Heart of Passage

by Chris Miller

By day Christopher Miller writes software for an ATM switch-processing company. Mornings, nights and weekends he mops floors, washes dishes and “cooks” for a family restaurant in a mall. He writes both to escape and examine life, with a special fondness for SF, erotica and literary genres. His work has appeared in COSMOS, The Barcelona Review, Redstone Science Fiction, Hopewell Publishing’s Best New Writing 2010 and many other print and web-based magazines and anthologies. Prion Press has compiled and scheduled for its 2012 launch a collection of his short fiction titled On the Ugliness of Babies.

Prologue

The passing of an adult human through an unstrung tennis racquet necessitates temporary dislocation of the shoulders. This step, this shrugging separation of the glenohumeral joint or otherwise disarticulation of the humerus bone’s rounded medial anterior surface from the lateral scapula’s shallow concavity cannot be accomplished in both shoulders simultaneously and so must be taken in turns for the obvious reason that an arm flaps uselessly in this state and each must be able to attend the other. Because of the relative shallowness of its socket and looseness of its ligaments, the shoulder is more flexible but also more readily popped than other joints and so this controlled detachment and reattachment, though uncomfortable, is for most the easiest part of the trick.

Constriction of the chest’s thoracic cage can prevent even shallow breathing as the racquet’s oblong rim is then forced downward, and, because of the upper torso’s corrugating grain, may become stuck at any of a number of junctures, but most commonly in the intercostal gap between the sixth and seventh, the last of the “true” or vertebro-sternal, ribs at their sternal extremity, and, given the very high tensile strength afforded by the modern tennis racquet’s composite resins and materials, cracking of the impeding rib or its partial or total disarticulation from the vertebral column might then become the preferred course of action, bearing in mind that intervention by a third party will void any official record-setting attempt.

But it is the hips that are the hardest. The acute angle to the spine required of their large unjointed pelvic bone demands extreme flexibility and dexterity in the contortionist’s precisely-timed wiggling and twisting of feet and legs which even in a diligent and gifted artist, as in one who has for many years trained at least three hours over the course of each day in yoga and gymnastics and might for example comfortably conform his entire body to the confines of an ordinary household recycling bin or “blue box,” can still result in considerable pain and injury. And though when racing the clock in the interest of a world record or just a personal best it might not matter, when performing, or practicing to perform, this passage before a live, paying audience, given the high demand for and relative scarcity of such gigs, it is always best to make it look, if not easy, fun. Essentially the same is true of toilet seats.


On June 16, 1994, at approximately 3AM Eastern Standard Time, in the company of two midwives, in the sanctity of Saint Mary’s Hospital’s birthing room, in the comfort of a rented birthing pool’s tepid waters, Abigail (Abby) and Ethan Mann passed together through a stingier albeit more malleable orifice than either a tennis racquet or a toilet seat. Said orifice belonging to one Susan Mann who, out of an affinity for natural courses of events and also a borderline phobia of needles in the spine had declined an epidural, except to inhale, screamed through the entire performance.

Both attending midwives, subsequently and independently hauled up for licensing review by the Ontario College of Midwives, argued, one successfully and the other not, that only at the last minute had the pair elected to conjoin themselves as they had, so that despite their own professionally diligent palpations, the twins’ latching fetal embrace did not become apparent until the simultaneous crowning of their little heads, which even then took considerable getting of their own somewhat larger heads around, thinking it at first to be some rare combination of craniosynostosis and hydrocephalus manifest in the lead newborn’s skull. But then, aside from each sustaining some weird temporary facial molding, a dislocated shoulder and fractured collarbone, both common birth injuries easily treated and soon healed, greenstick fractures of Abby’s sixth and Ethan’s seventh ribs, less common but even faster healing, and also some minor hip dysplasia, more typical of breech births, in both that would probably never have been diagnosed or treated but for their joint passage down the birth canal, the babies turned out to be normal and healthy and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, unique in their accomplishment.

Section D of the Ontario Government’s Statement of Live Birth Form as issued under the 1990 Vital Statistics Act gave the midwives pause. Its leftmost box inquiring, “Total number of children ever born to this mother including this birth” above, “Of this Total, Number born live” above, “Of this Total, Number stillborn” had always stymied them for its redundant grammar, its random and inconsistent capitalizations, its ambiguity and stupidity, but most of all its heartlessness. And now the rightmost box’s, “If multiple birth, state whether this child was born 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.” also confounded. In the end they checked both as having been born first along with identical abbreviated, handwritten and initialed explanations of the circumstances that today constitute the only official record of the feat.

