Myrna Stone




The Siamese Twins Narratives

 

 

1

Nok Thai’s Lullaby

 

      Province of Samut Songkhram

     Siam 1811

    

You are two, two you are,

my right, my left, my near, my far,

 

before whom every village mother

averts her eyes, and every father

 

calls upon Buddha. You are two,

two you are, my boy babes new

 

as herons in the spring-fed swell

of the Mae Klong, where men tell

 

tales of you first spun by your bàba,

heads awry, eyes round as casabas

 

or coconuts. You are two, two

you are, a mewling clamor askew

 

in the air, demanding milk

and the heated skin of saffron silk

 

that lines my robe, which you savor

beyond reason. O, may you favor

 

the little balm of sleep till dawn

under our weave of mango fronds.

 

You are two, two you are,

my right, my left, my near, my far.

 

2

Nok Thai in Mourning for Her Husband

 

     Province of Samut Songkhram, Siam, 

     August 1819

 

After midday, when rains thrum on the thatch,

my children dream in their hammocks. It is then

that he comes only to me, home from the catch

and showered clean in the river’s fall, his thin

 

arms filled with Hidden Lilies and Jasmine buds

whose colors and scents he scatters over the dirt

floor, or places in the basket suspended above

our heads. He is silent, even with his parrot, Preet,

 

who ails in his absence and also does not speak.

Always, in these visitations, he is but a shadow

whom I can neither hold nor press my cheek

against. Afterwards, in the tears that follow,

 

I taste the brine of his first love—the sea

that both fed him, and took him from me.

 

     October 1820

 

Chang and Eng, old enough now, go about

their father’s work. The village mothers watch

them scuttle up and down our roof while bound

together by rope as they repair the thatch.

 

The mothers’ eyes are slits from which disgust

and anger glitter. How have they not yet seen

that fear, not my boys, is the monster that thrusts

itself into our midst? Why have they not gleaned 

 

relief from the Buddha, whose heart teaches us

courage even in the full unfolding of our fear?

The boys are nine, and strong, and still trust

what I ask them to believe. Yet they near

 

an age when Bangkok’s spoils will lure them.

How shall I keep them safe from peril then?

 

3

Nok Thai on the Thought of New Lives for Herself

and Her Children

 

     Province of Samut Songkhram, Siam

     April 1825


Praise to the Buddha, who today delivered us

favor in the presence of a man named Hunter

who comes to us from the highland of Scots.

 

Inside my humble doorway, my daughter, such

a curious monkey, gazed wide-eyed as a tarsier

at his clothes, which clung to his body much

 

as a liana vine clings to a tree. He claimed

to bring us happiness, then gave me a basket

of whole cloth and Malee a clever game

 

called Fox and Geese. To Chang and Eng,

whom he had seen swimming in the river,

he told strange tales of cities blossoming

 

across the green bounds of the seven seas.

He would, he said, pay me to exhibit them

there, and from his profits pay them fees.

 

Four days after I birthed them, King Chim,

declaring them a monster, vowed to slay them.

A monk confessed later that what stayed him

 

was the sacred breath of a raven whispering

no in his ear. Now, his successor, Nangklao,

sits upon his father’s throne, warning

 

of the world beyond and its great hungers.

If my boys go, will they thrive? And who

will sell my duck eggs in Bangkok? Hunter

 

is with them now in the mangos, and they,

little mynahs, repeat his words. I have killed

an old hen and prepared curry with bay

 

and cilantro for their supper, yet still they

linger. If the King approves, I will let them

go, though my heart bid them stay.

 

4

Captain Abel Coffin on How He and His Partner, Robert Hunter,

Have Managed the Twins on Tour

 

     Boston, Massachusetts

     August 1829


Aye, good boys they was, good boys both,

till six months past when their dispositions

soured. No fool she, their mother, loathe

to play the harpy with us on our disruptions

 

of her payments, bleated instead to Eng.

The woman was five hundred dollars richer

than she had ever been after surrendering

her sons to our promotion, yet her choler

 

had risen over Rob’s failure to send off

the twenty-five hundred still promised her.

“Ah, it’s debtor’s prison for us,” Rob scoffed

as we floated, coached, or rode, ushering

 

the twins through America’s wallets. Now,

a short stroll off the Common up in Boylston

Hall, “The Siamese Double Boys” have plowed

much of Boston’s elite. . . . They are beacons

 

at the box office with takes beyond our ken.

It’s a fine enterprise we’ve found, the shows

fresh and unscripted. The audience, shaken

when the boys first appear, soon undergoes

 

a transformation, its stunned silence evolving 

into a murmurous hum of awe and approval,

the boys’ tricks and native dignity dissolving

even the skeptics’ reserve. Prior to our arrival

 

in New England, Chang and Eng had conquered

English, and now sail just as easily through

French and Italian, both of which will spur

our effect in Europe. Time, it seems, hews

 

to a heightened pace, and the twins, faster

than we can imagine, will reach their majority.

