(Previously Published in The Bosphorus Review)
Mara and I are inseparable, not from will, but because we are united by the hip. We are fourteen, one meter fifty tall, with black hair, green eyes, small noses and mouths with thin lips. We are usually agreed what to do and where to go, but, when that doesn’t happen, I impose my will. As our mother would not let us go to school, we hardly know how to read and write. She said that we were a punishment from God and only spoke to us to give orders or insults. On the night of the turn of the nineteenth century, she disappeared and we never saw her again.
One week later, our father took us to the circus. There was a big tent with white and red stripes, six caravans where the artists lived and two cages for the lions. It smelled like something rotten. However, we were not there to see the show, but to participate. Our father took us to the circus to sell us.
“Their names are Lili and Mara. They are smart, do everything you tell them and don’t eat much,” he said.
Mr. Knut was a stocky man with a red face, and red hair and whiskers to match. He wore a black suit with a violet vest where a silver chain sparkled. He looked at us amazed, widening his gray eyes.
“Are they really tied together? There is no trick?”
“Touch, touch,” said our father, proud, pointing to our hips.
Mr. Knut put his hairy hands on our body, pulled each of us by the arm and shook us until he was convinced.
“Damn. These creatures are as if they were one. How much do you want for them?”
“One hundred dollars,” said our father.
Mr. Knut laughed.
“For that price I can buy three monkeys. And as a freak I have a woman with a beard. I’ll give you half.”
“Done. Sign these papers and treat them well.”
Since that day we became Mr. Knut’s possession and we began learning to be circus stars. We were installed in Sheila’s tent, the bearded woman, and the first thing she did was threaten us.
“Listen, I am the main attraction of the circus. If you do something to sabotage that, I’ll split you in two.”
Then she threw us some blankets and shooed us to a corner where we slept for a few months.
Sheila was a tall woman with blue eyes and black hair, and her beard was just some dispersed hair around the face. She could have been about forty years old – no one knew her age and we never had the courage to ask her – and she had been in other circuses before working for Mr. Knut. Unlike our mother, she only beat us when we didn’t obey her. It was she who taught us how to act, although it consisted basically of being looked at by people.
The following day we woke up with kicks given by Sheila and then Mr. Knut presented us to the rest of the company. We met Sílvio and Zita, the acrobat couple that flew without a net; Hector, the tamer of wild animals; Peng, the fakir; Nina, the contortionist; Tico the dwarfish clown and Madame Rita, the clairvoyant. Sílvio and Zita were Italian immigrants. He had curly black hair, almond color eyes and was strong, she had blond hair, brown eyes and was thin; they were the only ones that gave us a kiss. Hector was bald, had half his face cut up by the paw of a lion, a single blue eye and smelled of alcohol; he spat on the ground as a way to greet us. Peng was of Chinese descent, had black eyes and hair and copper color skin; he bowed to greet us. Nina was black, had dark eyes, was almost our height but a little older than us; she just said “Hello”. Tico measured ninety centimeters and had an enormous head with blond hair and blue eyes; he approached us, smelled us and grimaced. Madam Rita was gypsy, had gray hair and yellowish eyes; she caressed our heads as if we were pets.
In our first presentation Mr. Knut decided that we would appear at the end of the show. He wanted to expose us scantily clad, so that everyone could see the flesh that united us, but as there was a risk of the circus being closed by an outrage of morality, we used our shorter dresses.
“I invested a lot of money in you, don’t disappoint me girls,” he said.
The circus was full and there was a nasty smell of sweat. Two yellow spotlights illuminated the center of the stage and the rest was dark. After Mr. Knut welcomed the audience and announced they would see the world’s greatest show, in stepped Tico. He came in to the sound of a bugle played by Peng, and the circus almost came down, such were the people’s laughter. Tico wore a yellow suit with blue balls, had a painted white face, red lips and black eyelids. He began somersaulting forward and back as children do. Then he imitated animals walking on all fours, beating his chest with his fists and emitting roars. If I and my sister had made these jokes at home, our mother would have punched us. Finally, Tico showed a balloon and began to fill it, simulating a tremendous effort. He did this for some minutes – with Peng blowing the bugle stronger whenever he let the balloon lose air – until finally, he said gibberish, took a deep breath and burst the balloon. The audience laughed even more and some people pelted him with coins. Tico picked them up, bowed and left the scene by giving ridiculous heels. Everyone was happy, except himself who never laughed.
