I’ll never forget the first one I ate. It was like nothing I’d ever had before. My front teeth crunched through a thin salty crust before my taste buds were overwhelmed with flavors and textures I couldn’t have dreamed about. Tart and fruity, spiced and buttery, creamy and sweet—my tongue couldn’t keep up with the surprises. There was, of course, the ever-present taste of dirt; I’d snatched up the strange treat from the ground beneath the vendor’s stall, after all. But nearly everything I ever ate came with that earthy dusting, so I’d learned to ignore it. And on that morning, savoring this new bit of heaven fallen from the sky—or a baker’s tray—I knew I had to have more.
I was nearly ten years old at the time. Smart enough to know when to take an opportunity when it presented itself. Foolish enough not to know to quit while ahead. Having retrieved my prize from under the confectioner’s market stand, I scurried away between the legs of shoppers and hagglers, unnoticed as always as I darted around the nearest wall and put the little globe of goodness in my mouth. Normally I’d have waited for my brother, but we hadn’t eaten anything the day before and had decided to split up to improve our odds of acquiring sustenance that morning. I hadn’t seen him for several minutes, my stomach was growling, and I didn’t want to be caught with pilfered food, so – chomp. A thin cocoa paste oozed out of the half I still held in my grimy fingers and dribbled down my chin as I marveled at the variety and intensity of flavors packed into the little confection. I finished off the other half, then swiped the back of my hand across my mouth and rubbed it in the dirt at my feet to be rid of the evidence. And none too soon – my brother Rono rounded the corner and looked this way and that before catching sight of me on the ground with my back against a wall.
“Are you done already?” he asked as he neared. “What did you get?”
I shook my head and did my best to look tired and thirsty. “Nothing yet. The sun is too hot today. I had to take a break, find some shade.”
He must have noticed remnants of my selfishness stuck in my teeth, for he crouched next to me and caught my jaw between his thumb and forefinger. He was three years older, and his grip was like a vise, even with just those two digits. “We’re supposed to share!” he hissed before jerking my face away. “Just for that, you don’t get any of this.”
He stood and pulled a purple orb from a pocket of his filthy, ragged pants and bit into it greedily. The fruit’s juice spilled down his chin just as the candy’s innards had stained mine. On any other day I would have protested, cried and pounded on his back with my little fists to no effect. But frankly I was much happier with my own find than I would have been with half of his bland fruit. Still, I knew I should have waited to find Rono before devouring my delicacy.
So the next day, I swiped two – one for myself, and one for him.
We never even knew what they were called. Not having money to pay for them, Rono and I avoided all contact with the rotund man and woman selling them. We referred to them simply as “sweet lumps,” which we usually slurred into a single word uttered around mouthfuls of those delightful little balls. After Rono tried the first one I brought him, my prior selfishness was forgiven, and soon sweetlumps were nearly all we spoke of. Every morning, we would conduct an initial surreptitious survey of the market to determine if and where the vendors had set up shop. If they were present, they were usually our first target. In time we developed a sort of game around the treats – see who could procure the most over a week, and share our hauls evenly until the last day when the winner would get an extra. And, having survived on sneakery and distraction for so many years, we were good at it.
But not good enough.
One morning as Rono and I scouted the market, starting at opposite ends from each other, I heard a sudden commotion, a raising of voices above the normal din. As I turned in the direction of the disturbance, a woman shouted, “Thief! Thief! Stop him!” Several city guards were approaching a dense packing of people near the usual sweetlump stand. Without thinking I immediately pressed forward through the crowd, my heart pounding with dread as I suspected what was happening. To my horror I caught sight of the thief just as two of the guards caught his arms and kicked his legs out from under him. He fell face first into the dirt, still struggling against their grips as a third guard grabbed his hair and hauled him to his knees.
It was Rono.
By now the crowd was spitting on him, hurling all manner of vile insults and even some rotten fruit. I wanted to run to him, shield him from the mob, demand that the guards stop harming him… but I froze instead. I stood there, at the edge of the throng of onlookers, rooted to the ground in fear as Rono was bound and led out of the market. And just before he disappeared from sight, he looked over his shoulder at me. His eyes were full of anger and determination, and in that moment I knew he blamed me for what had happened. I was at fault for him getting caught, arrested, and imprisoned – or worse.
