Merrick’s twin


He was a monster, but only on the outside. The real monsters were those who stared at him outright, or talked about him in hushed tones as he passed. He couldn’t help how he looked, but they could help how they acted – but never did. His various doctors over the years exercised cool detachment as one would expect from professionals, but then again they were under his employ. People can usually at least pretend to be nice if there is money involved.

The doctors were certain of the disease, but not so much on the cure or even the cause. They knew only the symptom but not the source. They took his money and made him feel special, but never once let on that there was no cure, only care. They could refer him to clothiers who would happily create bespoke clothing to fit his unusual frame. They knew of carpenters who could construct a bed that would allow him to sleep semi-upright to relieve the pressure on his overworked neck.

Only one person knew the true cause of his deformity, and he wanted no money for the tale. Money wouldn’t cure him anyway, nothing would. John had crossed the wrong spirit one Tuesday night in October when he was 15, and he didn’t even know it.

Movies were a dime on Tuesdays at the downtown three-screen theater and a quarter all other days. Even though Tuesday was a school night, John was allowed out to see the latest film once a week as long as he kept his grades above a B. Even a B- wasn’t good enough and would make him lose this privilege for a whole quarter until the report cards came out again. So every other day of the week he went alone to the library to study so he could go to the movie theater on Tuesdays. Sometimes he went with friends, but he was just as likely to go by himself, savoring the peace of being out of a house with five children. Five young mouths to feed and backs to clothe meant not a lot of spare money for extravagances like movie tickets, but John had convinced his parents that he was going to be an actor when he grew up. Costly acting lessons were out of the question, so learning by watching the finished product would have to do. Even if they could have afforded private lessons, nobody in Palmyra was offering. Actors didn’t move to tiny towns unless they were also close to big towns with big town amenities like airports to take them to where the jobs were. That was one reason John wanted to be an actor, to get out. Palmyra had nothing to offer anyone who was interested in something other than farming.

That fateful night he was thinking hard about how grand it would be to be an actor, where he could be himself and somebody else at the same time. It was like being a twin, he thought. He was so distracted that he tripped over the legs of Mr. Byron, the local eccentric. Mr. Byron wasn’t quite homeless, and he wasn’t quite crazy, but he wasn’t quite much of anything that usual people liked to associate with. Most steered a wide berth around his 5-foot-eight frame, all angles and elbows. The hair on his head was jet black but it didn’t mean he was young. He got his hair color from a bottle of shoe polish, having realized a decade back that actual hair dye was four times as costly. Shoe polish did the trick just the same, and he didn’t mind the smell. Nobody else got close enough to notice.

Mr. Byron seemed normal when you first met him, and young ladies would take pity on him and try to befriend him. They thought that others in the town were unnecessarily rude to him, and they defended him at every opportunity. They’d make excuses for his social gaffes. This was until he turned on them, like everyone else who had gotten close. The young ladies thought he was misunderstood. In reality he was just a misanthrope.

Mr. Byron often sat on the sidewalk near the movie theater with his legs splayed out, taking up half the lane. Usually John avoided him, but this night his head was in the clouds. Later, he thought that the scrape he’d gotten on his knee from when he fell after tripping over Mr. Byron was the extent of his injuries, but he was far mistaken.
It was a month later before he noticed the change. His right side had grown heavier, thicker, denser even. His arm wouldn’t stretch out like it used to. His hand started to curling in like a lobster’s claw. At first he thought nothing of it. There wasn’t spare money for a trip to the doctor anyway, so he did as his Mama had taught him. He drank a glass of water mixed with honey and apple cider vinegar. It was the best cure they knew and usually it worked a treat. But not this time.

Mr. Byron always worked his revenge silently. His Mama taught him that “Revenge is a dish best served cold” and boy, howdy, did he love his Mama. Whatever she taught him, directly or not, he took to heart and made it his own. All of his Mama’s family had the second sight, could see right into you to know what your dreams and hopes were. Trouble was, they also knew your nightmares too. More than that, they knew how to take that raw stuff from deep in your soul and push it, shape it, like so much clay and build it up just like a mug or a vase, able to hold more than what it was before. The good ones in the family could make your dreams come true. The bad ones chose to do the same with your nightmares.

Mr. Byron was unique. He’d take your dreams, shaped them up up up, and turned them inside out, made them turn back on you so even though you got what you wished for, it wasn’t ever like how you wanted.

