I didn’t know much about conjoined twins, but when the professor in my embryology class mentioned the accident in cell division that led to the phenomenon, I remembered my first dream in life. Before I dreamt of becoming a Noble-prize-winning biochemist. Before I dreamt of meeting the love of my life. Before I dreamt about traveling the world. Before I dreamt about having a dog. When I was just a kid.
I remembered wishing I were a twin.
I would have a built-in best friend. Someone who was guaranteed to understand me. Someone who would always be my ally, my partner in minor crimes and hilarious pranks (like switching identities to trick grown-ups). I fantasized about how my twin and I would have different skills—she’d be an ace at math, but I would excel in English, and she would sing like a nightingale, but I would paint like a Renaissance master. When we started dating, each of us would know that a boy really liked her for herself, and not just for her looks, because he had two of the same-looking girls to pick from. When we went through puberty, we would develop the subtle but impressive psychic power known as twin telepathy. We would complement each other, bolster each other, love each other, and stand by each other.
I’d learned that twins sometimes had their own language. I remember trying to come up with something and teach it to my little sister when she was old enough. But we were five years apart. And she seemed more interested in speaking the language of lizards. It didn’t work out.
Not all of the fantasies I had were about how great it would be to be a twin, especially as I got older and still longed for a twin, but started thinking about some of the downsides. Sometimes when I was angry about school, friends, or life in general, I would fantasize about commiserating with my twin, and I started giving her more realistic responses. She wouldn’t always react the way I wanted her to. Sometimes I’d complain about friends and my imaginary twin wouldn’t want to hear it. Or maybe she’d be jealous because I was spending more time with them than I was with her. I’d imagine us fighting and stalking off in opposite directions. And it was only when the ache of separation became stronger than the fever of anger that we would come together and make up and be mighty twins again.
So even in my fantasies, I imagined times when I would want to be away from my twin. When I would want and need my solitude.
Of course I’d heard the phrase “joined at the hip” to describe people, in whatever kind of relationship, who were not just emotionally close, but physically together most of the time. It never occurred to me to wonder what it would be like if I’d had a twin and I couldn’t separate from her. Would we be two people or one person? And what would happen if one or both of us wanted to pursue different aspirations in life? And what would happen if one or both of us fell in love?
So the first time I learned about conjoined twins, I was horrified at the thought that I might have ended up as one, unable to ever escape my sibling. Even when she was driving me up a wall.
My little sister wasn’t too fun for me at first, but the older we both got, the closer we got. And the more and more my longing for a twin faded. Because my little sister was my complement. She was my ally. And in some ways, she was a better ally than a twin, because she was the baby of the house. And if the baby asked for something…say something on behalf of her adoring big sister, the baby often got it.
I forgot all about my whole obsession with having a twin until that day in class. The professor clicked to the slide that illustrated her point. The slide showed the incomplete cell division on one side, and on the other, there were old pictures of well-known conjoined twins through history: brothers in a circus freak show act, well-to-do sisters who lived quiet but charitable lives, and one pair of twins whose names were lost to history, even though they too were famous for a while.
That last pair especially intrigued me.
Some conjoined twins were only joined by the smallest bridge of skin and tissue between them. Others shared major organs.
The way these twins were joined…at first I couldn’t believe they were medically viable.
They were cephalopagus twins. They shared a brain and the upper third of their face, fused cheek to cheek. They shared an eye, and each brother had only one ear on his side. But each had his own nose and his own mouth and chin and neck. And they were completely separated below the neck.
When I did just a little further research after class, I learned about all the different ways that the bodies of twins could be joined, and the odds of survival. Twins who had the worst odds of survival were those who were joined at the head, and whose faces and brains were fused. If they ever made it to birth—and I actually don’t think I came across any cases where they did—they didn’t live long after.
But this particular pair of cephalopagus twins did live to birth, and long after. Longer, some said, than average men. But despite this, it was a challenge to find any information about them. I couldn’t even find any photographs, so I thought it was a medical hoax at first. My research started meandering out of scientific territory and into superstition and omens, and wonders and powers. The only depiction of the twins that I found was an illustration on an old-fashioned poster advertising the fortune-tellers known as “Two-Man.”
Two handsome young men, wearing red skirted coats, flourished their arms in a confident welcome to all. They were joined at the tops of their heads, looking out with their two normal eyes and their shared middle eye, their special eye…their third eye.
They were unique even among the unique.
