Conjunctions:45 Secret Lives of Children

Birth of a Brother
Sometimes I stay home from work without any excuse. When I return, I act sullen. 
      My boss thinks I’m an alcoholic. But I’m not. I stay home to read. I spend days on the web. Even though jobs are hard to come by.
      I know as much as any doctor. Early on, I read the books and spent a year helping out—even with the surgery—in a refugee camp. And a month in an orphanage. 
      I’m overqualified for most things. I have a hunger for information. Unlike most people.


You’ve seen the place I come from in the news. And you think you know someone from my country, and would want to associate me with him, especially if he’s friendly and works in a service industry. Even if I’m from a different place altogether, you confuse us.
      I’m friendly and of service to many. I need to be something other than that.


I was fired again today.
      Or yesterday.
      The phone rings and my answering machine picks up. It’s my (former) boss, his voice angry, lecturing. I turn down the sound.
      My situation is partly my fault, and partly not.


I have a brother. If I could know him my life would be different.
      Maybe I never will. 
      His name may have changed. Mine has.
      When last I saw him, he was an infant. I have to guess how he might look today.
      Sometimes I see a child on the street, and it reminds me of him. As if I grew up with him, and had pictures of him in my mind, at every age.
      I know facts about my country that I never knew when I was young: the heights of mountains, the extremes of climate. The quaintness of public health conditions. The lack of infrastructure. The politics, local and international.
      Facts alone, though, are alienating. 


When you’re seven and an only child, is the birth of a brother something to fear?
      When I learned my mother was pregnant, I built a little swing and hung it from the tree in the front. My mother cut it down. She said it looked like a noose.
      It didn’t. It couldn’t have.
      But we had all lived for generations in a culture of fear. Maybe it was like we might stick out, provoke something. In that climate, a child’s toy might be seen as hostile. By a different side. By our side. By your own mother, a paranoid.
      There were sheets and tiny clothes freshening on the line. My mother nesting. But so little was said. Maybe there was more danger in imagination, or even anticipation, than we thought. 
      But left to my own devices I imagined the baby as birdlike. And shortly before he was born, began to hoard crumbs. I hoarded them on an old scarf on a sill, where they were kept warm and dry by the sun. I’d lean my elbows on the sill and smell the faint anise rising from them. My stomach was always a little empty.
      That was when there was a way to be at peace with our relative poverty.
      I think of myself back then as a good brother, a preview of a good father to come.
      Where was my father? Often gone. When he was home, he’d tell me that I should be more religious; whether that meant like him or not, I never found out. His eyes would take in the childish details of my life without interest. I’d kneel and pray with him on our little mats, and before and after there would be some scented water for washing our hands. Our family, the three of us, would enjoy a meal together. My mother, her body a festooned tent, would brush against him when she served him, and I could see how obdurate his jaw remained, unsoftened by her.
      I was always attracted to his rifle, leaning against the wall, and when he’d see me eyeing it, he’d let me point it out the window and pretend to squeeze the trigger. He said that soon he’d take me out to shoot at things.
      Rarely, he brought home game, which we roasted on a spit.
      I understood that when he was away, I bore enormous responsibility. Now I can interpret the sensations of weight and fear. At the time I thought only that I should strive to be better. And even now, reconsidering that time, I’m conscious of a raw feeling behind my eyes. The feeling that for a woman would be tears, and for a man is like the strain of focusing through crosshairs for hours with no one to kill on the horizon.
      But what am I really trying to tell you? 
      That my childhood memories are like yours. The first experiences of basic things. Sunlight and shadows, dust. Domesticity. The alphabet. Prayers. Novelty that is pleasurable. And discovery. And anxiety arising from being so very small.
      Everything begins as a wonder. Birth in particular, nature in general. Certain mornings the yellow flies would pepper our windows with X’s, their paired bodies locked at the legs and tails. The heads of baby birds popped grotesquely from their tiny nests. Change in nature comes with the shock of portent, of communication from elsewhere. My brother’s birth should have confirmed this shock, this wonder. But he was overshadowed. His first cries were inaudible over the tanks.
      My father was away, fighting. Our village was under attack. The house shook, and my mother was in heavy labor and surrounded by women. I didn’t cry. I sat in a puddle of urine.
      By the time the shelling stopped, he’d been bundled and put to my mother’s breast. The women stayed around them. It was a matter of debate whether his tiny spirit would remain, when the souls of so many were leaving like a wave that had to be struggled against. But when it seemed safe to go outside they rose to leave.
      My mother, with her angry tenderness, told me to go help them tend to the maimed and dead.
      It was like that. The world was unhinged like that. Or at least my mother was. They took her suggestion in stride, and insisted that I was too young, and told her to look at me, that I had to stay home and help her, that I would be much more useful that way.
      So I did. 
      There was far-off wailing. Or maybe I imagined sounds, or imagine that I remembered sounds.
      I was deeply useless. I remember changing my clothes, and balling up my wet pants, and throwing them into a corner.
      Night fell.
      At one point, my brother woke and gave a squawk. I took him to my mother. He was solid and warm in my hands. 
      Her face had been beautiful, with smooth cheeks and the blackest irises. Even in the dark, I could see the change. The hard lines of pain repulsed me. Fruit pit! I thought, Monkey’s brain! That was how she struck me.
      After a while they seemed to give up on each other. She left him in his basket and we slept.
      In the morning, I woke up and crawled over to him to see if he was still alive.
      He was more furred than haired. Even his back and butt were covered. He was a rodent to poke at.
      She swooped down on me and snatched him up and shoved me to the floor. 
      So I learned to not indulge my curiosity. I brought him water from the pump. Someone thought to leave us rice and fruit. 
      After a few days, my mother stopped weeping when she tried to nurse him. Some of the women came by and talked to her, and brought more food, and shook their heads. I don’t know what she asked them. I didn’t get the sense that she asked questions to which there were answers. They treated her as something to be quelled. She wrung her hands. I pulled at her and she pushed me away.
      After they left, she paced our one room, and into the street and back again. She muttered to herself for days. She sat on her bed. Her hair was wild.
      My brother got stronger. He had a commanding cry.
      She picked him up or more often ignored him. Then, as if the cries were penetrating from a great distance, she’d turn her head towards him, gazing with a glassy lack of urgency. Sometimes she cried, and then stopped.
      I must have been too terrified to ask for explanations. Though even now, I remember the events as very natural.
      My father didn’t come home. Where was he? I still blame myself for some aspect of what was going on. Like I’d been too cowardly. Or for knowing too little. Or something.
      One morning, my mother left. I watched her, a bead on the path, merging with other beads in the distance. I remember a flutter of feminine headdresses. 
      It wouldn’t have been so bad if I could have run away as well. But now I had responsibility for my brother. And he cried, almost the entire time she was gone. And I have no idea how long that was.
      I could see the line of ruined houses not too far away in the distance.
      Where had she gone? I think now to talk to the women to find some sort of perspective on her desperation. Logically, it couldn’t have been very long. 
      She returned with a sliver of dried meat, her face emptied out. She nursed my brother and there was a silence, which rang in my ears.
      The next morning she left again. She said she had work to do. Did she read my blankness as anger? She told me I was to watch him. She gave me no instruction as to what that meant.
      I don’t know where she went. If she had been with the women, they would have given her food and sent her back to us.
      Beyond that there was nowhere to go. Nowhere safe. That’s what I thought then and that’s what I think now.
      Was she haunted by pity for my brother and me? I don’t know. I don’t experience our helplessness as having registered. It’s not unheard of, the mother leaving the litter. She might have been searching for our father. How would she have gone about that? It was more like she had died. That was how it felt.
      I took it upon myself to care for my brother. I made the noises that were in my repertoire of baby-soothing sounds. I said, “Sh-sh-chook!” and “Huyeebi!” Neither worked. My brother cried. 
      I tried shaking his hands. I was exhilarated by the way he held my fingers. But the screams—!
      Children experience torment differently. They’re in a mental place that follows no rules of logic or time.
      But this is what I see now of then: magpies visiting our sills. The sun, a benevolence, arcing in the sky. The pomegranate tree. Sunlit squares of grace floating across our floor like creatures from another dimension.
      Perhaps that place in the mind is a psychotic place.
      So I’ll never understand suffering.
      He cried and cried and cried.