Normally he kept to himself and didn’t use his perverse talents. In years past some people would seek him out and try to get him to put a curse on another person in the town, someone who’d wronged them, either intentionally or not. At first Mr. Byron refused, but then he came to enjoy the opportunity to practice and hone his craft. Even people who do bad like to be good at it. He felt it was important that the results matched his plan. It was a sad day when something that was to go wrong didn’t, or worse, turned darker and deeper than anticipated. Sometimes people needed a good scare, but ended up scarred instead. It wouldn’t do to make a molehill into a mountain.

All John did that fateful night was trip over Mr. Byron’s legs, so it didn’t seem right what happened next. But that night was just the cherry on the sundae of slights and snubs Mr. Byron had suffered, to his mind.

John had never noticed Mr. Byron, and that was his undoing. John never said hello or good evening to him. He never asked how he was doing, inquired about Mr. Byron’s family, never even invited him to see a show at the theater or out for dinner. Of course, nobody ever did any of these things, but that didn’t matter to Mr. Byron, because John was the one person who crossed his path every Tuesday night for years, so John was the focal point for his rage. There’s only so much being ignored a person can take after all. Rage is like sandstone, built up tiny layer by tiny layer, week by month by year, until it is larger than a mountain and just as hard to see around.

John’s dream of being an actor was turned on him that night, but it took a while before it showed. He’d been imagining how acting was like being himself and another person at the same time when he tripped over Mr. Byron. Mr. Byron caught that wish and shaped it, turned it, and made it true in the worst way possible. John became his own twin, shaped into a chimera of impossible belief. Slowly, so slowly that he didn’t realize the cause and effect, he turned into a monster, half of him crabbed and lumpy, some strange cross of an ancient gnarled oak tree and a mutant crustacean. It was as if his dreamed-of other half was on stage all the time, and John was powerless to make the scene end.



Their mother had always wanted twins, but not like this. Carol’s biological clock was winding down about the time her life was picking up. When she finally had the time, money, and energy to have children, she’d gotten too old to even consider having multiple pregnancies. She wanted at least two children for the same reason people brought home two puppies or kittens – they would always have a playmate. With time slipping away on her, having twins seemed like the best option.

She never even considered adoption. The children had to be hers. She knew that down to her bones. The idea of “family legacy” was so firmly imprinted onto her identity that taking in somebody else’s unwanted children was out of the question. It wasn’t even on the table. It wasn’t even in the room.

She couldn’t afford to chance it. So she went to the local medicine/miracle worker. The gnarled old being was a fixture of the community that everybody knew about but nobody talked about. She? He? Who knew? At that age it was impossible to tell. His? Her? voice was raspy and the clothes were baggy enough to conceal whatever shape s/he might have. Nobody knew, and everyone was afraid to ask. “Doctor” was the being’s title as well as name. Fortunately this language didn’t differentiate gender in its words or it would have been more awkward. Undefined gender seemed somehow appropriate for this profession, one of yes/and, of greys, of liminal spaces, of betweens. The Doctor’s shop/office/home was like that as well, beyond definition.

Carol had written a letter asking for an appointment. This was how it was done, how it always had been done. The Doctor felt that websites were too fiddly, too impersonal. The message would get lost. Even phone lines were eschewed.

Ideally, the client (never “patient”) would happen to meet the Doctor while they were both out doing errands in the village markets. A lot could be done to further the desired outcome if both of them were on the same time-line. Never quite syncing up was a bad sign. But, communicating by letters was a good second choice.

They agreed upon Wednesday the third, at 11:30 in the morning. The Doctor arranged visits by feel, rather than by any usual method. It was the same as how a safecracker worked, or a dowser, or a chef. It was all by feel. No astrology charts or Ouija boards or runes. No Day Planners either. There was never a receptionist or assistant. The Doctor’s motto was do it all yourself, or don’t do it at all. Too many cooks spoil the broth, and all that.

Carol left her house that Wednesday morning very excited and hopeful. She wore her favorite red jumper and galoshes even though the weather forecast promised a partly sunny day with only a 10% chance of snow flurries. They were her favorite galoshes, purchased used at the corner Oxfam three years back. She’d always had great luck when she wore them, so they seemed to fit the bill for the day. She even asked off from work for the rest of the afternoon so she could get started right away on whatever course of action the Doctor recommended.

