Howard M-B Maximus
Today, you become you and I become me.
All I can think about is when we were an oddity, a phenomenon, something alien in the eyes of semi-literates, like our father; and everyone here. We were numbers, confusingly close: one and two, or two in one, or whatever. Statistics: one in forty-nine thousand, to one in a hundred and nine thousand births. We were born in a camp in Tiko, our first inhalation – a whiff of processed rubber. Year 2003, when the missionaries opened a clinic in our area. That year, every girl and her mother became pregnant, as if the waived charges for midwifery were an actual grant.; like a scholarship for procreation.
The day we were born, our father broke an egg to find two yolks swimming in the albumen. It was then that our mother’s water broke – her left hand reaching for the cabinet, her right clutching her abdomen. People ask us how we know these things; we tell them stories are stories for a reason. The day we were born, well-wishers camped around our house with gifts: powders, oils, towels, and toys. When they eventually saw us, many of them dropped their gifts at the foot of our mother’s bed, sighing in sympathy as they strode out – mouth-agape, flabbergasted, whistling their pity, shaking their heads.
The doctor, a short rotund man, asked our parents if they wished to keep us. As if we were chicken, our parents were customers contemplating takeaways and the doctor was the chef waiting patiently for them to decide if they would be hungry. It was as if we were something they could undo, a mistake on the genetic code to be taken care of, a lapsus calami.
Our father spat his answer like phlegm, like something he didn’t have to think about – he did not want us. Our mother brought us home regardless, and for a long time, our father brought home the smell of a distillery, the temperament of a bully, the uncertainty of a rookie. One night, when we were teething, we cried so much that he screamed, flung his whisky bottle at our mother, and then he left without a thing. He eventually got another girl pregnant, a pretty nurse he met at a funeral. The news of their happy little family reached our mother as she tried to decide what to do when one of us wanted toys and the other wanted to sleep.
On most days, our mother loved us unconditionally. Sometimes though, we caught her staring, or even worse, unable to stare. Perhaps she thought of how something like us could come out from someone as beautiful as she was.
It is not that we weren’t beautiful. Our eyes were brand-new kernel bulbs, our hair were jet black halos, our lips were full and bubbly and looked like miniature mangoes. A preacher once said that two good people may not be good for each other, and beauty, like goodness, is dysfunctional math. Two beautiful boys joined together, and yet the world around found us ugly. Even the nurses seemed baffled by our biology – our legs fused together so that we shared three, like a tripod. We were born to share things.
We never called each other by name. We never referred to the other as ‘he,’ or ‘you’; every conversation was like gossip, a grumble, contemplation, talking to one’s self. How do you yell out at someone with whom you share the same body? We washed our body together – two hands scrubbing our three legs as the other two scrubbed the other’s back. We were a perpetual third wheel at each other’s date, or meeting, or query and sometimes at night, we would wake up, panting from the other’s dream.
In school, we were frightening at first, and then we became a body of curiosity. We sat together in class as no one else was courageous enough to sit by us. Sometimes, we fought when one of us wanted to stay in the school library and the other was itching to go home, or when that girl Hannah kissed one of us longer than the other.
She had started coming to the house every evening, telling everyone she needed help with her chemistry homework. We were the Newtons of our class – Gilbert or Isaac, or whichever. In the dimness of the lamplight, she would question us about the bonding that was not in the textbook – our own. How did it feel to be completely bound to someone else, to eat and sleep and shit with them always, did it hurt? Did the other person sometimes feel like a huge appendage or tumour that wasn’t supposed to be there? What about sex? She asked us questions we had never asked ourselves – some laughable, most of them uncomfortable. Usually before she left, she would cup our faces in her fragile hands and kiss each of us on the cheek. Later, she would kiss each of us on the lips, dithering between us like life choices. We would each stretch out an arm to hold her by the waist.
Sometimes, we wondered if this was okay, this sharing of a girl. It had to be, if we shared everything including a liver, a girl would not be that hard to share. Except that she was. And even though we didn’t talk about it at first, there were cold war’s one fought with oneself that didn’t need voicing. It got to a point where our silences became bricklayers, building a wall between us, so that even as we breathed each other’s air, even as we were still one, we felt the rifting distance growing between us.
When we finally talked about it, we agreed that Hannah was a palindrome, that even her name was the same when read back to front and vice versa. Wouldn´t it be the same too if she chose either of us? It was silly logic, we knew. When we later confronted her about it, she confessed that she had really liked one of us more. Hannah stopped coming to our house. She never told us who she had loved more either.
At home, we helped our mother cook eru – two hands preparing waterleaf that would be passed on to the next set of hands for chopping. We scrubbed the floor and fetched water when the taps at home refused to run. We ran on our free time – a radial kind of movement, our bodies forever facing each other, like watching a competition you could never outrun – and the strangers stretching on the tarmac would freeze to look at us, stunned.
