Kollini Played the Two Sticks

Like all great genesis stories, this one begins with words.

My brother Ben and I were in the backyard, ages three and seven respectively, replaying the usual game of “restaurant.” Our kitchen was stocked with pebbled meat paste and stoney buns, our dining room an avant-garde array of Wiffle Balls and hula-hoops. Business was booming, and so was boredom. A plot twist was in order.

A customer, conveniently imagined by my brother, complained of rocks in her food; just like that, Ben and I were freed from the tedium of fry cookery. We scanned the verdant plane in front of us: pinking dogwood tree on the left, weathered play structure to the right...slide, ladder, swings. Swings. With a whim, those flappy yellow cradles turned to gliders: precious points of access to thinner air, means of purging our impatient energy.

Yet even flight could not satisfy for long.

“The controls are going out!” I screamed, tugging the ropes of my swing to shake its wooden frame. Taking my cue, Ben began to keen: “We’re crashing, we’re crashing!” We tumbled from the cloudy apex of our paired arcs, pitching and reeling into what would become the defining adventure of our twinned childhoods.

Noses and piggy toes buried in grass, we lay quite still.

“Where are we?” Ben peered at me, a dun colored baby bird dressed in athletic shorts. His baseball head, smooth and round, featured keen blue eyes. Normally sharp, the eyes were further whetted to a point, honed by all of the anticipation that a big sister can foster in her little brother.

The answer came quickly.?“We’re in Greshema, John.” Ah, there it was. A new game and a new word. Let there be light. Anticipatory, I scuttled across the grass, knelt into the shrubs, and let Ben hold his peanut butter breath.

From the lavender bush, my brother watched as an unfamiliar character emerged. I spread my plumped little calves, crossed my arms, crinkled my brow and beamed a smile. Now I was what I knew a man to be: a kneaded conception of fathers, grandfathers, chapter book heroes, and newscasters.

“Hello,” said the unknown Gresheman. His timbre was an eight-year-old treble, maneuvered into an unconvincing lower octave.

“I’m Kollini.”

 

Immediately after our introduction, Kollini (playacted by me) baptized Ben and I with new names: Yonder and Sora. Miniature husband and wife, Ben and I were Yonder and Sora in the two different backyards of our two different houses. First, we lived in the play fort, later, in a different, roomier play fort, and finally on taut trampoline blackness. Greshema was a fluid place, unconcerned with logistical technicalities. Redrawing borders to accommodate new school zones was never an issue.

Kollini was, of course, ever present. In our first backyard, he lived atop a large decorative boulder; in our second, he upgraded to the under-the-deck suite. He definitely had dreadlocks, rarely wore a shirt, loved to roast red meat, and was a philosopher-musician. He had a jolly voice, probably inspired by the stylings of Tigger.?Kollini, our dearest friend in Greshema, was simply one character of many. With a cast of almost two dozen personalities, Greshema was a well-populated land that packaged itself into neatly monogamous relationships. Yonder and Sora, Kollini and Gina, Saka and Shing Ying, and Shakayao and Preña all made their homes in various corners of the backyard, settled between branches and tucked inside of shrubbery. Not everyone in Greshema was married. After all, Ben and I knew some single people, so any projected world had to incorporate a few. Old Woman, a wise storyteller, made soap from sundry flowerbox herbs. Coach, a bachelor who lived in the arborvitae, was the local cheerleader. He coordinated all of the festivals, sporting events, concerts, and circuses that constituted a holistic Gresheman life. Yonder wasn’t so fond of Shinee, a frizzy haired ginger who sometimes sprung from the gardenias. Her desperate crush on him, a passion she expressed by jumping on his back and tugging at his hair, infuriated little Yonder. Shinee came out when I wanted an excuse to bother.

In spite of this vast congregation of faces and plots, an outsider observing Greshema in motion would see only two people, not twenty. This was no game for friends and next-door neighbors. There was too much history to cover, immense sanctity attached to the convoluted names and politics that a stranger was sure to get wrong. The shortage of children in our immediate family complicated Greshema’s demand for multiple personalities. Ultimately, the solution was a simple and bossy one. Ben would play Yonder, and I would play everyone else. As such, Yonder lived in a world completely outside of his control. A mind four years more developed than his, well versed in historical fiction novels and the tropes of children’s fantasy, spun him up in mythic candy floss: in exaltation and conflict, surprise illnesses and miraculous healings, storybook trials and perfect redemptions. Through it all, Yonder’s best friend was Kollini. Ben’s best friend was me.

