This page contains:
- Animal cruelty/death
- Body transformation
- Drug use
- Infectious disease
- Settler colonialism
On the day we were born, we squeezed ourselves out of empty cans and shattered glass by the riverside, somewhere in the south of Nigeria in the early 20th century, the sounds filling our ears as every muscle and bone in our body constricted till we popped out. There were no openings in the things we came out of. We simply appeared, and that was okay.
It was like we were hearing about humans and their nature from time’s beginning and had finally come to visit, stay; to see for ourselves. It was like we had clawed through a black space, a cocoon of sticky bodies held together in one consciousness, one heart.
The water made reflections of us and we saw ourselves for the first time: human -sculpted but not human-minded. Skin shaded too dark and too soft, almost like pulp, like a squishy exocarp. Eyes made of colored glass that rattled each time we would speak . I felt a longing in my throat, like the seams of my body would rip apart, and there would be nothing of me again. I would remember nothing, be nothing, only the most singular quantity of black.
“Do you feel it, too?” I spoke first, words stuttering out in a faint croak, not because I wanted to, but because I had to. This was the first moment when I was alone, existing as one person and not immersed in the oneness of my siblings, and it confused me, yet I needed to talk. My siblings and I moved together, and from what I understood, weren't going apart now that we were born. But I could see them as separate people in my individuality, and we were many: one who spoke too hastily; one who demanded; one who tried to demand but failed, so they imitated; one who provoked; one who coveted; and one who was kind. There was this second memory beneath the surface, like we’d known each other and bonded before we came here. The sights were not strange, yet the green waters that moved miles ahead of us to no end shook something in my core.
They didn't need to nod for me to feel their fear.
We started to shake. Cold chills went across my body as I saw One who was kind’s knees buckle as they fell on the ground, a snap breaking out from each of their joint. But then they stood up, face in a state of ethereal bliss, and the rest of us looked around, waiting for our own moments, Imitation falling to the floor and trying to act the scene by their own will. This could not be a single experience. How would we know if things were true if we did not feel it ourselves?
When the rest of our turns of intense agony came, like lightning striking harsh canes down our backs—a metaphor all agreed upon—let out cool sighs, knowing that, at least for the moment, we would not be separated, not fall apart. We’d live side by side and discover ourselves, understand our nature and purpose.
Where one went, we would follow.
The beach was calming and disturbing, let us feel a moment of peace before spiders writhed in our bellies, destroying the respite. It was an expanse of red land, rocky and sharp with the destroyed bones of brittle things and rubbish, with a bush too close to it, almost threatening to swallow the place. We knew bits of this world upon our arrival but not enough, so it was thought wise to wait for the humans to come and look at us, acknowledge our existence. To tell us what we were supposed to do and how to do it.
The time spent waiting only made our legs itch, but walking was another battlefield on its own. The sharp rocks and glass all lay around in the dust, like they weren't supposed to be there but, in time, would slowly make a home when the sand completely buried them.
Our faces scrunched up at the sight. This world was not beautiful. We could only stand still, waiting for someone to call and explain to us, to move in our group and find meaning in things. During that time, our hands interlocked, body pressed so close together we wished to be as one, and we swore to be a monolith under the framework of a setting sun—that the pieces of ourselves were only held by our collectiveness.
The humans arrived. Their eyes widened, mouths gaping with awe. They became the statues for a minute, dropping all they had before running off to tell the others. And multitudes followed after that, gathered around us, some eyes large as they squealed in delight while others glared, hands folded as they stood far away from us. One dared to touch me. It felt warm and spread to the rest of my body like some kind of infection, till I recoiled and watched the flesh on the place they pressed come back up.
What followed was flashes of red and black within me each time I blinked; a guttural whirring inside my body, like a sound threatening to overwhelm me, my seams swelling and throat fattening like a goat at slaughter.
I broke into a fit of anger.
“Do not do that again,” I hissed, my voice still croaky as I wrapped a hand around the human’s skin, my eyes meeting theirs before they stepped back and ran away. All the others looked at me, and I saw how the humans had been poking my siblings, who looked unbothered by the feeling. I was the exception. I was the mistake. Something pulled at my eyelids, like a child tugging on cloth, till my eyes started to twitch. And spasm. And twitch.
