When First We Met
Monday, December 10, 1842
Chang-Eng," the children chanted. "Mutant, mutant."
Now and then the little innocents sprang from the dust cloud chasing our carriage to cry my name and Chang's. The path we traveled cut through a droughty careworn field, and to either side of us a fast-passing scene of blond grass and dead milkweed thirsted under the burnt sky of sunset. My ear tingled with the nearness of my brother, who picked lint off of my shoulder and knew not to bump my head as he did so. His dark eyes showed little reflections of me. I was thirty-one. My life was about to begin: I was entering North Carolina.
My brother and I did not know that love was soon to deliver us. But twenty-one children and three decades later, how obvious it seems that everything to follow was a consequence of that evening. When you know you are dying, self-deceptions fly from your bedside like embers off a bonfire. Alone in the dark with a final chance to bind together circumstances that have made you a peasant who sells duck eggs on the Mekong one day and the South's most famous temperance advocate the next, you see a curtain open onto the landmark moments of your past.
When Chang and I arrived in North Carolina, we were coming to the end of yet another tour, exhibiting the bond that the public could not see without assuming we two were so very different from everybody else.
The halfwit we'd hired drove at a quick pace. And now, jounced inside a rickety carriage that had the legend THE SIAMESE TWIN in chipping yellow paint on its doors, I was trying to nap beside Chang.
My eyes were not closed for long. My brother tapped my shoulder. "Eng?"
I knew better than to ask him to quiet when he was in one of his talkative moods.
"Maybe," Chang said, "you read out loud?" He spoke in a soft voice whenever asking me for something.
"Now?" I made a show of closing my eyes more tightly. "I'd prefer not."
"A Shakespeare speech from your book, make the trip go faster?" There was a shiver in his words from the bustle of our ride. I felt his half of our stomach spasm.
"Let me please catch a little rest," I said, opening an eye. "Why don't you read it yourself?"
"Me? You joking." The listlessness in Chang's smile suggested what it is to spend three decades within five to seven inches of one another. "Eng?"
Reporters love to mention that I am the "less dominating member of the pair." A man may be quiet, does that mean he is not assertive?
"Eng?" That we hadn't eaten in hours spoiled his breath.
I shut my eyes tight again. Nailing down a personality is about as easy as pinning marmalade to a wall. I faked a snore.
"Eng!" he said, patience being a luxury allowed those who have more obliging brothers. "I know you not asleep."
The dust of riding whisked us into Wilkesboro, the last stop on this junket of somersaults and smiles that had spanned the eastern seaboard. I could not have imagined that in Wilkesboro we would meet the women who would-for all the kings I'd met and the nations I'd been-make up the kingdom in which I'd walk.
Chang had the driver bridle our two horses to a stop in a grassy square near the center of town: a little commons that had not yet changed its name from "Union Square" to "Westwood Park." This open space was blotchy with killed grass, its unused flagpole stood without purpose in the wind. A line of four threadbare trees gesticulated like marionettes behind the flagstaff.
Townspeople rushed at us from every direction. Dozens of unkempt children and their unkempt parents gathered round our carriage, pointing fingers. The rest of the population climbed on roofs for a better view. My brother grinned at them all. He delivered his patented wave, like a little boy proving with a casual flick that his hand is clean on both sides-the motion Queen Victoria used to greet her masses.
"Come down, carriage man," my brother called out to our driver, wetting my face with spittle. "Will you please open door?"
The driver muttered at us from his buckboard. I asked this idiot, "Did you say something?"
He let us out, his well-shaved cheeks pink as Mekong tuna meat. He said, "Nothing, sirs."
"You are addressing Eng alone." I accepted the man's hand, stepping from the carriage with my brother close on my left. "Do you hear my twin talking? You must say, 'Nothing, sir.'" I was tired and irritable. "When you speak to Eng, you speak to one 'sir,' not two."
Far away, between the rough corners of Wilkesboro's buildings (small white Presbyterian church with no steeple, narrow white beer parlor, small white general store displaying all its stock in its window), rows of sleeping blue mountains hid in shadow, each more blurred than the last. And the full moon had begun its crawl across the sky.
Everything about this environment seemed animated by our arrival: the crowd gathering on all sides of us; the bandy-legged old man in a white suit who limped across Union Square with a yellow rose in his lapel, and the pair of young girls who ran over and walked him arm in arm toward our carriage; the slaves across the courtyard pitching straw and pretending not to look; the dirty little white hands poking our ligament as we stepped from the carriage. Several reached for my face.
"Chang-Eng!" Even the dirtiest of children radiant like they'd just been given candy. "Mutant, mutant!"
"Thank you," Chang and I said as the dust gathered on our identical black suits-tight and crisply English in cut, the very ones Barnum had bought for us. Strolling through the crowd, my brother and I were two complete bodies affixed at the chest by a fleshy, bendable, seven-inch-long ligament resembling a forearm.
"Chang-Eng acknowledging you, good people," Chang said. We crossed Main Street side by side, in the calibrated rhythm of our united movement, arms sweaty over each other's shoulders. Like Chang, I wore my hair in a black braid long enough to curl around my head. I tied it in a blue silk tassel that fell over my brother's shoulder, as his fell over mine.