The crowd soon dispersed, the city’s residents returned to business as usual, and I was left stranded in a sea of strangers. I darted to the nearest corner to escape any suspicious glares, then made my way in a terrified daze to a tiny overgrown courtyard between buildings in a forgotten part of the city. It was the sanctuary Rono and I had shared since our parents’ arrest so many years ago. I buried myself under a pile of old, filthy blankets on a dilapidated porch and shook and cried until I was too exhausted to do anything but sleep. And Rono’s accusatory stare haunted my dreams for nights on end.
When I emerged days later from our back-alley nook – my nook now – I must have looked wretched, for the first people I stumbled upon took pity on me immediately. An older man and woman, hair gray, faces wrinkled with age and kindness, each carrying a sack of food from the market. They fussed over me in sympathetic voices (“Oh, you poor dear!” “You must be so hungry and thirsty.” “Surely we can spare a bit of food for such a little creature.”). Then they offered me a bruised piece of fruit from one of their bags.
I took it in my dirty, shaking hands and stared at it, too dumbfounded to do much else. I think it was the first time anyone other than Rono had knowingly given me anything. I thought for a moment that they were angels, my saviors. Then they patted me on the head and continued on their way. I watched them disappear down the path and around a corner, too weak and dazed to call after them, to ask for more, to beg them to take me home with them. They faded from my sight as easily as I must have faded from their minds, just another nameless street rat more down on his threadbare luck than usual. I knew at that moment that no one else was going to help me, that the couple’s charity was a fleeting anomaly, that I was truly alone.
It wasn’t long before my luck ran out completely. Without the assurance that Rono was out there, watching over me as I watched over him, I was suddenly terrified of the guard. I hesitated, I grew paranoid, and I lost patience. Rather than plan and observe and wait for opportunities to obtain food, I tried to make opportunities. Within two weeks of Rono’s apprehension, I attracted too much attention and found myself in the clutches of a pack of guards. As small as I was, they still pushed me around, jeered, slung insults and epithets. One dug through my pockets and produced my meager take from the morning. “This isn’t for the likes of you, vermin,” he snarled. “Your kind doesn’t get to enjoy such fine things.”
Vermin? My kind? Were we not all people, living in the same city? What made me a pest to be stamped out? Much later, I would begin to realize that Rono’s arrest had not truly been my fault. But at that moment, with thick, coarse leather straps cinched around my bony wrists, I could only cry and suffer the guards’ ridicule as I was taken from the market.
Rono and I were not reunited in prison. I never saw him again. I don’t know what became of him. I was put to work breaking rocks and carving massive stone cubes to be used in some building project. I was beaten for asking about Rono. I was beaten for speaking while the other prisoners and I worked. I was beaten for doing anything other than breaking rocks, eating, and sleeping, and for doing the latter two for too long or too often. I learned to ignore the suffering of other prisoners’ punishments, and I struggled to put a fellow prisoner – one I’d come to think of as a friend – out of my mind when he took sick and was dragged away, never to reappear.
Ten years later, my hour draws near. I am no longer fit to work. I stifle my coughing the best I can to hide my own illness. Occasional footsteps in the hallway drum dread into my weakening heart. With every approach of a guard near my cell’s windowless door, I wonder if it’s my turn to truly disappear, not just from the city’s streets but from this prison as well. From this world, this life. If you’re reading this, then my turn came, one way or another. Did Rono and I steal? Yes. I’ll make no qualms about that. Was it against the law? Yes, as the law stood then and currently stands. Were we wrong to do it? Did we deserve imprisonment with no hope for release? I have no answers to those judgments. I can only say that we did what we did in order to survive. It was the only way we knew how, in a city that cared nothing for us.
And I can only hope that these, my last words, come to mind when next you see someone like me at the market or walking the city’s streets. May they remind you that behind the tattered rags and the dirty face is a person, not a nameless nuisance, not an “other.” And though I cannot dictate your actions, I hope my story inspires you to care for those different from or less fortunate than you, even if you do not know their stories.
This story was written in response to a prompt at Chuck Wendig’s blog Terribleminds.com to write a 2,000 word story about food.