“I could always write a movie soundtrack. I’ve never done one before, and it seems like it might be fun.”
“You know the difference between a movie and a music video, right?”
“Of course –“
“Because in a movie, the music’s generally supposed to stay in the background.”
“Not the way I write it.” – a matter of public record, incidentally. Just look up my film licensing agreements. “Anitami audiences have taste, Telkam. You can’t seriously believe they’d rather watch you than listen to me.”
There wasn’t really much I could say to that, so I just let him sulk for a couple of minutes. I did apologize, eventually, I’m not heartless.
“It’s fine.” (It obviously wasn’t. What my brother lacks in eloquence, he more than makes up for in emotional volatility).
“No, it’s not. You know how I get when people imply I’m not talented.”
“Yeah. Makel, I’m not you.”
That’s obvious, I’ve heard him sing. “You’re still an artist. Well, in a manner of speaking –“
“What I am is I’m employed, that’s what I am.” He turned away. I think he may even have grunted.
“You’re really not happy, are you?”
“I just thought it would be nice to collaborate on a project with my little brother.”
I decided to visit Telkam at work, since I was curious, but mostly to fuck with him. They were shooting on some backlot in the middle of – and I do mean – nowhere, three hours outside of Lina by train, one of those depressing exurbs full of identical row-houses full of identical purples. It’s still mostly apartments out there, but no more than three or four families to a building. They’re all a dingy sort of off-white – the buildings, not the families – with squares of patchy grass and the occasional optimistic swing-set. I’ve heard people move out there for the space, but I can’t imagine they’d need it. I didn’t see any children. Then again, it was school hours.
The lot was easy enough to find. Telkam was wearing something that looked like a couple of old laundry machines wrapped in aluminum foil. (“Astronaut or sentient household appliance?” “Radiation suit, obviously”). You couldn’t see his face, nor much of the rest of him, which meant either a surprising dedication to realistic radiation safety standards on the part of the producers or just plain stupidity – after all, they certainly aren’t paying him for his acting skills.
(You may think I’m habitually cruel to him – and I am, though not more than any older brother. Don’t misjudge me. The advance on my exclusive memoirs is going straight into a trust fund to pay for his first-born child. What? It’s not as if he’s going to earn one on his own.)
In any case, I snuck in the back during a take, and watched him flail at a kind of rubbery-looking facsimile of a post-apocalyptic mutant organism for a little while before someone caught sight of me. She was a little yellow with a clipboard, clearly some species of assistant, and I must say she made a valiant effort to squeal in absolute silence. But then an electrician noticed her, and had to nudge his friend, who had to nudge her friend, and – well, have you ever seen a very, very quiet mob starting to assemble itself? Until then I hadn’t either, and it’s an experience Eventually the man with the puppet joined in and they had to stop filming. It took another ten minutes to get Telkam out of the suit.
“Congratulations, asshole. They’re going to lose the whole day, do you have any idea how much that costs?”
“Not as such, no.”
“It’s not a high-budget operation, but there’s still about 200 people working here, and they’ve all got salaries. And equipment, and renting the space –“
“I know I can pay the difference.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Sure it is. Just point me in the direction of your line producer and see what happens.”
Articulate, isn’t he? “How do you feel about abandoning the land of the living laundry machines and taking the rest of the day off?”
“I don’t come and bother you where you work.”
“Not for lack of trying. And we both know that that’s not strictly true.”
“Makel – “
“Remember that time, you would have been, what, one and a half? And I was recording something at home, when suddenly I heard this banging – “
“Makel! Don’t talk about that where there are people!” (And so I won’t – but you should really look up the video on MyStream.)
In the end, he did leave for the day, and since I’d given them permission to play my latest single over the opening credits, the director even thanked me. (Thematically, it’s completely inappropriate, but don’t we all make sacrifices for the sake of family?)
“Feel like telling me what that was all about?” – we’d been on the train to Lina for about two hours at this point, but when Telkam feels like sulking – as in all his endeavors – he commits.
“I haven’t seen you for a while.” Which, for the record, is true.
“You’re not on a secret mission from mom and dad?”
“To, what, make sure you’re still alive. They’re not that neurotic, and they’re definitely not that subtle.”