Then came Silvio and Zita, dressed in white suits glued to their bodies – I realized then that Silvio was the most beautiful man in the world. The aerialists saluted the audience and began to climb a rope ladder that led them to a platform where two trapezoids stood. When they reached the top, lit by yellow spots, they seemed like two dolls – the audience was silent and I prayed so that nothing happened to Silvio. Meanwhile, down below, Mr. Knut announced that they were the only ones in the world who dared to act without a net, defying death. Zita was the first to launch herself into the void. First she sat down on the beam as if it were a swing, later she held the beam with her hands and finally she hung upside down by bending her legs and flew twice to each side – the audience let go an ‘ooh’ ‘ in amazement. Then Sílvio launched himself on the other trapeze. Impressive muscles appeared in his arms and his body swung over our heads. Every time he crossed with Zita it looked like both were colliding, but the two passed close without anything happening. With their white suits and graceful movements, flying in the heights, they no longer seemed like dolls but two angels blown by God. And for a moment I saw Sílvio with a pair of wings on his back as a gentle cherub who plays in heaven, above this hell where we stood. Then, Zita broke free from her trapeze, hovered a few seconds in the air and when she started to fall was grabbed by the strong hands of Silvio who was upside down – the audience let out the largest ‘ooh’ of the night. Like me and Mara, the two formed only one body with two heads united, not at the hip, but at the arms. However, unlike us, death could separate them. I had a bad thought then: Sílvio could drop her, come get us and, for a moment, we could be happy. But soon I repented and they cheated death once again coming down to earth.
Then there was a break to assemble the bars protecting the audience from the lions. Mr. Knut announced the arrival of man-eating beasts and Hector entered the cage in trunks, holding a whip in his hand, and opened a door through which entered two lions and a lioness. The fearsome beasts were old and thin animals with bad fur, but even so still intimidated the audience. The animals roared showing yellowed teeth and sharp claws, but Hector snapped his whip and they recoiled. Suddenly, this brought back memories of my mother and father when they fought. She roared like a lioness and he gave her whippings with the belt to tame her, making her fall to the ground, covered in blood, and then, as a final lesson, gave her kicks in the back. But these beasts were more docile than my mother as Hector did not need to make them bleed for them to sit on a pedestal and stay quiet. And there was little more going on than that, Hector not daring to put his head inside their mouths or even touch them – our father was braver than him and the circus in our house was more dangerous.
Then came Nina, presented by Mr. Knut as the rubber girl, with a dress that looked the same as Zita used. Nina bent and stretched her body in a way that we didn’t think was possible, putting a foot to her mouth and tapping her heels on her head. The audience, however, was not impressed because nobody applauded her. Then, in the high moment of her show, she opened a glass box that could not have been more than half a meter square, stepped inside, sat down and twisted her neck until her head was between her legs – then Tico came quickly on the scene and closed the box. Seeing this reminded us when our mother punished us by closing us inside a trunk for several hours, forcing us to do our bodily needs there. But Nina wasn’t inside for more than a minute because a little later Peng appeared, announced as a fakir that had served a Chinese emperor. Peng, wearing only black pants tied with a rope, had a torch in one hand and a bottle in the other and was blowing flames from his mouth like a dragon. The audience applauded and Peng freed Nina. Then she leaned against a wooden board, joined her arms to her thighs and lay still. Peng opened a bag that Tico brought and took the first knife. He showed it to the audience so they all saw how deadly it was, then turned to Nina, pulled his arm back and, relaxed as if throwing a stone into a pond, flung the knife. The tip hit the board two fingers’ length from her neck and the audience let out a new “ooh”. Peng then launched five more knives that also hit very close to Nina’s flesh, striking the wood and drawing the outline of her body. That reminded me again of our mother when once she picked up the knife for scaling fish and threw it at our father, the difference being she had a better aim than Peng and got him in the chest, almost killing him. Then, to finish the show, Peng took an axe, but this time he concentrated before throwing. Nina remained motionless, as if the blades that could have killed her were mosquitoes buzzing around. Peng threw the axe, the head flew, turning on itself, there was a hiss and suddenly the sound of iron against wood. The axe struck close to her ear, missing it by a mere millimeter. The audience applauded enthusiastically, Nina left the wooden board, gave her hand to Peng and together, as a happy couple, they bowed. Was there a time that our father and mother, after throwing knives and dishes at each other, made peace and held hands?
