One lazy Sunday morning, my brother Meli’s legs were crushed in the town sluice gate. We had no idea how lucky we all were. He’d claimed he would break his 50m butterfly record, but the gate broke him. The iron bars ground through his fourteen year-old femurs, pulverised the bone without pause. My friends and I dragged him to the surface. We were still in Primary, barely seven, but it was easier than you’d imagine; the township’s best young swimmer was only a panting, bloody upper body, two of his long limbs lost to the desalination plant. Our water was red for a day. We all drank Meli, I think.
I pulverised my boiled egg the next morning as Dad explained Meli’s procedure.
“Government science, Liwu. Meli will become the best in the country, and the country will give him the best treatment. The Kinshasa Medical Science Centre!”
Meli lay semi-conscious on the couch, connected to it by wires and tubes that pumped a viscous, clear liquid into him. Dad and Mum said the couch kept him alive, did some of his body-things for him, but to look at his face, he looked ready to get up again. I prayed for it at nights; Meli was my brother, and the family’s fortunes depended on him.
“Will he be okay, Dad?”
Dad looked over his sports pages at me, and smiled.
“If good? Of course. Otherwise, maybe the Swimming Board will just give him wheels, hmm? Keep out of trouble?”
Meli gave me a wink. This impertinence drove Dad mad when he saw it, but it was meant for me. I stuck my tongue out at him, and though he couldn’t open his mouth, he had spoken to me.
Resting on the hospital gurney, Meli’s new legs were so beautiful. Shining superlight metal, the kind you see poking up through the clouds in the far away business district. Fine lines circled his knee, ankle and hipbone like wrinkles, marking articulations, but apart from that they were so perfectly whole, like they’d always been there. His new feet were like a frog’s, flattened and webbed. So tooled for water, as though even resting on this alcohol-dry bed was unsuitable. I squinted at where the metal met the flesh but I could see no definitive join, just different fibres laced together. Some sculptor had turned his hand to my brother, shaping a little bit of him into what he ought to be.
“Liwu,” he said, voice cracked from lack of use, “it’s okay. You can touch them.”
I stretched my fingers out towards a knee and felt a charged hum in the air, like when you lick a battery. Meli’s new legs jerked forward and touched my fingers. So cold.
Meli laughed. “Gotcha. I can’t feel anything anyway. They have to teach them how to feel. Weird, huh?”
I thought it was. I already knew how to feel things, but I could not quite manage my seven times tables. Father was growing impatient with me, and had had Words with the lady who ran the Primary.
When he got home we discovered that Meli could hardly run, but he didn’t want to anyway. He never left the municipal pool, and Dad never asked him to. Other children, parents, even the Mayor came to watch him at work. He slid through the barely breaking water as though he were flying through air under a pane of glass. His feet–his paddles–cut the waves superfine, and within two weeks of the accident he had broken his personal bests by a whole second. He was now pushing the qualifying time for a sixteen year old, and the local news started coming to the pool as often as he did.
One Sunday, we got there and photographers were already at the sides, jostling for a perfect view of the early-morning practice. I tried to look Official as I carried my brother’s towel to poolside edging around the puddles, and Dad waved for the cameras, shouting, “My son! Just look at him, eh?”
Meli kept his head down, as he always did when trying to focus. Dad nudged him, and muttered, “Go on, Meli. Give them something to print.” Meli winked at me, and I winked back. He swung his arms back, and started a run-up to dive.
The media got something to print, alright. Meli’s blades skittered on the flagstones and he fell, arms flailing, hitting the rough poolside like the calves we used to see thrown into the butcher’s van at market. Dad ran over, wincing on his weaker leg, dropped to his knees.
“My son! Are you alright?”
Meli rolled onto his back and a gasp rippled round the pool. His left arm laid torn open on the concrete, limp, unable to stop dirty water lapping into its gashes.
I stayed with Meli in the hospital as long as I could. He had a private room this time, because of the press. When they took him away for the operation, Dad had nothing to do but tap his cane on the green tiles and mutter about ‘the vultures’, chain-smoking until the nurses reminded him that he was in a hospital and could he not do that.
Five hours later, the curtains parted and a man wheeled my brother back in. I gaped at his body.
“He only hurt one arm!”
Dad gave me a reproachful stare. “Now Liwu, I’m sure the doctors did what they thought was right.” The man looked at Dad, then at me. He smiled, I think.
“That’s right, Mr. Mbetu. Liwu, we needed to do work on both arms, otherwise your brother would have lost his balance.”
I looked up at Meli, at their work. Both arms had been severed at the shoulder, and replaced with gleaming prostheses, a word I had learnt from the paper since Meli’s new legs. And like the legs, these ended in delicate fins.
“He might have lost some manual dexterity,” said the man to Dad, “but with the extra power, and lightness, well, we’ve had to-“
Dad raised a hand. “That is enough in front of my sons, thank you.”
The man nodded, and left us alone with Meli. And his work.
Training would not wait. Meli’s personal best, pinned to the fridge where my drawings used to be, changed every day. Then Dad put next to it the times of the best 18 year olds in the province, then all of Africa, and Meli’s time crept closer. News crews came to our kitchen table every week, so that Mum was never far from the kettle, and they asked Meli the same questions. Dad fielded them all: yes, he was very happy in training. No, he did not miss school. Yes, his ‘enhancements’ were all perfectly above board.
