No one knows when exactly he became the thing I fed upon, the thing whose body works for my body, day and night.
We only have one picture together, or at least I’ve only seen one. It was taken when we were in our mother’s belly. Mom was lying in bed, the doctor had already seen what she was about to see in a minute. Silently he fixed his eyes on the hazy screen until finally he said:
“A butterfly, it looks like a water butterfly.”
Since that time, I’ve often thought about the doctor that gave us such a nice name. I never met him. After that nobody said that about us again, and if they did, it wasn’t about us, even though we are one and the same body. It must have been the first time the doctor had been presented with such a sight, because—as Mom told us—he sat there staring at us for actual minutes.
Supposedly the doctor smiled then, to himself: perhaps he liked that there were two of us, but one, at the same time, or maybe he simply liked the idea of calling us a water butterfly. I don’t know what Mom thought when she found out, or what Dad thought. The doctor smiled, and that was our first introduction to the world. Welcome, that smile said.
They took us out of Mom’s belly, one by one—first me, then Olego, or maybe it was the other way around. It doesn’t matter. We were connected by a thick cord, a knotted spine; we were like one, inseparable. From out of the warm and pleasant water, we were cast onto solid land and in a second our lungs filled up with thousands of tiny grains of sand until we began to choke. To the cold and dry world, we responded with a shriek. Oli bellowed out twice as loud as me. That made sense: he was just about twice as big as me. I looked like a piece of Olego that had found its way onto his back, some sort of ghastly hump with the face of an infant. But it was then that I decided to really announce my arrival to the world because I could cry loudly, too. My body was such that it might not have lasted the night, but in the meantime, I saw no reason to relinquish my right to shriek. Who knows, maybe that kept me alive.
At first, my body didn’t want to live. It refused to do all the things that other bodies do just like machines, with no need for anyone to stand over them pressing buttons. But I had to be vigilant, day and night. Swallowing, the flow of my blood, the beating of my heart—for the first few months, or even years, there was nothing that could be taken for granted, and I knew that it was only the force of my watchfulness that would keep my blood flowing while I blinked every few seconds to keep my eyes moist with mucus. And I was always aware that I couldn’t forget, that I had to supervise my body because otherwise it would forget that it was supposed to live. I was all tangled up in a dense network of wires, each of which wound up in my body. I suppose something flowed through them that supported my body’s functions. Just water wouldn’t have cut it, of course. At first Mom offered me her breast, but I only choked on the milk, so she gave up, and then there were just little tubes and needles, and I didn’t really want to hang around there for too long, like I sensed something bad was coming. Time has flowed monotonously all the way up to now, until tonight. As if everything in between the beginning and that moment, between my oldest self and my present self, lying motionless in a quiet hospital ward, had all just been rehearsals for the moment and the second in which I find myself now.
Benyamin was the smaller one whom the doctors put the cross on. And suddenly he started to grow, to bud, and the blood in his veins flowed faster. It reddened his lips and his cheeks. He started to eat, he devoured all the things he’d never even tried in all those years, in the beginning it was just milk and formula formulated for sick kids, but then it was fruit, meat, desserts. And then he demanded more and more and he got bigger and bigger.
Whenever something came up I would hit the back of Benyamin’s head with my own head. Since we are attached at the spine, that’s always been the easiest way to let off a little steam.
Our parents were thrilled. Benyamin is catching up with Olego! Just a little bit more and they’ll be equal! Look, he’s stepping on his feet, they’d say, and chuckle. Until the moment arrived when Benyamin showed everyone that he was going to be the leader of us from then on. It was one of those days when we had argued, which happened a lot, because we were each of us condemned to the other. We had our ways: always whenever something came up I would hit the back of Benyamin’s head with my own head. Since we are attached at the spine, that’s always been the easiest way to let off a little steam. I’d lean all the way back and strike with all my strength. Then he would start to cry. He couldn’t get me back because he was smaller. That day Benyamin got upset with me, we were about four years old. I wanted to kick a ball, and he wanted to lie in bed. We started squabbling, and shouting, and making fun of each other. And he hit me so hard in the back of my head that it actually left a mark, which momentarily drew blood. Mom came running up and started shouting at me like she always did, I still came across as the stronger one. But looking at my head, and the trail of blood on it, she fell silent. She saw that Benyamin was the top now, that the roles had just reversed.