I pieced together a fantastic, but superficial, story of their lives. From what I could gather, they themselves were the reason for that superficiality. They themselves had worked to erase as many records and accounts of their existence as they could with the considerable resources they amassed. Then they vanished, and only reappeared in a place where the people respected their wishes to keep to themselves. There they lived the remainder of their lives with only themselves, each other, as company.
When all was said and done, all they had seemed to leave behind was legacy of mystery.
Their heritage was as mysterious as their names, but it was said that one of the brothers kept a diary, and that the diary was written in French. So I called the brothers “Montagne,” which according to the internet was the French word for “mountain.” The latter half of their lives were lived in seclusion in the remote mountains of the Yukon.
They were born sometime in the latter half of the 1800s, somewhere in central France, at a time when photography was most definitely available. Given their condition (and their later fame), the brothers would most certainly have had their picture taken, more than once. (I haven’t found anything yet, but I’m still searching.)
The twins were sickly for a while. It was thought they would die. And it was said that their mother and father were consoled and comforted by relatives who told them that it would be a good thing if the twins died. But their parents, despite being anguished that their children were not typical, loved the boys. They were glad as day after day passed and the boys became more active, heavier, and healthier. They may have had one mind between them, but they each had their own voices, and they both were hearty criers in their early days.
So the babies survived. And then, they lived.
The family was approached by a young doctor who lived in a community where joined twins, if they lived, were typically considered good omens, their physical “inseparation” symbolizing the way in which people should maintain bonds of family and friendship.
They soon came to learn that the doctor and others in the community also had other interests when it came to conjoined twins, and especially with the brothers Montagne.
The thinkers were fascinated with the question of whether or not the brothers shared a mind and shared their thoughts and longings. And they wondered if the brothers could develop powers that ordinary people didn’t have, because they were both one person and two people. Because they had double the brain power of a normal human after what was supposed to be two brains was partly fused into one. Two brains, two minds, communicating instantly with each other. The people in the community believed in things like astral projection, hypnosis, telepathy, and extrasensory perception. The boys did claim that one could sense what the other was feeling to some extent. Sometimes they seemed distinct. And sometimes, they spoke as one when answering, as if they were thinking as one.
There were some who even wondered if the boys, sharing a mind, would also share a lifespan, or if they would live a doubled lifespan. Rather than dying young because of their condition, some posited that the boys would live far past the expected 60 or 70 years, all the way to 130 or a 140.
It was said that the twins could sing in perfect harmony, which was not so extraordinary. But in one fanciful account, their singing could cause the leaves to sway in the direction of their voices, and the animals of the forest to stop whatever racket they were making, so they could listen, mesmerized.
The twins were asked to partake in experiments whereby they would try to exercise second sight with their middle eye, the one that existed at the vertex of their joining. They were encouraged to breach the veil that separated the natural world from other worlds, like the realm of fairies, spirits, angels, and even aliens. That they had three eyes led some to believe that the brothers could use each eye to see each division of time: the past, the present, and the future.
The experiments were purported to be not too strenuous or forceful. The twins even expressed enjoying their daily “exercises.” As young boys, they did seem to possess a keen intuition, if nothing else. It was not unexpected that if one boy burned his hand, the other would know or even feel the injury in part. But it was another thing altogether when they exhibited knowing and feeling things about their own mother.
They were at school one day, when both boys stood abruptly in the middle of a lesson and insisted that they must go home. They kept claiming that something was wrong with their mother and would not calm until someone agreed to take them home. There, it was discovered that their mother had taken a bad fall and had broken a leg. There was another instance where the brothers were certain their mother was safe, even though she and her traveling companions had gotten caught in a snowstorm on their way back from visiting relatives. It was not childish hope, but a certainty that she and her companions had found shelter in the home of a farmer and his family. The community believed the connection was a remnant of the umbilical bond that each child once shared with their mother.
The twins were adolescents when their mother died. They claimed to have seen their mother’s spirit crossing over into the realm of the dead.
One of the brothers began to keep a diary shortly after that. The diary itself was lost now, but somehow, photographs of dozens of pages had surfaced. And in those pages was the story of the next part of the twins’ lives.
When they came of age, the stipend that their parents had been provided for their care, by the doctors and researchers in the community where they grew up, was given directly to the twins. But they wanted a trade beyond the psychic exercises and demonstrations they still performed. They wanted to challenge their other skills and interests. And they were curious about the world beyond their community. So they went to a nearby town and found a craftsman who would allow them to apprentice under him. He taught them the building and crafting of fine wood furniture. Even with the stipend, the apprentices’ salaries were not enough for the brothers to live upon in the town. While they lamented of their money woes at a tavern one evening, the barkeep told them that with their unique condition, they might earn some extra money putting on a spectacle act, like in the traveling circuses.