Three days later Susan Mann hemorrhaged and died at her Etobicoke home. Details of the incident and her final moments are sparse and largely conjecture. It is known that Christian Mann, her husband and the twins’ father, afraid to fly, had early that morning left by bus for Winnipeg to defend his #7 CBF cruiserweight ranking in the undercard bout of an MBC-regulated, King John-promoted event at the Convention Centre. A husband-and-wife team spreading qualified “good news” and comic-book-sized promotional pamphlets door-to-door heard the infants’ concerted cries but left when no one came to the door. Next door a tired-looking old man with features pinched by cynicism argued science, philosophy and scripture, disabusing them of their faith in his doorway, on his porch, his steps, his lawn, and finally out on the sidewalk, ignoring their backwards-stumbling retreat and prolonged silences punctuated only by apologetic invitations to agree to disagree in order that they might pass as quickly and spiritually unscathed as possible through his ever-tightening circular arguments and having heard all the while in Abby and Ethan’s untiring ululations and plaint an oddly apropos sorrow, returned, with their reluctant disciple still in tow, to the late Susan Mann’s door, where after a protracted period of door-pounding and doorbell-ringing and shouting “Hello?” and “Is everyone alright in there?” before turning to and refreshing themselves of Luke 10:30-37, interrupted the garrulous neighbour’s third defense of modern radiometric dating methods to bid him call 911. Medics found Abby and Ethan clutched in Susan’s early-stage rigor mortis and cloven so tightly together at her now less than lukewarm breast as to be at first mistaken for a single, mightily-deformed child. An autopsy revealed a piece of placenta still attached to Susan’s uterus. It has been speculated that postpartum depression played a role in her neglecting to seek medical attention, though it could also have been just another manifestation of her affinity for natural courses of events and aversion to heroic medical interference. Her one-and-a-quarter-sizes too small engagement ring that she’d helped twist and thrust onto herself with such enthusiasm as to cause a minor compression or jamming type injury of the pip joint known in sports as mallet finger had then constricted her right hand’s third digit’s proximal phalanx and tendons for the duration of her marriage and life, passing from her only under a crematorium furnace’s jets to fall into a wire catch tray.

Christian, whose last-minute withdrawal from United Promotions’ “Big Fight in the [Brampton Century] Garden[s]” second-undercard bout in order to attend his twins’ singular birth had cost him his #6 ranking, a long shot at $125 in prize money, and, in an egregious but entertaining mismatch that would never have been allowed in amateur sport, his #13-ranked replacement underdog two bruised ribs, a concussion and a dislocated jaw before suffering to be passed semiconscious from what surely must have seemed a most confining sphincter of a ring, declined to be interviewed by “Current World Events” after the decertified midwife’s testimony, partially corroborated by hospital records, made the birth’s amazing details public, inducing the tabloid to revert to its usual modus operandi and invent fictitious names and facts and digitally manipulate photographs such as its grainy cover shot debuting across Southern Ontario and the American Midwest in no-frills supermarkets’ magazine stands’ lowest racks and appearing for all the world to those glancing down while waiting in line to pay for their groceries as a pair of human-headed snakes or worms coiled and emerging screwlike from some splayed piece of rotting fruit like an apple or a peach and pretty obviously to anyone familiar with it photoshopped from images of the Statue of Asclepius.

And, as sole parent and guardian, Christian continued to eschew the public eye’s increasing demands and proffered remunerations for the “inside scoop.” His grimly offered excuse being that he wished for his progeny “a normal life,” by which he almost certainly meant, a happy one. He held the vague yet firm notion that such a life was one lived in obedience of the laws of nature and society, with priority or deference perhaps, if pressed, to the latter. For him, the finest lives were both unobtrusive and unobstructive. And though it is not a scientific fact, it is many parents’ experience that in compensation for their gift of procreation, nature bestows upon those brave enough to look during those first few experimental breaths an ephemeral glimpse into their waxy, wizened, helpless charges’ futures. Or perhaps it is just endorphins’ sharpening of instincts posing as preview of our newborns’ passage from the womb out on through this mortal coil. Or maybe it is just the clustering quality of miracles. In any case, it’s tempting in hindsight to view Christian’s protective reclusion, his aversion to the attentions of the media, as divination of and steeling for the great scandal and achievement fate had written for his two children.

