Kadari hunkered down in the space between the commode and the wall, knees hugged to his chest. He rocked slightly and muttered a prayer under his breath as the sound of heavy feet dragged their way closer to the bathroom. He knew this day wouldn’t end well.
The youngest of triplets, he was the clear runt of the litter and no one ever allowed him to forget it. His brother, Nodj—the creative one—had inherited their mother’s height, while Unane—the prodigal son—was gifted with their father’s strength. If fear and puniness were distinguishing characteristics, then they were Kadari’s stock in trade.
In addition to his innate artistic ability, Nodj also acquired their mother’s affliction. Kadari first recalled being aware of it one summer’s midday when the twin suns spiked through the jostling leaves of a bunak tree. As a hearty gust of wind bent the bunaks back, displaying their bright red bellies, Kadari watched his brother’s sanity peel away like so much dead skin.
Kadari lost something, too, that day. The sun, the bunak trees, even the summer never looked the same, nor held any peace or calm for him.
He felt somehow responsible, Kadari did, so he visited Nodj every day as he convalesced. He brought Nodj’s favorite foods and sat bedside and spoke only happy remembrances and tamped down memories of how his brother had been viciously cruel to him on occasion. He wasn’t certain whether it was his condition that made him tyrannical or just one of the character traits that went part and parcel with being an older sibling. Perhaps a bit of both.
Nodj no longer lived in the house but visited as regularly as his mood cycles and medication allowed. His presence always altered the mood of the regularly somber house. Their parents avoided each other normally. “A kept distance was a kept peace,” his father would whisper when his mother was otherwise occupied. But Nodj required their attention and when they were forced to occupy the same space for great periods of time, the battles began. All the resentment, all the things left unsaid, aired themselves as they traced the roots of insanity down both sides of the family tree in order to assign blame.
Kadari fortified himself against the hatred in the bathroom, holding his head under the running shower nozzle. The high-pitched whistle of the hot water offered him a personal refuge against his parents’ screams. Neither seemed to notice or care that he constantly went missing for most of Nodj’s home visits.
On occasion, they needed a break from one another—his parents—and left Nodj in his and Unane’s care with a list of special instructions if an incident occurred. And as soon as they left the house, so would Unane, who left his runt brother to look after his mad brother with nary a thought to possible consequences.
This wouldn’t have been an issue under normal circumstances, but their parents’ constant bickering stirred an agitation in Nodj that unnerved Kadari, so he retreated to the bathroom and prayed for the best, which in this case was that Nodj’s medication would allow his brother to sleep until someone, anyone came home.
The insistent pounding sounded like someone was throwing slabs of meat at the door and the message was all too clear, Nodj wanted in. He shouted that he needed to use the bathroom, then he pleaded, then he whimpered. A debate waged in Kadari’s mind, caution versus guilt. His brother’s ability to manipulate situations as well as to do mischief to himself and others was legendary but even still, he was no animal and had not deserved being treated as such. In the end, guilt won out and Kadari opened the door.
The realization of what a fool Kadari had been hit him when his brother pounced on him like a starving beast. The runt was once again the mad one’s prisoner.
The sun beat down much in the same way it had all those many summers ago. Nodj marched Kadari out of their home by the nape of his neck. Parked in front of the house—or better yet, abandoned—was an old skip vehicle, a line of sight teleportation car that hadn’t run in years. Kadari avoided it like the plague because of the memories associated with it. Memories of Nodj locking him in the trunk and cranking the engine, threatening to skip the car off a cliff or worse yet, set it to materialize inside a solid object like a tree or boulder. His struggling increased, though it chafed his neck and resulted in meaty slaps to the back of his head, the closer he got to the trunk.
Nodj stopped and made Kadari study the car as the mad one detailed the specifications of the engine which transformed into a rant about technology and how it was slowly murdering the deities. Manufacturers were the assassins of religion and the deities needed proof that their race was still worth saving so a sacrifice had to be made. Fear whispered in Kadari’s ear that he was destined to die today and that no one would ever find his body.