Mistake. Error. Mistake. Error.
I stayed silent, but the rest moved away from me in their horde, trying to exclude me from the family, but I moved with them. If I had to dig my teeth into their feet and be dragged on the filthy soil, I would. If I had to cut open their skin and make my way as a parasite swimming in their fluids, sucking them dry till we were both weak and spineless, I would. They would not let me go.
Humans whispered as we moved. They were just as confused as us, mentioning things like “oracle” and “gods” and “portals.” They soon left, and I was glad. In their short time, they were spreading confusion, isolation; like I was the one to be afraid of when my brethren knew me so well. And if these humans were not wiser than us, did not know the paths to lead us through, then they could stay in their space.
“We did not feel violated,” one of my siblings—the Provoker—spoke.
“But I felt it,” I replied. They flinched at the word I. It was cold, lonely in the singular space, and I longed to be in their presence, their validation, not to have this feeling of detachment, like I was weaning off them. No.
“We all agreed that we are not bothered, so you will not be bothered too.” One who was demanding spoke, and soon the others caught up in terms of tone and spirit.
I did my best to imagine the uneasy feeling I got from being touched into something I could enjoy, something similar to what they felt; putting pressure on all the limits of my imagination to conjure up something that would bring me back to our shared experiences.
“Agreed,” I nodded, though the feelings did not change. I, the mistake, started this chain, so I would keep the first secret too, holding it in the valves of my chest.
“You will teach us your anger, so we may know it,” One who spoke hastily said, quickly trying to fit their speech under our one tongue. Our collectiveness.
“Agreed.” I felt like I wouldn't have to teach, for they would soon discover it, for the way it had come over me was so strong and overpowering that it was a lesson unto itself. I did not say that, though.
“Come back to us, sibling,” One who was kind said. “We have missed you.”
We found ourselves embracing each other, time suggesting we were only a day old, but in mind, we were growing, building.
The humans arrived the next day with their oracle, proclaiming stories of Erimwin and the gods, but we were not listening. Instead, we were piecing together our own stories and events, the glory of our births in this beautiful and miserable place. Sand stained our feet as we walked and swayed from side to side.
Then the human gave us shoes. And clothes: white wrappers and bulukus, long gowns and beaded necklaces. They threw these at our feet, as if knowing us was not in any way surprising.
“The gods approve,” the humans only said as they walked away from us. Done with us.
“Should we not make them stay?” Kind commented as the humans started going distances away, becoming silhouettes, like we never knew them.
“We are not supposed to care, and you should not, too.” Demanding stepped away from Kind who uttered such travesty, so openly in debate for all we stood for, making the sibling know their choice. They gulped, as if unsure, but nodded. We were all relieved. It was not good to split apart, to fall and lose ourselves.
“We should wear what they've given us. Courtesy should be granted,” Kind suggested as they re-entered the group. The others allowed it, agreed upon this choice.
The singular space returned to me.
But you like the sand in your feet, even when you stumble across the waste they leave behind. You enjoy yourself as you are. You do not want this. You do—
I bound this spirit in the deepest, darkest part of my thoughts, locking it back up. Did I need a second key? Another secret. I swallowed it down, even when it clawed up my windpipe and danced in my throat; using the metaphorical sea to drink it up. This voice, only mine, was here to destroy. Mistake. It would shut up. It would go away.
In the darkest hours, the humans came to us again. Drunk on palm wine, staggering, then falling cross legged on the riverside. They positioned themselves in a circle, near the rocks that were close to the discarded palm fronds and other non-beauties we had familiarized with this world. We watched their instability, imbalance, and held stronger in our own.
They said they had more stories to tell, and we did not care, not particularly interested in hearing them. I personally didn’t want them in this space, as they might fracture my relationship with my siblings again. Still, we listened this time, if only to know more about this ugly world we crawled into, to know our purpose in life.
