published first in the Four Million Stories print collection of best international stories of 2012
My little brother died on a rainless, late-August afternoon. It was one of those sultry days that would break heat records in London, forcing people into their A/C-cooled homes to sip iced drinks while leafing through the papers. In Africa it was just another common day.
Steamy weather didn’t stop butchers from setting up their rickety stands of gray meat at fly-infested markets or half-naked children from playing with rusty cans of Coke. Women went on picking coffee berries from the fields, some with their newest babies attached to their curved backs. Men led their bony cows through sand-colored fields, trying to fatten them on dry weeds.
Nothing was out of the ordinary that day, yet the lack of rain struck me.
“Are you going to die?” Years earlier I had asked my brother whose tiny body emitted more heat than the sun outside our brick house, the only one between lines of clay shacks.
He lay immobile, his head buried in the downy pillow Mother puffed up for him every thirty minutes. His fragile chest rose and fell with irregularity under the thin sheets. He’d always been little, but at that moment it seemed as if malaria had taken away half his age, making him appear five years old.
“Nah.” He moaned. “Impossible… there’s no rain.” The words crawled out of his cracked lips as if each sound dragged the weight of his suffering.
Was it malaria or just the side effects of those bitter tasting quinine pills he was ordered to swallow every eight hours that made him hallucinate this way? When he forced a painful grin on his usually goofy face, I knew he wasn’t delirious.
“I can’t die without a big storm, Michael… a huge one with thunder… and lightning… and darkness.”
“Like the ones in the Bible, right before God spoke?”
He nodded and something similar to a smile appeared on his handsome face. He motioned me to get closer. He wrapped his tiny arms around my neck and I lifted him effortlessly to straighten him in the bed.
“The day…” he breathed the words into my ear, “the day I die, God will let all his people know that the world just lost a very important person.”
That was my little brother – funny even on the verge of death. Malaria could take away his strength, his weight, even his sleep, but it couldn’t rob him of the core characteristic of his young being. His sense of humor, the one that dazzled everyone around him, remained intact.
The mysterious lights of dusk crept inside the airless room through the open window where Mother had stood a minute ago, cursing Father for bringing us to this faraway world of incurable maladies and never-ending misery. I detested this rotten place as much as she did. As a fourteen-year-old, finally old enough to be called a teen, nothing about this cow-filled world was exciting. The tallest building of the Karamoja region was a two-story structure in a city somewhere far from our house. I hated Father for working for the UN, and Mother for making me waste our summer here, far from home.
My little brother, on the other hand, blissfully kicked rocks with kids whose English I hardly understood, poked at ant hills with a stick, and waved his skinny arms with delight when caught in a cloud of mosquitoes. Was it due to his ability to connect with people, any kind of people, or just his young age in which everything still seemed thrilling?
While death circled our house, I stood at the window, my eyes drawn to the sudden commotion caused by a wildfire on the other side of the dried out creek. The dark silhouette of the old, bat-infested tree against the orange of the burning fields loomed above the frantic people crying for water, as if someone had cast his shadow over a pile of busy ants.
My little brother moaned quietly and I prayed that it wouldn’t rain.
And it didn’t. Johnny lived for fifty-six more years before his wrinkled body and his fatigued heart gave up the noble fight against cancer.
After that terrible summer in Africa, Mother, Johnny, and I went back to our healthy lives in London, while Father spent three more years there. We didn’t visit him anymore – instead, he came home every six months.
I went to law school and soon after graduation set up my own law firm with a friend. Married at twenty-five, divorced at forty-one. One estranged son, two grandchildren who visited once a year from New York, a gorgeous house in the countryside, friends with cricket bats, a faithful dog, and my bank account were the joy of my life.
Johnny went back to Africa after high school. He never really grew up – always joking, making poor people laugh when they had nothing to laugh about. That’s why they wanted him at the Red Cross.
He fell in love with Kissa, an Ethiopian girl, and moved to the Karamoja region for good. They had no children of their own, but according to him, they parented all the kids in the neighborhood. He worked for several humanitarian organizations whose names I never could recall. Kissa taught in a windowless shack they proudly called a primary school.
On Johnny’s fortieth birthday, I sent him a Rolex. A month later, a polite thank you note arrived along with a letter, kindly asking for children’s books next time. So every thirteenth of October, I mailed a box of nursery rhymes to my brother for his birthday.
