Hattie met him behind the dye vats, and me, I was forced to come along. Why did I agree to it? All-morning whines, whispers, and pinches to the nape of my neck, that’s why. We arrived in the factory yard just past noon, Hattie dragging us between looming metal drums, their caps locked down with bolts thick as my wrist.
“Slow down,” I said. She was near running, making me take quick tripping steps to keep pace. I rapped the bit of bone and skin that joined Hattie and me at the base of our spines. More than twins, Mother said. More than can be borne, the ladies at church sighed. More than enough for me, the factory men whispered to each other, too low, they thought, for me to hear.
“Hattie! Slow!” I insisted.
She halted in the shadow of a vat, allowing me to regain my feet and breath. “Sorry,” she murmured. “Sorry. Sorry.” She always apologized in triplicate. “You want to walk forward?”
“I want to walk homeward,” I said, but Hattie ignored this, starting on again, slower this time. I could see where the loaders had scrawled on the dye vats’ sides in wax crayon to identify the colors within. Last summer I’d stolen Father’s ledger and memorized all the codes. I said them silently as we walked: 5102-OL, olive; 8795-CY, cyan; 7999-YW, pale yellow. We rounded 4203-RD, bright red.
He lurked on the other side. Before I knew it, he’d lifted Hattie up on her toes, and her breath escaped in a puff. Matthew, a stuttering 19-year-old with a face as dull as Wednesday morning, met my sister in the dye yard because their love was forbidden. Matthew worked in Father’s dye factory, fortunate to have a job when most of the rest of the town stood on the breadline. All summer behind the vats, his hands had worked over Hattie. They were stained a different color every few weeks—blue, yellow, green, sometimes a dream-snarled purple. That day, they were orange, a pallid fire that would soon flicker at Hattie’s wrists, shoulders, and the insides of her thighs.
Matthew released my sister and walked around to address me with a few stiff words.
“Nice day, huh?”
I shrugged. He glanced at Hattie. The ropes of her braids tickled my neck, which meant that she was nodding to him: Go on.
“Sunny today,” he said.
“Talk of weather.” I yawned.
“They’ve doubled the number of dye vats,” Matthew said. “Did yuh-you notice?”
“Mmmm. Talk of dye vats.” I tapped my foot.
Hattie leaned her head back against my shoulder. “Don’t you wish they’d bust open?” she asked. “Then we could go dip ourselves in any color we wanted.”
“What color would yuh-you choose, Hattie?” Matthew asked.
“All of them.”
“If you dipped yourself in all of them, you’d end up a disgusting brown,” I informed her. “You got to limit yourself to one. Lester Byttle did.”
Hattie whipped the ends of her braids against my cheek. She hated when I talked about Lester Byttle, said the memory gave her nightmares.
Lester had been famous among the line workers for a magic trick. He’d snatch up pinches of base powder in his long, thin hands and, with a sharp look, make it rise from his fingertips, swirling in the air, only to land in twin patches on an unsuspecting worker’s cheeks or eyelids or lips, like a woman’s face paint. Lester had worked in the dye factory for years, since after his family had all burnt up in a house fire when he was a teenager. The mystics said that Lester had started the blaze himself with a bad dream, Lester’s nightmare a spark, the house a tinderbox. The Byttle family had ended with fire; Hattie and I, we’d started out with fire, and I liked to think that maybe Lester had been dreaming again the night that we were born.
“Got a new color today.” Matthew beamed and flashed us his dyed palms.
“Now, what would you call that?” I asked, steering him toward the unpronounceable.
“Uh-oh-oh-oh …” He gulped like he couldn’t breathe. “Oh-uh-oh …”
“What?” I cupped a hand to my ear. “I can’t quite—”
“Orange,” Hattie hissed, nudging me hard in the ribs. I caught the edge of her frown like a fishhook. She turned from me to smooth Matthew’s cheek and curl a finger round his ear. “Ignore her,” she murmured. “She’s always in a bad mood.”
He nodded at me, muttering, “Sylvie,” before ducking back into Hattie’s caress.