The tales that were told came beat by beat, each word choked out with the ache of held anger and sound. Maybe the humans came to us vulnerable, not really interested in explaining the world to us but rather to themselves, but they had their own reasons for telling tales and we had ours for listening.
They spoke stories of how the humans fled from clean village squares each time a chief came from the city on market days to collect taxes. The chief, the humans said, works for the White man, and that was when our ears picked up.
They said the river used to be calm, spread out for all the people’s needs. There was a system: the trash they burned, the waste emitted, the fronds and sticks they left for the water. Where the humans bathed in the water: close to the centre, near to the right. Water in the far left for cooking and for drinking, to refresh parched throats on long market days.
Then the change arrived—not sudden, not swift, but overtaking still, the mighty jaws of power. And then things shifted.
The humans have conflicting views of what happened. They argue over the details while angry and rowdy, voices overlapping each other like the dirtiest parts of a river. But some of the humans tell us the reason why this world is not beautiful is because the lure of the city by the Whites—the places they can reach—is the scent of pollution, and some are deceived to that direction. That those who come back to visit their village kin reach them through the disruption brought upon them by the city: the imperialist influences, the contracted work, like bringing up soil over and over again for oil and minerals till there’s nothing left but all things uprooted. The brainwashing of culture as savagery, that every part of it is toxic. The traditional chiefs that act as proxies. The new barriers in identity.
Some say that those who come from the cities: taxmen, proxies, old friends, visitors; bring the scent of oil, dust, smoke. Broken languages. This becomes physical, and all things left over go into the river. The water again, swept up into the mouth of the river like the orange fruits fallen to the ground at the end of a market day.
The river has changed to an ever-mighty consumer, swallowing all that appears. It has been disrupted, tainted, and not ever more still. It has been changed and broken up, and there is no good adaptation. Now it feasts and what lies in it is a deep colour green and the thickness of waste.
We, brethren, like shadows, stayed hidden: in the deepest parts of forests, inside the river, where we swam till we were just specks underwater. We looked for shadows in every space we could find, then we greeted them and merged with them. From these stories we learned change was an error and a wrong in the world, that adaptation was destruction. We learnt new things meant the end of all things, and the world that we visited and had become residents in was too dangerous for us alone, so we should never fall apart.
The humans left us be after that night, and for the next few days, we drifted on the beach, aimless and without duty. We settled on the riverside, building a small house out of the palm fronds, a place that could comfort our collective, but the building wasn’t enough. Finally, on a scorching day as human-sculpted children, we decided we would learn how to swim. Our legs were growing thick and sturdy from our drifting and walks, and the longing in our throats and the need for purpose was collectively agreed to be a thirst for the waves.
The first step was watching the humans when they came to the riverside, examining how they moved in some parts of the water and strayed far away from others. How they stayed close to the shore most times, where their feet could reach the bottom and they didn't have to actually move in the water.
The times they did swim, it was only a dip in certain parts of the river, us holding our breaths as we saw their hands swing up and down, cutting through the water and coming back up, going back down. Repetitive. Beautiful. Ours.
We didn't let this desire stir for long, and when we were finally overcome with it we cast off our shoes and white gowns and jumped into the green depths. First Demanding hopped off into the water, followed by second in command, Who Tried to Demand but failed, and then we all hopped in. We knew the colour was wrong, knew it was tainted and made us feel both gracious and petrified. Knew that the water had only gotten worse. We came from the shores, lived by the banks. Water was our calling, and our hearts swelled at finally knowing purpose.
Are you not grateful to have removed those filthy garments? Is this not what you prefer? How will you allow yourself to be caged?
I winced whenever the voice came, but I'd adapted to it, finally relented and told myself it was something to flick away from the rest of my brethren and I’s days—a sort of problem. If it was only me that felt this, and if I was actually an error; that I had changed in birth or maybe our rebirth, since memories were intact when we came, then I would keep silent, not push my siblings away with this information. Secrets piled up like written texts, but I was strong, could handle this pressure.
Still, noticing its presence did not mean I could not fight.
I pushed it back.
