A lilac-throated roller comes down from the branches above to the grass where we sit underneath the acacia tree whose flowers are red like a turaco's crest. The blue sky misses the absent clouds. The soft wind caresses my face, and I slowly close my eyes,
"I saw a lot of worried faces at the workshop," his pleasant voice interrupts the silence of the savanna. My now wide open eyes follow his voice towards his sunburnt neck, "I think it's official," he continues. "Victoria must've ordered our relocation to make more farmland."
"Is that such a bad thing?" I ask in return, but he ignores me and rambles on. I could try to hear his opinion on the matter, but I would much rather continue to admire the raw beauty of the green grass fields in front of us. A lone okapi jumps out of the tall grass. At first, seeing its striped legs, I thought it was a zebra. It thrashes about, "Yusuan," I call his name with trembling lips. He looks at it right away, putting an end to his rant. The okapi stops moving and falls on its side like a heavy tire. Our horrified eyes are set on a young lion mutilating the poor animal. It grabs hold of the okapi's neck and flails it like a flag. Another innocent cub pops out of the grass and injects its fangs into the carcass. The morbidly cute animals don't pose much of a threat on their own, but the incoming parent or even parents are certain death, so we sneak away through the dense grass field in perfect synchrony. I instantly look around with every acute roar. It's like a thousand needles are tickling me. We make it to a quiet clearing at the edge of the forest. Yusuan, alert as ever, never took his eyes off the spot we came from. I look around unsure if I really want to find the animal we're watching out for. Though I can't say the same for him, the heat and adrenalin channeling inside me is something I've only ever felt once before. Years ago my brother and I were climbing up a mountain. As we were reaching the top, my sweaty hand slipped from the rock, and I lost my grip. My brother caught me just in time, and I felt a pit moving up from my stomach to my chest. This looks like it might just play out the same. Our chances are better together, a bit dark, but right now there's nothing else I can think about. His breathing sounds like a locomotive engine, and I'm no better. The trees behind us utter crunching noises. I immediately turn around and catch a glimpse of what hides in the tree line. I breathe out my worries when another person comes out. His thick eyebrows become visible as he escapes the shadows of the canopy. It's my brother, Hatsh. His amber eyes bear a cold gaze. Him and I are the only ones with such light eyes. Mine are green like our mother's.
Yusuan gives out a deep exhale. "Thank the heavens! We thought you were a lion."
I face the ground with my hands resting on my knees, and then shamefully look up at my towering brother with a mark of disappointment as clear as his eyes,
"Our father has been waiting for you back at the farm for hours. What are you two doing out here?"
Yusuan freezes from Hatsh's stare, but a smile forms on my face when he speaks up. "We wandered off into the field after we were done gathering. I'm sorry. I promise you it won't happen again-"
"Why were you gathering with her? She's supposed to come here alone."
I'm abruptly reminded of the lions by the big scar running across my brother's right arm. Yusuan, powerless, resorts to keeping quiet,
"Hatsh," I try to bargain with my brother.
"No no, Hathor," Yusuan valiantly steps forward from his anchored stance like a cautious panther, "it's alright. Truth is I promised to meet her here, so we could spend the day together."
Hatsh's stoic expression is unfazed, "We were safe until the lions appeared. She can't keep coming out here by herself! She needs someone to protect her."
"She can watch herself when she's gathering herbs. Whenever she needs protection, I'll be there."
"What was that?"
I wish for a lion to appear now more than ever.
Yusuan stares impotently at my brother. "Understood."
I breathe out a strain of relief once it's all over,
"We're going now," Hatsh tells us as he turns back around towards the forest. I'm taking the last step to enter the tree line, "Go home. I'll walk her."
Every single guy who's nice to me always quits trying after the first week because Hatsh threatens them if they so much as look at me funny. When we're out the savanna, I see our large, clay home,
"Why did you do that!? There were lions nearby, and you felt it was the best time to just stand there and scold us?" My desperation breaks out in an angry scream. The cracks in my voice don't seem to tell my brother how upset and unsafe I felt. The flailing of my hands don’t bother him in the slightest. "Hatsh, you can't attack every guy who approaches me. You're going to have to respect Yusuan. He's done so many good things to help our family! The least you can repay him is some due respect."