 

Greshema was a moveable feast of storyline; the game could thrive anywhere. When Ben and I were at our cabin, clambering over boulders and between thin trees, sucking at the spiced Cascadian air, then Yonder and Sora were in Australia, visiting dear friends Batman and Batgirl. When Ben and I were at the beach, Yonder and Sora stayed with a quiet scholar friend, Tom (the appropriated name of our grandfather), and his wife Cecelia. Grandma’s house was Asia, where Buzz Lightyear (who happened to be Yonder’s cousin) and his wife made their home under a willow tree. The logic of these distinctions always made complete sense. Continents of the adult world calmly submitted themselves to the continents of ours.

Traveling the globe in Mom’s minivan, Ben and I would bicker. I would sit with a stack of chapter books, reading them as if the task were salaried. Ben would arch a finger and poke my shoulder repeatedly until I slapped him away. In response, he would attempt to steal my share of the bagged snacks. Once home, I would tease him relentlessly or abandon him for some melodramatic journaling. Ben would retaliate by sneaking into the piano room and giggling at my mistakes. He liked to pinch my legs with all five fingers. One time, I kicked him below the belt.

Yet while a significant part of our day-to-day relationship was defined by clash, our games (Greshema chiefly, but others too) were escapes from the grind of siblinghood. In our makeshift spa, I made Ben over with hair gel and various flavors of chapstick. The two of us went “camping” with our plastic baby dolls. We played stuffed animals and Pooh Bear Lego construction site, “school” and “hospital” and “art gallery” and “circus.” We ran our own business called Office Co. Each Christmas morning, we woke unnaturally early and lay on our backs like mummies, deliberating over what Santa’s gifts might be. We wrote puppet shows. We created elaborate brackets for racing Hot Wheels and rubrics for trading Halloween candy. Imagination was our saving grace. It mined away hot, disparate layers of age and gender, exposing the cool and bedrock affection beneath.

 

Every proper game needs a villain; Greshema had several. Piggy and Mrs. Piggy Poops, along with their accomplices, Moosey and Mrs. Moosey Van Moosey, were the supreme mischief-makers in Greshema. They vandalized Yonder’s house with ashy paint, poisoned his food stores, and kidnaped his pets. Piggy and Moosey spoke in high raspy voices, moved in sporadic twitches. Their titles were their only endearing traits. Although Yonder was infuriated by Piggy Poops’ shenanigans, one mention

of the swine’s full name would dissolve the hero into giggles.

Conflict was essential to the flow of our game, and Piggy and Moosey reflected the largest injustices Ben and I ever faced: classmates that didn’t share the scissors or smushed precious clay projects, parental chastisement, cookies we stole from each other. Generally, though, Greshema was a serene land, just as ours was. Its constitution, bound in stapled orange construction paper and decorated with a silver paint pen, outlawed wars and money. Everyone had someone to love. Everyone had a bush to shelter under. No one was mentally ill. Nobody aged, and nobody died.

 

Two and a half years ago, Ben and I stood on the outskirts of Asia (our grandmother’s backyard), ages fourteen and eighteen respectively. We surveyed Buzz Lightyear’s old stomping grounds with trepidation. This part of our game, Grandma’s realm of berry picking and frogs in the hot tub, had denatured itself. The lake with ducks did not delight. The wispy cat, wandering around the edges of the patio, skulked with head down.

As Kollini and Yonder, we caught fish with our bare hands, pulling the silvery figments from chalky rivers of bark dust. We served as delegates at global leader King Continent’s terrifying meetings, fighting for the sovereignty of a suburban backyard. We wrote songs at harvest time, facing the chilling possibilities of starvation before heading inside for Mom’s pasta with sausage. When Piggy tried to fool us by putting on a disguise, impersonating one or the other of us to try and spark a fight, we could always tell that it was him. Piggy was a good actor, but Yonder and Kollini knew each other as only the dearest of pals can.

