When we were young my brother crippled me, quite by accident. He had drilled a series of small holes on either side of my skull before injecting small amounts of ethanol into specific areas of subcortical white matter in my frontal lobes, in an effort to surgically sever the weak, poorly-conceived synaptic connections the body creates as a baby before it learns to properly and efficiently join the lobes together as happens later on in development. The destruction of these original faltering connections was to encourage the growth of new, stronger connections and thus excise the early mistakes of development, my father had explained. But Adam, in typical fashion, had that day become unfocused during our instruction by reading a book of Greek mythology surreptitiously concealed within the larger psychosurgery textbook we had been assigned. As a result he undertook the procedure mostly unprepared, hammering the icepick through my eye-socket at an imperfect angle and accidentally sweeping through the main portion of my frontal lobe instead of the specific orbitoclast he was aiming for.
It was lucky for him that I went first, having carried out the procedure flawlessly on him the week before. I never once blamed him, accepting it completely and unthinkingly in the way so characteristic of the young. Those days we were collectively far more focussed on the small blue songbird that at that time had begun perching on our windowsill during the summer and, to our delight, began constructing a nest. I preferred to leave the bird unmolested and let it complete its nest so as to block out the sunlight that I found distastefully bright as it lanced from between the window-bars toward my pillow, but Adam liked to pick the branches the bird so diligently provided and to weave small sculptures from the green twigs, little animals and baskets like those we saw in the markets at a twelfth the scale. He arranged them above the lintel of the heavyset oak door, his menagerie of little friends, and never seemed perturbed when our father periodically swept through our cell and took them all away. Eventually the songbird laid a single pearlescent blue-green egg in its little nest, and thereafter never returned. Adam fetched the egg down from the high window and set it upon his pillow where it he liked to stay awake at night and hold it in his small palm. When our father came in he would swiftly conceal the egg within the folds of his blanket and pretend to be asleep. I don't remember what happened to the egg, only that it was certainly gone by the following summer.
Our studies continued unerringly until our twelfth year. Each morning a maid would waken us, dust the floor and supply us with freshly pressed linen clothing. Our father would glide in and take us to the front door of the house, hastening us past the dozens of close-pressed and ancient doors we were never permitted to enter until depositing us in the front yard, enclosed on three sides with an open fence comprising the final side and looking onto the street outside. Once we walked past a door as a servant was just exiting, and I caught a glimpse of the corridor beyond, a once-grand thing of peeling turquoise paint and odd shapes beneath dust blankets lit dimly by naked bulbs and with windows firmly shuttered and a single huge mirror so dusty nothing could be seen through it.
Once we were left at the open door, we had a brief hour of free time before our lessons began on the steps in front of the citadel, which Adam used to run in his distance-eating lope in a fresh direction each time, working on a mental map of the confused maze of streets, alleys and levels that surrounded our compound. It was my custom to take a much slower pace through the local markets and to see the crowded people jostle. No-one was fool enough to carry more money than they needed to the marketplace, but nonetheless I was able to make a small profit from petty theft each day, enough for a sweetroll or a piece of fruit I would eat during the former part of our lessons while Adam looked enviously on. As I became a more accomplished pickpocket and the cityfolk grew richer and more careless, I was able to buy a treat for both of us and share my bounty with Adam who in return would tell me the stories he had witnessed that day in his runs through, atop and underneath the bubble of the city within his reach. As he grew and his limbs lengthened and his muscles tightened themselves around his frame his range increased and he ventured further and further afield, farther than I ever could manage.
Our tutoring began on the steps of the citadel, as I said, a colonial-era building full of weary pride and age, squatting in the shadow between towering modern buildings on either side and periodically disgorging small bespectacled men who swarmed around us like water about a rock, babbling in French as they passed and mopping sweat from their brows with little embroidered handkerchiefs, their heels click-clacking on the stone steps as they scampered up and down with the hours of the clock. Our father would begin the lessons with oral debates, pitting us against each other for hours until our throats were raw and our voice scratched with effort until the citadel workers spilled out of the bronze double doors again for lunch and ended the lesson.
We’d wind our way back to the house, taking the brief walk as a break, before climbing the twisted iron stairs that clung to the side of the library building like a creeper vine. Us two students would fly up the stairs as fast as we could run so as to escape our father’s sight and have a scant few minutes to play and argue unseen, peeking our heads over the railing to keep track of our father’s progress and dancing ever higher up and up and up the staircase ahead of him before we came to the small landing in front of the side-door into the library. There was a set of large studded doors set into the front of the library building at ground level which we had never seen opened and equally had never seen from the inside either, it obviously connecting to one of the rooms inside the building that was blocked off by collapsed ceilings or untidy stacks of books. There were librarians, who we rarely saw but could evidence by the fact that when we left books on the floor they would invariably be reshelved the next day, but they either could not or cared not to clean up the immense piles of decaying books and loose pages that in some cases filled passageways up from floor to ceiling.