His silence makes me hopeful,
"Like I said, our father has been waiting for you. He's very worried. That's why I went out to get you, and I might have to do it more often."
I should’ve known better. I'm speechless, disappointed, not because our father has a genuine concern, but because even after seventeen years, my brother can't find something to do with his life, so he chooses to live mine, "Go on. He's still waiting you."
Despite being twins, our connection seems broken. His eyes don't glow anymore when they see my own full of tears. With the sun nearly set on the horizon, I make my way into a house full of darkness. For some reason neither of them switched any lamps on. A certain emptiness makes the dark tangible and heavy like an empty stomach. In the corner of his tiny room sits our father, facing the blazing sky outside through the squarish hole in his wall,
"I wondered when you'd be back. Has your brother come back too, or is he also missing?" That voice of reason you don't immediately recognize as such resonates within me,
"He's here, papa. I'm sorry I made you worry. I was spending time with Yusu-"
"Bring your brother in here." His bluntness makes me uneasy. "There's something urgent I have to tell you," he snaps me out of it, and I hurry towards the door.
Hatsh walks through it. “What do you need to tell us?”
I stand here with every hair on my body standing and every pore stretching because for the first time, our father didn't care about whatever we were doing outside,
"Hathor, Hatshep, listen to what I'm about to tell you. It won't be easy to hear."
Is he sick? Did someone threaten him!? We want to ask him, but we stay quiet, waiting for him to say it, "This place is your home. Everyone here calls you family. I'd have to die before taking that away from you," he pauses, "but I can't allow myself do nothing when I see your future at risk." Hot air exudes from his nostrils. "I accepted a gracious offer from the delegates of Zone Two."
"The people from Beralta?" My brother asks him with a tint of dismay.
"Yes," he answers with a pained voice, but there's no remedy better than honesty.
“What is it?” I ask. My brother laughs at my question.
Our father looks at me with an open jaw ready to speak, but it takes a few moments for him to do so. “We are leaving the farm. We’re leaving Zone Three.”
"And you couldn't have told us before? I think that decision deserved to be made together." Hatsh whimpers. "What if Victoria has much better opportunities for us? What if Hathor is admitted at their university? We could finally live without a single worry and help our people join us there."
I don’t know what’s stranger, our father telling us we have to move or Hatsh defending my dreams. He must've said that to persuade our father,
"Papa..." my mind tries to find a way around this, but in the end this place is not our only option nor our best one, "if you're certain then we'll follow."
He gives me a warm smile, that same one I always love seeing. Hatsh disappeared from the room, so I turn on the lights and go outside to search for him. He's standing in the middle of a clearing before a giant, fiery sun that burns the sky with red clouds, "You should really listen to him," I tell him as we watch the sunset together. The clouds start to turn a deep purple,
"Neither of you have any idea what it's like to feel so..." he looks the other way, "trapped."
What does he mean by that, and why wouldn't he take the chance to leave this place when he feels so trapped here?
"Then tell us. How else will be understand?"
His eyes brighten up for a second, and he motions his lips as if he's fighting the words coming out of his mouth. "Do you not see what's happening? First our entire region is emptied and sent to live in poverty at the gates of Victorian comfort, and now Two decides to give us a spot in the best of farms."
"We're the most profitable farm around. Of course they would pick us! They're just doing what they have to do in order to survive. Plus there's no guarantee that I'll ever make it in Victoria. Why let this slip when you can have the best life you're being offered, besides, what's so wrong about Zone Two to you?"
"Other than being a copy of Three that exploits their already famished population, not much."
"You don't know what you're saying."
"You do?" He chuckles, "You want to leave our people to starve here while we go and grow food for people we have never known."
I can't take his stubbornness any longer,
"How can you be so arrogant!?"