When we entered the waters, we were lost, only having seen the process but never having tried it out ourselves. Hasty flapped in the water and Kind almost fell, but our bodies thirsted more and more, so we walked further into the river, moving to paths we hadn't seen any human go before.
We started drowning soon after. Coveted’s entire body sunk inside the river, their mouths opening and closing as the water pressed a powerful hand over their head, pushing them down, pushing them to black. We all cried in response, our drowning soon to start, our own legs not being able to touch the ground. Imagine that, coming into this world with purpose and then failing at what you were called to do. Then perishing, decay, and rot. We thought of it, fat green toilet flies perching over our useless bodies. Our tongues exercised insults over ourselves in both human languages of Bini and Esan, as well as the ones we arrived with. The water entered our lungs and we were vanishing, ending. Seeing that death was the colour blue, not black.
And in that particular moment, we swam, building ourselves, fighting. We kicked, kicked ourselves up till we were floating like all the broken glass we saw inside that river. Like the muck and filth that covered our bodies as we moved, followed by laughter, one mixed with relief and tiredness, like one wanted to sleep but go on.
The water, even as disgusting as it was, was a spring of life, and we never grew weary of dancing, playing in it. Kind loved to splash around at the shallow side, and I and Hasty were particularly fond of the deep end. It was the first time we all felt comfortable, enigmatic, and our existences felt important, that we were exquisite and special. We moved in the areas humans did not. We could dance in their corruption and still remain pure, and still remain great. Unchanged. Provoked and Demanding and Tried to be Leader all joined us to stay longer in the water, not just dipping ourselves in but lasting in it.
When the sun came down on us, falling away, we got out of the river, annoyed at the darkness that came but promising that tomorrow, and the day after that and all subsequent days, the water was where we would be.
And as I was coming out, my head turned for a second to see Coveted looking around like they didn't want anyone to see them, before taking with them a little part of the river, swallowing the water as if to hold the memories of the day. Another thing to keep to myself. I wondered how many of us were truly pure, not mistakes made, admiring Provoked and Demanding and Imitation, who all stuck together as one. I would make them my role models, aspire to have their grace and resolve in unity, even as I kept up my act. Family was too precious to lose over singular views.
It happened that when we brethren all went to ease ourselves for the day, Coveted went back again to the river alone. We were supposed to move together, go as one, and the little we took in shouldn't have caused our collective bowels to spur. The rest of us looked at each other, confused, but we did not say anything.
When we were in the waterways again, bodies meditating as we went underwater for longer hours each day, Coveted came out of the water before all of us, in the middle of the day. Our heads all turned to them.
“Why did you—”
Before one could speak, we saw that Coveted was sweating even as they had just come out of the water, their body looking pale as they dazed around for a bit, unstable, like they were going to fall.
“Sickness,” I said, just as they threw up, the specks of clear green-blue vomit falling near the banks and being dragged into the river. They clutched their belly again, dry heaving, sputtering as another thick cloud of puke came pouring out of it. We stayed away.
“Why would our brethren be sick and we would not experience this?” Imitation asked. I knew my place was to shut up. If I said anything about their greediness in taking home what should have stayed in the water, then I would be an outcast for keeping secrets. I could not lose my family.
Coveted took a minute, doing its best to hold themself, then confessed, looking at the waters instead of us. “Forgive me.”
“What are we to forgive you for?” Demanding replied. At this time, most of my siblings except Kind had lost all emotions; I felt pity—wanting to help one of my own in their state of vulnerability—but did not show it, convincing myself otherwise.
“I-I drank…the water.”
We remained silent after a while, and I felt something rising in my chest, till one of them, Demanding, stared at me straight in the eyes and told me:
“Sibling, thank you for teaching us the spirit of wrath, for it is needed in punishment.”
I nodded, though I taught nothing, studying the tense faces among my kin, then watched as one stepped up, walked to our sick brethren, and punched them in the face.
They fell to its knees, groaning and screaming in pain as my siblings kicked them, spat on their body. I was not the only one to wince, but the rest of them were as quick as I was to cover it up.
Demanding rubbed their knuckles, then stood in front of us. “Who is next?”