Our father would supply us with a different book each day and encourage us to scamper around the shelving to pick another book or two of our choice, and would nap in an old rocking chair in the faded warmth of the tired sun percolating through a dusty real-glass window high up in the stone wall while we pored through our texts. We would read studiously for the rest of the day before our father stirred awake and began interrogating us on our learning. We would cover and recover each topic minutely until he was completely satisfied and finally would let us tug him along back through the little door and down the iron-cast stairs and across the weed-filled courtyard and into yet another building, the laboratory, where we would both play for the rest of the day at putting our fledgling knowledge into practice. Adam had always leant more towards mathematics and cybernetics, while I favoured biology, chemistry and demagoguery, giving florid speeches to my pets as I worked upon their insides with my scalpel.
My first pet was the “angel”, a monkey with 8 sets of hands grafted onto the bumps of its spine, connected amateurishly to the spinal cord such that they fluttered chaotically like leaves when the monkey was agitated. Adam used to drop heavy stacks of books on the table with a loud “thud” so as to provoke this reaction and laugh gleefully as the monkey hopped around in fright. I was expecting my father to confiscate this pet as he confiscated my chemicals and serums each time I tried to bring them outside of the lab, but he seemed content to let me bring the monkey home on my shoulder, where it crouched in the corner of me and Adam’s cell miserably, refusing to come out with us until I took pity on it, asked for and received permission, took it outside and dispatched it in the back yard, a small room-sized enclosure recessed into the outer perimeter wall and spotted with small statues and urns on corinthian pillars. I left the monkey’s body on the ground and the next morning it was gone and a fresh white blanket of snow showed no trace of it ever having existed. I never brought another pet outside the lab after that.
The primary effects of Adam’s botched psychosurgery on me began to manifest itself when I was 13 or thereabouts, and I began to lose track of time, great gaps in my memory opening up here and there without warning such that I would suddenly “come to” with a start in the middle of some activity with no idea how I got there or how much time had passed. At first I lost merely minutes, but then the timescales involved yawned wider and wider until whole seasons would pass without a single moment impressing itself on my memory such that I would open a door in summer and then abruptly find myself in a completely different room of our complex the following winter, deep in conversation with Adam or in the middle of a textbook.
As I grew older my father became more and more distant, or perhaps it was just that we saw through his facade of affection. Our lessons became more and more freeform until eventually me and Adam would voluntarily tutor each other, my father sitting as a passive observer, only occasionally cutting in with a remark or correction.
Me and Adam diverged more and more as we both came into our manhood. Adam was more athletic than me, spending more and more of his time on athletics until his body was finely carved with muscle and he moved with the unique beauty of a man fully in control of himself, perfect skin slightly tanned and high cheekbones coming through his angular face beneath his light blue eyes. I was a paler, more reclusive creature, with square retinas and an extra set of arms grafted upon myself below my first set, a section of my ribcage removed and replaced with a second set of pectoral muscles to control them with. My nose was broken once, from a fall while climbing, but I kept it for sentimental value where it, Adam told me, lent me a gentle character along with my prematurely whitened hair and smaller stature. Me and Adam would wrestle and he would always win, though he sometimes deigned to play with me a little and let me think I was winning before laughing in clear peals and pinning me to the wooden floor of the salle where it became our custom to spar once our father relinquished the strictness of our schedule and left it to us to organise our own education.
I saw my father only irregularly between the ages of 17 and 27. Instead me and Adam alternately took on paternal roles for each other, I tutoring Adam in demagoguery and the practical sciences and he lecturing me in the physical arts and logical procedures.
The rate at which my memory began to fail increased, and I began writing long journals at the end of each day such that each time I awoke with confusion to find that weeks or months had slipped into the abyss I could spend days reading back the spidery scratchings that relayed what I had missed. I had hoped originally that the journal would stir my memory and restore my experiences but this never happened. I never felt even the slightest twinge of familiarity from my words, and indeed I sometimes wondered if I had even written the diaries as opposed to them being some sort of deception delivered by Adam or my errant father.
Adam became more guarded, abruptly, one summer. I pored over the scraps of paper that recounted the previous few months but could find no clue in them as to what I had done to trigger this change in him. He joked less with me, and became colder, more distant, rebuffing my attempts at repartee with monotone responses and blank looks until I gave up and began to treat him unfeelingly in kind.
I devoted myself fully to the two fields of chemistry and biology, desperately hunting for a means of restoring my stolen memories. I made several developments in theory, but nothing ever quite worked in practice, and as I toiled away in the laboratory the slabs of muscle I had developed over the years slowly atrophied until each day the climb up and down the library staircase tired me more and more.