The brothers had no desire to join a traveling circus, but they did consider the advice, and they did discuss how they might be able to make use of their unique talents to supplement their business, perhaps even to gain new customers.
Not too long after that, the brothers began to ply their two trades. They built and sold fine wood furniture, and they told people’s fortunes.
Of the few primary sources I was able to track down, one was an audio recording of one night when the brothers put on a show at a local theater to woo new potential customers to both their businesses.
I listened to the recording and read the transcript of the English translation. The brothers sounded similar, and with the grainy quality of the audio, I couldn’t discern the difference between them, though I had the sense that they were switching off with their introduction.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome! one of them started. Welcome to this twilight between worlds and times. We are the fantastic mystic Two-Man! And tonight, in your very presence, we will see into other worlds. We will see into other times. We will see into your very minds!
But fear not! We are benign. For we were like you once.
Long ago, we were ordinary twins, each struggling separately to develop great mental powers in service of our fellow men. Failed we did. Time and time again. Until we came to a realization…
Then came the punchline.
Perhaps if we put our heads together, we would see something!
A polite chuckle or two could be heard from the otherwise silent crowd of one hundred or so souls.
And so we did, and the great cosmic powers saw fit to join our minds and our eyes, and to grant us…the sight!
As the recording went on, they pulled various volunteers from the audience and told their fortunes. And they reminded each volunteer of their furniture business, insisting that the furniture was not imbued with mystic energies from their building it. I couldn’t tell if they were being sincere, because people were concerned about mystic energies in their furniture, or if it was a wink-and-nudge maneuver meant to imply that their furniture was indeed imbued with mystic energies, for anyone who was interested in such things.
It all started sounding familiar, but then, a member of the audience chose to ask not for a fortune but for an answer. This person asked the twins if they would consider entreating the cosmic powers to separate them again. They would lose their special powers, but surely they would appreciate being able to live separate and normal lives.
There was a pause in the recording. The brothers had ready answers for other questions—including those that were rude and prejudiced—but they seemed to be pausing to think on that one question. When they answered at last, they sounded incredulous that anyone would even bring up the notion of them separating. All but the most naïve of audience members knew that the twins’ heads were not joined by cosmic forces after they were born. But even though they had never been separated, most believed they must surely wish to be if they had the choice.
The brothers joked that even though they drove each other mad sometimes, they could not fathom being separated, and frankly could not fathom how other people lived separate lives. Pardoning themselves in case they offended the audience full of folks who had no joined twin, they speculated on how separate folks must feel as if something—or rather someone—is missing. The audience responded with some uncomfortable murmuring and shifting of chairs. But the brothers, being skilled showman, quickly brought them around with more jokes, including one about a fortuitous fortune they just read for a young man in the audience, who was due to run into his true love that very night.
They continued on with their fortune-telling and tale-spinning after that.
The brothers professed to be somewhat disappointed that the fortune-telling business was more lucrative than the furniture business. But if it was really was their voices I heard on that recording, they sounded as if they were genuinely enjoying themselves. They were certainly good showmen. And they also sounded sincere when telling the fortunes. They believed in their own abilities, and even the limitations of their abilities.
And the fortune-telling business did lead to them meeting a pair of friends who were at first intrigued, and then charmed by the twins. These friends began a romance with the twins. In time, the romances became serious. The ladies wanted to marry the brothers Montagne, but were not allowed, for the authorities in their region could not determine if the Two-Man was two men or one man. And laws prohibited one man from having more than one wife.
So they were not married, but the four lived as if they were married. The families of the women were none too happy. When one of the women showed signs of carrying a child, it was too much to tolerate for the families. They convinced the authorities to force the Montagnes to leave the town and never return. The brothers might have been willing, if they could bring their common-law wives with them. Bur the families of the women refused to allow it. When the twins refused to go, they were chased out of town. The police chief of the town knew the twins, considered them friends. He told them they could send a proxy to settle their affairs with their shop and business. But he also threatened to jail them and seize all they owned in the world if ever they were to return.
The child who was born was a girl, a single girl, and healthy. And her family took her far away to another town so that her father could never find her, and she need never know who her father was.
After that, the Montagne twins vanished. No one in the world knew what had become of them until people began hearing stories of mysterious twin brothers living in the mountains somewhere in the middle of Yukon territory. And sometimes the occasional hiker would have a story to tell about coming across what they thought was a mythical creature, a triclops, until they realized it was just conjoined twins.