“Next?” I lost control of my tongue, my eyes widening. I had enough anger in me that came and went, but not for this. My shoulders tightened.
“Yes,” Provoked answered, with nothing but fire in their voice, but underneath the rage, there was some hesitancy. “For justice must be dispensed by all of us, because we must be angry at our own from straying from our path, mustn’t we? They surely did something, perhaps took something that carried the evil change of this ugly world, like they wanted to consume sins. Surely we must punish them for that?”
I noticed the way Provoked and Demanding and Second Leader shifted away from me again, eyes glancing at me, wary of my answer. They were trying their hardest to justify their wrath and I gave them no fuel, I had no answer. Hasty and Kind looked confused, as though they weren’t sure whether they would convene with the others to continue being our collective voice. I stood still, trying to do my best not to look in both directions, like I wasn’t actually considering an alternative to anger, a refusal in punishment. I joined my remaining brethren quickly, lowering my head as Second went to dispense justice, and my hands started to shake. What was I becoming? Each day I felt more like my own person with my own decisions, like I didn’t need my siblings, and it terrified me, sent ice down my spine. It was a sickness in itself, but it didn't show in the physical sense, and I felt a lump in my throat, thinking of how it could get worse, how it could destroy my family and our love, our blessed understanding of each other and our unity. Did I even know how others felt? Was my body so selfish that it only cared about what I thought about?
I couldn't remember what happened before I was born or reborn here, but I know of the thread amongst us kin, the interconnectedness of one mind and spirit. Back then, I was not a mistake. I did not fail in knowing the hearts of those I loved. I did not disappoint and keep secrets and disagree. This version of me that I was getting used to wouldn't allow anyone to love me. Who could love an error?
Or, I hoped, prayed: was it possible that this world was the mistake, an interruption on the peace once had? Looking at my kin, bruised and bloodied, the water spoiled and poisoned, the clothes caged and forced upon me, the slimy hands that touched me, it was becoming clearer that this world was evil, or it was not for me. Not for us, change slowly but surely affecting us.
I needed to go back, back to whatever it was that called me—called us—back to where my/our purpose laid, where there would be no rebellion of thought, no clash of beliefs. Staying here meant risking all I had, needed, becoming the river—no good adaptation.
When it was my turn to dispense justice, I made my mind blank then looked the trembling kin in the face. I positioned all my secrets and emotions bottled in, and I threw the punch, releasing them, breaking free. I made my brethren’s head turn. I made them look away before a tear fell from me. And this water that sprang forth from my eyes was the opposite of all we loved, emptying and painful. I couldn't hide it. My mind whirred with the thoughts of how much more violent we had become, how such a terrible spirit could lie within us.
When they saw me crying, my siblings did not disassociate themselves, but rather their eyes welled up too as they held me tight. We embraced each other—both Demanding and Hasty, Kind and Provoking, Coveted and Imitation and I, all of us. Our wails were louder than Coveted’s painful moaning, but it was something we all shared, that pain, even if it was in different forms. It was the only comfort, being in each other’s presence, reminding ourselves why we needed to stick together. We were all one and would always be, forever in our kingdom made of broken things.
We left Coveted there, trekking into the human village through the clear paths in the forest, our silence a calming wave that flowed within us. We studied the clean compounds and the palm oil streetlights, the beautiful red mud houses caked and built with thatch roofs before someone saw us.
“Why are you here?” A woman appeared, holding her daughter in hand, adjusting the red wrapper she was wearing.
“One of ours is sick,” we said simultaneously, but our voices fought each other, each of our individualities rising out through each sentence in a lap of raised voices. Demanding spoke first followed by Imitation and then hasty voice added in. Kind and then Provoked spoke soon after, and then I, but even with our messy choruses of voices, we were incomplete. We had left Coveted back, and we so desperately wanted them back in our arms, back to our warmth.
“Follow me,” she called, running to a hut. We entered, doing the best to find space in the small area; find the dark when the light covered it all.
The old woman in charge of the hut studied us. She had thick black hair and needed to spit before attending to our issue. “What is the problem?”