A normal infant would have died. I’ve seen it happen since, in the orphanage. The rage is a toxin that weakens the cries until a deep sleep ensues. The first stage of death.
      But my brother drank his own rage.
      That’s as literal as I can make it.
      How could I have known how strong it made him? 
      At one point I tried to give him water. He choked. So I dipped a cloth and wrung drops into his mouth. He worked his lips together, and I felt powerful. But then he resumed his screaming.
      My crumbs. I tipped them into his mouth, dusting him all over. He quacked and stuck out his tongue. Then he continued, louder than before. 
      I must have subsided then into a helplessness, and sat in a corner.
      A black bee the size of a bird entered and vibrated blindly back and forth, seeking exit. Goats walked past our open door. Shadows lengthened.
      I don’t know how to put this. The sound of my brother was the reality against which the outside world was a vision of the divine. 
      I may have broke. I began to think in the logic of his thoughts. I was only a child.
      I heard patterns, understood the foundations of emotion. I heard the symphonic. His lungs had teeth that ate at my heart.
      I tore my hair and clothing, and bit my own hands, for him, and for myself.
      I still had hopes of quieting him. I rocked him. I stuck a finger into his mouth. Replaced it with my thumb. My penis. 
      I urinated into his eyes. Pinched and punished him. Shook him.
      There was no question of killing him.
      Which suggests that there was. I was seven years old. 


Even today, on top of social incompetence, I have these rifts in my—mentation—that I’ve described online. A Chinese attributed them to an excess of heat. A Buddhist healer to a perturbation of the soul. A New York neurologist to a forme fruste of temporal lobe epilepsy.


