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Free will, they say, is what makes us human. It is what allows to make choices, and to choose our own paths. Each path is crafted delicately, branched off in all directions, every decision weighed in and balanced. It is impossible to measure human worth, for all of us our different. As long as we have the privilege of choice, we are free. Our life is our own, and at the end of the day, it belongs only to us. Others may influence, but they cannot control. Our body is our own, our mind is our own, and our mistakes are, ultimately, our own. From the day we are born to the day we die, we live for ourselves. That is what it means to be human.
That is what I was told when I was a child. Now, though, it seems like all the other stories I was told, a fabricated lie created to put our minds at rest. As children, we are protected, sheltered from the world around us. We are not told what it truly means to be human, because none of us would believe it. The cruelties of the world are something the innocent mind of a child cannot comprehend, and so they are hidden, locked away for them to discover on their own. Each child is filled with the notion that they are free, that they are allowed to someday make their own life. They are convinced they are special, and that there are things that can set them apart from the crowd. They are convinced they are all equal.
That is a lie. Just like the carefully thought out fairytales with their glistening knights and princes, there is no truth to those stories. Happily ever after is a concept created to put the child’s mind at ease.
My sister and I were not equal, and I knew that from a very young age. I was timid, meek, and useless. She was brave, fiery, and ambitious. She saw the world in a way I couldn’t understand, and I lagged behind her, trying to make sense of all she told me. She crafted me perfectly to the image she wanted, her carefully timed smiles leading me in a path she chose. I was helpless to follow after her, hoping that one day I could achieve what she did. I was invisible, while she was very much seen. She was an abstract, beautiful painting, and I was simply black and white, my creator not bothering to color the simplistic lines.
But she guided me, and I learned to accept that I would never have the spotlight. I learned that, in life, sometimes coming in second place is better than coming in last. I followed all of her whispered directions, let myself slip into darkness when she no longer needed my help. I was the silent one, and while she glowed and bloomed, I stayed premature, in a constant state of early spring. I hoped that by following her, I, too, could reach full blossom.
It came to that day, though, that I could no longer listen to her words. She coaxed me on, whispered to me softly, told me what I needed to do. It was the middle of winter, and the cold was biting when I stepped out. The object in my hands was solid, but I tried to forget it was there at all. I knew what I was meant to do, and my sister had told me exactly how it could be accomplished. It was who I was, she told me. It was destiny.
My fingers shook, and my body rebelled. My mind told me that I couldn’t, that I shouldn’t. I felt myself breaking apart, as if the person she’d created in me and the person I was were fighting each other, one hoping to find dominance. I knew that it was impossible, for I was her sister, and this was my duty. I was meant to help her, to follow her, to do as she said. I was meant to be in second place.
I was a caged bird, while she was free. The caged bird would do whatever it took to escape, and so I’d followed her. But part of me insisted that I’d never wanted to escape at all. I was safe in that cage, safe and protected from the world around me. I was a child in an adult’s body, and it had always seemed to be the way things should be.
But I couldn’t do it. The object slipped from my hands and the moisture slipped from my cheeks, and my body refused to move. I heard her words echo in my head, her sharp yelling causing me to convulse in a way I never had. Her words were harsh in a way I’d never heard before, as well, and I heard that sound as it rang through the air, nearly deafening me.
The snow was a color of maroon that day, bleeding into the concrete. I watched as the body of another slumped, lifeless, useless, gone.
We are not free. None of us are free. Instead, we are trapped, helpless, and insignificant. At the end of the day, we are all caged birds, but some beat our wings harder against the bars.
I watched the day she left the world, watched her beautiful face twist and contort and her body seize until it finally laid still, every bit of fight gone. I realized, then, that she had never escaped the cage at all.
In death, we are all equal.