It was raining outside. The light patter of rain helped ease him out of sleep, but waking up at 2 a.m. to the sound of your little brother’s wracking coughs is never a pleasant experience. You never quite get used to it. Not even after four years. Selasi rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling for a while, to allow the sleep to fade, and to see if the coughing would abate soon, as it sometimes did. As his eyes adjusted to the moonlight filtering in from the cramped room’s only window, he mentally traced the pseudo-constellation of cracks and stippling in the ceiling, out of habit.
When was the last time he’d done this? He remembered how he used to imagine they were the features of a map that charted the geography of some other world, and how they eventually became so ingrained in his mind that until about a year ago, he would dream about all the fantastic routes and locales every other splotch and fissure represented. He’d created an entire mythology for the world in the ceiling, a myriad of conquering heroes who defied the gods of Mount Yimano (the dark, weirdly shaped watermark exactly above his head), slew the demonic legions of the Abyss of Nod-A-Ba (the deepest fissure in the plywood above), rescued fair maidens from the overgrown geckos of Dragon Ridge and carted them off to the Isle of Alafina (a curiously bare patch in the chaos of mottling), where they had their happily ever after, free from worry and strife and pain. He used to tell Edem his stories; he had lapped them up, his eyes wide as he tracked the heroes in the ceiling, whimpering when they found themselves in dire straits and giggling excitedly whenever they vanquished foes. Aunty Adjo had banged on their door more times than he could count to get them to shut up.
But that felt like a lifetime ago. He sighed and rolled back onto his side. With each passing day, every distortion in the ceiling had taken on a different symbolism. It wasn’t Nod-A-Ba he saw up above; he saw instead a reminder of the gutter Dad’s car had crashed into. Dragon Ridge instead now represented the daggers of impotent worry for Edem that kept him up most nights. Yimano was no longer the dwelling of the deities of some other world’s pantheon; it was the twisted blackness deep inside, to the right of his heart. He hadn’t slept on his back in a year.
Edem had stopped coughing. Selasi glanced over at him. He looked so small, curled up on his side like that, as though if he didn’t hold the pieces of himself together he would fall apart if he coughed too hard. Selasi looked away and tried to swallow the lump in his throat. The lump, however was indignant and refused to be merely swallowed away. He’d been planning this for the past few months. There was no point feeling guilty. Why was it so hard to breathe, then? He picked himself off his mat, pulled Edem’s covers a little higher over his shoulders and tiptoed toward the window. The lump did not approve his abandoning Edem and rose higher to express its outrage. He gritted his teeth and shut his eyes tight as he moved to jump out, tossing up a prayer for Edem’s safety. Aunty Adjo would take care of him. He would come back someday, he reasoned.
Halfway out the window, his heart exploded.
“Edem! What are you doing awake?” he exclaimed as he scrambled back inside.
“I was cold. What are you doing?” he asked in his small voice, sitting up as he spoke.
“I heard a weird noise and went to check it out,” he lied.
“Oh. I’m cold,” he whispered, pulling the covers tight around his frame.
Selasi rushed to his side, sat next to him and gathered him in his arms. He could feel Edem shivering. It wasn’t that cold, was it? He frowned, wondering if there wasn’t something else wrong.
“I’m only cold. I know what you’re thinking,” Edem said softly, his eyes half-shut as he leaned into Selasi’s chest.
Selasi was silent. He knew what he was supposed to say, but instead he reached for his own covers absently, draped them about his own shoulders and then wrapped them around Edem, cocooning them in cloth.
He worried for Edem, all the time. He had to. Aunty Adjo was old and would not be able to care for them much longer. She had her own brood to care for, and was becoming increasingly snappish and cold toward Edem and him. He’d realized this a while ago, but had instead chosen to clutch at distractions.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Edem tried again, his voice soft.
They hadn’t played this game in a long time. Why not indulge him just this once?
“How do you always know what I’m thinking, little bird?”
Edem looked up at him, a small smile on his face. He buried his face in his chest, as though to dig his way into his heart.
“I always do, because you’re easy. You love me and I love you, so I’ll always know you.”
Selasi sighed deeply. This had been something of a call and response they shared: I know what you’re thinking, Edem would say. How do you know? he would ask. Because you love me and I love you, Edem would reply, and that had always been enough for them.
“You haven’t called me little bird since you stopped telling me stories,” Edem said softly.
Unbidden, the memory of the last time he’d cared for a little bird came to Selasi.
It had been a rainy day, much like this one. He was from school, and right in his path was a tiny bird that had been caught out in the rain. He stooped next to the precious thing for what felt like hours, wondering what to do. The thing could barely move, its eyes half-shut. He carefully scooped it up, cupping it in his hands, holding it close to his body. He’d kept it close the rest of the day, whispering softly to it the whole time. Edem had been sleeping; he’d just got back from the hospital. Aunty Adjo hadn’t looked him in the eye that night, muttering under her breath the whole time. He hadn’t cared. He had two little birds to care for. He remembered how he’d agonized about keeping the bird safe through the night. Not knowing any better, he put it in an empty Nido tin and went to sleep.
The next morning the little bird was dead.
He pulled Edem closer, shivering at the recollection. He was not a good person. Every time he loved something, it died.
Edem continued talking. “I liked your stories. The blowman always won and beat the kakalikas, but then you became sad and wouldn’t tell me stories anymore. Then I was sad, ‘cause I didn’t know if you loved me anymore.”
Out of nowhere the lump returned, uppercut his eyeballs and left him choking back tears.
Edem didn’t know he was a bad person, that everything he loved died. He didn’t know about the bird; he didn’t know it was his fault Mum and Dad died, that they’d gone out to pick up his birthday cake.
The stories had been a distraction, something to think about other than the truth of what he was. He’d kept himself distracted with lies; what is a story, after all, if not a lie one was applauded for telling? He could no longer lie, he knew, but still he lied every day. That he was strong, for Edem. That he could handle things, for his sake. The lies were a tenuous web that held him together. Without them, he would fall apart.
“Sometimes I remember the way things were before, you know,” Edem said suddenly.
“Really, you do? You were so little.”
“I know, but I remember the way things felt. I remember things were simple. Mummy and Daddy loved me, and I loved them. And somehow, I still feel that way. Especially knowing I still have you.”
Selasi sighed again. He looked down at the top of Edem’s head, at the rise and fall of his small chest as he breathed softly, and knew he could never abandon Edem, could never stop loving him. He was a little bird out in the cold, and Selasi was all he had. He would just have to get it right this time. He would have to get it right.
“Hey, little bird, wanna hear the story of how Tanarak slew the Priest-King of the mountain-eaters?”
Edem’s eyes lit up, and he nodded excitedly.
He was tired of telling lies. But maybe, just maybe, love was not the lie he thought it was.
Maybe it was the light in an eight-year old’s eyes. Maybe it was truth.