They leaned against 4203-RD and worked through their rote of tender gestures: hand-holding, modest-mouthed kisses, a giddy lowering to the ground, me an awkward weight following them down. The dye wove its fingers up my nostrils and down the back of my throat, but I refused to choke as Matthew tangled his hands in Hattie’s hair, pulling it from its braids so that it spilled around me where I sat behind them. It smelled of her pillow back home.
Their bodies, when they kissed, produced a scent thick and sour like spoiled pudding, which mingled with the vinegar smell of the dye. Matthew ran his stained hands over Hattie’s back and accidentally brushed mine. I flinched. “Suh-sorry,” he muttered. “Suh-suh—” Hattie’s mouth covered this last apology, locked down tight on his. I pressed my face against the rusting vat, stared up at the squatting clouds, and darted my tongue out to the cold metal to taste the tang of it, the rough of it.
The place where we are joined is a secret place for Hattie and me, especially since everyone always wants to look at it. The skin of our backs descends into a V, like a bird’s wing does to its body—a bone hinge covered in smooth skin, our spines locked together at the base. We face away from each other, simply two girls standing back to back. When walking somewhere, I let Hattie lead, because then I’m not obliged to wave to anyone or chirp some greeting that will likely not be returned. I trail with perfectly placed backward steps, looking at the world after Hattie has passed it, which makes it a little friendlier somehow.
Lately, though, Hattie hates our hinge. She cranes to look at our backs and sighs. She snaps at me if I move too slowly. I twist my neck, trying to catch her expression, but I can see only half of it: flutter of eye, curve of lip, and slice of cheek. I envy Matthew that, at least, being able to look at the full of Hattie’s face. People say her face is identical to mine, but I wonder if I’d think it so, if I were able to look at it.
In the two months since she took up with Matthew, Hattie’s voice has spread thin as though it has been pumped full of air, and her movements are cloudy with sleepy flourishes. “You ill, Hats?,” Father asked last night, his ear pressed to the radio. Mother clucked her tongue and held the back of her hand to Hattie’s forehead. Only I knew that Hattie was infected with a secret fever, more gruesome than either of them could imagine. Up in our room, she had written Matthew’s name out in seven different types of penmanship, folded the paper furtively, tucked it into her mouth, and nestled it in the pouch of her cheek.
Last week, Matthew had proposed to her here at this very vat, with me as a witness. I could hear him ask her, behind my back, as it were. “I’d uh-oh-oblige yuh-you to be my wife,” he had mumbled. “With much honor,” he’d added. Her answer hadn’t been a yes or a no, but a squeal. He’d interpreted it as an assent; I’d interpreted it as idiocy.
On our walk home she’d repeated: “I’m so happy. I’m so happy.” Like if she said it enough she could forget his use of oblige and could pretend that marriage was an option for her, us. In bed that night, the sheets had rustled and the backs of her thighs had brushed against mine. I’d squeezed my eyes shut, pretending that I didn’t know she was touching herself. “Matthew,” she’d whispered into her pillow. Muh-muh-Matthew, I’d repeated in my head.
A crunch in the gravel, and someone rounded the vat. I looked up eagerly, hoping it was the line boss, or even Father. I pictured his face wide with outrage. Farewell, lovers. But Matthew pulled away from Hattie with an easy grin. He jumped to his feet and clapped his hand on the shoulder of a slumped, pocked version of himself, with a face, astoundingly, even duller.
“Toby!” Matthew said, glancing pointedly at Hattie, who dragged us both to our feet, almost tipping from my reluctant weight.
“Hello, Toby,” she said brightly.
Toby’s eyes passed over her. “Five minutes,” he said to Matthew. “That’s all I got.”
“Nah!” Matthew countered, jostling him. “Stay a while. Ah-almost noon. Line bosses full of dinner, ah-ah-all sleepy.”
Toby shifted his weight between his feet. I assumed he’d been forced here to meet Hattie, so I wasn’t prepared when, with a little ta-dah! of her arms, Hattie presented me.
“Toby, you know my sister, Sylvie. And Sylvie, this is Matthew’s brother, Toby.”
Matchmaking! No, truly, matchmaking. The town wouldn’t let the two of them marry with me joined up for the ride. So this was their scheme? Join up another? I could’ve cried. Instead I was mean. The cursed are cruel.
“No,” I said belligerently. “We haven’t met.”
