Celine and Louisa May were born within hours of Prince Albert’s death on December 14, 1861. They would have died, too, had their mother, Mattie Hinton, not been employed by the Thomas H. Wilcox family of London.
Mattie’s water broke at 4 in the morning, bathing her legs with water and blood. She woke her husband.
“Get the mister,” she cried, pushing Horace away from her. “Go now. I’m in trouble, oh Lord, I’m in trouble.” Then she rolled and cried, her gown slapped against her great body like a wet sail tangled on a mast. Horace sprang from the room, running through the silent house to wake Mr. Wilcox.
When Mr. Wilcox came to the doorway of Mattie’s room, Mrs. Wilcox standing beside him with a light raised over her head, there was blood all over the bed and floor.
“You’ve gotta get your brother,” Mattie cried out, “Please, Mr. Wilcox, my babies are in trouble. Please help me. They’re gonna die.”
“Hush now, Mattie,” Mrs. Wilcox said, coming into the room. “There’s only one baby in there and it’s going to be fine. Horace, get the fire in the stove lit and bring me Mr. Wilcox’s whiskey. Thomas, go fetch your brother.”
Mr. Wilcox was back with his brother in less than half an hour. When Dr. John Wilcox came into the room, he didn’t like what he saw. “There’s a procedure,” he said, talking softly to Mattie in a slow, even voice, “where you cut along the line where the baby lies, then lift the baby from the womb.”
Anna Wilcox felt faint, but held her balance, bracing her knee against the edge of Mattie’s bed.
“Horace, hold her hands and shoulders,” said John Wilcox. “Thomas, her legs and feet. I’m going to make the incision, then when I tell you to reach in and grab the baby, Anna, you do it. But first, give her some whiskey.”
The four of them stood in amazement as, minutes later, Anna Wilcox reached her small white hands into the thick, bloody body of Mattie Hinton and pulled out two tiny joined twins no bigger than a leg of lamb or one of Mattie’s double-layer fresh coconut cakes.
“Twins, Siamese twins,” John Wilcox gasped, grabbing the head of the second one to help Anna keep from dropping them.
“Give her another drink of whiskey, Horace. Tom, let go of her legs, reach into the babies’ mouths, clear them of mucus. Anna, tip them upside down. Are they breathing?”
No one moved. “Are they breathing?” he screamed, then grabbed the babies from Anna’s hands. “Breathe,” he commanded the small tangled babies, “breathe.”
And they did, their mouths opening and closing as they gulped air. He grabbed a blanket from the end of the bed and wrapped the babies in it, then carried them to the kitchen. He held them tightly, cradling them against his chest while he used his body to push Mattie’s worktable next to the warm stove.
The babies stopped crying when he laid them down. As he unwound the blanket, he could see, for the first time, exactly how they were joined: at the shoulder and hip. With two such joins, more than likely, they could not be detached. However, since they were joined side by side, and not facing each other, they probably did not share any vital organs, which meant they could survive.
He touched the web of flesh between them. The baby on the left seemed more whole than the other. She had two full arms, and two full legs. But the baby on the right was slightly malformed: her right arm, the one that was attached at the shoulder, hung lifeless against her sister’s struggling, waving arm, and her right leg ended abruptly in a curved foot, as though the other sister had always been stronger, pushing against the other, crowding her in the womb. He believed the foot could be corrected. He thought the girls were beautiful.
He covered them, then rummaged through the kitchen searching for a clean cloth. When he found one, he dipped it into the basin of water still heating on the stove, wrung it out, then went over to the table and began bathing the babies. They screamed and wiggled, turning their heads from side to side, then he dipped another piece of clean cloth into a cup of milk, and stuck it in the first baby’s mouth.
The baby sucked. If they were to live he was going to have to get Mattie to feed them. He dipped the other end of the cloth into the milk and gave it to the second baby.
They had to live. He finished washing them, brushing the wet rag against the curled hair on their heads. Their skin was the color of pecans, their hair black and soft as torn wet silk. He wrapped the blanket around their legs and arms, swaddling them as best he could. As far as he knew, these were the only two living black Siamese twins on earth.
He dipped his fingers into the pot of water.
“I baptize you Celine,” he said to the first, crossing her forehead with his wet fingers, “and you, little one-arm, Louisa May.”
Then he took the girls and carried them back into Mattie’s room.
“Here are your babies. I have baptized them. The first one, the one on the left, I baptized Celine; the other, Louisa May, after my own grandmother. You must promise to feed them and care for them well. They are a special gift from God.”
They were nearly two before they learned to crawl. Celine, always the faster and more coordinated, moved too quickly for Louisa May, causing them to tumble and tangle rather than move with ease from place to place. Louisa May was unbalanced by her shriveled arm, which lay lifeless by her side. It took time for her to learn to lean into her sister, allowing Celine to carry the center weight for them when they moved.
The doctor was impressed by their general good health and development. He came by every week to check on them, sometimes taking them in his carriage to the hospital, where he could watch them more closely and chart their progress. There were also times when he took them to other physicians, asking what should be done about Louisa May’s arm and foot.