Everything the Doctor did was by suggestion or recommendation – never an order, never even a request. Everything had to be voluntary. The client had to be a part of the process, never acted upon, but with. If the Doctor decided it was possible to effect a change there was always a list of recommendations. It wasn’t always possible to obtain or do all of them, either due to the time of year or available resources. The client, if accepted, (not a given) would then go out armed with that list.

Instructions could include such varied examples as “Stand barefoot on a newly harvested field for 10 minutes, facing west. Be sure not to be noticed. This must be done sometime between the hours of 8 AM and 3 PM.” Or perhaps something like: “Buy and eat some kind of fruit you have never eaten before.” Or maybe even: “Write down your greatest hope for your future on a piece of borrowed paper. Set it afloat on a stream.” Generally, at least two of the three options must be done, in whatever way the client could. The “how” was up to interpretation, and was part of the cure.

Wearing a certain color for a week (at least) was a common request, although the color changed with the task at hand. Often this was how other people in the community knew you were under the Doctor’s care. They never would ask, though, out of respect, or perhaps fear. It was difficult to not be noticed when someone started wearing shades of teal or salmon or magenta, especially day after day.

Almost immediately after having sex that Friday night a month later, Carol knew she was pregnant. She didn’t dare breathe a word of it to her partner for fear she might jinx it. She didn’t even go to the pharmacy to get a pregnancy test for the same reason.

She wasn’t sure where her self-imposed superstition came from, and that might have caused the aberration. Maybe it was the galoshes. Maybe the orientation of her bed. Maybe she didn’t follow the list correctly.
Later, after the birth, the Doctor consulted with Carol. They both looked at the babies (baby?). They went over everything she did, everything she ate, everything she thought. She was sure she had the right intention during the act. It’d been all she’d been thinking about for months, so how could it be anything else? Twins. Two babies in one pregnancy.

The Doctor had been very insistent with her that intention was important for all pregnancies, but especially for hers since it was so specific. The Doctor explained that ideally, people would have sex only when they wanted to have a child, and then they would do it mindfully and prayerfully. The moment of conception was when the soul chose to incarnate. This is a delicate and perilous time. There were many souls about, of all kinds, waiting to enter a body. Some entered at conception. That was ideal.

Others chose to take up residence afterwards. This resulted in what psychiatrists called “multiple personality disorder”. Priests called it “possession”. New Agers called it “walk-ins”. It was all the same thing, and it was all less than desirable.

The Doctor explained that ideally the potential parents would pray before having sex, alerting the souls, the beings-in-waiting, that an opening, a doorway if you will, was being created for them. The parents would meditate on the characteristics and personality of the child that they hoped to welcome into their lives. They would speak about what kind of home they could provide.

In a way it was like a blind date, or perhaps more like an arranged marriage. They were going to be together a long time. It was important to do this well, rather than leave it to chance.

The trouble is, too many people didn’t think it all before having sex. It was as if they were swept away, like they were in a stagecoach, and the horses got spooked. Before they realized what was happening, they were where they hadn’t planned on being, because they hadn’t planned. Sometimes they got stuck there. Just like with marriage, it is a good idea to choose wisely before this long-term commitment.

Too many babies were being born without souls properly attached to them because of this. Some had very weak souls and had sensory or neurological disorders because they weren’t fully in the body. Some souls weren’t even human.

But that wasn’t the problem here. Carol and her partner had prayed for two souls, alright. The only problem is that they somehow ended up with two souls in one body. This wasn’t uncommon, but could take different forms. The obstetrician had explained that sometimes twins are conceived but one is absorbed. The result? One baby, but it might have its twin as a vestigial part of its body, in the abdominal area, for instance. Or if the fusing is complete, it will have chimerism. Or in this case, conjoined. The obstetrician couldn’t explain why this had happened, but the Doctor could, after consulting with the souls of the twins.

Twins were wanted, and twins came. They were twins in the truest sense this incarnation. They were two, but one. When they were in spirit form, they were separate but they wanted to always be together.

In their previous incarnation they had been twins in the usual sense. That family had also wanted twins, but shortly after their birth the father had gotten laid off from his job. The economy had taken a downturn and he had difficulty finding another job. Months went by and the savings grew smaller. Their mother grew more and more exhausted with caring for them and with worry. Finally the decision was made. It was the same decision that some families made about their pets under similar circumstances. They were “given away to good homes”. Unfortunately in this case, they were separate ones. The children always felt that half of their very being was missing from that point onwards.

After their death, they had waited a long time to find another family that wanted twins. This time, they wanted to make sure they couldn’t be separated ever again.