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LJI9 Week 20 - Breathing Under Pressure

This is my entry for this week of LJ Idol, Season 9. Please check out the entries of my fellow competitors and consider joining the therealljidol community. This week we paired up with another competitor, each writing on a different topic. I paired up with ellakite, and my topic was "Rapture of the Deep." He wrote on the topic "Intersubjectivity," and you'd probably be best reading his wryly funny piece first.

I have only minutes to live. Perhaps hours, if I am granted such a boon, but disappeared are the dreams of days. My brother is gone.

My frantic brood have summoned a doctor, but I know what the answer will be. Months ago, consulting physicians told us we could not separate, for fear of a fatal loss of blood. And so, with my brother ailing and paralytic, I carried on. Bound his legs together to move him like a puppet. It was a strange sensation, to finally control him. To move his legs to my will, instead of simply synchronizing.

Audiences never believed how independently we lived. Even with two sons (of our 21 total children) accompanying us on this last tour, they gulped and gasped to learn we were capable of separate wives, of creating family legacies to carry on our twin names.

In our younger years, we astounded them with Battledore and Shuttlecock, bouncing the shuttlecock between our rackets as skillfully as two Olympians. I knew my brother’s drinking had started to affect him when he started missing.

“When he drinks, do you get drunk?” a brash youngster once asked, noting the list of my brother’s head, his drooping eyes, his rummy breath. I set that youngster yelping with a quick smack of my hand to his backside.

“What do you think?” I asked him.

But no, the drink did not affect me, not immediately. Only when my brother’s decline became more pronounced did I realize how close to death knells our entwined fates may have been drawing. Hence, the physician consultations; and their dire news.

People ask us always the same things: How do you do this? How do you do that? They revel in the minutiae of living: the delicacies of dressing, eating, evacuating and procreating. Such questions they would consider improper if delivered to others; but all is fair game with people deemed monstrous. Our life’s work has been to show them how human we are.

I ask you now, what more human failings could we have had: married to squabbling sisters, falling prey to purloined promises made by Confederate loaners? In new centuries, I fear we may be judged. The North has won, and our Southern farm life will now be reviled, because we did as so many of our neighbors did, and purchased the labor of others who were not free.

Ironic, perhaps, that in these last moments, I know myself a slave to death; for there is no escaping the dark chains that will drag me down beside my brother. I woke to his body, a still cold weight beside me. “Then I am going,” I pronounced, and our sister wives heard. Thus began the desperate seeking of doctors, who will come, I am certain, too late.

My brother is already drifting through afterlife depths. I wonder what he sees; freed of those mortal glassy eyes, freed perhaps, of me? For the first time since we were born, we are both truly alone.

I hear a circus audience, marveling at this last feat. How can you keep living when your brother is dead? How long will it be before you join him? Why do you not claw and pummel at the man whose very existence has plagued you? Whose death now dooms you?

I begin to mumble, in my native tongue, which I have eschewed for so long that even a Thai could no longer understand me. Certainly, though, my family cannot follow me through these last cerebral moments. My last speech, delivered to God’s ears alone.

For whoever can understand, I mutter: "My brother was no burden. He was the closest companion a brother could ever dream. Our joined life was a miracle, a wondrous opportunity to demonstrate the heights that all humans can reach, no matter how inauspicious their beginnings. We cried, at times, but more often, we exalted. I would not live differently, had I a chance to start anew."

By now, my body should be crying out in distress, but I feel only calm. I dread what is coming, but my mind delivers only peace.

As the hours slow to ensanguined minutes, I remember to ask the doctors in English: “Please, push him closer to me.”

For more on the death of Chang and Eng Bunker, read this article.

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( 45 comments — Leave a comment )
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Sep. 10th, 2014 01:12 am (UTC)
Deeply evocative... and more than a little chilling. Which makes the piece absolutely perfect.

Thank you for choosing me to be your partner. I know this will sound senseless to you... but I still have difficulty recognizing my own talent, much less appreciating it. It always helps me when someone tells me that they *WANT* to work with me. And honestly... I was struggling to find a direction to go with this intersection until you dropped your idea in my ear. I may have modified your premise a bit... but it truly was a great idea, and I would have happily run with it if you didn't like my counter-proposal.

So: Thank you for choosing me... and I've truly enjoyed working with you.
Sep. 10th, 2014 01:19 am (UTC)
Re: Bravo.
Me, too. It's great to be able to swap ideas and have them lead to a finished piece that I'm proud to have written. I wish I'd done that more often this season.

You are, indeed, a talented writer. I'm glad to have played a small part in helping you to realize that.
Sep. 10th, 2014 01:58 am (UTC)
I love those last few lines - it's what he said in real life, isn't it?

I used to obsess over their liver a bit when I was a child, although I didn't know half of nothing about surgery on account of being, like, eight. I still feel like there might have been a way to tie off hepatic vessels back then ... though - damn, who was that guy who pioneered some of those methods, it was Halsted, right? That was still a few years off.

I loved the voice here. So genteel but vulnerable and deeply felt.
Sep. 10th, 2014 06:01 am (UTC)
Yes, it is what he said in real life, according to the sources I consulted, which I, too, found to be really touching. That instead of longing at the end for separation, he only wanted his brother to be closer.

Living in Philadelphia, I've seen the liver as well as the death cast. These days, their particular connection would have made them a good candidate for separation, but the methods needed to attempt such a surgery safely were, as you rightly remember, years off.

Thanks for the comments about the voice. I tried to give it an old-fashioned Southern gentleman feel, because everything I've read about them makes me think he was a quietly dignified person.
Sep. 10th, 2014 04:50 am (UTC)
This is devastatingly beautiful. You capture the spirit of Eng's pain so well.
Sep. 10th, 2014 06:02 am (UTC)
Thank you. That was what I was trying to do.
Sep. 10th, 2014 05:26 am (UTC)
A very sad situation, well told. Thanks for the link, too!
Sep. 10th, 2014 06:03 am (UTC)
You're welcome. I've been fascinated by their story for a long time, and I hoped that our entries would cause people to want to find out more.
Sep. 10th, 2014 06:03 am (UTC)
I wondered if the phrase "sister wives" would show up in one of these two stories, as it has an entirely different meaning here.

This is such a poignant story, drawing the reader into empathy with the narrator. The last line is perfect and heartbreaking.
Sep. 10th, 2014 06:05 am (UTC)
You know me: I love using phrases that have double meanings. :)

The last line becomes even more devastating when you learn that it's what witnesses report he actually said.
(no subject) - halfshellvenus - Sep. 10th, 2014 06:27 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - alycewilson - Sep. 10th, 2014 08:21 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - millysdaughter - Sep. 10th, 2014 02:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - alycewilson - Sep. 13th, 2014 07:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 10th, 2014 10:50 am (UTC)
So heartbreaking.
Sep. 13th, 2014 07:47 pm (UTC)
Thanks. I have a dangerous habit of imagining what people must have thought in situations like this one.
Sep. 10th, 2014 11:17 am (UTC)
I had known about the brothers but not with such depth. Ellakite gave us the story in a style of its own. Your version giving us Eng's POV made it very touching. I did google the brothers as soon as I read the other piece. Its a great intersection by the two of you. Well done.
Sep. 13th, 2014 07:48 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I think they would be happy to know that people still care about their lives.
Sep. 10th, 2014 03:05 pm (UTC)
You've done a marvelous job with this - it works on every level. Their story cannot help but be that of a sideshow wonder and you've really lent them the respect and fierceness they brought to their lives. Really fantastic!!
Sep. 13th, 2014 07:49 pm (UTC)
Thank you! Those are exactly the sorts of notes I hoped to bring alive with this, so I'm glad to read your words.
Sep. 10th, 2014 09:19 pm (UTC)
"For the first time since we were born, we are both truly alone."
That is a haunting thought. This point of view is fascinating, and your narrative voice in this is spot on.
Sep. 13th, 2014 07:50 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I was trying to capture an old-fashioned musicality in the language.
Sep. 11th, 2014 02:10 am (UTC)
Aw, poor guy. It's hard to lose a sibling, but even harder to lose one you're so close to.
Sep. 13th, 2014 07:52 pm (UTC)
Well, that's one way of putting it! Thanks for reading.
(no subject) - jem0000000 - Sep. 28th, 2014 07:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 11th, 2014 03:19 am (UTC)
Oh, I love this. :)
Sep. 13th, 2014 07:52 pm (UTC)
Yay! That's good to hear.
Sep. 11th, 2014 04:00 am (UTC)
This was very moving.
Sep. 13th, 2014 07:53 pm (UTC)
Thank you. I'm glad to hear that.
Sep. 11th, 2014 08:21 am (UTC)
Such questions they would consider improper if delivered to others; but all is fair game with people deemed monstrous. Our life’s work has been to show them how human we are.

So true. And you do such a good job of humanizing them. Thank you.
Sep. 13th, 2014 07:54 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I'm glad to hear you think so. I've visited the Mutter Museum and seen their death cast, and it was a very somber moment.
Sep. 11th, 2014 01:45 pm (UTC)
Talk about the flip side of the coin! Haunting and heartbreaking, but also very life-affirming in a way we all can learn from.
Sep. 13th, 2014 07:55 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I'm happy to hear your take on it, because those are the sorts of objectives I had for this piece.
Sep. 11th, 2014 07:28 pm (UTC)
So so sad. He must've been so lonely without his brother. This was very poignantly written. Thank you. :)
Sep. 13th, 2014 07:55 pm (UTC)
Thanks! For the three hours he survived after his brother's death, I'm sure it must have been absolutely devastating to not be able to talk to him.
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