The Twins
Curtis Smith

At birth, the boy's umbilical cord had lassoed his sister's neck. The girl was born blue and cold. By the age of ten, she'd been asked to leave school. In the classroom, she ate crayons and whooped during morning prayers. On the playground, she pulled up her dress. The principal called her a simpleton. Things were different then. The twins' mother cried. The girl's fingers fluttered like a pair of fighting birds.

If anyone teased her, her brother punched them in the mouth without a word of warning. He even fought the older boys who smoked stolen cigarettes behind the schoolyard fence. Black eyes and bloody noses only fueled the boy's rage. The winds whipped his sister's unkempt hair, her mouth often stained with her last meal, yet in her eyes, her brother beheld a warped mirror of how things might have been. In time, the other children fell silent when the boy and his babbling sister passed.

The twins lived on a farm outside town. There was always work to do. The boy often tied one end of a rope around his sister's waist and the other around his. She had a tendency to wander—into the fields, down to the creek—called by voices her brother would never hear. The boy and his family would waste the rest of the day calling her name and stumbling through thistles or muddy fields or August's killing heat. When they found her, she'd study them with the eyes of a woken dreamer.

The boy was angry when he learned he couldn't go to school the day before Christmas break. The boy would stay home and mind his sister while their mother tended to a sick relative in town. The boy would miss his teacher's pecan cookies. He wouldn't get to unwrap the dime-store whistles and tin cars she bought for her students. When their mother left, the boy cursed his sister. His sister made gurgling noises and stuck her fingers in her mouth. The boy called her the names that would have started a fight had anyone else said them. His sister stared. He may as well have been talking to a rock. The boy cursed her a final time and crumbled into tears. His sister hugged him with spit-wet hands and cooed her nonsense into his ear.

The boy had been told to clean the loft. His sister followed him outside, but it was her brother who fetched and zipped her coat. She picked up the rope and handed it to him. He said no. She handed it to him again and smiled her lopsided smile. The boy knotted the rope around their waists.

The boy climbed the loft's ladder first. His sister followed. The loft was thick with dust. Abandoned spider webs clung to the rafters. Wind whistled between the laths. The boy's sister had climbed the ladder hundreds of times, but this morning, just as her face crested the loft's floor, she slipped. The tug slammed the boy to the floor. He skidded on his backside, the friction burning his skin. The beam that saved him from falling knocked the wind from his gut and broke two ribs. He gazed over the edge. Suspended halfway between the loft and the floor, his sister twisted at the rope's end. She looked up, perplexed at first, then waved.

The boy struggled to prop his feet against the beam. Hand over hand, he pulled her up. For every tug, the rope slipped a bit. His fingers blistered. His shoulders ached. Finally, her hands grasped the loft's floor. He reached out to her. This, he figured, was how it would always be between them.

Curtis Smith's latest collection of stories is Bad Monkey (Press 53). An essay collection is forthcoming from Sunnyoutside.

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Detail of photo on main page courtesy of Bruce Berrien.

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