He turns to look at me slowly, "Forget about me! Our father doesn't deserve to be treated this way. He gave everything up for us, for you! Accepting this offer with him and living a great life is the least you could do for him."
He seems startled. Maybe I went too far, but how does he expect me to agree with his words when all he says are complaints? When the moon above marks midnight everyone is already asleep, everyone except for me. I sit alone in the balcony. Having the stairs to it outside may not the most convenient feature, but without it I wouldn't get such a wonderful view of the mountainous forest at these hours. Yusuan always spoils me with flowers or a beautiful seashell that he brings all the way from his uncle's beach house. Tonight there is no such gift. There's only the usual nocturne of the calm maize fields, the black sky swarming with countless specks known as stars, and who could forget the moon? It floats alone in the darkness with no one else for four hundred thousand kilometers. I jump out of place when Hatsh decides to sneak here without a warning. He sits down next to me with crossed arms and legs and joins my star gazing.
The silence is strong until he breaks it without even looking at me. "I just wanted to say that I'm sorry."
"You don't have to apologize to me for anything. Just go and tell our father how you feel."
My eyebrows rise, "He says he understands my part of it, but..." he takes a moment to sigh away the nuisance, "he's made up his mind, and I have too." He runs back inside. I lie down on the hard floor with nature's most beautiful ceiling over my head and close my eyes. The second they open, a burst of sunlight flares hot like an oven in my face. I try to go back to sleep even though my back is killing me, but the sudden happy sounds of laughing children echoes in my head until I get up and see it for myself. A pair of colorful dresses roams the nearby grass fields. They’re women by two mothers who carry their babies on their backs. Toddlers stumble in the mud, and older children play in the clearing with a rubber ball. I rush down the stairs like a child without a care and run free alongside them,
“Do you want to play?” A tall boy with long hair invites me to join their match, so I hurry to take the ball and start kicking it around the clearing until a determined girl steals it from my feet as swift as a gazelle. I circle back to her and take it from her feet with more kids following behind me. I finally kick it out of the clearing and declare myself winner of this nonsensical game by screaming out in joy, all with the biggest smile painted on my face. What a great way to wake up. I run back inside the house. This time everything is brightly lit as opposed to yesterday,
No response, "Hatsh?" Nowhere to be seen. They could only be at the marketplace. I head off for the center of the village. Kingunza, one of the last remaining Bakongos, collects seeds from the dry path while covering herself in a red blanket. It's another productive day it seems. People are still buying and selling at their stores, but my family isn’t here. Yusuan passes running right beside me. I follow him into the meeting hall for the village leaders and completely lose track of him, but here I find my family,
"We can't let Victoria treat us like plebeians! We feed their big mouths by working tirelessly day and night over and over!" A voice exclaims from the crowd.
"That's right. They depend on us!" Another follows, then another, until the cries of people trying desperately to be heard by their leaders fills the hall,
"And we depend on them!"
Suddenly the whole room goes silent. The people quell as the chief rises up from his chair. "Without the Victorian army defending our villages from the wild beasts and pests, we would be starving. Yes. We grow their sustenance. Yes. We herd their cattle. Despite this we are not self sufficient. Those who are old enough will remember that when the world changed forever, it was them who saved us from certain death. We owe our lives to Victoria whether we want to or not."
As I make my way across the sea of mixed opinions, hearing him talk about loyalty, all I can think about is our father's plan to leave this place and these people behind, "However," the chief continues, "this does not put them above us by any means. Do not be discouraged by any injustice. We will work through it. We are one people, and united we will survive and prosper beyond the limits of our humanity!"