North Carolina was a welcome change from Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, New York, that series of East Coast cities that even before the War of Yankee Aggression had become as vulgar as a row of women of easy virtue on a street corner. Some believe the war divided America's history in one stroke, all at once advancing Northern manufacturing and the forward parade of Yankee progress. But by December 1842 the North had swelled so hastily it simmered with industry and crime and most of all too many people, while Southern towns like this remained in rural condition, natural as ever. Wilkesboro was among those bygone cheerful hamlets that were so numerous across the map of North Carolina they seemed like stars in the nighttime sky, before Reconstruction hobbled the South.
My brother kept his smile and hadn't quit waving to the townsfolk. Few returned his greeting. A yellow-skinned man and his conjoined twin may be admitted into a village in North Carolina, but will never be adopted by it fully.
Main Street was rounded, with a humped center and sloping sides, and it led us across town. Chang and I were silent as we walked; I rarely spoke to him. At all times, a wordless debate concerning the fundaments of movement traveled across our bond like a message across telegraph wire, and that was conversation enough. I called this the Silence, and I was comforted by it.
The people of Wilkesboro had begun to follow us at a distance: here two blond schoolgirls crouched behind a craggy black oak tree to stare; there, in the Law Office Building, under the pressed-metal facade, a few cheerful boys shouted taunts. One brave Negro walked near us before scampering off to giggle behind some wagons tethered to the Court House gallery; across the street near a livery stable a woman froze in her tracks to gape at the Twins, her face turning pale as death. A few townsfolk, however, did smile openly at us as we passed, and let fly a friendly giggle whenever Chang waved.
"Eng," Chang said, crimping his eyes as he often did when he found his happy place in the world. "It is exciting, yes?" With his free hand he smoothed the lapels of his jacket.
"Brother, I don't know what you mean."
Chang was taken off guard; he always managed to discount that we were miles apart in temperament.
"Well," he said, searching my face, "this, I mean!" Crooking our ligament, he drew himself in front of and even closer to me, and he looked over my shoulder at the now large crowd following at our heels. Chang and I continued to walk in this manner-nearly face-to-face, with my brother striding backward-as he flung his hand in the air and waved at the people. Everyone clapped. Chang swung around to face forward again.
It was this sort of pandering showmanship that I hated, and strove to avoid for most of my career. (Like most everybody, I am proud of certain accomplishments: that we never participated in, nor were in any way associated with, an American circus; my predilection for reading, which saved me from the manner of immigrant speech that Chang never lost.)
Main Street came to an end at the Yates Inn. A Southern community such as Wilkesboro, in its distant relation not only to the central government, but also to neighboring villages, believes itself an individual, free from all others. And yet, little inns just like this one were features of nearly all minor Southern towns, and by now Chang and I felt at home loitering by innyards, waiting to be admitted.
Wilkesboro's version of the Southern hostel was a two-story unpainted log house, its modest front yard overgrown with chokecherry. A giant woman sat on the inn's drooping front porch, fanning herself in the skeletal shade of leafless oaks. She was some five hundred pounds, if not more, this innkeeper. Moist patches of her scalp were visible under her thin gray hair, like peat bog spied through the reeds of a marsh, and her hairline gave way to a glistening forehead just as a marsh would open onto a river.
My brother and I came to stand before her, resting our two free hands on the porch railing. The lady innkeeper scrutinized Chang and me in our unforgiving black. "A charming creature"-her bassy voice wiggled the flesh hanging below her chin-"just about as strange as they say." I could not tell whether the woman's face was friendly or taunting. She wore a homemade dress of gray cloth-stuff made with no thought to style. Her skin refused contour. Birds shrieked in the trees.
I imagined this woman a courtier in His Majesty King Rama's palace, bejeweled, dressed in silk while four or five husbands danced around her, runty men with short life spans.
To her left stood a frowning boy in a straw hat with a crooked rim. To her right, a pair of blond women-her daughters, I guessed, though they were not so young-long-faced, flat-chested, and each with lip rouge on her front teeth. The taller one's eyes flickered impatiently, like the wings of little birds. The way she did not turn away in horror gave me the urge to saw through my ligament. It was the light at that hour, or my fatigue pressing in, but I believed she was smiling at me.
My brother's skin was mucky as the Mekong itself, his breathing a gasp.
The declining sun acted on the girl's fine hair, cutting it into elements of gold and pink gold and shadow. She blushed and bowed her head, but she continued to peek at me from under her brows with eyes the color of blueberries. She bit her lip. A young lady was looking at me, of all things, and smiling. I could not fathom it-looking into my eyes! I returned her stare, I don't know where I discovered the courage.
Only a few seconds passed, evidently, though I was sure the moment slipped from the calendar. For the seeming eternity I stood there, my heart pounded only once, a single thunderclap, echoing. This strange girl's clear eyes looked like safe worlds in which to escape the circumstance of what I was.
Chang's heart, too, began to go frantic for this tall blond innkeeper's daughter-I felt it. Was it me the girl was fixing her gaze on, or the twin close at my side?
The whole time, the girl's sister stood in shadow and chewed at her nails. But before long this one was looking up into my face, too, without smiling or frowning. The entire town had gathered behind us, watching everything. And the sisters' large mother leaned forward in her groaning seat and straightened her dress, patted her hair.
"Jefferson," the large woman said to her boy. "Go get your father." Daintily, she removed a little gnat that had flown into her mouth. "Tell him I found a pair of husbands for your sisters."
I swear the townsfolk cheered.
Reprinted from Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss by permission of E. P. Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Darin Strauss. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.