My parents’ home, it is dusk time, and I am climbing to the attic. I settle on my childhood’s sofa, whose unraveled corners reveal its faded and lumpy stuffing. The wooden armrests are dark and bear the scratchy marks of little hands. I contemplate these blemishes, set bright against the deep, brown planks, and am reminded of my past. A light ray meanders diagonally across the carpet. The air is Flemish. The fitting light, the shades, the atmosphere.
There is a watercolor on an easel of a thickset forest with towering and murky trees. A carriage frozen in a clearing, a burly driver, looking towards nowhere, as though there’s nothing left to see. No light, no shadows, just a black-singed mass of foliage and an incandescent, sallow horse.
My little brother lies bleeding on the rug. Two gory rivulets, two injured wrists, delineate a perfect circle. They cross his ashen palms and waxen, twitching fingers. It may be a call for help but I have been hard of hearing.
I crouch beside him and inspect the wounds. They are shallow but profuse. Red pain has broken past his skin, his face is wrinkled. I wipe him gently, trying not to hurt.
He stares at me, eyes of a gammy colt awaiting the delivering shot. He radiates the kind of gloom that spans the room and makes me giddy. I cower to my heels, then squat beside him, caressing his silent scream. My palms are warm.
We while the time. His frothy exhalations, my measured air inhaled, our lungs entwined in the proliferating density. The volumes of my childhood mob the shelves, their bindings blue and rigid.
I look at him and tell him it’s alright, he shouldn’t worry. A mere nineteen, he gives me a senescent smile and nods in frailty. He grasps it all, too much. Shortly, I may have to lift him in my arms and set him on the couch. We are not alone. Echoes of people downstairs. I can’t tell who. Mother, our sister, Nomi perhaps. Someone arrives and sparks excited speech and lengthy silences.
I descend the steps, some hasty greetings, I stuff a roll of coarse, green toilet paper in my pants. Back to the horror, to frisk around the crimson wreckage. I wipe my brother wrathfully from floor and carpet and from couch, reducing him to a ubiquity of chestnut stains. I am not content. He is writhing on the inlay, attempting tears. It’s futile, I know. We both forgot the art of crying, except from torn veins.
The light is waning. The brown blinds incarcerate my brother behind penumbral bars. His bony hands and scrawny body in stark relief. It is the first time that I observe him truly. He is lanky but his face unchanged. I was no child when he was born but he is still my little brother.
He is resting now, eyes shut, our lengthy lashes – both mine and his – attached to fluttering lids. Birds trapped in quivering arteries flap at his throat. He is sobbing still but I avert my gaze, afraid to hug him. We oscillate, like two charged particles, my little brother and myself. His arms by his side and my arms by his side, divergent. I thrust into my bulging pocket a ball of ruby paper.
There is a clock in here that ticks the seconds. They used to sound longer. It was another time. The hemorrhage stopped. A mournful lace of plasma on his sinewed wrists. It must have hurt, the old corroded blade, no flesh, just coated skeleton. To saw the bones till blood. To hack the skin, to spread it like a rusty butterfly, dismantling slithery vessels. I move to occupy the wooden ladder back, near the escritoire that I received as gift on the occasion of my first year in school.
He nods affirmative when asked if he can rise. I hold him under hairy, damp armpits. I confront him, seated on my grandma’s rocking chair, a cushion clad in Moroccan equine embroidery on my knees. I gently hold his hand and he recoils. I didn’t hurt him, though.
I wait for him to break, his hand in mine. Thus clenched, our palms devoid of strength, we face a question and a promise, the fear of pain and of commitment. We dwell on trust.
He unfists and bleeds anew. I use the paper ball to soak it up. It’s dripping. I gallop down the spiral staircase and collect another roll, adhesive bandages, and dressing. Into my pocket and, speechlessly, I climb back. He is sitting there, a Pharaonic scribe, wrists resting on his knees, palms lotus flowers, but upturned. His gifted painter’s fingers are quenched in blood.
I mop and dab, swab and discard, apply some pressure and erase. My brother is calling me in sanguineous tongue and I deface it, incapable of listening, unwilling to respond.
I bind him and I dress and he opens his eyes and gapes at the white butterflies that sprouted on his joints. He feels them tenderly, astonished by this sudden red-white beauty.
I count his pulse and he gives in to my pseudo-professional mannerisms. His pulse is regular. He hasn’t lost a lot of blood, therefore.
He tells me he is OK now and asks for water. All of a sudden, I remember. One day, he was a toddler, could hardly walk, I led him back from the clinic. He gave blood and was weeping bitterly. A giant cotton swab was thrust into his elbow pit and he folded him arm, holding onto it tightly.
One jerky movement, it fell and he stood there, gawking at the soiled lump and whimpering. He was so tiny that I hugged him and wiped the tears from his plump cheeks.
I improvised a story about “Adhesa Cottonball”, the cotton monster, who forever wishes to return to the soil, her abode. His eyes cleared and he giggled nervously. This sound – his chuckle – is in my ears, obscuring all real-life acoustics.
He gulps down the water silently, his eyes a distant blackness, where no one treads but he, his forest, among the trees, perhaps this carriage and its attending coachman. Where does he want to go, I wander?
My brain is working overtime. My skull-domiciled well-oiled machine, whose parts are in metallic shine, impeccable, unerring, impervious to pain. Machines don’t ache this brother, sprawled on the couch, his shoulders stooping, in torn shirt and tattered trousers, my erstwhile clothes, his chest hirsute, his face adorned with budding beard and whiskers.
What story shall I tell him now to clear his eyes? How shall I make him laugh again? What monster should I bury in the sand?
I tell him to pack few things and come with me. He acquiesces but still won’t budge. His twin wrist-butterflies are quite inert. He sighs as he buttons his shirt and rolls unfastened sleeves to cover his abrasions. When he gets up I see him as before: a gangling figure, an angular face, two cavernous sockets, big brown mole. He drags his feet.
We both descend. Don’t tell our parents, he begs, I promise not to. Enters his room and exits fast, carrying a small plastic bag with severed handles. A pair of worn jeans spill from the top to cover some half-deleted lettering.
We bid farewell and walk placidly to the car. He freezes on the back seat, still cradling his plastic treasure, gazing forward but seeing little.
Nomi is driving while I watch him through the windshield mirror. His inanimate stare, directed at the window, is deflected by transparence. Slumped on the imitation leather seat, he and his trousers bump from one side to another on the winding road.
He falls asleep this way, sack closely clutched, chin burrowing into his hollow torso. At times, he shakes his head in stiff refusal. He is very adamant. Only his hands are calm, as though detached from his rebellious body.
Nomi is negotiating the parking and I touch his shoulder. He opens a pair of bleary eyes and looks at me like he used to when I was still his entire world. I touch once more and gently. When he was two years old , I left home for many years, never to be heard from. The hurt resides still in his eyes, that injury.
I touch a third time, thus pledging to remain, thus telling him my love. I study him at length and he does not divert his eyes.
Suddenly he smiles and dimples collect around his lips. He flings his hands high up and waves his red-white butterflies. He imitates their flight. He plucks their wings. He laughs and I respond by laughing and Nomi joins and the space of our car is filled with laughs and butterflies and butterflies and laughter.