Popular psychiatrist, Dr. William (Bill) Worthington, conjectures in one of his many best-selling exploitative case studies that Abigail and Ethan’s pathological inseparability stemmed from recursive self-jealousies mired in their muddied senses of individuality and blurry ego boundaries. His view, in layman’s terms, being that they felt betrayed by their own reaching out to one another, and, in each seeking to assuage this feeling of abandonment by the self-other, clung physically and emotionally ever tighter, creating something of a vicious cycle. “Sort of the way drinking seawater cures thirst,” was how he simplified it. Similarly, he viewed their conjoined delivery, not as an act of complacent cooperation, but borne of a competitiveness stemming all the way back to their gametic origins. And so it was not his opinion, as it was the majority of his peers’ opinions, that the guilty trauma of their mother’s death by exsanguination, probably during breastfeeding, had caused their gross inter-dependency, but rather that this had been just “the icing on the cake.” It’s hard to imagine, and Worthington never elaborates, how such a fatalistic, primordial developmental view of the human psyche benefits or substantiates. But then admittedly even psychiatrists must eke out livings if not raisons d’être. And whatever the cause or conclusion, they did make an interesting case study.

Abby and Ethan’s compulsive disposition as preverbal tots to maintain close physical contact inspired in most observers feelings of positive, warm empathy. Babies are cute and cuddlesome and perceived as honest and unaffected in all they do. And so a passerby, perhaps at a train or bus station, glancing down at the pair in their stroller or carriage, their little cheeks pressed so snugly together as to lend almost the appearance of a four-eyed child staring back up, once she has assured herself that no physical deformity is in play, is likely to experience a hormonal surge of vicarious endearment and fondness such as intended by makers of those Precious Moments cards and posters portraying, usually in black-&-white so as to evoke a sense of nostalgia, an antiquely appareled little boy abashedly and somewhat anachronistically leaning forward to kiss a little girl, also clad appropriate to upper-middle-class children’s fashion around the time of the Great Depression, on her slightly upturned cheek while clutching in his hand a long-stemmed red rose that, with the possible exception of their lips, affords the only splash of colour and manages to suggest an evocatively more mature romantic and even playfully erotic element than their ages would dictate or allow but without sullying the innocence of it all one bit with anything that might be construed as even remotely salacious.

Christian as a lower echelon athlete in a sport notoriously unrewarding of its second-bests needed to entertain more frequently and train more religiously than did those at the top.  And though he strove to be there for his children, and though, when allowed each other, Abby and Ethan were said to be very well-behaved, it was still not always possible for them to accompany him to the gym or arena. Christian, injured no doubt by his wife’s having passed from him so suddenly and at such a cozy juncture as the immediate post-delivery of their first offspring, and therefore if for no other reason averse to traversing again matrimony’s confines, and also limited in his finances, retained a Mexican au pair called Prima. In exchange for room and board and twenty dollars a week in cash, Prima accepted the responsibilities of full-time domestic servant and nanny in the Mann household. Because of her illegal status, little is known about her. Even her surname remains a mystery. Her age at the start of her employ is estimated anywhere from mid-twenties to late forties or older. She spoke passable English, enjoyed making piñatas, and was rumored to have once worked as a prostitute in Nuevo Laredo’s infamous Zona Rosa district, even performing in the debauched donkey shows so alluring to a certain breed of inebriated Texan tourist there. Both Defense and Crown spun out these rumours at the twins’ famous incest trial in respective attempts to sway juror sympathy and doubt even though it is generally accepted that Prima herself started them, some believe to deter Christian from entertaining any expansion of her household chores. Though here she needn’t have bothered because Prima was no longer beautiful and real men are undeterred by history. So it is more likely that she had fallen in love with Christian, and, out of myopic guilt or to hasten his disillusionment or ensure his non-reciprocation or test his blindness or submit to his mercy or for whatever reason women tend at this soft and vulnerable juncture to damn and impede themselves in the eyes of those they might suffer to adore, confessed to him her sordid past.