We spoke at different times with different accounts, each word clashing over another, accent fighting with each other, till we finally settled on a single story.
The woman gave us something for Coveted, a remedy made of oranges wrapped in medicinal leaves. We cradled it in our grasp with tender care, the grains of hope spread amongst all our collective beings. The eyes of the humans watched us as we went, each of their expressions so different from the other’s, but we did not care about them Our mind was only on our kin.
We gave our partner the medicine, and they didn't fight us because they wanted to get better, wanted to be healed, to cast away this error and begin anew.
After that, it was nothing but patience. Demanding rolled a tongue over their lip, then we all tried to do the same, darting awkward glances towards our brethren. Even the wind waited a minute with us. A minute.
Let us move faster. A month.
It did not work. Nothing worked. There was still pain, utmost pain, seemingly everlasting to our eyes. This crime, this greediness in taking what was not yours and could never be yours, would not forgive. It reminded our ears with every crouching pain of our loved one, the kind of suffering that should not only be theirs to bear but we didn't want it, didn't want to share this.
And in the loudest point of these wails, we were nothing. Not even the dark could find us in where we were hidden, in the forest, closer to the shrapnel-filled ground, merged with the night. When would it end?
The others’ faces hardened— Demanding and Imitation and Provoking. Mine did not, and neither did Kind, or the one who spoke hastily. Or was it the fact that my/our wall was slipping, falling, cracking; that the others had grown experts in their façade, but I, who invented the secrets, who innovated the concept of singularity in our family, was crumbling? Or was it me? I never did truly know if I was the first. It could be any of my other individual siblings.
Nevertheless, this was not disagreement of thought but of emotion. We, even in complex states of mind, knew this could not last. We had not been in the river in…time we stopped counting, anyway—our skins drier than our fluid-loosing kin, who was spewing out, expelling, vomiting out of every body part. When eyes became steel and we realized we could not vomit as well, we made them part of the waste.
Dropped. Inside the pit toilets we dug, inside the excrement and urine and discarded palm fronds, entrenched in the smell of it all, the odour of all the dead things around them.
Very soon, the odour of all the dead things was them. Manure, Imitation called them now, mixed in to join the soil and further curse the earth in all its wretchedness and filthiness. We didn’t dump them in the water, which was an all-consuming force, because we couldn’t let our brethren be tainted once more. Even the sand was cleaner than the whole world’s seas, we were convinced.
The memorial was held in the river, finally ours again, bodies filling up with joy and fluid, getting rounder and more pleasant.
There was this fear though, so we did not swim, only wading in the water, walking in it. The waterside, our home, was dangerous, dirty, an expanse that could kill us at any moment. We plastered on fake smiles, the lot of us, I believed, but it was not pure, not how it used to be. Nothing was.
It was the perfect moment to make my case.
“We should go back,” I suggested. No. I blurted it out, desperation thick as phlegm in my chest. How much longer till we realized all of us were mistakes? Did this family have to fall apart, loosen its strings, before we saw reason?
“Go back to where?” Demanding asked, rising like a leviathan. “We don't know this other space that well.”
Kind started, singing like a hummingbird. “Maybe it's the humans. Perhaps they know something, did something. Per—”
—I was about to cut in with my voice of hope, with my imagination, mentioning all the things we could build, all the things our hands could create, all the dreams finally realized as we made our next exit through some new negative space, making these threads to our other world—
Provoked chuckled, breaking my spirit. “Fool.”
The words struck my chest like a knife pierced against my heart. It made my body, unstructured and littered with human things, push back, fall in line. My eyes widened to thick plates, disks. If I opened them any wider, it would be a small river in front of us. The voice, the laugh; it screamed at me.
My opinion, this matter of our existence, our life and death, even after all the wrong turns that had snapped our heads back, made spiders dance in us, was foolish.
All heads turned. Five minutes. No words.
Hasty started, voice trying to be stern but shaky instead, the true intention not disguised but laid in front of us, the personal emotion present. “We do not insult—”
“Incomplete. There is no “we” if one of us is dead,” Imitation said, shaking their head.
