Excerpt from The Girls by Lori Lansens, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Girls

by Lori Lansens

The Girls
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  • First Published:
    May 2006, 352 pages
    Apr 2007, 368 pages

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Print Excerpt

The next day, Aunt Lovey placed us in the middle of the floor again. This time she didn't put my Baby Tenderlove doll in front of the silver radiator but Ruby's Kitty Talks a Little. And it was Ruby's turn to learn how to get what she wanted. Ruby's challenge was greater than mine, though. According to Aunt Lovey, it took Ruby six months to coax me across the room. Some time after that, Aunt Lovey put my doll and Ruby's doll at separate ends of the room. A casual observer might have thought she was being cruel, but Aunt Lovey wanted more for us than just survival.

When Ruby and I were nine years old, Aunt Lovey drove us to the Leaford Library to look for books about our condition. (What books did she think we would find there? Welcome to the Wonderful World of Craniopagy?) Ruby had, and still has, severe motion sickness. She doesn't always tolerate antinausea medication, and more than half the time we travel, even short trips, she gets sick. Sometimes very sick. Ruby's motion sickness has further limited our already profoundly restricted lives. My travel bags, even for day trips, contain several changes of clothes for us both. Under most of my travel memories is the shaker-cheese smell of Ruby's breath.

On the way to the Leaford Library, Ruby threw up twice, and by the time we arrived I was wearing the last of my clean clothes. Even though it was normal for my sister to be carsick, I knew that it was more than Aunt Lovey's driving. (The next day Ruby was covered in chicken pox, which I, incidentally, did not get.)

Aunt Lovey had been disappointed to find that there were no books about cranial conjoinment, or any kind of conjoinment, in the children's section upstairs. On our way to the elevator she stopped to tell the older woman at the desk that Leaford Library needed to look at its children's collection and include a book or two about birth defects and whatnot. "Especially," she'd added, "since you have a set of craniopagus twins living right here in your own community."

The old woman, whose name tag said ROZ and who was wearing a young woman's purple angora sweater, stared at me and my sister. Like most of Baldoon County, she'd only heard of the rare conjoined twins. She seemed less astonished than most people on first meeting Ruby and me. Maybe it was because she knew someone not similarly, but equally, exceptional. She agreed that the children of Leaford needed to be enlightened, and then she escorted us to the elevator. I felt Ruby go limp on the quick ride down and I knew that she'd fallen asleep. I could feel the heat from her fever and considered informing Aunt Lovey that we should go home, but the old woman in the angora sweater had directed us to a book of photographs (from the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia) on one of the high shelves in the adult section. I could not leave without looking inside.

On the front of the huge book was a daguerreotype of Chang and Eng Bunker, twins from old Siam, the original Siamese twins who were famous for doing circus acrobatics while being joined at the chest. After entertaining the courts of Europe, the brothers settled in North Carolina in the mid-1800s, married nontwin sisters, and fathered a total of twenty-one children! (This is absolutely true.) In the photograph the twins look distinguished, wearing identical dark suits tailored to cover the band of flesh that bound them at the thorax. They lived to be sixty-three years old. Chang died in the night of a ruptured spleen. His brother's parting words are said to be, "I'll go now too."

Aunt Lovey carried that big picture book, and a few smaller books, to a large quiet table at the back of the reading area. Ruby's sleeping body was heavy. Hot. I settled down carefully on a narrow bench and held my breath as Aunt Lovey's freckled hand (you would never have known by looking at her that my Aunt Lovey had Native Indian blood) opened the book. The first photograph, in black and white, was a graphic shot of a severely deformed human skeleton. Aunt Lovey read the small print out loud—"Skeleton of a seven-month-old fetus with spina bifida and anencephaly"—before she cleared her throat and turned the page. On the next page was a photograph of a nude woman, surprising not because of her white nakedness but because of a curvature of the spine that caused her to bend sharply at the middle, like a walking letter r. I asked Aunt Lovey to read the small print on that page, but she turned it instead. The next photograph was of a middle-aged man dressed in a starched white shirt and cravat. An enormous plum-colored tumor appeared to have frightened the man's right eye into his forehead and chased the nose off the center of his face. I would have liked to linger on the photo, but Aunt Lovey turned the page. There, on the next page, against a velvet background, incredibly and spectacularly, were the pickled remains of infant craniopagus twins, joined not at the side of the head, like Ruby and me, but at the back of the head, so that one looked forward and one behind. The babies were afloat in a massive glass jar, eyes wide, mouths open, a tooth bud visible in the larger one's lower gums. Back to back. Bum to bum. Flotsam in fluid. Tiny elements of metal visible here and there. The babies had been posed before being sunken in the jar. They were holding hands. A sob rushed out of Ruby's throat and startled me because I hadn't felt her wake. Aunt Lovey slammed the book shut. Her cheeks were scarlet. She rose to return the book to the shelf.

Copyright © 2005 by Lori Lansens

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