In more than forty-five years, I only visited them twice. Johnny and Kissa came to London a few times, but never stayed for long. We wrote letters every once in a while and when e-mail became popular our communication grew a bit more frequent. Yet, there was a lack of intimacy in our correspondence.
I wasn’t shocked when Kissa called to let me know that Johnny had stage two lung cancer. The deadly disease ran in our family – Grandma died from ovarian cancer at the age of fifty-two, Mother of kidney cancer at sixty-one. Father lost his battle against leukemia when he was only forty-nine. It was going to be either Johnny or me. Or both. But Johnny got it first.
When his cancer reached stage three, I flew to Africa. Even though he wasn’t as pale and skinny as the day we feared malaria would take him, the signs of the poisonous enemy inside his chest were obvious. His dark hair had grown white and his muscles had disappeared due to medication. He looked ten years older than me.
“Do you like my new hair color?” He poked me with his elbow as we walked out of the tiny airport. “You have no idea how hard it was to match the silver gray of the moon’s reflection.”
“You’ve always been fond of nature.” I tried to joke, but never sounded as natural as he did. “It looks good on you.”
I couldn’t take more than a week of vacation. The firm needed me. And after seven days in Africa, I needed civilization, urgently. We said goodbye and went back to our e-mails.
Stage four arrived without notice. Johnny was being eaten up by an unstoppable monster. I had to do something. He couldn’t stay in that unwholesome place without proper treatment. As much as he hated big cities, he had to come to London to survive. I sent someone for him. I knew he would talk me out of it if it was me trying to bring him home.
He arrived at Heathrow with a small suitcase, while Kissa stayed in Africa to finish the school year. He slept in the guest room. I hired a chauffeur to drive him to radiation on Tuesdays, and a nurse. He ate a warm meal every night and had a TV in his room. I invited him to cricket games and the opera, but he preferred to stay at home.
Then one night, after Johnny had gone to sleep, the nurse came to me.
“He’s not feeling well, sir.”
“I know. Cancer isn’t famous for making you feel well.” I was channel surfing on my plasma TV.
“No. I mean he's not happy here. He needs his family, his home.”
“Then we’ll bring that to him.”
A week later, Kissa moved in with us. The nurse could leave after six. Kissa stayed up all night. She was a slender woman with ebony skin tightly stretched over straight bones. At fifty-seven, her cutis was as fresh as a thirty-year old’s. She moved like a lioness, watching after her cub, protecting him. She wouldn’t leave Johnny for an instant.
Then the news came. Their house in Africa became the victim of the wildfires. Kissa flew back home and that’s when the metastases reached Johnny’s brain.
“Sir, he wants to leave,” the nurse informed me. “He wants to go home.”
“He can’t. This is his home now.”
“But, sir, this isn’t life for him here.” She fidgeted with her uniform.
“This is the only way he can have a life. He has no other choice. If he leaves, he’ll die.”
“He’s already dead on the inside. He never smiles, never laughs, never comes out of his room. He only talks about his home.”
I couldn’t recall the last time Johnny made a joke.
“I’m going to take him home. Personally.” I said.
I cancelled my meetings for the following week and we flew back to Africa. The sour odor of human sweat mingled with animal excrement pinched my nose as soon as we exited the plane. The dirt-filled air made my mouth dry instantly and I drank the last sip from the bottled water I had bought in London, the only reminder of comfort in this land of poverty.
We were limited to only half of the small house. The other half had burnt to ashes. I slept in the living room, under the low hum of the shaky ceiling fan, afraid it would fall on me any minute. I was already counting the seconds until my return home.
The next morning Kissa went to work and I stayed with Johnny. My sick brother tottered out of his room and prepared coffee for me. We sat at the kitchen table in front of the open window, with kids screaming and laughing in an incomprehensible language outside. He waved at them and four sets of dirty feet came running in. He opened a tin box and slipped a vanilla cookie into each eager hand. They bowed, and smiled, and giggled. One of them kissed his hand. Johnny clicked his tongue and shooed them away.
“Kids are the future,” he said. “Even if they don’t have one.”
I ate a slice of toast while he watched me. Then he coughed and gasped for air. I stood and patted his back, unable to come up with something more helpful. He pressed a napkin to his lips and soon his fingers became vibrant red. I dampened a towel and wiped his mouth. He grabbed my wrist with such intensity that it almost cut off my circulation. His face became purple, then white. If only Kissa was here. The coughing became choking, and all I could do was pray. Then he stopped. The cough receded and he breathed again. The ash color that his skin had adopted during radiation returned. He let go of my hand.