Many years later, when the girl was old enough, when she was a young woman, her mother confessed to her that her father, whom she had always said had died before the girl was born, might still be alive. She told her daughter about her unusual father and his brother, about how they were joined, and about their special talents. At first, the young woman was shocked and sickened. Then she was angry and ashamed, and then she was sorry for feeling ashamed, but still felt ashamed all the same. And she, who had dreams of meeting a handsome and kind man someday who might be her husband, just as her mother had met her step-father, began to wonder about her mother and her unusual birth father.
Still confused and upset, she asked her mother which one of the twins was her father. And her mother could not answer the question, not because she did not know which body had produced the girl, and not because there was no difference in the minds and characters of the two, but because there were times when the brothers shared a mind and a character. And it might be that in some ways, both were the young woman’s father.
The young woman was angry for many days, wishing her mother had never told her who her father really was. She struggled to accept it, and went one day to her mother and told her that she forgave what her mother had done. Then a great and terrible anger overcome her mother. Her mother told her that there was nothing to be forgiven, for she had loved the girl’s father truly. The young woman did not understand, and could not understand. Her mind and heart were restless with conflicting thoughts and notions. She could think of only one way to try and steady herself.
She told her mother that she meant to seek out the Two-Man, and see her father for herself.
The Montagne twins lived a private and secluded life in the Yukon, but they did not altogether avoid people. The people who lived in the surrounding areas knew them. They knew, at least in vague sweeps, what the story of the twins’ past life was, and that the brothers had come to their land to leave spectacle and sadness behind, and find some measure of peace and calm. But the twins were not averse to reading someone’s fortune every now and then, if only for the pleasure and comfort of human company.
The young woman, when she finally arrived, told the people in the area and the Montagne brothers themselves that she was a student studying conjoined twins (the same as I was). But the twins knew who she was despite her ruse. They knew because she shared their features, and they knew because when her father saw her for the first time, it seemed as if a hollow and empty chamber of his heart filled up with something both warm and cold. The warmth of love. And the chill of lost and empty years. And he knew his brother felt the same, for they shared a mind. But they let her keep her secret while she questioned them and asked them about their lives, and kept her gaze more firmly on one of the twins—her father—than on the other.
The young woman, having come face-to-face with her father and her uncle, or her fathers, was even more confused. She still felt betrayed by her mother. She still felt glad that she had grown up with and been raised by her step-father. But she felt sorrow and pity for the twins and for herself. She felt curious. Having learned about the twins’ lives and their skills, she even started feeling a measure of pride. She visited them a few more times before confessing who she was. And the brothers were ready to embrace their girl.
The young woman and the twins corresponded by letters for a few months, making plans for the Montagne brothers to visit. But it was not to be. The brothers Montagne were found dead one day, some weeks before their trip was due. Friends found them asleep in their bed, their faces serene.
According to their will, sometime after their death, a richly carved and expertly built wooden cabinet was delivered to the home of the young woman whom they had loved and longed to know all their lives. And according to their will, their bodies were donated to a medical research facility where they had visited and spoken of the gift they intended to give, so that the doctors and researchers there could study the rarest of the conjoined conditions. And perhaps discover why and how the Montagne’s had survived and lived for so long.
They shared their medical records—records that were long-thought to be destroyed—on the condition that certain details, like their true names, never be divulged to the public. That condition was meant to protect the women that the brothers’ loved, and the child that had come from that love. They had forgotten to remove it once they were reunited with their lost loved ones. So it was their true names remained a mystery.
I don’t really believe all that hokum about them seeing into time and space and minds. But I do believe that they were bright, intuitive, and charming enough to tell fortunes that seemed true. And I know they made beautiful wood furniture, because I’ve seen the pictures. And I know they have descendants, because their daughter had children. And her children had children. I spoke to one of them over the phone. I asked if they knew their great-grandfather’s name. They gave me their grandmother’s maiden name, which was not the name of the Montagne twins. Their grandmother passed a few years back, so I couldn’t ask her.
I wished I could give them a name, besides “Two-Man,” and my made-up “Montagne.” But then I realized that I didn’t need to know what their names were or who they were. I didn’t need to know if they really had psychic powers, or if they were golden-hearted charlatans. I didn’t need to know if they were one person or two. After all that I’d read and researched, I knew the most important thing I needed to know about the Montagne twins. Through all their suffering, joy, failure, and triumph, they complemented each other, bolstered each other, loved each other, and stood by each other. And they did the same for any in their lives who accepted their goodwill, even after they left this world.
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel.