumours of your passing, tales I chase without a care if they are true or false. I roll and latch on with my bruised body, holding on to my tree each time.
From there I claim a spot of victory and I see the world. I see the curvatures and the line that separates sky from land. From there I see the buildings that fall and rise, fall and rise, all because I want to share these experiences with you. That’s why I do all this.
I get a letter from the elders that says they’ve been reading me and there’s another child, so I should send money to the family. And I do. Small bits and pieces, because I can afford to, and it helps me sleep knowing that I may never go back there again, so this is the least I can do.
And I read you and read your rumours, and in the night I go in search of you, my sibling, braving raids and scandals, death once again and again when my body is torn up and destroyed, but I search the next city, and next town, and cities three miles near, all from what I saw hanging on to the tree. If they don’t know about you where I go, I craft the tales, the stories, so all the places I go to around the world, walking so much that my feet are sore, can know that you’re a legend. And if I finally see your shadow in a bar one day, I won’t waste time. I’ll move towards the opportunity. I’ll come running, too fast that my breath can’t catch me.