“Sorry if I hurt you. Didn’t mean to.” He panted. “I bet… I could beat you in arm-wrestling now.”
I didn’t want to arm-wrestle. I wanted to flee. I wanted Kissa to come home. I wanted Johnny to live.
Looking after a terminally ill person was hard. Looking after my brother in his final stage of cancer took all my strength. It scared the hell out of me. Yet I stayed.
I cooked, then packed the untouched food in plantain leaves for the kids outside. I changed the bed sheets whenever Johnny had an accident - Kissa washed them in the evening. I read to him poems of William Blake, his favorite, each afternoon, and sat with him at the window to watch the sunset. I knelt at his bedside as he tried to take a nap. The days slowed down and silence became bearable, even soothing. The low of distant herds grew into a soft lullaby.
Johnny talked about things that had no connections and the past got tangled with the present in his mind. He forgot words and couldn’t remember how to turn on the light. He put on his shirt inside out and was unable to tie his shoes. He talked about our childhood most of the time and fell asleep in the middle of a chess game. He needed to be spoon-fed because his hands trembled so hard. Yet every once in a while, in a short moment of lucidity, he would flash a joke, something that made me emit a bitter laugh, something that created a childlike intimacy, a genuine connection between brothers.
Then one morning, a sharp cry woke me from my sleep. I ran into Johnny’s room to find him stuck in the bathtub. He sat, naked, unable to stand up or even pull his legs underneath his crumpled body. Tears were washing his cheeks.
He forced a smile when he saw me.
“Give me a hand, will you?”
I enfolded him in a towel. Wrapping my arms around his waist, I pulled. It took me several minutes to finally lift him from the tub and place him on a chair. He sat, softly sobbing like a child.
“It’s all right,” I said.
Encircling my neck with his emaciated arms, he pulled me close.
“Michael,” he whispered. “Michael…”
“What is it, little brother?”
I was scared too. Terrified.
“You have nothing to worry about, little brother. It isn’t raining. Remember? You can’t die without a storm.” I turned away to hide my tear-filled eyes, pretending to look out the window. “It’s dry as the Sahara out there. Cloudless sky. It won’t rain for a while.”
I embraced my brother, holding onto the debris of what used to be his body covered in a cheap towel. Coiled in my arms, he gently rocked himself.
That afternoon, at two forty-two, my little brother passed away in his sleep. The sky remained as blue as the Caribbean Sea. No signs of a storm. No thundering voices from the heavens. Johnny died in silence, without anyone noticing his heart wasn’t beating anymore. Anyone but me.
Where was the rain? God? Thunder and lightning? He wasn’t supposed to die. Not without a storm.
Kissa rushed home and sat beside her lifeless husband for hours. Later in the evening, soft voices sifted through the open window from outside. A group of women, old and young, stood beneath the window, each holding a candle or a burning stick. Children came running to join the group, their dirt-smudged faces filled with sadness. Some brought dry flowers, some weeds and twigs. They placed them onto the ground in front of the house. The women started to sing softly in their native language, rocking their babies on their backs. The children held hands and swayed quietly. More people arrived. Men, dressed in wrinkled shirts, lined up in silence, raising their faces to the sky. An old woman, various rows of colorful beads covering her neck, sat at the bottom of a tree, her hands folded on her lap, tears, like silent raindrops, washing her face. A toddler, lulled by the soft rhythm of the song, laid his head on the shoulder of his father. The growing crowd slowly formed an irregular circle, surrounding the flowers and candles. A young girl, with skin as dark as bitumen, stepped forward and placed a hand-threaded lace of white flowers in the center of the circle.
At the far corner of the horizon, where the sun was getting ready to leave, threatening clouds had gathered, splitting the sky into different shades of indigo. The breeze picked up. Dry branches of nearby trees cracked menacingly. Lightning stretched across the black sky, illuminating the dark faces for a moment. The rain-scented wind pulled on dark braids and white shirts below, touching tear-soaked faces and praying hands with its healing power of hope and salvation.
My arm around Kissa’s shoulder, we stood in front of the big window, motionless, staring at the strange crowd. I turned toward the vacant body of my little brother lost between the white sheets, his hands folded across the hollow chest. And with the first drops of rain outside, my face relaxed into a knowing smile.