“Yes, you have,” Hattie insisted. “At the picnic last month. I remember him fetching you lemonade.”
“I don’t like lemonade,” I muttered, just as Toby said, “I don’t fetch lemonade.”
“Oh!” Hattie breathed. “You even talk the same!” I reached behind and pinched her hip through her skirt, hoping the fabric wouldn’t protect her.
“Yeah, the same,” Matthew echoed, a dim grin on his face.
“Lemonade is piss,” I snarled.
Hattie gasped, “Sylvie!” She dug her fingernails into my wrist. To the boys, “She says things. Please don’t listen!”
“A long, hot piss,” I said.
Toby stared at me a moment and then laughed a thick laugh, like uncombed wool. At his brother’s laugh, Matthew beamed, and Hattie loosened her grip on my wrist.
“Yuh-you’re funny, Sylvie,” Matthew said.
Toby smiled at me. I scowled back.
“See?” Toby said. “She doesn’t want to be here either. Forget it, Matthew, both of you. We’re not going to be part of this plan. Right, sister?”
“I’m not your sister,” I said. “I’m hers. And you’re right. I wouldn’t marry you for anything. Not love or money. You’re much too dull.”
Toby’s lip curled. “By dull, I guess you mean ‘normal.’”
I lunged at him then, my fingers curled into claws. Hattie still had a hold of my wrist, pulled it back toward us. I imagined my nails digging into the pocks on his cheeks, but in the end I let her pull me away.
“Why’d yuh-you have to say that?” I heard Matthew ask his brother.
I was tugged back through the maze of vats. I felt a sudden pang of sympathy for Hattie, who had the misfortune of being in love. She sniffed, once, twice.
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
“No, I’m not,” I agreed. “I just don’t want—”
“Want,” she repeated. “I could tell you about want.”
Hattie and I are identical right down to our freckled shoulders, fat pinky toes, and the comb-eating snarls in our hair. We were born 17 years ago during a thunderstorm. Mother said that Hattie wanted out first. And me, I wanted to stay where it was warm. Hattie pushed her head through, through. While I clung to the edge of the spongy womb holding back, back. And so, Hattie stayed stuck, halfway down that jelly tunnel, no matter how forcefully the midwives commanded our mother to push.
The midwives guessed that Hattie and I were twins who had gotten tangled on our way out. But when they reached up, their fingers fumbling over the knots of our spines, they realized that nothing was tangled at all. We were not two; we were one, the joints of our backs fused right near our sit bones. The midwives heaved us out together, for I could not let Hattie free, nor could she let me.
Mother begged the doctor to cut us apart. He told her we’d go dead in the legs if he did. I guess she thought she was better off with two crippled babies than one monstrous one. And the town would have likely agreed. The night of our birth, a thunderstorm had cracked a tree in the courtyard of the new church, setting the building afire until it was no more than a charred sliver of steeple and smoking pews. I’ve seen photographs: the church’s blackened posts jutting like the ribs of a felled mammoth. The town believed we were cursed, the fire a harbinger of our birth.
When we were little, Hattie and I would wake to a yard decorated with dead crows strung up by the mystics in the night. The birds bent the tree branches from which they hung, pendulous ornaments, their amber eyes like glass beads. Sometimes the mystics sent live flocks of them, “murders,” I believe they’re called, to swoop around us, cawing. Hattie would cover her head and gasp for breath. But me, I stood calm and reached into the maelstrom, plucking black feathers one by one for the waxy headdress I dreamed I’d make.
Before our birth, our parents shared supper with their neighbors, and Sunday dinners after church. But after we were born, Mother’s friends, decent folk, averted their eyes as we walked by. The mystics weren’t as polite, tangling their fingers in front of their eyes and hissing protective spells. At this, Mother would cry, which would make Hattie cry, both of them walking around town with swollen, red faces. Me, I didn’t cry. I’d just harden my eyes and hiss back. I hated these women, hated the lot of them, for the sake of Mother, Father, and Hattie. Especially for Hattie, who needed me to hate them for her, since she couldn’t hate them herself.