“Am I a fool?” This was my first question, my voice hot, dangerous. This was the second anger, hidden underneath the pot, slowly cooking, building, fighting, making something of itself since the first time I spoke oneness onto myself. Imagine fighting yourself, your identity, fighting this life, trying to keep the balance, everything in place, but…no. No. You're a fool.
“We should clean it up. The river,” Hasty said, to bridge the tension, looking at me with wary expectation. The anger was still fresh within me, still wanted to break something, destroy, release anarchy like letting loose a million butterflies from my stomach. It had been too long a time of pushing things hidden, keeping things at bay, not reacting, not being me, only to nod, accept, agree. But Called Me Fool had changed the subject so I had to swallow it, force down the swirling black mass threatening to kill everything all the way back into the pits inside me.
“Is it our purpose to fix things?” Kind asked, so wide eyed and happy.
“We can try,” Demanding spoke, looking to the distance.
So this became duty.
The problem with purpose is that we were going about it the wrong way. We thought this world we landed in was meant for enjoyment, but we were the ones meant to pave the way for the blessings to come. And we got to work.
Glass filled up the river, and the river ate more than that, sucking in oil and palm fronds; all the dirt around surrounding the water like one big muddy puddle.
The humans helped us with equipment, like painted spears for piercing debris and brown sacks we took with us, picking up the little pieces of dirt on the banks before us, wiping the sweat off our faces. We jumped in the water and led mud catfish away from the glass bottles, as if to say, there are other places than these. It seemed, in each action we explored, there was new water for us to have, and this one was bitter, the taste forcing its way into our bodies each time it neared our dry lips.
The river was like lust; the feeling of concentrating on a goal when the temptation surrounded you, just aching for you to forget what you were doing and revel in the water. Our minds had to be snapped into place, eyes in one direction.
This world, in all its imperfections, was ours.
What was dirty, we struggled to make clean; improve it, refine it. The river got better, still consuming, but gaining a sort of patience, not taking everything in its path, with gentle laps across the banks. We took pride in our work, that we, in our collective strength, could better everything divided.
“Until it is ruined again,” a villager told us, when the humans gathered in the night, spitting into the soil. “The person that changes the water immediately after the catfish has finished feeding will surely change it again when they vomit all they have been given. The river will not change—it will only get worse. You lot did this work for nothing.”
At this, spiders writhed in our throats, our sense of purpose dwindling when, by the next month, the world looked the same again, like we hadn’t toiled and suffered and picked up the brokenness out of the dust. We went on still, like we could reverse the change of the river, role models in the way we had held on for ourselves. That we would rival toxicity and pollution again and again, through our perfection. Were we not whole, even though we doubted once or twice?
Our daily swimming regulations made us faster as we dipped ourselves inside to clean the river up little by little. The euphoria of the water was lost to us, but something, not better, but appreciated in its form, took its place. It was like drowning and kicking up, knowing you were surviving, living. Was that enough?
And day by day, we understood Coveted more and more. Comprehended their decisions in taking the water with them, and we made our peace with it. Some of us did, at least, I have to believe. Our hearts were strong, all of us, and it would not fail us when it came to agreeing.
Finally brethren, we had a pattern, we had structure. Our suffering was done. The plights, the tribulations, were over.
Or so we thought.
It happened, because how could it not? These things, ultimately, were inevitable.
One by one, the little pieces of us started to chip off, break away. The mistakes in us were too great for us to bear. We could not ignore, pretend, any more.
We were doing our best to clean up the world, slaving away each day in our space, resting in each other’s minds for comfort. We were finally doing it, making our own solution, fixing things ourselves and doing things no human could do, had done. We were special, here for something. It was more than survival, more than what we'd originally thought, and fulfillment surged in our bellies.
“I think…” Hasty looked at us, made us stop what we were doing, grabbing our attention the way the river grabbed us, loved us. “I think it's time to go.”
“Go where?” We all spoke, heads tilted to the side, bodies stiff.
“No,” they pointed at their chest; they were at peace now—haste no more. “Me. I'm going. There are larger bodies of water, and I think I want to see them. Yes.”
