Look what I got. He showed me a mud covered piece of jibibi root. My eyes almost popped out of their sockets, and quickly closed his palm in a swipe, gazing at every direction with fright. Someone could have seen what we had in our hands. My brain set on the panic switch. If our masters discovered that my brother had stolen something from their wares, we were dead.
“Where did you get this? Take it back before someone notices.” It was hard to say that with drool running from the corner of my mouth. I’d be lying if I said the fact of being close to such an expensive item couldn’t excite me. This was the kind of delicacy that grants you a rain of stones if you ever dare to stare over the shop window with desire.
Not in my wildest dreams we could ever wish to eat jibibi root, which was brought from lands so far away that our small minds could never understand their majesty. It was the food that made our masters smart and strong.
Us, with a diet restricted to light, mongrel rabbit floss and jumupo leaves, would never have the right to consume the divine foods.
“I didn’t steal it, do you think I’m stupid? A good man gave it to me.”
“Uff, never. He saw me lying on the street, because my leg still hurts a lot. That’s why I arrived late tonight. When I couldn’t keep walking, I fell on the side of the road.”
He noticed I was giving him a worried look. His most imaginative stories came from when he slacked off. “Always keeping an eye on the buckets, of course.”
I dreaded listening to the end of his tale. He had hidden the truth to our Master, of how he had gotten his hands on a jibibi root.
“Then, this person passed by, a very distinguished gentleman with the cleanest clothes I’ve ever seen, he was wearing a black top hat and kurio leather shoes even! He said: ‘Are you hungry, son? Pull out your hand’ and I extended the hand like this.” My brother took out his right hand from the jhew’s pocket, cupping his palm.
Generally, our kin had to keep them inside the jhew’s pockets at all times. The masters didn’t like to see our cracked skin and broken nails. “And then he put on something that felt round and soft, I hurried to hide it in my jhew without knowing what it was. I was so ashamed that my dirty hands had stained his white gloves.”
“How did you manage to thank him? My God, I hope you didn’t dare to speak directly to him!” The whole story was turning too risky for both of us.
“No, never in life. He was a good man, he understood immediately that I couldn’t, and told me ‘you are welcome’. My leg still hurts, but I was so scared that I grabbed the buckets and I ran back like a horse. The rest you know.”
Right, that’s why we were staying up late at night to clean his wounds. My brother had wasted so much time to bring the buckets of honey, that our Mistress had given him a well deserved beating. It was all his fault for being so slow. It had been a long time since he had broken his leg, no one believed him it hadn’t healed yet.
“What if it’s a test? You should have taken the jibibi root to the police.”
“And let them imprison me? They would think I had stolen it! Wouldn’t you want to eat it, brother?”
“Of course I want to.” I gulped down the sticky ball of saliva that had been forming in my mouth from the mere thought of its flavor. “But Soeur Lylbs said that if we consumed the food that God didn’t deem to us, we would condemn our souls to hell. Is it worth the eternal punishment?”
“Brother, touch my leg.” He reached out his left hands to pull my fingers over his shin, I felt an odd protuberance over the bone. “Our mistress didn’t take me to hospital as she told you, she only asked a friend of hers to snap the leg back in place.”
In the seclusion of the basement where our Masters locked us every night, he dared to accuse her. She had ordered him to reap the crops that afternoon. My brother was forced to thank her for her gratitude, even though she knew his leg was wrong.
My brother licked his dried lips to make a pause.
“She threatened me with more punishment if I talked about it with you. I know I will lose this leg soon… I… I believe God might forgive if I consume the gift that good man gave me.” My dear brother, a bit goofy and an eternal slacker, spoke with an earnest conviction I didn’t know from him.
Under the light of the single candle, poorly illuminating the small cage that we called our room, he snapped the root in two. The sweet aroma emanating from it brought me to tears, overlapping the moist stench of the basement we called home. With shaky hands, I accepted my half.
I bit it even with the dirt covering it, afraid that by cleaning it, this action would remove bits of the root.
How to describe flavors you have never experienced? Something I’d scour away bits with the rabbit floss or the bitter jumupo leaves? The texture was smooth, melting over my tongue. It created a lopsided smile on my face, bending some old scars towards directions they had never moved. The jibibi root released a creamy liquid between my teeth. All my body was tingly. I figured out that if we could take clouds down from the sky, they’d taste exactly like this.
My brother had his eyes closed, chewing as slow as he could. His mouth was curved into a smile I hadn’t seen in months. Reluctantly I swallowed, the magic became only a memory on my taste buds. And the cell seemed more somber and smaller than ever.