It was then Madame Rita’s time, presented as a seer that communicated with the dead, to enter the arena. She appeared with a black handkerchief on her head, a red blouse and a green skirt that hid her feet. There was silence, her figure scaring more people than the lions did. The lights went off and she sat at a table with two candles – behind the scenes, Peng played a violin. That faint light made her body disappear and gave her face a ghostly look. Perhaps because she looked like a creature from another world, no one seemed surprised that she could speak to the dead. Mr. Knut then invited a member of the audience to come forward. A murmur ran through the crowd, but no one moved. Mr. Knut insisted, saying not to be afraid. Shortly after, a little blurry, middle-aged woman dressed all in black rose went to Madame Rita.
“I want to speak with my husband, he died a year ago,” said the lady.
“What’s his name?” asked Madame Rita.
Madame Rita closed her eyes, put her hands on her temples and began to call the deceased with a slow drawl.
“Gaabrieeel, come Gaabrieeel, your wife is here.”
The woman clasped her hands as if in prayer.
Madame Rita continued to call the dead for some time until, suddenly, she started talking in a strange voice.
“Who are you? What do you want from me?”
The crowd let out another ” ooh ” and the woman fell to her knees. Madame Rita explained that she had already managed to get in touch with the dead and continued the conversation, regaining her normal voice.
“I’m Madame Rita and your wife is here to ask you questions.”
“ I’m at your disposal,” she said in the strange voice again.
“What do you want to know?” asked Madame Rita to the wife.
“Ask him where he hid the money and if the maid’s son is his,” whispered the woman.
“He heard, let’s wait for the answer,” said Madame Rita with her normal voice.
Seconds later, again with a strange voice, Madame Rita spoke for the dead.
“The money was given to charity and the father of the maid’s son is the baker.”
The woman crossed herself.
“Forgive me Gabriel, I should never have suspected you,” and she began to cry.
Madame Rita got up, hugged her and gently took her back to her place.
The majority of the audience remained silent, but some people hooted.
It occurred to me that we could also ask some questions to Madame Rita about our mother: where was she? Why did she leave? Has she ever liked us?
Finally our time came, as Mr. Knut had decided that in our debut we would appear beside Sheila, the bearded woman. We were presented as the greatest aberrations of the world, terrible mistakes of nature, creatures somewhere between human and animal. Then, to the sound of Peng’s bugle, all three of us entered the circus arena. Sheila wore a loincloth imitating tiger skin to show that she had a woman’s body and we wore short dresses for the audience to see most of our bodies. They burst out laughing as if we were clowns, droller than Tico, although we didn’t do anything funny. With a hand held by Sheila, we walked around the arena – and the people called us freaks, beasts and gave other insults. So Mr. Knut invited a person to come and prove that we were authentic aberrations and several men fought each other to have that privilege. Finally, a baby-faced fat man that had won the right with punches and pushes to touch us entered the arena, but when he stood before us, he seemed to lose his courage. And it was Sheila who took his hand and made him pull her beard. The man began to laugh, a stupid laugh as we had seen in mentally disabled, then advanced to us and touched our bodies up and down, exploring our breasts and buttocks with his tongue out, drooling, not bothering to verify if we were conjoined. Once, a man our mother took home did the same, then gave her two dollars and left.
The following morning we went for a walk in a garden near the circus. The sun shone and everything seemed full of color; butterflies flew and birds sang in the trees. Suddenly, we saw a mother with two daughters, two girls of our age and height, brunettes like us. They wore beautiful color pink dresses and her mother wore a white dress that combined with a light blue hat. The mother took them by the hand and they were eating ice cream. The three passed us without seeing us, talking and laughing. Myself and Mara kept looking at them as if they were circus freaks. Where would they go? Did they have a father at home that would kiss them instead of beating the mother? Would that happiness last forever? When they disappeared from our sight we no longer heard the birds. We felt a lump in our throat and a pain in our chest; at the same time, we started to cry.
When we stopped, we decided to go to Madame Rita.
After we knocked on her door, she told us to enter. Madam Rita was dressed in a kind of pajama, her hair seemed the mane of a lion and she walked barefoot. She smelled of tobacco and alcohol. When she saw us she became more surprised than if a dead person had come to visit her.
“We need your help,” I said.
Madame Rita smiled.
“I don’t have the power to separate you, girls.”
“It’s not that,” I said. “We want to know where our mother is.”