Nodj dragged Kadari to the skip vehicle’s trunk—then past it—marching him over to the park instead. The runt stared at the tager trees and the omye trees that lined the park’s walkway. The tager tree produced the most succulent fruit and its jellied pit was considered a delicacy. The omye tree grew tart figs that were best when dried and ground into spice, though the juice could be used in combination with herbs to create ailment remedies. Not many used it for medicinal purposes since a large amount of figs were required to yield the smallest amount of juice. It simply wasn’t worth the effort.
At the bend in the park path, there was a brackish pond in which nothing lived and from which no creature drank. Nodj flung the runt into the shallow waters and jumped in after him. There were no thoughts only instinct as Kadari’s vision went from trees and sky to briny water. The taste of salt ran through his mouth and nostrils as his head was forced beneath the surface by the powerful thrusting of his mad brother’s arms. Once, twice, thrice. The runt breathed in hard through his nose and then was marched further underwater, deeper into the pond. There was a thrashing of the water and it turned from white to grey before going dark. Kadari felt death. He swallowed it in huge gulps instead of air. Tarter than the omye, saltier than the pond water. He didn’t like it and thrashed harder.
The pressure on the back of his head, where Nodj’s hand had been, suddenly disappeared. Kadari broke the pond surface, coughing up water. When his eyes could focus, he saw the sky and the trees and Nodj holding his bloody lip, curled in a smile.
In his wild thrashing, he must have hit his brother and broke the hold. Nodj laughed and couldn’t stop. Not as Kadari lunged for him. Not as Kadari swung for his face and chest. Not as Kadari pushed him back onto the walkway, forced him down to the ground, straddled him and pounded on his flesh.
Kadari hit Nodj for all the times he had taken abuse, for all the times he was made to feel powerless and afraid, for all the guilt that he carried for a person who cared nothing for him.
“That is enough, Kadari.” A hand grabbed Kadari’s wrist. Unane’s hand. He was also smiling as he pulled the runt off Nodj. “I think Nodj has had enough.”
Kadari’s coughing fit died down. He spat the last of the salty taste from his mouth. His neck hurt, as did his chest, lungs and knuckles. None of this made sense.
Unane helped Nodj to his feet and checked him for injuries. The mad brother assured him he was fine. Hurt, but unharmed. They both stood shoulder to shoulder, their arms folded across their chest, with a strange look in their eyes. A look Kadari had never seen from them before. Admiration.
The youngest triplet’s realization was a rusted, squeaky gate that hung on a broken hinge that opened slowly and with great effort. But it had opened, eventually. And his brothers waited patiently as Kadari sussed it out.
“You think I do not see the fear in your eyes when you look at me?” Nodj asked. “No brother of mine should be afraid of any man, not even his own brother. Do you understand me, runt?”
It took a moment for things to settle on Kadari. It had been some sort of test, a rite of passage, staged by the pair. “I am not a runt!”
His brothers laughed but not in a mocking manner. “No, I suppose you are not.”
They clapped him on the back and walked back home as equals. No, better than that, as brothers.
Text and Audio ©1988 & 2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys
About Runt: The original version of this piece was written back in the dark ages when people didn’t have personal computers. Scribbled in the 80’s in a notebook with a pencil, then typed into manuscript form on a manual typewriter.
It was inspired by my then girlfriend who met up with her two estranged sisters when she went back home to bury her father. She never really got along with any of her family, her sisters especially, but attending her father’s funeral served as some sort of closure for the feelings she had for him.
The youngest of the three, she was constantly abused by her sisters, which is why she left and stayed away, and sure enough, when she returned, so did the abuse. Until she gave back as good as she got. Which earned her a little fearful respect.
I swapped genders, rolled back the years a bit and tried to write a coming of age story. Tried.
Dissatisfied with the result, I put the idea aside for a long time and came back to it only last year. A good friend who is a voracious reader often leafs through my box of regret and plucks a story out.
This was her latest find and she told me that I was being too judgmental and the story was fine as it is.
So, here it is in its original state.