A terrible anxiety assaulted me. Now that we had enjoyed paradise, there was no turning back. How could we continue to endure our miserable life knowing that our mistress used to eat this delicacy as an everyday produce? Was the rest of her food as awe inspiring as this one? Were our bodies able to benefit from those joys too?
“We deserve better than this life.” My brother put my fears in context.
He was looking at his empty palms, ravaged by hard work and the elements, expecting another piece of root to emerge from them.
“They have fooled us all our lives. We are exactly the same as them. Our blood has the same color. We have a pair of arms and a pair of legs like them. I never knew it for sure, but this proves we can consume the same foods. What makes us inferior then?”
“Silence brother, you have blasphemed enough.” I hugged my knees to shelter myself from the descending temperature.
“It will be tough, but please, let’s keep this to ourselves. True that having eaten the root could makes us better over the other slaves, but it will be safer if we keep our heads low, and pretend this never happened.”
“You see? Even we feel superior simply because we gained access to something the others didn’t. They are not different from us either, are they? The good man didn’t pick me specifically, he could have given this gift to anyone.”
He was right. My brother, who had brushed out my frequent worries by joking about our tribulations, had now a different expression. Something had clicked inside his head with the resolution to stay that way.
Though, he saw the fear in my eyes, and resolved to save those ideas to himself. He laid on my shoulder afterwards, ready to sleep in the position we always took, with our warm bodies arranged the closest they could get. It could never be as soft as I imagined the pillows in our master’s chamber were, but it was barely comfortable.
But when I woke up, the hard cold floor greeted me under my sore cheek. Morning had arrived, and our mistress hadn’t come to open the grid to take us to the fields. The sweetness of the root had mixed with the acrid flavor of new hunger, leaving an aftertaste of remorse.
The main gate creaked, my brother limped in with the help of his rickety crutch to unfasten the lock. Something different spoke about him that morning. He still had deep black lines under his eyes, his body was sick and emaciated, yet some bizarre confidence had taken over him.
“Get out of there. We have to dress up and leave.”
“What’s going on? Brother, don’t tell me they have figured out that we—” he shushed me at the instant, pleading for me to keep the secret as we had promised the night before.
“You wouldn’t believe it. Earlier this morning, our Mistress came to take us out for field work.” He explained as his free hand helped me out of the cage. “She turned pale upon seeing us. It was as… as if she couldn’t recognize us from the night before! She even apologize a thousand times while a doctor she called checked on my leg.”
I have my mouth wide open. I rubbed the dust from my eyes thinking this may be a dream. My brother caressed the tips of his unkempt hair, perhaps under the same impression than I was.
“My God, she had called me by my name. The name our parents had given to me!”
Words stumbled to ask him why the change, if he wasn’t messing around with me. He dismissed any explanation with a shrug.
He led me out of the basement to see it with my own eyes. Not only the Mistress, the house staff, even our own partners in disgrace, treated us differently. It must have been a dream, and we were still in the cage, struggling with cold and the burning smell of the vinegar we used to clean the buckets.
Perhaps it was an illusion, a product of eating the jibibi root. Perhaps it was God, giving us a taste of paradise before sending us back to where we belonged, as punishment for the treacherous consumption of food that was unsuitable for us.
The maid that once spat on my face, now scrubbed my skin with aromatic oils between smiles and genuine worry for my weakened state. The concierge dusted a plif suit until not even a particle of dandruff remained on my shoulders, apologizing for not being able to do more for my damaged hair.
My reddened nails disappeared under a layer of shiny cream colored polish, and my horns were adorned with an elegant summer hat decorated with early picked mirth flowers.
When they took me back to my brother, he was wearing a mechanical leg. The cunning boy, who used to hide pockets of air on the buckets’ base to carry less honey, had disappeared.
Before me, a young Master in the most exquisite suit saluted me, just like I had figured he could have looked in my fantasies. By his side, a gruffy boy sat on the floor. I remembered it was the one who had taught us how to sit astride, in such a way that our heads never would reach the level of our master’s groin.
My brother’s gaze was a reflection of how they had changed me too. His white gloved hands fidgeted with the silver chain holding his pet-boy. And I felt nothing, as if our time working in the fields was some glossy image I has seen somewhere else, whatched once, disregarded, and forgotten.
My hand caressed the boy’s head in an absentminded gesture, while my brother leant to my ear to whisper.
“I’ve figured it out. We were always them, they are us.” His mischievous smile sparkled as he pulled the chain to choke his once friend, now personal slave. “The only difference is what we eat.”