Madam Rita stopped laughing. Her face became serious and dozens of wrinkles and hidden marks appeared, as if it had been on her face that Peng had trained his knife throwing.
“Come on girls, you know very well that…”
“Please try,” I said.
Then Madame Rita approached us and embraced us. A strong and gentle hug against her chest as we had never felt before; a long hug, so good that we wanted it to never end. But, finally, she unfastened us and looked at us in silence. For the first time we saw a face that was happy and sad at the same time, as if her lips had a smile, a tear ran from the corner of her eye.
“All right, I’m going to try,” she said.
So Madame Rita, dressed like that, placed her hands on her temples and closed her eyes. After a while she spoke.
“Yes, I can see her…”
“Where is she?” I shouted.
“She is … in a city far from here … but she’s all right, don’t worry.”
“And will she come for us? Ask her, please.”
Madame Rita pursed her lips and then took a deep breath.
“Yes, yes … one day she will come for you, but at the moment she can’t. She asks you to be patient, be good girls and everything will be fine. And now I lost contact … I can’t see anything…”
We left happy. Now we were sure that our mother, one day, would come for us and then we would walk through the streets eating ice cream and, when we returned home, our father might not spank her.
Besides traveling, a lot of things changed in our life, the most important of which was people began to speak to us. So it seemed normal that Hector, the only one that never said a word to us, one day appeared smiling and invited us to his caravan to eat chocolates. It was a late summer afternoon and a huge orange moon was moving over the blue horizon. Mosquitoes buzzed everywhere. Myself and Mara were looking at the lions’ cage when he appeared. Before we saw or heard him, we smelled the alcohol. Hector’s caravan was all messy: the bed unmade, dirty dishes on the table and clothes scattered on the floor. On a wall was a picture of a naked woman flogging a man. He opened a drawer and pulled out a box of chocolates. Then he began to look at us with his blue eye and to jiggle the box. In that moment, his smashed pudding face that caused us so much horror almost seemed normal.
“Do you want it?” he said with a sweet voice.
We nodded our heads and took a step to take the box, but Hector hid it behind his back.
“Calm down, girls, everything has a price. I give you chocolates if you do some things for me.” And he lowered his pants. “Kneel down and open your mouths.”
Although we are accustomed to obey, we didn’t move. Hector’s face became repulsive again and he grabbed Mara’s arm.
“On your knees, I said!” he shouted.
So we started screaming and hitting him with our four arms and legs. But as he was stronger, he lay down on us and threw himself upon us. Hector was about to get his way with Mara when the door burst open. It was Sílvio with a club in his hand. Then, as if he were the tamer and Hector the beast, Silvio gave him several blows until he dropped his prey. Full of blood and moaning, Hector dragged himself to a corner. If Nina’s box was there, he would have entered it like a frightened animal that hides in a hole.
“If you touch the girls again, I’ll kill you.”
Looking at Sílvio, so beautiful and strong, I knew that he was an angel, our guardian angel that would protect us while our mother was away.
One night when there was no show, we discovered behind Tico’s caravan that he was speaking as if angry, with Sheila, Nina and Peng. He said strange things that we had never heard of: social inequality, exploitation of man by man, racism, and spoke about some German thinker.
When he saw us, he made a sign to approach.
“Come here twins, because this also concerns you. We are the freaks society exploits. The dwarf, the bearded lady, the siamese, but also the black and the yellow, we are all victims of capitalism. As we have no place in society, as we are not considered human beings, we are forced to work in a circus like animals. In fact, we are still treated worse than animals because no one laughs at a lion or an elephant. But this is about to end. The capitalist system is doomed and in its place will come socialism. And then we will all be equal and there will be no more circuses nor will any human being be considered an aberration. If we fight for our freedom, nothing is impossible…”
Sheila and Nina listened to him intently as if they had heard the most important revelation of their lives and seemed convinced that things would change for the better. But Peng shook his head in disbelief, as if listening to a fairy tale where in the end the prince kills the dragon and marries the princess. This made me remember the priest’s sermon in the mass, with the arrival of socialism to substitute paradise. I wanted to ask Tico if it was because of this cruel capitalist system that mothers abandon their children. But seeing him so serious, with his blue eyes lost on the horizon, I dared not ask.
One night after our act, we were called to Mr. Knut’s caravan. When we entered we saw a very well-dressed gentleman. He wore a top hat, a black suit, a white shirt, a blue scarf and bright shoes. He had gray eyes, brown hair and whiskers. He was tall and thin and could have been around thirty years old.