At the end, they would ask me a question: and you, what are your dreams?
I would tell them about experimental mathematics, and recite my seven-times tables, now learnt. Dad would laugh, and ask the journalists if they wanted a photo with Meli here at the table, or outside with the nice view of the garden and Western Rockery.
In that pile of rubble I found my inspiration. The act scared me, but I remembered what one journalist said about my brother’s “great sacrifices”, and so I did the obvious thing. I couldn’t bring the hunk of granite down myself, but I thought I might be able to just let go in the right place, if only I concentrated on something else.
Seven sevens are forty-nine. Eight sevens are fifty-six.
When Dad found me clutching my crumpled wrist, bloody where the scrap had smashed it, I was sure he would understand. Instead, he shouted.
“Liwu, you idiot!” And he rapped me about the ear with his cane.
As we bumped along in the ambulance to the local hospital–no Kinshasa Medical Science Centre–he only said one thing.
“Liwu, that isn’t you.”
“But I want to be like Meli. I want us to change together.”
He shook his head.
From my dirty hospital mattress, wrist in a plaster cast, I saw Mum and Dad’s silhouettes on the curtain. Tense, angular shapes, none of Meli’s flowing curvature. Dad was trying his best to whisper, but he was brought up in the countryside.
“It’s what he was born to do. He’s fulfilling his potential.”
“Potential?” said Mum’s voice. “I’m losing my son.”
Her voice cracked when she said that part.
“Don’t be ridiculous. That’s just surface.”
“How much surface?” I think I heard Mum sniff.
There was a long pause, and then the Dad-shape and the Mum-shape hugged each other. Dad said, “the sponsors -“
Mum said nothing. I did not know what a sponsor was, but the next time I saw Meli, his hair was completely shaved off.
As the summer wore on our house became more beautiful and more crowded, and the time stuck to the fridge became the weather-cock of our moods. Meli’s accidents continued: the time would cease to fall for a few weeks, a terrible incident would occur, and Meli would appear the next morning with a streamlined torso of metal that sucked in all the light, then with his ears pinned back, then a polished, creaseless forehead, but every time he would sit with me over his assigned breakfast and let me touch the addition. And he would not talk, because he had nothing to say, but he would wink, and go off to the pool with his minders. A day off came; we went to the Kinshasa Zoo. Mum and I threw anchovies to the seals, Dad took notes, Meli just stared. I saw him twitch and smile whenever a seal dipped to pick up its prize. I said something to him, but he just stared at the bobbing sea creatures.
The night before the All-Africa Swim Cup, I heard a banging on the front door. I started out of bed and scanned my room for intruders. All I could see in the dark was the clock: 2:32 AM. I crept to the landing, and listened to the voices drifting up from the kitchen. Dad asked wasn’t this all a bit extreme, and a low voice said that it was the tiniest edge but every advantage counted, that Dad had said so himself, and that it had to happen tonight, if Meli was prepared to do it. There was silence, and then Dad said that he was, of course we was. Heavy footsteps sounded in the hall and I rushed back to bed, closed my eyes, and tried to think of the days before the sluice until I fell asleep.
Mum and I travelled to the competition in a separate car; Dad had wanted to get there early for warm ups, and left without telling us. We coasted through layers of Renewed Kinshasa’s onion that seemed to get shinier and newer until we stopped at a gleaming dome. It was the same sort of fine metal that coated my brother’s skin, smooth and featureless. If he were standing in front of it here, I thought, how would I recognise him?
We could hardly see anything from our little seats high up. People thronged the pool; the attendants, minders and officials outnumbered and hid the competitors. I caught glimpses of people I thought I knew, then I realised their faces were only familiar to me: the famous young swimmers of Africa, our rivals. In their press photos they beamed with confidence but here their mouths were drawn tight. They cast looks at a starting block far away from us. Behind that block stood Dad and Meli, indistinct. Behind them, two men in suits.
The swimmers squared up, strong young bodies alongside metal. The starting gun fired, Meli knifed into the pool. Mum and I cheered for Meli to swim, swim, but I knew he couldn’t hear us and anyway, the others never stood a chance. As he came to the last length with no sign of slowing down, a person behind us remarked: “All modified, of course. Last night I heard they put a chromatic film over his eyeballs so he doesn’t even need to blink. I don’t think he can.” His rant was drowned out by our cheers as Meli touched the side for the final time and punched the air with his bladed stump, his mouth grinning. Mum put her arm round me.
I strained to watch as Dad pulled the victorious Meli out of the pool; as he walked solemnly past his broken competitors, nodding at each one like an officer at ease and the whole entourage of sponsors came closer so I could read the logo on their suitcases, THESEUS DEFENCE SOLUTIONS. I stared as Dad hobbled up to shake the lead minder’s hand, as Meli marched toward me with his glassy eyes, two gems set in his perfect tool of a body. His gills gave a ripple. I gripped Mum’s hand or she gripped mine and I winked, searching for something I recognised in the swimmer.
by James Mitchell