By the time Matthew proposed, most of that was over. Years with no more fires and a rebuilt church, and the town had started to accept us. Or maybe they’d decided to endure us. Though lately, with Hats and me in new shoes and with a private tutor while Father let go dozens of workers, the town was remembering to hate us again. That morning, we’d woken to a single dead crow.
“But we didn’t do anything,” Hattie whispered.
“We’re better than them,” I told her, and shook her shoulder a little. “Twice as good.” Hattie hid her face as I twirled the crow round and round, made it dance on its string.
Hattie marched me away from the dye-factory yard, through a mile of forest, all the way to our land. She bent hard on the path to the house, balling her fists and pumping them through the brambles and honeysuckle, not even caring if one plant stung and the other sweetened. I stumbled behind her, ducking the trees and brush that rustled with her passing. It was mid-April, and the sun was God with a scalpel, slicing clean the edges of the leaves, the clusters of sick-sweet lilac, and the silkworm webbing that hung from the trees above us in a marvelous cottony cancer.
“Slower, Hattie,” I said. “Slow!”
Hattie didn’t slow until she reached our kitchen door. She leaned her forehead against the frame, stretching our hinge as far as she could so that my back wouldn’t heave against hers as we both gasped for breath. She was still mad at me. I could feel her anger like a sharp pebble lodged beneath my ribs.
“Why not?” she asked.
“He’s stupid,” I said immediately.
“Not stupid, just stuttering.”
“Both, Hats. Don’t lie.”
“But he’s kind.” Her voice gummed up. “And his brother’s smart. Toby? No stutter.”
“No stutter, maybe, but lots of mean.”
“You’re mean too.” She nudged me. “Good match.”
“I’m already matched. You too,” I added, briefly touching our hinge. “Nothing to do about that.”
Hattie might have had something to say back, but both of us shut our mouths at the sound of Father’s boots. Our mother drifted around the house like mist, but Father stomped like a detail of soldiers. This seemed fair, as he was the type of man who required a warning. Hattie shifted to the side, so that both of us could look at him equally just by turning our heads. A moment later, he rounded the corner, rolling his shoulders and then scratching his back on the doorjamb like a bear against a tree. A volume of Roman myths dangled from his hand, its spine broken.
I’d looked through that book many times, whenever I could persuade Hattie to disobey. The book was Father’s, and his belongings were his own, so I’d have only a few precious minutes before Hattie would start whining and tugging on my skirt. We’ll get caught. We’re not supposed to. I’d ignore her and flip to the pages about Mars, my favorite god. I imagined myself in that plumed helmet, that iron sword in my hand, and that cold sneer on my lips. The mortals down below, their screams for mercy would itch my ears.
Once, I’d made the mistake of showing Hattie the picture of Janus.
“It’s a monster,” she’d said.
“No, it’s a god,” I’d corrected. “He looks like us. See?”
Hattie had seen and closed the book’s cover with the tip of her finger, as if she could hardly stand to touch it.
In the kitchen, Father dropped the book on the table, breaking the creased spine even more.
“Where’ve you been?” he rumbled.
“By the dye vats,” I answered, earning a poke from Hattie.
“We took a walk,” she said.
“By the dye vats,” I repeated cheerily, and flinched at a second, more insistent poke.
“Dye vats?” Father asked. “Is that true, Hattie?”
“It’s true,” I said, before Hattie could answer.
“Sylvie,” Father warned. “I wasn’t talking to you.”
I knew better than to challenge Father, who could be unpredictable with his row of cedar switches. They were lined up in his workshop according to size, with the thinnest as thin as my pinky and the widest as thick as one of Hattie’s braids.
I don’t care about being whipped; the pain doesn’t last long. Father spends his anger like a profligate; just a few hard strokes to endure, and by evening he’ll be consoling us with tall tales and oranges that fit perfectly in our palms. But when Father whipped me, Hattie said that she could feel it too, that the pain ran through the backs of my thighs and across her shoulders. Once, after a whipping, we’d stood near the mirror, and she’d pulled her blouse down around her waist. I’d seen it then. Though the switch hadn’t touched her, her shoulder blades had been tangled with curving red lines like a bramble spreading its thorns. So I tried my best not to anger him anymore.
“Dye vats,” Father said. “That’s no place to walk. Those men. You girls don’t have the first hint. And those vats … I won’t remind you about Lester Byttle.”