“Girls,” said Mr. Knut. “I present you Doctor Stein, he is very interested in you.”
His eyes shone like blades.
“It’s amazing, they are so perfect. It is the first case that I know like this. Can I examine them?”
“Of course. Girls, undress,” said Mr. Knut.
He was our owner and Dr. Stein filled us with confidence, so we obeyed. Then the man came up to us and touched our bodies, but in a different way from that of other men during the shows. He had soft hands and we felt no shame or that he was abusing us. Then he put his ear to our chest and our back, perhaps to make sure we had two hearts.
“Extraordinary,” he said to himself.
“Dr. Stein wants to separate you. Do you understand? Now wait outside a little,” said Mr. Knut.
The idea of being separated left us stunned. We should have been happy, but we left the caravan terrified as if he had told us that we were going to have an arm or a leg cut off. Outside, we stood under a window to hear what they said.
“Two hundred dollars? Okay,” said Dr. Stein.
“Tell me doctor, how are you going to separate them? Is it like a butcher cutting a beef carcass?” asked Mr. Knut.
Dr. Stein cleared his throat.
“It’s a very complex scientific experiment, a layman can’t understand. What I can tell you is that, as they seem to have independent bodies, the chances of success are reasonable.”
“How many have you separated before now?”
“Well, this will be my first attempt, but my colleagues have already done it. The important thing, Mr. Knut, is that this will be a great advance for science.”
“The name of my circus will be mentioned, right?”
“You have my word,” said Dr. Stein.
The next morning we woke up without fear because we understood that our exploitation would only cease after we had been separated. Besides, it was always what our mother wanted. After a while, our friends came to bid us farewell. Silvio and Zita hugged us and told us that we were going to start a new life. Sheila gave us a kiss and apologized for sometimes giving us beatings. Nina hugged us and told us that we were sisters. Peng greeted us with a bow and wished us good luck. Tico smiled at us for the first time and told us to fight for our rights. But when it came to say goodbye to Madame Rita, she clung to us in a way that choked us and began to cry as if she had seen something that eluded the others.
Hours later, Doctor Stein took us to his clinic and handed us to a nurse. She was a fat woman with crooked eyes wearing a nun’s habit with a cross on the chest.
“This is sister Benedicta and she will take care of you until the operation.”
Sister Benedicta prepared us a bath and gave us food without forcing us to do anything. Then she took us to a garden full of trees and let us play the whole afternoon. We had never heard such beautiful bird songs, nor seen such colorful flowers and butterflies. At one point, near a pond, we found two ladybugs mating. They were together for some seconds, but, when it seemed that they were separating themselves, two boys ran over and crushed them. Meanwhile, sister Benedicta had fallen asleep while lying on the grass. We sat down beside her and, looking at her face so kind, we thought that she was a socialist and that our lives would really get better. In the following days, we were subjected to various tests and were shown to other doctors who observed us – it seemed like we were back at the circus. Some discussed with Dr. Stein in front of us, as if we were not present, and we noticed that they didn’t agree with the separation. One of them, an older doctor, with flames coming from his mouth, spoke of guinea pigs and scientific impossibility, and told Dr. Stein that he would be made responsible for his actions. But we knew that nothing was impossible and that Dr. Stein would give us freedom. Moreover, after these discussions he offered us chocolates and guaranteed us that he would find our mother.
On the day of the operation, sister Benedicta gave us such a strong hug that it almost separated us before the time, and she told us that God would protect us, but in her crooked eyes there were also tears.
Two other nurses shaved us, washed us and gave us something to drink that made us sleepy. Then we lay on a stretcher with wheels, covered by a sheet and were taken to the operation room. It was a place with white walls, a ceiling with bright lights, a closet with medicine, a gas cylinder, the operation table and a table with surgical instruments similar to Peng’s weapons. A weird smell caused us to go cold. With their faces covered with masks, there was Dr. Stein with two assistants; behind, on a long step, sat eight people watching – now we were sure that this was another circus. The two nurses, like Sílvio releasing Zita back to her trapeze, made us fly onto the operation table. Dr. Stein winked at us as one of his assistants covered our mouths and noses with a tube and we began to breathe in a gas.
We felt relaxed and our eyelids began to close. A kind of fog enveloped us, and then, through the mist, we saw the face of our mother. Finally she had returned and, after watching our last show, she would take us home.