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from “A Strange People”
We-Chrissie will let the white men see and touch our difference. She will smile for doctors and handlers like Mrs. Susan’s old china trinket dolls, tilt her head just so and laugh, her hand grabbing at our hemline. In the next town, we’ll see banners and broadsides proclaiming our “charm.” We-Millie will not understand why they would write us that way. She will taste the word like coffee grounds in her mouth and wonder how they can print it so small and neat below the headlines: “Double-Headed Darkey,” “United Negress Freaks,” “Two-Headed African Beast.” We-Chrissie will not have these questions. She will know that the nice words are for her. She is the one who has always hated us.
When we were young, decades ago, We-Chrissie wrote her version of our story, and everyone who knew us was surprised. She got most of the facts straight, told about our slave birth and the scandal we caused on our first master’s farm, how we were sold from Master John and Mrs. Susan, then slipped like a wet hunk of soap from hand to hand, master to master, growing up and filling out the carnival circuit, seeing things most North Carolina nigger girls wouldn’t even think to dream of—the darting English steam cars, the white-choked winter at the Cirque des Champs-Elysées. We-Chrissie spent a few words on the best time in We-Millie’s part of the life, when we ended up back in Mrs. Susan’s arms. She said a couple of things about our life on the midway, the place between the circus gates and the big top, where freak acts wander about and ballyhoo, preening and fanning their freakhood, squeezing awe like from the norms’ eyes like milk from a fat cow’s udders.
We-Chrissie is an all-star bally, has always been. She preened and flaunted in her story too, playing our difference up and down like a yo-yo tossed to thrill a child. First it was a “malformation,” then it was a “joy.” Our join was a curse we were proud of, she said, painting on our minds the paradox of our body. And she refused to let them think for a second that the slightest drip of difference ran between we-two. “We are, indeed, a strange people,” she began her story, and it continued on like that– “a people,” two, but one. She refused to tell anyone it was she alone who had written the story, without letting We-Millie so much as touch the pen or smell the ink when the manuscript was done. We-Chrissie wrote then, and will tell anyone who asks now, that there is only one heart in the body. We-Millie sits silent when she says this, and lets her go ahead with her show. We-Millie knows, though, that our hearts are separate. Our wombs, our backs, our hot puddles and buttons come in and out of each other like corset laces; We-Chrissie feels We-Millie’s itches and We-Millie rubs on We-Chrissie’s aches, but for We-Millie, our hearts are separate things, different as the sun and the moon pinning down the ends of a long day’s sky.
It is obvious to everyone that We-Chrissie is the charming one. She is the one the newspapers talk about when they say we are beautiful, alluring, delightful. We-Millie is the one that scares people, we think. She is quiet and unsure, and if we were not us, if we were norms, or nigger girls at least, We-Millie would never find herself within a stone’s throw of a stage. We-Millie speaks German and Spanish better than We-Chrissie, better than Mrs. Susan, who taught us. But she stays quiet, the small, silent half. We-Chrissie is stronger; We-Millie is frail. We-Chrissie is pretty; We-Millie is darker and with a gnarling nose. While We-Chrissie smiles at the doctors and invites them to probe the body, We-Millie plays along and feels her heart burn in its cage. It is her feebler puddle, her crookeder pit in which they will splash and plunge to their hearts’ content.
While We-Chrissie talks to reporters, doctors, midway norms, We-Millie moves her mouth and smiles along, but sends her mind inside. Both of we-two make up stories. We-Chrissie likes to say hers, shout them out from the stage, read them in the papers, write them down in books. We-Millie keeps her stories to herself….
The biggest fight we-two ever had happened the morning of Master John’s funeral. We-Chrissie wanted to wear our star-spangled taffeta costume to the service. She said we’d be the blow-off, the grand finale of Master John’s long-lived show. To her, he was a freak on his own, and a gaff at that. She said he passed for a kind master, an innocent roped into managing us like a child lured to the midway with candy and fairytales, but that he was really a mastermind who had plotted our course from the time of our birth, calculating our lifetime’s revenue by the time we were two months old. We-Millie liked her skepticism, but got hot at the thought of disrespecting Mrs. Susan by wearing the dress. We-Millie has loved Mrs. Susan forever, in the way that norm women, she thinks, love the people who take care of them, make them feel like the secret of life lives between their two limbs.
We-Chrissie loved our midway life, and We-Millie liked it well enough too. Although it was clotted with people and noise, We-Millie enjoyed the camaraderie that came with a traveling pack of freaks. Zip Johnson, “The Whatsit,” adopted us as his niece, visiting our tent in costume after his “missing link” show, spinning us around in pirouettes and sharing some of the bananas he was paid to hurl at his audiences. Bearded and fat ladies of all heights and temperaments mothered us, pressing our hair and teaching us how to send our minds away from the body when norm men came to us with their pointing parts and probing smiles. For We-Millie, Miss Ella Ewing, the Missouri Giantess, was heaven itself, and the nook between her chest and her yardstick arm was a personal paradise. Miss Ella had traveled with Buffalo Bill’s show, and it had filled her with stories we-two drank like raindrops. We-Chrissie loved to hear about the high, steady pay she received, and the handsome Indian men she performed with. We-Millie simply liked the sad, deep moan of the giantess’s voice. She dragged the body to her every chance she got, just to curl her into that nook and hear her thunderstorm breath and earthquake heartbeat.