There would have been nothing wrong with Benyamin getting big and strong if I hadn’t started to weaken right about the same time. My skin, which had always been rosy, started to get pale and thin as tissue paper. When the sun was shining, I could see a network of thin blue veins underneath. Was it possible that over the course of a couple of months I had gone from being a hale and hearty kid to a completely translucent one? I asked Mom why you could seem to see right through me, but she couldn’t say. And she kept on peeling oranges for our afternoon snack, six sections for Benyamin, six for Olego. Benyamin devoured the fruit like he did everything. While I had to force myself more and more to actually eat. Who knows, maybe because I saw that my body had started to betray me and that everything I ate and drank was being secretly smuggled over to my brother, in the blood, in the oxygen, you could even see it in our hair, because his was thick, and mine was sparse and ugly. Benyamin meanwhile was becoming a healthy and attractive boy, or so they said. I myself never saw Benyamin, nor he, me.
Why did no one ever show us to each other? Did we really look that bad? It can’t be that, supposedly I’m an attractive boy, and Oli looks like me, he just has slightly lighter hair, the color of ripe wheat—that’s what Mom says, and I believe her. At first it struck me as strange: you don’t know what the person you spend every second of your life with looks like. The mirrors in the house are hidden somewhere, photographs crammed into boxes, everything under lock and key so we never see our faces. Mom says it’s better this way, but I have a feeling it was Dad’s idea. He thought of it, and everyone agreed to play by his rules, and then it just kind of caught on. Oli and I would roar with laughter at that weird idea.
“Who’s Got the Mirror?”, “No Pictures Please,” “Invisible Brother”: those were no doubt the names of the games being played behind our backs, I said to Olego.
“We only have one back!” laughed Oli.
Until finally we got tired of thinking about it, and the question of our faces stopped worrying us.
This evening it came back, I wanted to see my brother’s face. But I can’t quite turn around far enough to get a good look. When I try, my neck starts to hurt, and I give up. Besides, I think, do I really have to see him? I’ve gotten used to the idea of not knowing what Olego’s face looks like, I reason with myself that not many people know how they look from behind, and nevertheless they’re still themselves there. You don’t have to look at yourself to make sure of yourself. If someone saw a picture of themselves taken from the back, they might not even recognize themselves at first. It would just be after a moment’s delay that they would hit themselves on the forehead and say, Ha, that’s me, what a thing, not to know your own self!
With me and Oli it’s probably the same. I don’t need to know how Oli looks, it’s enough to be aware that he’s there. I don’t think about where I end or where he begins. Or whether we’re one or whether there’s two of us. I know how he smells, and I can tell the difference between when he’s waking up and when he’s sleeping—I can tell by his breath. Since Oli lost his speech, it’s been a bit harder, but not so hard that we’ve lost our connection. We just had to think of a new language. When I want to tell Oli something, I squeeze his hand in mine—which is easy, because his is smaller. In response, he clenches his little fist and depending on the strength of that movement, I can know if he’s feeling good or bad.
Lately that gesture has been weaker and weaker. Oli started to be sick right when I started to be better. I remember the day I felt I was stronger. Irritated by something, I wanted to give him a kick, I swung my leg out and ended up bashing him so hard he passed out. How was I supposed to know I’d hit him too hard? Oli didn’t cry. He didn’t start to shriek like I usually did or like he did when I would jab him. Now he didn’t even call Mom, though I wished he would have. From that day forward he was enveloped by a kind of silence, like something or someone had come and started to wrap Olego up in cotton batting, sprinkle snow on him. His voice became indistinct, and his crying became quieter and quieter. Our parents had to lean over Olego’s pale face just to hear what he was saying. And then one day Oli just fell totally silent. That morning winter came. And then I felt like I was winning.
Benyamin is asleep now. When the light goes out I always even up my breath with his, and then I can feel how the water and blood that flow through us connect us into a single stream, while the rhythm of his heart is the same as mine, even that little pulsing point on his neck moves on him at the same intervals as it does on me. At those times, I feel so good that I freeze for a moment because I want it to stay like that. Which is a mistake, because then I run out of oxygen, and my heart beats faster and faster, to make up for the lack of oxygen, and I have to quickly take more air in through my mouth. And then everything is spoiled, Benyamin is Benyamin again while I am myself.
The night wasn’t bad, just dark and still, which is how it’s supposed to be.
At three in the morning, it’s very dark, even though on warm June days it’s light at four. The fog outside the window of our room has the scent of rotten autumn leaves while in the summer it’s just the smell of night and darkness. Sometimes at night I feel like getting up and looking out the window, but Benyamin is normally asleep then, and I don’t want to wake him. When Mom comes at seven, I close my eyes, I don’t want her to worry that I didn’t sleep or that I had a bad night. The night wasn’t bad, just dark and still, which is how it’s supposed to be, I want to explain that to Mom, but I know she wouldn’t understand, and ultimately I don’t say anything. Mom makes me feel guilty. And I feel guilty because she feels guilty. I feel bad—and she feels bad, too—that I’m getting smaller and that more and more I look like just a romper cut out of paper, and not like a real boy, which I wish I were.
Red zigzags on the screens at the hospital record the workings of our body down to the last drop of blood. The monitors make up their narrative that only a handful of the initiated doctors can understand. They know our chemical makeup, they know how much iron there is in us, and how much sulfur, and how much of a bunch of things it’s not really worth anyone troubling their head over. Out of those mysterious figures they try to glean our future, to say: It’s going to be like this. But they still hesitate, either that or they just pretend like they’re not sure. They furrow their brows, they bite their lips, they stare at white sheets of paper, all of which is supposed to prove that they think about me and Oli a lot, or rather, not about us, but about our knotted spine, that something’s going to have to be done with, in the end.
After midnight, they turn the lights off in the hospital. It gets very dark. The doctors and the nurses go off to get some sleep, and we’re left alone in the ward. We lie on a wide bed, exactly like a big butterfly in the reddish glow of the monitors. We lie just like back when we were in Mom’s belly—back then it was also a little black, a little red, it’s just that here it’s a little colder. But just as quiet. Why is it so quiet here?
We always fall asleep together, Oli and me. I like how our breath becomes synchronized, and we fall asleep at exactly the same time, at which point each of us goes off in his own direction. I don’t know what Olego dreams about, he has no way of telling me, but I think that his dreams are different from mine. If only because Oli sees the world from the other side. Since I started growing, my parents usually put me in bed on the window side, with my back to the wall. They probably didn’t do it on purpose, it probably just happened that way.
I can see that even now when we’re in the hospital, our parents go over to Olego’s side of the bed less often. Mom always finds a reason to be on my side. She peels an orange, gives me half, and then she goes over to Olego to give him the other half. A moment later she comes back to my side of the bed, without the orange. Meaning Oli has eaten his half. Mom smiles. Dad comes and combs my thick hair with his hand.
“What a brave boy,” says Dad, keeping his hand on my head. And I know that this is not an ordinary gesture, executed in the very same instant by thousands of parents around the globe. Dad is checking the hardness of my skull with that hand of his, sliding his fingertips along the bones just to make sure one last time that they’d made the right decision, that they’d had no other option.
The orange mom gave Oli is really for me, we all know that.
Dad doesn’t go over to Olego very often, although we all know that I owe it all to him, the way I am now. No one knows when exactly he became the thing I fed upon, the thing whose body works for my body, day and night. The orange mom gave Oli is really for me, we all know that. It meanders over to me, like the IV drip that gives water out equally, half to me, half to Oli, but which nourishes only my body. Because Olego’s body has decided not to fight anymore. Or maybe it has decided to fight for me, so that at least a part of us lasts longer? A piece of a decal with an indistinct outline of a strange insect, which, if you look closer, looks like a rare species of butterfly.
Does Oli already know?
Mom gives me some orange. I swallow it, although it gets stuck in my throat. When that happens you have to try again, to get the fruit down a little further. And that’s hard, because I feel like it’s gravel getting deposited inside, layer after layer, and that a fossil is arising in me. Although liters and liters of water flow into my body through little tubes, they disappear somewhere, there’s always too little water. I think that’s probably the reason I stopped being able to speak. Will the doctors be able to say why I lost my speech? No one knows, a great medical riddle! But I figured it out myself. How can a stone speak? Has anyone ever seen a talking seashell or a talking starfish? Even on Christmas Eve the only animals that talk are those big, shaggy ones.