At 13, we moved out of the Tiko camp to Buea; our mother had gotten a job there, teaching Food and Nutrition at the Government school. On February 11th that year, when youths all over the country came out to march, representing their various schools – uniform trousers sharp as blades, shoes shinning in the late morning sun, like black leather mirrors. All the students dashed out looking brand-new. Our uniform was tailored by our mother, who had also learned how to sew during her two-year training program in Catering and Home Economics. Our principal had placed us in front of the assembly of students. The competing crowd of students watched as we marched, with our measured radial movements, carrying the school banner above our heads, the rest of the school behind us like soldiers. People began to clap as if they had forgotten we were the competition. When we reached the grandstand, even the governor rose.
We often wondered if our principal was using us. When the Minister of Education paid a visit to our school the previous year, it was us the principal chose to represent the school, to hand over the bouquet of roses. The minister hugged us afterwards and then donated a large sum of money to the school for a new library. The photograph of us and the minister hangs on our living room wall.
On that youth day, as we stood in a corner trying to find a taxi home, a chubby girl squeezed through the crowd to us, she was sucking from a wrapping of alaska, smiling awkwardly. She introduced herself as Zuh, our father’s daughter, our sister.
Zuh followed us home that day and started coming to our house often. When she was around, our mother said little. She told us how she had heard about us and had always wanted to meet us, how when she asked our father, he seemed uninterested in the topic, without denying it. At first, she referred to him as ‘my father’, and then apologized and said, ‘our father’. She talked so much, and so fast! We noticed our mother bite her tongue. Zuh helped us with the cooking. On another occasion, Zuh told us of our father’s stroke, how it was the reason she had been sent to Buea to stay with her mother’s sister and go to school. Our mother stuffed Zuh’s plate of jollof rice with too many pieces of meat, that we wondered if she was celebrating the news of our father’s illness.
One day Zuh took us to see our father. He sat outside on his veranda, wearing a faded loincloth, taking in the air. The irony of his face staring at us – half of his body had collapsed leaving the other half standing. He looked like two people, merged in one – like us. When he spoke, his speech slurred but he was audible enough. We tried to listen for affection in his tone, for some regret; there was none. He asked us what we were doing there. One of his eyes still seemed appalled by us, the other too tired to look. He grunted something, as if our curse had rubbed off on him, and then he asked us to go back to our mother. It was hard to know that the acceptance of a man whom we’d never known would matter the way it did.
As if to make up for our father’s absence, Zuh was always present, helping our mother who had started to like her, following us to the public tap, jumping and laughing on the road like the love-struck teen that she was. She was in love with us. We wondered what her aunt thought about all of this. Her aunt, she told us, always had people over, usually men, and her absence was much appreciated. All she had to do was say she was going to visit her paternal relatives in Bomaka, which was technically the truth. One day, we were out running, a dreadlocked man the complexion of coal stopped us and asked if he could take a picture of us. One picture became two, that became four, and then more. We posed: laughing, smiling, acting as if photographs of us were not being taken. He would later enlarge a collage of them and deliver it to us. Our mother gasped at how beautiful the pictures were, how beautiful we were.
Our father did not survive. We held Zuh as she cried, trying to convince her that everything will be fine. When we got home, we tried to convince ourself too, asking why it hurt so much, the death of a man who died not wanting us.
Today, you become you and I become me.
We are on a hospital bed in Saudi Arabia and the handsome doctor is talking about the separation operation for the umpteenth time. He was a friend to the photographer and had seen our picture on his social media post. They had talked, and he said he could work out a team and try to get funding, if we agreed to take the chance, a chance that would risk our individual lives.
Our mother is overwhelmed even though she knows about the surgery as much as she knows about our father’s will. The doctor has promised that all will be fine. We would each keep a leg and the other would be used for grafting. Prosthetic legs would be given to us as well, and our names may be written in science articles and published in journals, in languages we would never read.
We are two people now, sitting on two different seats on the plane. Family and friends have gathered with gifts when we get home, only this time, no one is shaking their head in pity. Zuh keeps serving them the alcohol, it’s as if she is trying to get people drunk for a secret after party. Your name feels heavy on my mouth. I feel like part of me has vanished. Our beds are separate now and my dreams are mine alone. In the shower, I try to scrub three legs and two faces, I discover that some parts are missing. Lunch is over and our mother is thanking God for our lives. You receive a phone call, and I see you stand up to leave. I stand up too. I have no idea where you are going. I have no idea how or why I stood up. I sit back down awkwardly, you look over at me and smile, you ask if I wanted to come with you. There are options now. I run to the room to get my jacket, and as we walk down the asphalt, our hands find each other. You are talking about the puddles of water spaced everywhere like half-filled cups. I am wondering how to go through this life as just me, wondering who it is that I really am, what it is that I really am, without you attached permanently to my side.
Howard Meh-Buh Maximus is a Cameroonian writer and scientist. He is a staff writer for Bakwa Magazine, and a 2020 Miles Morland scholar.
*Image by Mòje Ikpeme