Thus, Rob and I calculate we must make haste

to book the venues in Paris soon, and heavily. 

 

5

I, Chang-Eng

 

     Liverpool Road Railway Station, Manchester, England 

     March 12, 1832


The people come in droves to see us run

and jump and tumble in our one on one

 

cohesion over the burnished gaslit boards

of theaters in Paris, Prague, Omsk, and Linz,

 

their mouths little O’s of surprise, or distaste,

or empathy, as we entertain them, first in haste,

 

then standing still for their onerous inspections.

Worse yet are the surgeons’ mock dissections

 

conducted onstage in city after city as they

poke and prod and declare us true as day,

 

the glint of avarice in their eyes. Two months

from now we come of age and out from under

 

Hunter and Coffin’s thumbs, and shall accede

only to one another’s wishes. Not greed,

 

but ambition shall enliven us as we embark

again for America and its venues. In Newark,

 

New York, and Boston, we will measure men

whose purported skill may, at long last, lend

 

itself to our separation. If they do not succeed,

then Buddha wishes it so. No earthly creed

 

we know can then prevent us from seeking lives

in the homely heat of our own hearth and wives.

 

6

Nancy Yates on Her Daughters’ Upcoming Double Nuptials

 

     Wilkesboro, North Carolina

     April 10, 1843


Three days hence our Addie will claim her heart’s

desire, Chang Bunker, despite my cautions

and her father’s concerns, while Sally departs

maidenhood to be joined to Eng. The emotions


the boys try to hide I sense—a glorysome

bliss in Chang, and a slow chary hopefulness

in Eng that one day, perhaps, Sally will come

to feel for him more intensely. Needfulness

 

has its place in marriage, and Sally’s soul

is sweet and eminently pliable, unlike Addie’s

which knows only its own wants. What role

Grace will play, however, other than mammy

 

to the children, will be up to Grace herself. She

is our gift to our daughters in their new lives,

and though we give her to them happily,

we shall miss her sorely. . . . Less than five

 

months ago, the boys left for Philadelphia

in great secrecy, having arranged to be separated.

They were found at the door of the surgical arena

by the girls, who wept and wailed and berated

 

them, and by Grace, who promptly bullied them

into their clothes and home again. Their actions—

understandable, and foolishly selfless—stemmed,

no doubt, from distress about the transactions

 

of the marital bed, a thought I shall not plow. . . .

The wedding breakfast following the early ceremony

will be here in our parlor, large enough now

thanks to those “unable” to attend. Such acrimony

 

towards the Bunkers overrides both reason

and decorum. Nevertheless, we will celebrate

with wine and toasts aplenty to the fruitful season

of our daughters’ unions with the boys they liberate.

 

7

I, Chang-Eng

 

     The Bunker Farm, Surry County, North Carolina

     August 1864


We are two, two we are,

no longer travelers near and far,

 

North Carolina our chosen nation,

a thousand acres our plantation

 

along Stewarts Creek on either side.

There, we and our wives abide

 

close by White Plains and Mt. Airy

in two houses—one for Addie,

 

one for Sally—where we oversee

in bedsteads large enough for three

 

the war the South wages. Out there

just shy of the Potomac somewhere

 

our sons ride with the other boys

of the Thirty-Seventh Virginia Calvary

 

under Gen. McCausland’s command.

May it please the Buddha to remand

 

them home to us and their mothers alive.

Our slaves, nattering like bees in hives

 

this evening, read in the raw entrails

of a chicken that the war’s travails

 

soon will end. In what caprice

then descends we want no piece.

 

We are two, two we are,

no longer travelers near and far,

 

North Carolina our chosen nation,

a thousand acres our plantation.

 

8

Aunt Grace Yates on the Brink of Change

 

     The Bunker Farm, Surry County, North Carolina

     April 1865


It be going on twelve years I done traveled

betwixt Miz Sally’s and Miz Addie’s houses

till my bones is tired and my brains addled.

Yes’um, yes’um, I say, but up then rouses

 

in me a queerness, like a faint coming crude,

or a spell of ire. I is who held and raised them

girls up from diapers to dolls to motherhood,

but they done act like Satan hisself hails from

 

the other. There be no such tripe for the twins

I done cotton to now. . . . Them boys is sweet,

or not, when they talk, but know they be kin

of the nighest kind. I fixes my best buckwheat

 

cakes for those two more than twice a week,

though Eng hankers less than Chang. I says

to Eng, you ain’t got a fire like your peaked

brother. They is the most tolerable massas

 

I ever did see. . . . They be talking long now,

with Miz Sally and Miz Addie, bout letting

us darkies go since the War sours, but vow

I will stay. Chang says, Grace, I am betting

 

you’d take wages without batting an eye,

but I just grins and keeps right on cleaning.