Yet or therefore, to all outward appearances, Christian adopted Prima as a spouse. Her vegetarian cooking, if nothing else, is credited with his drop through the CBF’s light-heavyweight division to super-middleweight where within a year he rose to #4 and, though still the undercard, no longer always played the underdog. Prima’s laissez-faire attitude toward human perversity, no doubt fostered in the Mexican donkey show’s freakish milieu, combined with boxing’s circus ambience and the respite afforded in its clutch, and also a parent’s natural tendency to perceive his children as forever young, are all credited with the tolerance the twins enjoyed with respect to their physical inseparability which, as they grew and matured, became to outsiders less and less piquant and more just plain creepy.

But then genius rarely lurks within the confines of conformity. Though it is unusual for firstborns to walk in their first year, Abby and Ethan pulled themselves to their feet at five months, and before their first half birthday could reliably keep up with an adult strolling at a leisurely pace. In the CBC’s Canadian Heritage Archives there is a jittery digitized video of them shot tight and low at ring level in what is generally agreed, despite Christian’s never having enjoyed a membership there, to be the old Lansdowne club, now condos. In it, a man with huge, diamond-shaped calves, probably a heavyweight—some think, even though he retired in ’79, George Chuvalo—skips rope center ring in boxing boots and from his footwork appears to be turning with the twins, neither much taller than the ring’s bottom rope, following them with his toes in their coordinated clockwise laps. Almost everyone who watches this footage likens them to a pair of ballroom-dancing dolls, those familiar with its hallmark stalking stride invariably specifying the tango.

Hospital records list Susan’s pre-delivery weight as 157 pounds, and Christian, even as a super-middleweight, could not have fought much lighter than a gaunt 166. So the twins’ above average combined birth weight of twelve pounds, nine ounces is unsurprising. What is surprising is that they distributed it so equitably. For each, despite their genetic dissimilarity, most conspicuously and influentially of their gender, weighed exactly six pounds, four-and-a-half ounces. They were, after all, as fraternal twins, really just concurrently conceived siblings. Yet, as if dividing, or just neither able to usurp, some resource external to the womb, their individual body weights on the few occasions they submitted to independent examination never differed by more than an ounce. That is of course until puberty and hormones wreaked their inexorable havoc, on Abby first, then Ethan. But this gets slightly ahead of the story, and the preceding longueur is presented only to disabuse the notion of their amazing accomplishment having been in any way attributable to physical maldevelopment or diminutiveness. Both grew normal and sturdy like their parents. Neither suffered from malnutrition, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome or any other environmental or genetic form of joint hypermobility as enjoyed by some of contortion’s elite.

Within the limestone walls and barred windows of the former Peel County Jail, now the Peel Heritage Complex’s Region of Peel Museum and Archives, stands Abby and Ethan’s large wooden playpen. An affixed commemorative plaque states that it was probably purchased by Prima at a lawn-sale, and, because its lathed rails are four-and-a-half-to-three-quarters inches apart, probably manufactured prior to 1974. Though no one ever saw how the twins managed to slip between these rails, numerous credible witnesses claim to have been astonished to have noticed them playing together inside the playpen one moment, and, usually following some minor distraction like a low blow or head butt, outside it the next. Contrary to evolutionary objective, parents are asked not to try to force babies or encourage small children to squeeze between the bars as the Mann twins together apparently so easily had, not only to prevent damage to the exhibit but for the same reason ANSI and ASTM standards now dictate child fencing slat separations of no more than 2 3/8 inches: to prevent entrapment, choking and asphyxiation.