Some cheer at this. Some cry. Others courageously disagree. I simply quiet down along with our father, but Hatsh, typically, dissents with a visible, fiery rage that he somehow manages to keep within. The people are decided, or at least the chief is, and that means that most of the village will follow him. I can hope, but as long as the rulers have absolute control, there is nothing that can be done. This is it. Here and now we are to stay goodbye to our home, forever. We follow our father outside trying to lay low, but our people know us. It's clear they can tell from our reserved presence that something's off. They just don't know what it is. Better for them to hold on to their ignorance. Saying there's a pit in my stomach isn't really accurate. This is more nauseating than anything. I guess it's another part of life we'll have to learn to live with. Understanding Hatsh becomes easier as I live through it. Out of absolutely nowhere a cold hand presses my shoulder. My reaction startles my brother and our father, and the three of us turn around. All of us are greatly surprised to see Yusuan standing behind us with a handful of beautiful purple tulips. This is the first time he's given me a gift in front of them, and he doesn't even quiver when Hatsh redirects his fury towards him,
"What do you want?"
Yusuan’s eyes stay focused on me. He carefully hands me the tulips. "These are for you."
They're at least two dozen bulbs. It must've taken him all morning just to find them. The next thing I know is I'm wrapped around him trying not to cry my eyes out. His soft arms hug me back,
"Hathor," our father calls me. I want to let him go, but I can't. I try to force myself to stop, but it only takes a second to remember that everything is at stake, so my final resolve is to make the most of the time I have left here,
"You guys head home," I tell them. Their expressions oppose, "I'll catch up." I assure them that I'll be just in time with a firm nod.
"What?" My brother protests.
"Hatshep," our father says the final word. Watching them leave the marketplace hurts knowing we'll never be back, but Yusuan's arm around me is enough comfort to keep me from breaking down. Time flies when you're having fun or in shock. I find myself sitting by a river bank next to him with all my bright tulips in my hands,
"I'm really sorry about last night," his sweet voice helps me feel time passing instead of hearing the same flow of water forever. "I knew it would only upset you more if I showed up, and I'd end up making things worse."
I wish I could listen to it for the rest of my life, but I can't stay quiet while he's here spending his time with me,
Words are out of reach. I feel weak inside and out. My arms and legs are wobbly, and I can't even look at him in the eyes,
Why can't I? Why can't I just turn to the side and tell him? Why don't I just run home and never turn back? When he sees I'm not moving he comes closer. "Is everything okay?"
A tear runs down my left cheek, and he wipes it away. "Hathor, you know you can trust me, so whatever's bothering you just tell me. Maybe I can help."
"Why? What's wrong? Is it Hatsh?"
"It's not Hatsh." I wipe the other side of my face. "It's not my father. It's not anybody."
Now our faces are front facing each other, "It's not even you." My nerves escape my mouth in the form of laughter, but his expression is unchanging. His sweet, dark eyes glimmer. He's still sharing the sad moment with me, and I love him for it. I love him. It's difficult to say, maybe even wrong, but I love him. This love could never flourish, so if this is the last time we share together, I might as well tell him. I close my eyes for a second to muster up all the courage in me, and as soon as I open my mouth, his lips clash into mine. It didn't need to be said. It never did. Because when I'm with him, time stops, and yet somehow it flies like the wind and sways like leaves. I'm grateful for all the time he's given me, all the times he’s made me feel loved and wanted, "Thank you, Yusuan. I love you," is the last thing I say to him before forsaking him on that river bank at dusk. I run back home through the crop fields with the sun falling behind me. All the singing birds flying back to their nests give the sunset sky an audible beauty. I finally arrive at the old clay house expecting my brother to welcome me with his screaming lesson, but instead he's sitting quietly at the dining table with our pensive father. Night falls, and we're together sharing one last, large bowl of chicken stew, a delicious family recipe. Hatsh's twitching leg shakes the table,
"Today's meeting may have failed to calm the village, but it gave us a lesson to reflect upon. How will we react to what the world throws at us?" Seeing Hatsh's disappointment, he puts a hand on his shoulder. "I know how hard this is for you. Believe me. I do,"
Hatsh refuses to look at him, "but you two are old enough to embrace these things, and let me tell you that they will come more often in life than we would like. There will be a time when you will have to make a hard decision, and you must he prepared," he pauses to drink from his cup, "but over all else you must be willing to help those around you whether they want it or not. Where would we be if we didn't help each other?" He takes my hand. I nod and smile, "Tomorrow we leave for Zone Two."