Last year, when Hattie and I went out walking, Lester Byttle would sometimes circle around behind and tip his hat at me. I’d find myself waving back, even though I didn’t really mean to. Oblivious, Hattie would march steadily forward, and I felt like I was waving out the back window of an automobile that was bearing me away.
Then one afternoon, Lester Byttle had appeared in our kitchen doorway. With Mother sleeping upstairs, Father at the factory, and Hattie fixed on her lesson book, I’d been the only one who had seen him. He put a finger to his lips, and at first I thought that he meant me to keep quiet. But then I saw that he had a bit of black powder on his fingertip. Lester blew on it, and, just as I’d heard the factory boys tell it, the powder rose in a swirl, casting off into the air and disappearing. Suddenly, I felt an itch under my blouse so fierce that, without even thinking about it, I started unbuttoning. After only three buttons, I saw that the powder had landed in a dark little patch right in the center of my chest.
Just then, Hattie looked around from her lesson book. “What are you doing?”
Lester was gone, and I brushed the powder away before anyone could see it. No one knew but me.
After that, I’d imagined marrying Lester Byttle. In my dreams, I’d take his funny, angular face in my hands and kiss it over and over. He’d teach me his trick, and on our wedding night, I would blow the powder onto the tip of his penis, our babies coming out one after the other—periwinkle, chartreuse, and crimson. In these dreams, Hattie didn’t exist.
As well as being a magician of sorts, Lester had been a drunk. One night last summer he’d come to the factory yard soused, climbed up on a vat, and tumbled in. Some folks thought that the fumes had been too much for him. Others believed that, once he was in, the lip of the vat had been too high for him to climb back out. I suspected that drowning in the vat was what Lester Byttle had wanted all along.
“Please don’t worry,” Hattie said to our father. “They have lids on the vats now. We couldn’t fall in if we wanted to.”
“You’ll stay inside,” Father decided. “It’s not just the vats that worry me.”
Hattie cut her eyes at me, and even though I could see only the edge of her glare, I felt as if a flock of crows had pierced me with their beaks, all of them at once.
Hattie must have gotten word to Matthew without my noticing. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that, guileless as she seemed, Hattie had tricks too. With the first tap on the glass, Hattie bolted up, dragging me out of the swamp through which I’d been wading toward sleep. I soon figured out whose orange fingers were pattering on our windowpane. I gripped the edge of the mattress, keeping Hattie stuck fast to the bed.
She craned her neck and said, “Please, Syl.” These were the first words she’d said to me since I’d told Father about the vats.
Stuck together like we are, Hattie and I often go without speaking for hours on end. My mind is the only place I’m really alone, after all. But even when we don’t talk, we speak a wordless language of elbow bumps, flicks of hair, and snatches of humming, a reminder to our minds that our bodies are still joined. All of that had been gone that afternoon and evening. Hattie had taken pains not to touch me, and when our hands bumped at the supper table, she’d gasped as though I’d hurt her. I’d expected to be punished, but I didn’t realize that Hattie’s anger would be such a formidable companion. Her ire slid between us like the spanner from Father’s workshop, straining our hinge.
So when Hattie spoke to me again, her words were enough to loosen my grip and slide me with her off the mattress. She lifted the window latch with a tidy click, and Matthew spilled into our bedroom. He gazed up at her with a stupid smile on a stupid face. Surprised as I was to see his overstuffed duffle, I was even more surprised to see pockmarked Toby step through the open window after his brother, an identical duffle slung over his shoulder.
Toby and I stared at each other warily. Behind him, I could see Hattie’s face reflected in the window glass, painted with hope. I realized then that Hattie’s face was the only one on which I’d seen the emotion called hope. Disgust, curiosity, ridicule—I’d seen those expressions written on hundreds of faces. Fear—I’d seen that, too. But Hattie’s face often looked hopeful, even if I could see only a bit of her face, just a smidge of hope.
Matthew scrambled to his feet, and Hattie’s reflection morphed into something dusky and wanting. Then, the reflection of her face was covered by his, and I couldn’t see it anymore. I closed my eyes, thinking of the switch marks on Hattie’s shoulders and waiting to see if the sensations of kissing Matthew would wander over here. I felt nothing.