One day, in our 27th year, they took Adam away. We were asleep in the cell that had been ours since childhood, our bodies now too large for the cots that had originally contained us, myself draped over the furniture with all four arms hanging over the side and my head twisted sideways upon the pillow so as to be facing the door and Adam curled up naked in the foetal position atop his covers with his forearms in front of his face. The door opened and I think I somehow knew something was different, for I cracked an eyelid open and watched what happened keenly. The maid walked in without her usual bundle of clothes and broom, instead carrying a small leather bag about the size of a folio clutched to her chest from which she withdrew a wickedly long hypodermic syringe filled with an orange-brown liquid with dark specks inside. Before I could react or process what was happening she plunged the needle into Adam’s neck, causing him to spasm and jump out of his cot, powerful arms clutching at the air and his throat bulging obscenely as he struggled against whatever the drug was. The maid skittishly jumped back just in time to avoid a wild punch that would have taken her head off, and stood in the doorway with her head bowed while she waited for the last twitches of Adam's to subside.
An hour later, during which I could not sleep but instead lay petrified with my mind feverish with thoughts, the maid returned with one set of clothes and her brush, whereupon she set about cleaning and tidying as usual. She stripped Adam’s bed of its sheets but didn’t replace them. She left the room without looking me in the eyes.
The next day I went to the market as had been my childhood custom, and sat on the steps of the citadel by myself eating an apple and thinking. Had Adam done something wrong? Was my father, who I hadn’t seen for almost a decade, somehow behind this? What had changed? I walked about the city aimlessly for the first time in a long time, my curiosity having been assuaged years ago, seeing with new eyes the colourful and decrepit buildings nonetheless cheerfully crammed together and the various peoples wandering through the streets, weaving in and out of the glacially slow wagons and sedan chairs whose curtains twitched occasionally as their occupants peeked out at the bustle without. I resolved to return to our cell and scrutinise my journals, to see if I could find some hint as to what had happened in the pages of my lost memory.
Circling back to the compound I had known as home for the entirety of my life, I found the gate closed and lifeless, an unprecedented occurrence. I tried it again, rattling the blue-painted bars hard enough to make the hinges groan in protest, before stepping back. I walked around to the side wall, located in a dank alleyway and hopped on top of dumpster before jumping 6 paces into the air and catching a rusted fire escape with one hand. Hauling myself over, the railing creaked alarmingly but held firm until I was standing there, breathing slightly more heavily than normal. I remember this moment well, the stink of the garbage, the condensation of my breath, the tingle of my frozen fingers and a single bead of sweat trickling down my left temple.
I suddenly awoke dressed in the fine robes of a merchant, as I walked down a boulevard I did not recognise, my small surgeons’ bag slung over one shoulder and a weighty satchel over the other. The clothes felt odd against my skin, so used to the plain linen I had always previously worn, and tight on my frame that bulged with muscles I didn’t recognise. My lower arms opened the satchel while I walked, eyes casting about the skyline for any familiar landmarks as my hands probed through the bag, finding an inkpot, several quills and three books - two larger and one smaller. I ducked into the eave of a shop, thankful for the shade in the sweltering sun that was beating down upon the city, back of my neck pricked raw with developing sunburn and eyes sore from squinting. The smaller of the books, I saw, was an empty journal, skinned with leather and with a red ribbon for a bookmark crudely sewn onto the spine. A bookplate inside the cover confirmed it to be from my father’s library, but there were no other clues as to its provenance. Of the larger two, one was my laboratory journal containing the details of my experiments on memory over the years and the other was a book on ornithology I couldn’t remember ever having seen before.
Confused, I stuffed the book back into my satchel and opened up my surgical bag, seeing with satisfaction the familiar arrangement of items inside. I withdrew a scalpel and held it concealed in my upper left hand, and its cool surface lent me some reassurance as I zipped the leather bag back up and stepped out into the crowds again. I was abruptly stopped by a young boy, no more than 14 years, with the clear complexion and doe-eyes of a slaveboy and an inexplicable air of confidence about him.
“So, mister. What’ll be your third wish?”
I tried to push past him, but he interspersed himself between me and the street in an unthinkable act of temerity and repeated himself. More out of surprise than any real decisionmaking, I replied.
“What could you possibly mean by ‘third wish’?” I asked. “How can I have a third wish without a first and second wish beforehand?”
“Ah,” said the boy, smiling and exposing a snaggletooth too perfectly placed to be natural. “Your second wish was for all to be as it was before your first wish. That's why you can’t remember it.” He bobbed up and down with satisfaction on his bare feet as he said this.
I didn’t believe him of course, but I saw no harm in indulging in his little game. “Very well. I wish to remember everything I have forgotten.”
“Done!” chirped the boy, snapping his fingers and turning to melt into the crowds. But not before he let out a high-pitched giggle and called over his shoulder: “Funny - that was your first wish!”
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