Dad comes up, but when his eyes alight on mine, he turns his head away. He says something quickly (I think it’s “Brave Oli,” but I’m not sure), and then he goes over to Benyamin. He sinks his hand into his hair and then remembers that he’s supposed to do the same thing with my hair. He comes back to me and sweeps up my hair. His hand is heavy, heavier than my whole head, I want him to take it back up again because it’s crushing me.
In the bed I split with Benyamin, I lie facing the wall. For the first few days it was just an ordinary white wall, but then I started to notice other things. Shades of white, from blinding to yellowish-white, when it’s getting close to sunset. Sometimes the wall undulates, especially when they give me sleeping pills. Benjamin gets them, too, but he always spits them back out and hides them in his pillowcase. Sometimes I dig them out up out of the sheets and swallow them. Then the wall changes, rings appear on it like on water. At night the wall turns navy blue. I’m not afraid of the dark, I actually prefer it to the day and feel happy for a moment when dusk falls, and shadows start to appear on the wall that I can make some stories up about.
Dad doesn’t like when Mom reminds him that someone once called us a water butterfly. He thinks it’s stupid. “Butterflies,” says Dad, “live on land, there are no water ones.” But he knows that Oli and I liked butterflies and were always talking about them. And one time, this was two years ago, he surprised us. He caught a beautiful butterfly at the park and brought it home. Each of us, first Oli, then me, got to hold the butterfly in our hands and look at it from up close. It was beautiful, we pet its soft wings, which, when it fluttered in our hands, tickled a little. And we pet it just like we did Kai, our dog, a German shepherd. Mom told us to be careful because a butterfly isn’t a dog, and that what a dog might like might hurt a butterfly, which is small and delicate. The best thing for butterflies is just to be looked at. And I released the butterfly from my hands, it started to fly around the whole room, running into furniture, books, toys, until finally it landed on the windowsill. Sitting there, every few seconds it flapped its wings, like it wanted to shake off the traces of our hands. We watched it in silence, even Kai stopped goofing off, sat still, and watched, like he was seeing a butterfly for the first time in his whole dog’s life. Dad broke the silence, saying that butterflies can’t live in houses, because in closed spaces they die. That’s why people don’t raise butterflies in apartments. “But I have an idea,” said Dad, and from the way his eyes were shining I could tell that it really was a new idea. He took the butterfly in his hands, extracted a long pin out of somewhere, and drove it into the middle of the insect’s body. By the next day the butterfly was hanging in our room, in a glass case, which Dad had spent all night making because he thought it would make us happy. The butterfly, pierced by the needle, peered out at us from behind the glass. And in the morning on the desk we found a butterfly atlas that had been wrapped up in red parchment paper, also a present from Dad.
Once Dad gave us a butterfly atlas, the book had about five hundred pages, a wealth of drawings, but I didn’t learn anything interesting about butterflies from it. Benyamin and I tossed it down into the corner, and when our parents weren’t around, we would take the case with the butterfly down off the wall and spend long hours looking at it from up close. Millimeter by millimeter we followed with a magnifying glass the veins, the spots, the recesses in its velvety wings.
The only trace of me that will be left will be a red scar on my brother’s back, straight and even like a zipper.
I’ll never see that butterfly again because I’ll never go back to our room again. The only trace of me that will be left will be a red scar on my brother’s back, straight and even like a zipper because these doctors here are supposed to be the best. Benyamin will grow, eat sticky candies from the kitchen cupboard, and then I’m sure he’ll fall in love. But I won’t be there. I won’t have a red scar on my back, straight and even like a zipper. I won’t grow. I won’t eat sticky candies from the kitchen cupboard. I’m sure I will not fall in love.
Nobody says anything, but I can see—by the doctors’ raised eyebrows, the nurses’ faces, my parents’ awkwardness, because they don’t even look me in the eye—that it’s going to be me. And since then I don’t see faces, like someone decided to slowly get me out of the habit of seeing people. I have before me a white wall, sometimes cut by colored shutters—the tanned legs of the nurses changing my drip, Mom’s neck as she fluffs my pillow, my father’s hand clapping me on the shoulder like I’m a grown man. “Oli,” says Dad’s voice, “how’d you sleep?” Mom comes and gives me some orange. “Eat, Oli,” says Mom, and I swallow it, although what I want is to drink water, the orange is bitter and scratches my throat.