Somewhere in the Toronto Star’s photo archives there is a shot of Prima standing ringside at the Mutual Street Arena. She appears to be crossing herself while fondling a tiny crucifix dangling at her throat. In the background a referee splays four fingers toward Christian who kneels as if proposing, blood dripping from his mouthpiece, waiting out the count. Christian, as a pragmatic man, attended no church and espoused no religious doctrine. And so it is Prima who is credited with having influenced the twins’ early parochial education and is therefore indirectly responsible for Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic School Kindergarten Teacher Sister Margaret Saywart’s dubious distinction as the first person ever to attempt to forcibly separate them. Though at the tender age of five, it seems unlikely that even a nun would construe their sitting side by side or in each other’s laps in the same small chair during lessons or lying close beside or atop one another on the same small roll-up rug during naptime as anything bordering on lascivious, it is also reasonable to assume one of Sister Saywart’s Religious Studies Bachelor degree’s minor Psychology electives had exposed her to Freudian theory, or that she, as a wife of Jesus, in her self-enforced fidelity cum celibacy, could not help but empathically sate her natural, latent desires to be fondled, cuddled and cloven unto in them, and so recoiled not from their example but from her own inspired reaction. Sister Saywart professes in her Ontario Health and Safety Act-compliant incident report to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, and then again later in defending her recommendation for Abby and Ethan’s expulsion to the Separate School Board: “Children are mean and impressionable creatures.” But she does list a number of cogent concerns. Particularly problematic being their concurrent washroom usage, not only their obviously well-practiced sharing of the seat and subsequent concerted hygienics, but the simple fact of there being a “Boys” and a “Girls” facility. Sister Saywart, to her credit, admits that despite their “disturbing need to be weirdly and cooperatively intertwined all the time” the twins were not emotionally, socially or even physically reclusive. In fact, she describes them as gregarious and outgoing, interested in and affectionate toward others, and, to paraphrase and maybe even read between her lines a little, easily and with remarkable aplomb disencumbered themselves of the initial bands of teasers and bullies their condition inevitably aroused, and, as is often the case with children who are different once their difference is no longer feared, were welcomed into the flock. Sister Saywart, by way of explaining her sprained elbow, broken wrist and two broken fingers, describes the twins as “unnaturally” strong and fast, probably, she speculates, as a result of their “ongoing physical interactions.” She mentions segmented blue exercise mats children took out of the cloakroom during activity hour to unfold and practice summersaults and, for the more advanced, headstands, on. But how some of the maneuvers the twins “pulled off” defied not only gravity and kinesthesia, but propriety, which is when she, though mindful of the Catholic School Board’s 1985 ban on corporal punishment and its overall negative views regarding physical interference, felt obliged “in everyone’s best interests” to pull them physically apart, “like normal boys and girls.” Which was when they “went crazy” and she hurt her arm.

Years later, Dr. Worthington, as expert witness for the defense by virtue of his psychiatric credentials and recently published case study, in an attempt to shed light on this and similar incidents, under direct examination invited members of the jury to imagine being violently rent in half. To discover everything from your hips down has been torn away and placed a short distance from you. Then to augment this horror, this tactual sense of deprivation and detachment, with the anxiety and heartache of finding a close, lifelong companion—be they lover, parent, child, dog or deity—suddenly distant. Taking a different tack, he then asks those who are able to recall sucking their thumbs, how difficult it was to stop, bitter ointments notwithstanding. And to appreciate now, if they could, Abby and Ethan’s more total-bodied and fundamental need to self-connect. He confesses that they evince so well the adaptations of a dissociative identity disorder, colloquially called a split personality, that at times even he must remind himself that they really are in fact two physically distinct individuals and not a single subject traumatized by premature dissolution of the infant-mother bond into projecting a surrogate replacement to which to cling and detachedly scrutinize as in the manner of say a psychiatrist reviewing his own work and research from the viewpoint of an impartial and slightly omniscient third party, this last drawing chuckles from a few of the more alert jurors present.

As Abby and Ethan developed and matured, despite their haleness and contentedness as a unit, pressure on them to part increased. Teenagers are by and large not cute or cuddlesome, but rather perceived as grotty and ruttish, as being rebellious, duplicitous or excusatory in almost all they do. As adults, we resent when they become like us, but even more when they don’t. And so an observer, perhaps a bus or taxicab driver glancing back or in his rearview mirror and seeing them so fastidiously and bodaciously intertwisted as to be all but wearing the same set of clothes, once he has determined no physical abnormality is in play, is likely to experience a dizzying endocrinal rush of compulsive revulsion as in the conflicted sense of binding ostracism exhibitionists evoke by paradoxically both dividing themselves from and immersing themselves in their viewing public through whom they are able to sympathetically renew their own intimate acts which, by virtue of their very perversity, now cleanse. But, although Abby and Ethan certainly inspired voyeurism in varying degrees of spontaneity and reluctance, they were not exhibitionistic, their demeanor too inviting, their response to discomposure too kind.