Things come to me about my brother. Thoughts that I would identify as memories, but others have called deranged conclusions. 
      Because my brother’s survival is a wonder. 
      It has a grandeur. It comes to me periodically that he is an immortal, or a messiah.
      I was three feet tall; he was only seven pounds. He had the power to change destiny, for his own had been transformed in the moment when he—who would have, should have died—somehow fed on rage and lived.
      I prostrated myself before him as I had seen villagers do before wandering holy men. 
      I was a small boy lying on a dirt floor, panic-stricken, a crying baby his only link to the human. 


Everything I know of the desert, I learned in that room with him. Everything like: the clearest of nights, the absence of water, removal to another plane. The presence of wind, heat, a confusion of the senses. Cold currents of air that make ice on the tongue.
      I didn’t eat myself. (It would have been a relief to.) 
      We seemed to be traveling through a string of desert nights and days.
      I dreamed he knew how to outwit the tortures of the sun. He divined the presence of a cave within which flowed a miraculous trickling stream.
      I dreamed he allowed us to journey like hibernating animals sustained by the tiniest thread of life. So that we found the trajectories of all objects, and the way their lethal momentums were latent within our minds. 
      We were armed.
      His voice was a thousand-piped organ. A bellows. We were monsters of dehydration.


We became part of a vast army, composed of the living and the dead. Dust clouds swirling like worlds above it. I can’t say, exactly, what we rode. And I was afraid. And he wasn’t.


You think I’m ashamed? You think I’ll rush to defend the way my mind is not like yours?
      You’re not convinced of what I experienced with him.
      But haven’t we all encountered similar visions? In holy texts, and others? There’s a space in the soul for visions. That’s how my brother and I, living our lives among men and women who spoke of nothing, could experience what we did. 
      Americans, on the other hand, play out their visions on two-dimensional screens, or in other countries far removed from their homes. That’s why they’re envied, and evoke horror.


It would have made sense if my brother and I had died, and the story ended there. But now I’m almost American. And this is how it happened.
      My mother and my father returned home within hours of each other. 
      In America self-important youngsters accuse parents of deserting them when the parents have simply been at their entertainments or jobs. This sort of anger is like the buzzing of insects. 
      We were serene as sandblasted cliffs. We were emptied cathedrals of reverence and love.
      So our parents were back. I was beaten for something. After he was nursed, he again cried and cried and then, amazingly, slept.
      Weeks later my father was killed by a landmine. And my mother died too, of septicemia from an infected uterus. I remember a bad smell. I remember her washing pus from rags.
      We were orphans. 
      We had distant relatives situated to help.
      I was sent to school in a neighboring country, and on weekends lived with my mother’s cousin, a shopkeeper there. My brother was sent to a mountain village to be nursed by an even more distant cousin, who had a boy only a few days older. They had a flock. My brother would be weaned to sheep’s milk and cheese.
      There I lose the thread.


I attended university. I immigrated here. I lead a secular life, and sometimes assist physicians and sometimes teach middle school. Briefly I tried to write poems, and found an emptiness when I listened for the music I thought I’d known. Where had it gone?


My passion is to scour the Internet for news.
      I read online journals. Though I’ve learned to mine the blogs, and will pore over cryptograms, and oddly-riddled texts from home.
      I read about a leader who excelled in the guerilla warfare of the steppes, and won followers to his messianic ideals. He died at twenty-seven, thrown live into a mass grave with his men and buried by rocks. He had my brother’s name.
      When I read that, I was tortured by guilt. Crushed by memories of my inability to soothe and quiet him, and other failures. 
      Then I read of another of the same name, who rose to prominence at the side of a reprehensible zealot whom he plotted to overthrow. He was executed by drowning. 
      I was sinking: Hadn’t I, by muffling his cries, both weakened and subordinated him? What kept me from suicide?
      And then when a relative wrote that possibly my brother had changed his name—in an act of devotion exchanged names with his adoptive big brother—and had been schooled in a monastery—I was frantic with jealousy and hope. 


The green has returned to our hills where I went to search for my brother. I rented a small motorbike, and, bundle on my back, I wandered. The roads were pitted and dusty. Everything and nothing had changed. The colors of skin, of hair were a lover’s embrace. 
      I did come upon a shepherd, younger than me. Beneath the grime, his hair, his build—his face—resembled mine. His eyes dreamed. He was a simpleton. Neither he nor anyone could—or would—give me his name.


But in my loneliest hours and days and nights there’s a music. Sometimes I discern it faintly in texts, which my software barely handles. The incompatibilities erupt in bizarre symbols, alien punctuation, which I ignore.
      I search the name of the adoptive brother—now my brother’s name. They say he’s a man of the cloth, and leader of a cadre. He belongs to a sect that abjures sexual relations. And yet he’s fathered sons, whom he openly and with impunity acknowledges. The sons have assumed positions of authority and violence.
      I’ve found and read his writings: musical, visionary, inflammatory. I’ve been as if in a trance. Of reunion, and envy. And love.


I live alone in a studio in Queens, New York. Tomorrow, I’ll go to the agency and ask for another job.
      The ecstasy fades. Religion and war, power and meaning. The illusion of family fades.
      I’ll continue to support myself in a life in which I’ll commit no murders
      I have no children. I have no children. Sadly—predictably—I never will.