We-Chrissie has always insisted that we have no real family, though she didn’t write that in her book. We-Millie sees it differently. For her, the midway freaks and the circus staff, the managers’ wives and children, and sometimes men like Barnum himself make a collage of a family portrait we can hang proudly enough on the wall of our life. We-Chrissie’s face sours when We-Millie says these kinds of things, and she spits. “You also insist on thinking that the man who sold us to the stage loves you.” We-Millie thinks Yes, I have to think that, and I have to think he loves you too. But she doesn’t need to say it, of course, because We-Chrissie knows.
Mrs. Susan and Master John hold our story together like bookends—we both agree on that. They were there just as life set us whirling about like a spinning top, and here they are again—the lady, the ghost—now that things are starting to slow down. Master John was still living when Mrs. Susan and he came to England to get us from Lars Rachman, the most recent man to have crept into a tent and taken us in the middle of the night. Master John was brusque as usual, but kind enough, returning We-Chrissie’s buttermilk smile as he ushered us out of the Liverpool courtroom. Mrs. Susan was slower, warmer, as was her way. She rose at us like a pan of biscuits, pulling the body toward her with her scent and her feel and her promise of home.
We were too young to know then that home doesn’t exist unless it’s far from you, that either it or you must disappear the moment you return. North Carolina after the Civil War was like a rabbit shank after a wolf attack, and Master John’s house was no more a home than a floor tile was a blacktop. We-Millie will swear it was the shock of our return, and the swelling presence of Mrs. Susan’s misery that first brought the fever and the cough to her side of the body. We-Chrissie has always laughed those claims off, not so much to dismiss her as to keep her focused on the tasks at hand. Master John died of gout before We-Millie had a chance to feel all of her pain, and our status as breadwinners for his family and for ourselves became official.
We-Chrissie became our manager, making contacts with the North Carolina showmen we’d known before we left, dazzling them all with her smile and laugh, running her bally to keep them interested. Her act was tight and she always got her ding, as circus folks say, the clink of whatever capitol she sought against whatever pot she passed around. We needed money, of course, but We-Chrissie was smart. She knew that a few dollars weekly from a traveling sideshow gig was alright for a pair of young nigger-girl freaks without the need or right to do for themselves, but we were grown, almost old, and as free we would ever be. We needed money, We-Chrissie knew, but it was information that would make us. She enlisted the help of Ron Samuel, Master John’s old stableman, and set the body flitting about the marshlands of Columbus County with her ear to the tracks of the circus world, dropping Master John’s good name like maple sugar candies whenever we needed white norm protection.
It was in a saloon near Soule’s Swamp that we heard the news We-Chrissie thought would change our life. The barmaid was a woman who had ballyhooed for P.T. Barnum’s show years before, when we were being billed as the “Two-Headed Cherub Monstrosity.” She was a kind woman with a ruddy face and a mess of wheat-colored hair piled up on her head. She always liked Master John and Mrs. Susan, and We-Millie thought she was nice enough to us, though We-Chrissie insisted she was simply trying to get on Master John’s good side, which for her meant the inside of his pants. Still, she smiled when we shuffled sideways through the door, and offered us a glass of lemonade, which We-Millie decided we would drink.
“You girls know bout the nigger show?” she asked, watching We-Chrissie’s face for evidence that she felt or tasted the lemonade. We-two shook our heads.
“Man behind Buffalo Bill—not Cody, but the money man, a Yankee. He’s doing a big show about niggers. You-all’d be perfect for it.”
We-Millie could feel We-Chrissie’s smile spread on the skin. We-Chrissie thanked the woman and yanked the body toward the door so quickly We-Millie had to pinch the spine to slow us down so she could pay. The woman smiled, and We-Millie felt her eyes on the body as we ambled out the door, We-Millie glad to be heading home as always, We-Chrissie dreaming of New York City, plotting the course of our life anew.
*“A Strange People” first appeared in Crab Orchard Review 14.1. (Winter, 2008)
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan is from Harlem, New York. Her fiction has appeared internationally in publications including Callaloo, Best New Writing, Crab Orchard Review, Bloom, Lumina, Amistad, The Minnesota Review, 2010 Robert Olen Butler Fiction Prize Stories, Baobab: South African Journal of New Writing, and others. She is the winner of the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, the William Gunn Fiction Award, the James Baldwin Memorial Playwriting Award, and the second place winner of the 2010 American Short Fiction Short Story Contest, and has received other honors from Glimmer Train, Gulf Coast, Best New Writing, Philadelphia Stories, the Boston Fiction Festival, Sol Books, Temple University, Del Sol Press, and the NAACP. She is the recipient of scholarships, fellowships, and residencies from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Yaddo Colony, the Hedgebrook Writers’ Retreat, the New York State Summer Writers’ Institute, and Williams College. A Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, Mecca is currently a Center for Fiction Emerging Writer Fellow, and is completing her first novel.