Toby walked around, giving the couple a wide berth as if they were a puddle. He halted in front of me and crossed his arms like I’d frustrated him somehow.
“You’re not going to propose, are you?” I asked. I hitched up my nightgown and raked my nails across a line of mosquito bites on my leg.
He snorted and then said, “They want to go up north. They figure people will be kinder there.”
I smiled. “North, south, east, west. A direction isn’t going to make people kind.”
“I told him that. Didn’t make a difference, as you can see.” He gestured toward them and their kissing. “Don’t worry,” he added. “I’m not going to propose.”
“I wasn’t worried. I find it very easy to say no.”
“Not to her, you don’t. Nor me to him. He was ready to go without me. I figured I’d come along for a few miles and try to talk some sense into him. End this thing peaceably.”
I glanced back at Matthew to see if he’d heard what his brother had said, but he was still lip-deep in his kissing. Toby and I looked at each other, the house around us silent except for the gentle scritch of Father sawing downstairs in his workshop.
Father had found Lester the morning after his death. When they’d fished him out and laid him on the ground, Lester’s skin, hair, and clothes—everything—were bright red with dye. Everything except for his eyes. The undertaker said that the dye had done a strange thing to his eyeballs, turned them white and completely so, so that the brown of his irises and the black of his pupils had been leached away. I knew better than anyone that Lester Byttle could see what others couldn’t. After all, he’d looked at my core and seen it for what it was. I wondered what he’d looked upon at the moment of his death, his vision so pure that even the dye respected it.
I crooked a finger and, after a second’s hesitation, Toby leaned toward me. “Get out of here,” I whispered, over the smacks of their mouths. “I’m going to scream.”
Toby, to his credit, didn’t need to be told twice. He didn’t argue with me or warn his brother; he just hitched up his duffle and stepped back out the window, leaving me alone with my plan to scream.
You might ask in this moment: Did I consider what Hattie’s life would be like with Matthew? Did I imagine it? Even for a minute? I did not. Instead, I imagined Hattie and me forming in the womb. I wondered whether we burst into existence already joined, or were two separate entities who chose to cling to each other, forcing our backs to grow bone tangling with bone. Sometimes I think we were meant to be one person who got split by mistake, our heart a globed fruit pulled in two, my half gone rotten.
I touched the hinge of our backs, and Hattie murmured, thinking perhaps that my hand was Matthew’s. So much trouble over a little bit of bone. I thought of Matthew’s mangled words, Toby’s pocked cheeks, and the hungry people in the breadline waiting for loaves like soft round wishes. I thought about how the world was a sad, disappointing place. But mostly I thought of Hattie, always Hattie. I thought of how the backs of her skirts brushed mine and how her hiccups shook me. I thought how I could lean my head back to rest on her shoulder whenever I wanted. If we were cursed, then Hattie was my comfort against despair, and I was her protection against cruelty. I would protect her now, her and Matthew both, protect them from disappointment, from ridicule, from worse in the ugly world outside. Because I figured if we were cursed, why then, I could curse, too.
When Hattie heard me suck in a breath, she broke away from Matthew’s kiss and whipped her head round. Hattie knew me. She knew that I would scream for Father, and that he would come, and that it would all be over. “Syl,” she had time to say, and her next word would’ve been don’t.
But I did. I screamed. And Hattie, she screamed too. Our voices wound around each other, the shriek of crows, my scream for help, Hattie’s scream of despair, and underneath, the drumbeat of Father’s footsteps mounting the stairs. Matthew was gone out the window, and a good thing, too, because Father slammed through the door in his nightshirt, wild-eyed and -haired, cedar rod from his workshop, thick as a branch, at the ready.
“What?” he said, looking about. “What?”
I realized that I was the only one left screaming, my voice a ragged thing that I let die off. Hattie had fallen silent, her reflection in the pane of glass shuttered; she met my gaze with empty eyes. She no longer seemed to look like me, if ever she did, and our hinge, which my hand still rested on, was nothing more than a body part, a chip of bone. As I stared into the eyes of my sister, that stranger, the room around me closed in, round and dark and slippery, and the next breath I took was bitter liquid, drawn deep into my lungs.