In the aftermath of their historic performance, with public interest and indignation at its peak, their refusal to offer public statement or make public appearance forced said public to rely heavily on its imagination, with, as always, the most prurient imaginings going to the highest bidder. The preponderance of even mainstream media speculation regarding their conjugality seemed hypocritically geared toward both censure and titillation. And so the most consistent and informative biographical accounts are not found in celebrity gossip magazines’ shocking revelations or even high-circulation newspapers’ in-depth editorials but in the unsung blogs and bulletins of old friends and classmates cached long before Abby and Ethan wriggled into the harsh limelight and in which they can be seen to have been no more or less promiscuous than your average teenager and that they enjoyed and survived the same bliss and broken-heartedness most of us do at that infuriating and intoxicating juncture. For the latter half of grade 10, Abby had a boyfriend, Mark, who tolerated Ethan’s ceaseless presence perhaps in the way Chang and Eng Bunker tolerated each other’s in fathering ten and twelve children respectively with their wives, Adelaide and Sarah Anne Yates, and who recalls on Classmates.com’s community message boards Abby’s complaining about not being conjoined to her twin by anything as easy to divide as a liver like “those Siamese guys” but by a heart, and how Ethan’s clinging, even though he tried to accommodate their postures, made making out with Abby way more challenging than it had been with either of his previous two girlfriends, but then also how Ethan’s constantly combing their hair aside so he could see and caressing their cheeks with his fingers while they kissed also added a certain intriguing je ne sais quoi. Once Ethan started dating, Abby, according to several MySpace aliases, liked to get involved in the petting process, too. Not as in a ménage à trois or anything but more like just having a coach or ref or muse or whatever handy which they all claimed even took some of the pressure off. Allegedly, she never got ahead of Ethan, as in pushed or led him in his explorations, and was actually more apt to put the brakes on than they were. But whatever their proclivities on couches and in cars, Abby and Ethan’s relationship, independent of though unavoidably swayed by their perfectly normal fantasies and infatuations, almost certainly harboured a healthy intrasexual component. Dr. Worthington described them as “robustly hermaphroditic,” testified, “nothing in their medical record or personality profile suggests they suffer from the glandular lassitude or surfeit of shame that tends to distinguish the very small minority of young people, especially males, who fail to ever masturbate.” The crown attorney, an intensely stupid person, even for a government employee, whose pretenses at incomprehension seemed at times actually genuine, her smile a composite of contrived confusion and suppressed pompousness, and, in his withheld professional opinion, telltale lubricity, in cross-examining Dr. Worthington asked if she were, in his “expert” opinion, to “hump” a wiener-dog believing it to be a tea-cozy, that no act of bestiality should then have occurred, and also if “intracourse” was in any dictionary. Worthington’s unwillingness to supply the “simple yes or no” response she twice demanded, able only to reiterate that he claimed no expertise in philosophy or linguistics, did not, to his lasting regret, undo the damage.

On June 16, 2010, coincidentally the evening of their sixteenth birthday, encouraged and supported by friends and inspired by a YouTube clip of a busker passing through a closed-front polypropylene toilet seat, Abby and Ethan performed publicly, for the first and last time, at the Barrie Event Center’s Entertainment Building & Curling Club as the seventh of twelve acts all ostensibly vying for a preliminary shot at the London Western Fair Competition where winners qualify for all expense paid trips to Quebec City to compete in the National Youth Talent Awards. A Lake Simcoe hailstorm had just forced the venue in off the outdoor stage. A boy from Brantford’s Six Nations Reserve sitting in an inner tube on a sewer grate perched atop an oil drum had just blown himself thirty feet in the air without apparent lasting injury, the fast-approaching storm front’s first thunderclap as but a faint echo of the deafening blast from his twelve sticks of dynamite.

Wet, horrified, ears ringing, impatient at the delays associated with moving everything indoors and, given the previous performers having been all singers suffering from varying degrees of tone-deafness and stage fright, probably believing the show had peaked, about three-quarters of the approximately two-hundred outdoor spectators left after the native boy’s body thumped and tumbled down into his act’s collapsible planking, some not even waiting for him to get up. Even the London A-Channel reporter, mainstream media’s only representative, packed it in after the “big bang” and so missed real history in the making.

Just as there are many who still believe the 1969-1972 lunar landings to be a hoax perpetrated by a nation in steep decline and desperate need of some positive PR, there are those who believe Abby and Ethan’s onstage performance at the Barrie Event Center was either wholly computer generated or a stop-motion animation incorporating lifelike rubber replicas, and even Abby’s pregnancy and the ensuing criminal charges and trial coverage to be just some innocuous ruse’s flimflamery gone viral. This despite not one of the competition’s three judges or fifty-odd eyewitnesses having ever challenged the authenticity of any of the evening’s events or recordings. Nonetheless, cynics employ various anatomical and osteopathic charts and models to prove what’s alleged to have transpired on that stage defies human physiology. They point out that the performance was never repeated, referring often to contest organizer Joe Weissman’s murmured under-oath remark while viewing the act’s official 3D footage as captured by upstage dual Zephyr-mounted tri-chip JVCs and marked as exhibit 1, which went, “Christ, everywhere you look you can see people shaking their heads and pinching themselves—Hell, I still don’t believe it,” even though anyone familiar with the full transcript knows it’s been taken out of context.