“Aitim, then. But he probably already has spies.”
“Oh, Telkam. You’re assuming he cares.”
The thing about Telkam is that it’s impossible to guess what’s going to upset him. Most things that would reduce a reasonable person to tears just roll right off him, but he can be surprisingly vulnerable. Especially when it comes to family. So –
“They all want you to be happy,” I say eventually. “They love you. For reasons that pass comprehension, admittedly – “
“I know I haven’t been home in a long time.” He hasn’t. I’m not even sure where he’s living right now, in fact, which is why I had go and kidnap him at work – “How’s Kantil?”
“He’s doing well. Math track, says he wants to do something practical. Dad’s hoping he’ll be an engineer, of course, but mom thinks economics. And Kefin’s talking.”
“I thought Kefin was talking months ago.”
“He was, but only in Anitami, and you know dad, that barely counts.” (My father raised all of his children to speak at least six languages – to varying degrees of success – and I’ll have you know that I translate all my own lyrics in four.)
“I’d visit more, but – “
“They might ask me how I am.”
I remember when Aitim went off to live with our grandfather (you may have heard of him?). I’ll never forget what it was like after he left. I don’t think the house has ever been so quiet, and that’s before or since. I did a lot of singing. My parents worked, somehow, even more than they usually do, and if I hadn’t been there I don’t think they’d have remembered to come home – this was just before Telkam.
The only people who gossip more viciously than blues are green academics (and I know whereof I speak), so if you’ve had the misfortune to move in those rarified circles, don’t believe what they tell you – dad never tried to make him stay. Once he was sure that it was what Aitim really wanted, he didn’t even try to persuade him. My father doesn’t understand why anyone who could be green would ever choose to be anything else, but he knows what it’s like to be forced to be something you’re not. Yes, it’s an unusual way of looking at caste, which for all I know may be unique to my family, but I’ve always considered myself the better for it. Patrilineality be damned, I’m green. I know it. You know it, too – would you have picked up this book if you hadn’t heard me sing?
Aitim himself says much the same – not that he won’t deny it if you ask him. At least he did one night a few months later, at dinner with just grandfather and his wife and the two of us and our cousin Kan, age three seasons, because sometimes even Fen Neli wants to see his grandchildren without having to smooth over some sort of familial conflict.
“You’re not blue,” I told him between courses. “It doesn’t matter who our grandfather is. In our family we’re green.”
“Poor grandfather! Someone will have to tell him we’ve stopped being related.” This all happened years ago, six or seven at least, and I can’t recall if grandfather laughed, and ruffled Aitim’s hair. I like to think he did. “Besides, I don’t think I’m blue because our father is really blue – it’s just that some people will be more willing to work with me if they think I do, so that’s how I explain to them.”
“That’s not what dad thinks.”
(Grandfather, not paying attention: “No, Kan, we don’t eat the flatware, yes, yes, that’s the way, or grandmother’s necklace – where did he get that? – Kan”)
“Really. He said so. And he’s so angry he’s not going to let you come home and you’re going to have to go live with Uncle Nolime ‘cause you think he’s so much better than us.”
It would have been a fairly transparent lie even if you didn’t know our father well, or weren’t Aitim, but he did, and he was, and of course, being Aitim, he smiled. “If that’s so, then I suppose shall live with Uncle Nolime, but I’m afraid I should miss you all terribly.”
“Don’t you miss us now?” I think I mentioned, before, that father felt like he’d somehow betrayed his firstborn son. I was two years old, my big brother had just left for what seemed, at age two, to be forever, and I just felt betrayed.
“I know I’ll come back, Makel. And if I lived with Uncle Nolime, I don’t think father and mother would visit me nearly as often.”
“He puts up with Entis” – Entis, thankfully, being too occupied by Kan to notice – “so why’d you do it, then?”
“Be a blue, if it’s not because of dad.”
“Hmmm. Makel, why do you think we have castes?”
“Historical contingency, right? Societies that had castes hundreds of years ago did better than the ones that didn’t, and now we all have them. Except – well, we can’t know if they that was because they had castes, or because they matched particular castes to particular niches, or they just happened to have more resources to begin with, or something else entirely. I'm sure the archeologists have some way to determine, but it happened so long ago – “
“There are confounding factors.”