Now though, Kollini and Yonder seemed distant, treasures interred in a safe, combination forgotten. Now we were plain old Kate and Ben, no longer muscled and dirt-smudged, drained of omnipotence and tidy endings. Frightened, we watched as our mother and her brother embarked on another distinctly sibling adventure, off to uncharted lands. We knew that this journey was in store for us, too, and we felt utterly unprepared. Mom and Uncle Gregg were laying their mother to rest.

Ben looked at me. A masculine chin was scooping the baby fat from his cheeks, cheeks six feet up and brushed with acne. The clean, sweet blue eyes, though—those were the same perpetual gems of my little brother.?

“Do you realize that we’re going to have to do this someday?” he asked me.

?“Don’t say that, Ben,” I said.?

Yonder trusted his sister and friend to make things right. I, Kate, helped Ben with math homework. When we were played cooking show, I, Kate, made him frozen waffle sandwiches. Later, I read him bedtime stories. In Greshema, I, Coach, gave Yonder the gold medal at the karate contest. I, Sora, I forgave Yonder for carousing with Kollini.

I gave him waffles, stories, and answers, and I tried to make them nice ones. Yet now the adventure was cruel. Greshema was inaccessible by boat, plane, or train, and I was as lost as the brother I had always tried to lead.

 

The last time Ben and I saw Kollini in the flesh was before our final move. Now, at seventeen and twenty-one, Ben and I have never tried to pencil Greshema’s landscape onto our new yard. It has no fence. We are too big to crawl under the trampoline to sort our foodstuffs for winter. The impetus behind 95% of the characters lives in another state, procuring a Bachelor’s Degree. We’re older.

He’s no longer corporeal, and he doesn’t like to play, but Kollini hasn’t abandoned us quite yet. When he reveals himself, occasionally, it is not in Greshema, but in lengthy letters, or over brunch tables, or in the contours of frozen yogurt. He taps the wires of phone conversations Ben and I share, listening to talk of girlfriends and high school and the complicated quest for faith. At my Grandma Nette’s funeral, Ben and I clasped our hands on a lighter, illuminating a purple candle of remembrance. Kollini was one of the mourners.

Sometimes I feel like Kollini’s going to disappear someday, that Ben and I will find ourselves abandoned. When I don’t call or text enough, or when I consider never moving back home, or when I simply don’t go home for months and months, I hope he doesn’t give up on me, on either of us. I hope he grows up, too.

 

Every childhood winter, without fail, Greshema’s lawn grew crispy with frost and the trampoline veiled itself in rain. Mom would require a few months of indoor revelry, laced with art projects and Mario Kart races and blanket forts, and we would comply. Greshema was still there, of course. There was something about the characters that could only exist outdoors, in the backyard, where the housecat tigers and lapdog wolf roamed free.

Each spring, the reunion was sweet. On Oregon’s first warm day (sometimes the second but never too late) Kollini emerged from under the deck. Immediately, he would begin to scribble a list of plans: “Let’s hunt, let’s fish, let’s run a race, let’s exercise, let’s play with the Gresheman wolf, let’s have band practice!”

Band was one of Greshema’s most joyous pastimes. Yonder was the dancer. He had center stage to perform his leaps and twirls, but there was really no competition. The star of the show was always Kollini.

Kollini played the two sticks. A traditional Gresheman instrument, the two sticks were a pair of shiny plastic baseball bats, one black, one yellow, one clenched firmly in each hand. They were tapped together in syncopated rhythms, swung about in the air like flags, accompanied by Kollini’s lyrical voice. He played songs like “The Fish” and “The Tiger.” “The Finale” was a perpetual crowd pleaser.?

The two sticks were joyous, mirthful, entirely senseless. As Kollini played them, Yonder danced in glee, tracing spirals around his blood brother. Neighboring houses heard the shrill melodies and incessant banging with annoyance. The rich symphonic chords did not ring for them; they could not feel the pulses of fraternal ritual.

When our own house inevitably announced dinner, emitting tasty scents and Mom’s exasperated voice, Ben and I peeled off our Gresheman names with regret, probably fighting about when we would put them on again. After one of those summers, we never would. Our hours in the game would pass away.

As Ben and I dashed from yard to house for chicken and dumplings, as we said goodbye at a dormitory door, as we gain educations and in-laws and paychecks and the salty loves and losses of age, the thwack of the two sticks endures, envelops.

Our hearts keep time to the beat of our world, and our friend Kollini hums along.