The act begins with the twins bounding barefoot together out into a spotlight’s platinum moon. They hold hands, but nothing more. Indeed they stand farther apart than many who know them have ever seen them, or will again until the trial. But now they grin exuberantly and raise their arms up in a wide W. It’s hot for early summer. A smattering of trepid applause dies gradually. The audience is still leery from the native boy’s human projectile act, nervous about what to expect. Even Christian and Prima, who sit in attendance in the last row of seats, exchanging looks both admonishing and inquisitive, appear far at sea. The twins’ attire is best described as athletic casual: matching white gym shorts and sleeveless baggy tees. But the symmetry ends there. Ethan’s frame is boyish, sparse and wiry. His t-shirt hangs on him as if caught on branches. Whereas Abby’s body, while trim, is voluptuous. Her loose top floats as if on gentle swells and fails to conceal her recent growth spurt, especially as they bow. Ethan’s complexion is boyish too, soft, fuzzy, unmarred by a razor’s scrape. Abby’s, on the other hand, shines as if oiled, even her underarm stubble. A radiant red zit blooms below the corner of her mouth and another on the bridge of her nose almost between her eyes. She is marginally the taller of the two. Donny Osmond’s “Puppy Love” blares up on the sound system. It appears to startle them. Clearly they are not going to sing. In her free hand, Abby holds an unstrung tennis racquet. It’s an old Dunlop Maxply Fort, similar to the one used by John McEnroe to defeat Bjorn Borg at Wimbleton in 1981, probably belonging to Christian from his early days as a club player before everything went big and graphite.

Body-reeving tennis racquets has been a staple of the contortionist’s repertoire since the early 80s, a popular act, but so commonplace now as to be more of a benchmark than pinnacle achievement, with some performing split (leg-up leg-down) and folded (derriere-first) threadings and others having moved on to the smaller squash racquet. So when Abby holds up the old wooden Dunlop as though in mid service or so that it too might share in the glory of the moment, even though its laminate ash head nowhere near approaches the 15 ½  by 11 ½ inch maximum overall length and width allowed by the International Tennis Federation and that has become contortion’s defacto standard, and so appears nowhere near generous enough to accommodate her shapely girth, still, given that its opening, though less keyhole-like, affords the modern squash racquet’s seventy or so sq. inches, there might be some present who anticipate one or the other of them will attempt to pass through it. But, by and large, the audience is still confused and apprehensive. Even the twins seem daunted by the racquet’s stingy orifice and gaze out through it as though into a portal from some unknown dimension. There is a terse silence during which even young Donny Osmond restrains his lyrics. One cannot but wonder how little forethought, if any, has been given this. Regardless of whether they ever perform this trick again, from their expression of befuddlement bordering on panic such as on a tightrope walker who in preparing to step out onto a slack cable strung between two skyscrapers has discovered acrophobia’s respect for long plummets, it seems not unreasonable to conclude that they have never performed this trick before.

Dr. Worthington, whose interest in the twins has not waned since the publication of his case study and who sits a row down from Christian and Prima but on the far opposite side of the aisle so that he can discreetly turn and study them while making notes, writes in his second and least popular memoir that, given the twins proclivity for acrobatics and the racquet’s unstrung state, some form of passage appears imminent. But that it is not until they embrace and together, cheek-to-cheek, begin improbably to work the racquet’s wicked wooden halo down over their heads that he starts to appreciate the true nature and scope of their ambition. He notes that many in the audience laugh at this juncture, relieved, thinking it now some form of prop comedy, perhaps a spoof of conventional contortionism analogous to how the Smothers Brothers once parodied their era’s conventional musical acts. But Dr. Worthington, knowing Abby and Ethan better than that, confesses to a mounting nebulous anxiety which, even understanding Mark 10:25 to involve a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for rope, he alleviates by repeating over and over in his mind like a mantra, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle…”

As they twist and writhe and open wide their mouths to elongate and streamline their jaws while the racquet’s rim crushes their faces together, it appears that they are kissing. Though obviously in the throes of the difficult and dangerous exercise of working both their heads concurrently through a band ostensibly not large enough to admit either, their struggle’s rhythm and gyrations provide the compelling illusion of two lovers engaged in deep oral osculation. In the back, Christian, despite Prima’s having buried her face in his chest, now grips his seat’s armrests as though he is in an aircraft experiencing turbulence.