“And we've been selecting for a narrow range of competence within each caste for hundreds of years. Yellows really are more conscientious than average, even if they weren’t always, and grays really are stronger and faster, and blues are –“ Kan, seated directly across from me, gnawing on the edge of the table – “- blue, but we don’t go around saying that especially smart people are green. Unless they’re dad.”
Aitim nodded. “What they’ll teach you – at least in blue school – is tat heredity obviously isn’t infallible, and sometimes people really might be more productive in different caste than the one they’re born to. But that’s so vanishingly rare – especially compared to the number of people who’d want to switch for more power, or prestige, or cheaper credits, or something else like that – that it’s a waste of resources to try and sort out all the valid claims. So we just don’t allow it.”
“Except for dad.”
“That’s right. And father didn’t get away with what he did because he was talented enough to justify it. He is, of course, but that isn’t why it worked.”
(I’m going to have to interrupt my brother, here – just for a moment – because most of you don’t know him, and have consequently never heard him speak. I don’t remember his exact words, and I can’t explain how the looks in his eyes, and his gestures, and his tone made them seem so perfectly, irreproachably reasonable. People say I have the magic voice.)
“Father got away with it,” Aitim continued, “because there’s a certain way that people expect greens to act, and part of that – for better or for worse – is that they really don’t think they should have to follow the rules so long as they’re clever enough to get around them. All the things that would have made him a terrible blue – his impulsivity, his single-mindedness, his, ah, – “
“ –complete lack of social skills?”
“Yes, that – they’re not exactly virtues, in a green, but they make him seem more consistent with himself.”
“I don’t think dad cares about that.”
“Really? I think he cares a great deal. And other people care even more.”
“Is that why you want to be a blue? Because it makes you more consistent with yourself?”
“Yes. And no one really thinks that there’s anything ontologically significant about patrilineality or matrilineality, in a mixed-caste marriage. We simply need a way of deciding edge cases – that is, of determining who we should think of as blue. They’ll think of me as blue. That’s what matters.”
Grandfather must have gone upstairs to put cousin Kan to bed, because I can’t imagine he wouldn’t have had something to say to that.
“So it’s all in people’s heads?”
“The most real things usually are. You know –“ Aitim was looking at a framed photograph of our father as a child of one or two, sitting in grandfather’s lap and looking desperately unhappy – “the only thing that could have made the caste system look more arbitrary than letting father switch would have been making him stay. Can you imagine? It would have seemed so cruel, and so stupid –“
“It’s a good thing he left.”
And, after a while – “I think so too.”
I took a few moments to digest that, along with my dessert. “It sounds like you’re saying that it’s fine to ignore your birth caste, as long as you can get enough people to take you seriously.”
“I never said that.”
“You meant –“
“Well, I won’t acknowledge it.” Even then, he was running for office.
“I don’t see why you had to tell me all that.”
We’re getting off the train in Lina, in my neighborhood - green, naturally - when I start to notice the strange expressions on people’s faces. Of course, Telkam’s hair. Either he’s wearing a wig or he’s bleached it for the part.
“Why do you think the leads in action movies are always gray?”
“Your hair, I just noticed – I mean, it would make sense if you were playing an astronaut or a soldier or something, but you’re the last survivor of a nuclear holocaust, it could really be anybody.”
“I guess it’s just what people expect.”
“I suppose so.”
“Besides, if action hero were a job, it would definitely be gray.”
It’s a beautiful night, perfectly clear. The city sparkles, forty, fifty, a hundred stories tall, with little cracks of sky shining between the buildings in the hazy, reflective darkness. If you live near the river – and I do – you can see the lights reflected in the water, quavering and sinking and surfacing as the little waves calm, like the stars it’s always just too bright to see.
“I think you have more in common with Aitim than you’d like to admit,” I said.
“That’s why I told you that story earlier.”
“Only because he wants to be.”
“He dyes his hair. I know he wants us to think it’s naturally coming in teal, but last time he was home, I saw his roots showing.” A girl with pale jade-colored hair walks by, gives us a funny look, and scurries off. Telkam tosses his hair and blows her a kiss. “You know, I think I just might keep the gray? It suits me.”