This be home, wage or not. The land’s awry,

but praise God, I is here till Hell is greening.

 

9

Dr. James Calloway, to His Protégé, on His History With the Bunker Brothers

 

     Wilkesboro, North Carolina

     August 1874


I first met them at Peale’s New York Museum

in the mid-1830’s, and must admit

I was surprised at their finely-honed erudition

 

gained not from the pages of books, but from life

itself. They were quick as any two men

I’ve known, and many were the fools rife

 

with arrogance who deduced that fact too late.

That very first night, in their dressing room

under the stage, I felt an affection for them both,

 

though they were, indeed, quite different, Eng’s

temper steady as this metronome, while

Chang’s blew hot, then hotter, till it sprang,

 

it seemed, straight from the forge of Hell. Still, they

each displayed a singular purity of feeling

for those who’d been dispossessed, and portrayed

 

themselves—despite having gained the entire world—

among that number. I had what they wanted:

a home, and property enough to live undisturbed.

 

After two days in their company, I invited them

to Wilkesboro, extolling it and our county’s

splendors. When they at last arrived they came

 

for good. For thirty years I hitched up my bays

and drove out to doctor them, their wives,

their broods and slaves, our friendship paving

 

the way. Yet, in the end, I could not save them

from each other, in life or in the grave,

just as I cannot save myself from my own

 

decay. Such a little jig we do, John, truly,

for Death stalks us all forever and

a day. Loyalty is our only lasting beauty.

 

10

Sally Bunker Looks Back on Her Marriage

 

     Mt. Airy, North Carolina

     Summer 1875


It seemed to me, at least when it was green,

a union of convenience, rather than ardor,

and indeed it was Addie—having never been

denied—who stoked the twins’ marriage fever

 

and the proceedings from end to end. Only

after our third child’s birth did Eng and I

grow close enough to see our own synchrony,

while Addie and Chang, bickerers both, vivified

 

each other from the first. The children came

forthwith—eleven for me, ten for Addie—

and most survived infancy. If I felt shame,

it was not for myself, my sister, or our progeny,

 

but for the parochial minds of men who said

the devil’s work took place in our marital beds.

 

11

Addie Bunker on Her Sister and Their Conjoined and Separate Lives

 

     Mt. Airy, North Carolina

     March 14, 1892


We both began to fatten in our middle

years, no chores or cares or forced subsistence

lessening our girth. Now, though often idle,

Sally wastes away, her body and countenance

 

ever more skeletal. Yes, we skirmished . . .

we surely did . . . for access to our husbands

and attention for our children, for land,

chattels, goods. But if our wounds were wounds

 

of want, they were also those of necessity

for which neither of us need speak with regret.

Once, we were the fairest belles in Surry

County, raised up to marry the finest of gents,

 

yet it was I who played the cleverest game

by securing us each both love and fame.

 

12

Robert Bunker Describes the Circumstances of His Father’s Death

 

     Mt. Airy, North Carolina

     June 1948


Though I was but eleven I remember well

that awful morn when Pa, in a voice chafed

with pain, tremulous and breathy, compelled

me to quickly light a taper and make haste

 

to his room just down the hall. And when

I entered it was clear, even in the flickering

light, even to me, that Uncle Chang was gone.

My father’s face was rigid, clouds escaping

 

from his mouth in the wintry air. Then Ma

entered the room and all turned to chaos—

her cries, her tears, her hands on Pa’s jaw,

neck, arms, back and legs, the utter pathos

 

of her efforts to warm his flesh with hers.

As she worked, she began at last to direct

us, sending my older brother and Old Irv

to fetch the doctor, and my sister to collect

 

hot water, rags, and opium. I wanted Ma

to send me out of that room, into the dark

where I could breathe again. It was Pa’s

terror filling him like rain fills a hoof-mark

 

in mud that scared me, for I hadn’t gathered

yet that his life, too, was compromised. . . .

Three hours after Chang passed, my father

followed him. Some since have theorized

 

that he literally died of fright, including

his own doctor, who arrived much too late.

But I believe Pa could not imagine living

any life in which Chang did not dominate.

 

These are my father’s last words whole:

Then I am going, followed three hours later

by May the Lord have mercy upon my soul.

I pray the good Lord granted his desire.




Myrna Stone’s last two books, The Casanova Chronicles in 2011 and In the Present Tense: Portraits of My Father in 2014, were both Finalists for the Ohioana Book Award in Poetry. Her poems have most recently appeared in River Styx and Nimrod. “The Siamese Twins Narratives” is from her newest book, Luz Bones, forthcoming from Etruscan Press in May.










                                    

 

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