A long, collective sigh follows the racquet’s passing safely down to wreathe the twins’ necks. Throats crossed, they then turn in a full circle like two wrestlers grappling for an opening. Their ears are scuffed and bloody. But they smile. Camera flashes twinkle like stars. Applause is sincere and persistent. Some stand. Many seem to think the act is complete.

It would be futile at this juncture to attempt to describe, move for move, all which followed. Dr. Worthington, in his first memoir, written during a summer internship at Northern Ontario School of Medicine years before the twins’ birth, and even the internet, recalls it was pornography’s curiosa that first sparked his interest in literature. That in its pulpy adult paperbacks’ explicit paraded couplings, reading became, for the first time in his adolescent life, not a chore. His only complaint or concern, which he attributed then to inexperience, lay in his inability to follow the bulk of the mechanical logistics whose twister-like progressions always found him reading and rereading and never mentally evoking the same pose twice. For example, in telling that, still joined at the neck by the racquet, Ethan next performs a sideways shoulder stand on Abby, crossing her left trapezius with his right, stabilized by one hand on her pubis and the other on her tailbone, it is doubtful any two readers will envision exactly the same thing. And from here it gets only more complicated.

So let us recount what is salient. Many factors, beyond the hindsight and timing of Abby’s subsequent pregnancy, contribute to the act’s erotic percept. The direction in which they grind and merge and become as one draws inescapable parallels to foreplay’s base running. That they yank and screw and force each other through the racquet’s cruel crown in ways neither could on their own and that these ministrations involve copious grunting and groaning and even the occasional scream is perhaps another factor in misdirecting audience apperception. It is a body’s natural, defensive inclination to release pleasure-inducing endorphins in empathic reflex to another’s pain. Without conscience we are sadists all. Even those cogent of the twins’ great suffering would have to be very analytical indeed not to misconstrue a little their own discordant sexual response. Death is a powerful aphrodisiac, intimately conjoined to procreation, nature’s dance with mortality buried deep in our psyche. And if full knowledge and understanding of these primal interworkings such as Dr. Worthington certainly possessed cannot completely dispel the illusion of the twins’ life and death struggle as a form of copulation, then it is no wonder that laymen see it thus. Augmenting all of this on a more trivial though still insidiously subliminal level, Donny Osmond, whoever chose to play him or why, becomes their crooning confessor by proxy. And it does not help that by the time the tennis racquet—resembling for all the world now an ambiguous precursor to the astronomical sign for Mars or Venus—binds their hips, the twins have all but squirmed out of their matching tops and shorts that in reflection should better have been body-hugging spandex, but serving further indication of their lack of preparation and buttressing a sense of lust’s rash spontaneity, culminating in their lying spent in each other’s arms, the tennis racquet at their side, empty as it began.

 

Epilogue

Abby and Ethan never considered their partnership as handicapping or debilitating in any way, and so never sought remedy for it. Whatever disapproval they encountered, rather in the form of pity, counsel or disgust, they accepted and tolerated as ignorance. But Erasmus’s one-eyed man in the land of the blind is not king; he is a mutant. Pulled apart by trial protocol, kept apart by their terms of probation, and grown apart before the birth of Abby’s native son belatedly exonerates them, they survive. They do not die as Dr. Worthington, in his third and shortest and final memoir, admits he had expected and, yes, even hoped they would. How it tore him apart to see his perfect little twins so wholly disengaged and lost. So that even knowing bones and hearts heal stronger at the break and time protects and guides us in our passage, still he hoped.

 


By day Christopher Miller writes software for an ATM switch-processing company. Mornings, nights and weekends he mops floors, washes dishes and “cooks” for a family restaurant in a mall. He writes both to escape and examine life, with a special fondness for SF, erotica and literary genres. His work has appeared in COSMOS, The Barcelona Review, Redstone Science Fiction, Hopewell Publishing’s Best New Writing 2010 and many other print and web-based magazines and anthologies. Prion Press has compiled and scheduled for its 2012 launch a collection of his short fiction titled On the Ugliness of Babies.

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