Our breaths stopped as we all backed away. I spoke first, something hard knocking in my chest. “One of us is already dead. We can't lose you. We love you, and you love us, and our presence should be everlasting, and…” I stopped. I was rambling and I had no points. Not to mention that they had this look in their eye, sort of glassy and starry as it stared at me, smiling, like nothing I said could change this decision.
Selfishness. Evil. Of all things, not only me, but others, who had known their differences, known their voices, had done to stay together, to keep this family pieced together. Of all things done, all the compromises made, all the clashing of ideas, none of us had done this. None of us had left. This was giving up. This idea was wicked. How could they do this?
How could it be so easy to just leave, to just go away? How could you think that it was ever okay to separate, to find yourself swimming on your own? How could you be alone with the shadows, by yourself? Who would love you? Who would love you?
How could you say that every sacrifice that was made to keep ourselves from drowning, all this kicking we'd done till our bones were on fire, dying with arthritis, pained and swollen; this never-ending movement, was useless? How could you do this to us?
You did it anyway. You were the first to notice the gap between us, the space we left for you, and embrace it, and leave us, and not come back to us.
Brethren, for the second time, we were empty vessels, dead inside.
This motion, this revolution; it was the end of us. Next was Kind, making up excuses, shifting themselves away, running in different directions. And these parts of us, fragments we created to form a whole, were all contributed by each of us, so it’s strange how we hated ourselves now; how greedy we had become that we could not bear to live without a single part of our whole identities, our freedom of self.
But it didn’t matter to my siblings. This was their liberation. Even Imitation had to admit there was doubt in their mind, and individuality in their throat, so they too had to cast off their garments and go on running. Wild children, running free, the tension they'd been holding released. Glowing, radiant, beautiful.
My hand couldn't stop shaking, heart couldn't stop pumping hard anger into every vessel, every valve. They were leaving, changing in human ways, promising to become the river if they were in this broken world alone: corrupt, tainted, full of trash, no values. The rest of us, the ones that stuck together—Provoked and Demanding and I--were minuscule, the smallest number, the smallest point.
When it was night, and the action had died down, we still sat by each other as hollow souls, sharing silence in the wind.
And hatred, I could see it in our eyes, all hardened and pained, confused and tired. So tired. What was the point of our existence? What?
“We should kill them,” Demanding spat, yet it was already supposed to be a collective spirit among us. Their voice was so serious, not even open to discussion.
“There were too many mistakes among us,” Provoked joined in. The two of them nodded, fists balled up at the sides. I was enraged too, my spirit hurting, like the pain would never subside in my chest. I could picture it: the bones of my free brethren crushed, eyes gouged and scooped out, skin torn from the seams. But they were in the wind. Happy. In their own true selves. And where was I? Why was I still here?
So I rose, so unsure of myself, stumbling, going forward. My brethren saw me and their faces held the highest level of judgement, the pain of release. I couldn’t stand it, turning my head as I went away once more, until I felt myself stuck in my tracks. Trapped. I stopped kicking, only because my brethren held me, like children tugging on cloth. Demanding and Provoking wrapped themselves around me like ropes ever-tightening, green snakes around my legs, grabbing onto every part of me. If they had to live in me parasitically, stab me open so I wouldn’t make the same mistakes, they would. Their eyes rattled and roared, anger building up like stacked trash in the river: something toxic and changed from the anger of evil, from wrath.
I wasn’t forced in my change, destroyed in my values. I wasn’t like the river at all.
I punched my remaining brethren in their faces. I heard their screams, Demanding’s shout and Provoked’s awful cry, then I felt their grasp unto me loosen, not like the tightness of my chest. I sweated and cried and raised my legs like I was all above the water. I settled in the singular space, then I looked back, because they were my family, once, and I understood their need for togetherness, but ultimately we could not work, and then I looked forward, like the rest of my individual, beautiful siblings, and all that stretched out to me was a world that could be what I made of it in the midst of constant tragedy, stretched out far past a green river that lapped up on my remaining brethren’s bodies.
And so I ran towards my liberation like the others before me, still stumbling, almost falling.