We’re on an open sea the color of graphite. It’s completely quiet. You can’t see the shore. We’re floating in a boat—Oli and me. I can only see Olego’s back, because he’s got his back turned to me. Oli is rowing. One, two, one, two, he shoves the water aside with his rowing, although the water doesn’t give off any sound when he does. Olego’s delicate shoulders move back and forth, at even intervals. I feel good and want to tell Oli I feel good, but I know I don’t have to. I look at the water and at Olego’s back, at his, at our, shared blue sweater that we got for Christmas from our parents. I can’t see his face, just the back of his head, and it’s true, Mom had told the truth: Oli has hair the color of ripe wheat. Only then do I realize that Oli is separate from me, and that if I wanted to I could finally see his face, but I immediately realize that I could also do that in a little while, too. Meanwhile Oli rows. Finally, it occurs to me that maybe it’s taking a toll on him, and then I say, “Oli, are you okay? You know Kai could help you, he’s a big, strong beast. Oli?” But the little blue sweater keeps rowing, and I can see that he’s not going to answer me. But I can also see that Oli likes to row, that it makes him happy. He’s not going to stop, and inside my dream I am gently rocked, and I fall deeper asleep, to where it’s even warmer and nicer…
Sometimes some spot on the wall sucks some white into its middle, and the whole wall changes color. The shadow of a black dog appears on it then. Oh, of course, it’s Kai! He runs and goes into the garden, which is our garden, because in the black contours I can recognize Mom’s flowers. Whenever Kai would manage to get into the garden, he would run around delighted, trampling all of Mom’s flowers. Breaking their thin stalks, one after another, knocking the black petals off their stems and not doing anything at all about it. “Let’s run after him!” I say to Benyamin. We go in between the flowers and try to catch up with Kai. The sky is yellow, and underneath it, the three of us, little black figures. In a minute we stop, because among the flowers I see our ball. “Remember?” I say to Benyamin. “Our old ball, we lost it one time.” I take the ball in my hand, it’s all wet, I wipe the dew off it, Kai runs up and nudges the ball with his nose—he wants to play. I throw it hard so he can run after it. But Benyamin says we have to get out of there because our parents are coming, and Kai will tell them that we lost the ball. “What do you mean, we lost it?” I say, smiling to the little black figure that is Benyamin, and black Kai tugs at the ball. “We just found it,” I say, and I smile again. But Benyamin can’t hear me anymore, he’s gone away, I run after him, laughing, while Kai barks joyfully. “There’s nothing to be scared of,” I call out to Benyamin’s diminishing little black figure. And suddenly it gets light, like the sun has come all the way up to me, I can’t see anything, I cover my eyes with my hand, it’s so light out all of a sudden…
So many years have passed, and I’m still amazed at how small my shadow is, how individual. When at night I walk down the street, I sometimes look behind myself suddenly, like that, just for fun, to check if I don’t see Olego behind me. He left behind a pink scar, a long, even scar, but not that prominent because the operation was performed by the best doctors. Sometimes the scar itches, as though Oli, just for fun, wanting to be remembered, has decided to tickle me or to scratch me a little with his fingernail. When somebody asks me how I got my scar, I don’t tell the truth. I tell them I was in an accident. They wouldn’t understand anyway. In my bottom drawer, there’s a white envelope that has a picture in it. It’s just waiting for me. I still haven’t seen it. But someday I’ll see it.
Sylwia Siedlecka is the author of the short story collection Puppies and the novel The Moat. She has also published a book entitled Lady Pagans, Lady Intellectuals, on the works of Bulgarian writer and politician Blaga Dimitrova. She works in the Slavic Department at Warsaw University, where she teaches courses on literature, history, and intercultural relations. Her current research is on the history of the circus arts in Central and Eastern Europe after 1917.
Photograph by Magdalena Chotkowska Czerwińsk.
Jennifer Croft is the recipient of Fulbright, PEN, and National Endowment for the Arts grants, as well as the Michael Henry Heim Prize, and her translations from Polish, Spanish, and Ukrainian have appeared in The New York Times, n+1, Electric Literature, BOMB, Asymptote, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD from Northwestern University and an MFA from the University of Iowa. She lives in Buenos Aires and is a Founding Editor of The Buenos Aires Review. Read illustrated chapters of her novel—in a wide range of languages—at homesickbook.space.