He had thought at first that the arm should be removed. He feared, as the two girls grew, their bodies would drain off the small blood supply that pulsed through her crippled arm, strangulating it and endangering Louisa May’s life.
But he didn’t know. He just didn’t know why that arm was there or why it wasn’t whole. He also didn’t know what would happen to either Louisa May or Celine if it were gone.
When they were old enough to talk, they called him Dr. John. By then they were almost as much a part of him as they were part of each other. He took them to the hospitals, introducing them to other doctors who wanted to see and touch the strange, dark purple joins that entangled their two lives.
When they were six, he took them to Paris to the Academy of Physicians. The evening before they were to go before the conference to be examined, Dr. John was awakened in the middle of the night by the terrified screams of Louisa May. When he entered their room, he found Celine trying to hold Louisa May’s head with her free arm, rocking her sobbing sister gently from side to side.
“Louisa May, why are you crying?”
“Please don’t let them touch me anymore. Please, their fingers hurt like knives. I don’t want them to cut me. I don’t want them to see me. Don’t let them cut off my arm.”
While Louisa May cried, Celine remained silent.
“I won’t let them take off your arm. I promise you.”
“Don’t let them touch me.”
“They’re doctors, Louisa May. They won’t hurt you. They want to help you. Do you remember how Dr. Alexander helped your foot? You can walk now, you and Celine, because he was able to fix your foot. Celine isn’t crying. She knows they won’t hurt you. Don’t you, Celine?”
But the other girl didn’t speak; she held fast to her sister’s head, rocking back and forth, just as she had done when he first came into the room.
“Go back to sleep. No one will hurt you or cut off your arm. I promise you.”
When he left the room he closed the door, then stood in the hall for a long time listening to her cry. His heart was pounding. He was as frightened by Celine’s silence as he was by Louisa May’s tears. He did not understand why the two of them were joined any more than he understood what it must be like for them to be so connected.
He thought about the day when they were born, and how before he even washed the blood from their bodies or offered them their first taste of milk, he reached to touch the mysterious skin where their lives met.
Edward Henry made his way into London society by gambling. He was handsome. His father had been white, so he was fair and his hair was soft to the touch. He was proud of the way his hair waved and he wore it smoothed back, with no part. When he took off his hat, his waves seemed to fall and ripple from the top of his head to the tip of his ears.
He had his mother’s straight nose and full mouth, which always seemed to smile yet told nothing. He was good at cards and never swore or carried a pistol. His father had not married his mother, but gave her a small ruby stickpin on the day Edward was born. He wore it for luck.
When he first came to London to gamble, he was invited only into back rooms where green-felt tables greeted his soft tan hands and quick shuffle. Then, as the stakes grew, along with his reputation as both a gentleman and a gambler, he made his way into the most fashionable homes and front parlors of Queen Victoria’s London.
Dr. John’s brother, Thomas Wilcox, was also a gambler. He got lucky sometimes, but he mostly played for sport. And, if he lost a little money now and then, it never seemed to matter.
It was late one Saturday night, in the Wilcox’s front parlor, that Edward Henry first saw the twins. It had been a good night. The company was well-heeled and eager to play. He had played cautiously at first, since this was the first time Mr. Wilcox had asked him into his home. He played his cards close the first few hands, playing only to get the feel of how important it might be for Wilcox to win. There was money in the room — he could make it now or later. It didn’t matter to him; all that mattered was getting invited back.
They had played for several hours before Mr. Wilcox stood up and pulled the cord near the double doors, ringing for the servants to bring whiskey and refreshments. It was past midnight and the room was filled with the stale, sweet smell of cigars and cherry tobacco smoke.
Mattie came into the room first, pushing a tea cart laden with cold roast and ham sandwiches. The twins came in behind her, carrying a tray of fresh glasses and whiskey. Edward Henry was startled by the way they moved, their shoulders so tight they could be touching.
He had heard about the girls, as had everyone in London, yet, when he saw them walk into the room, he forgot they were joined. When Celine put down the silver tray, and Louisa May, the thick-cut crystal decanter, he saw the shortened arm of the one hanging lifeless against the full arm of her sister.
Looking more closely, he could see their black skirts were sewn together about six inches from their waists. It made them look as though they were ballerinas whose long gowns meshed as one in their movement, allowing them to float instead of walk, one beside the other.
As they came close to Edward Henry to replace the dirty glasses with fresh ones, he tipped his head to the ladies and smiled at them. Louisa May turned her face away, while Celine stood firm, almost defiant, meeting his glance.
They didn’t speak. Within minutes the twins and Mattie were gone and the game resumed. Edward Henry chose to lose the next few hands, allowing Thomas Wilcox the pleasure of winning in front of his friends.
When the game was over, Edward pushed himself away from the table. “You’ve taken quite enough from me tonight,” he said, preparing to go.
“Fascinating, aren’t they?”
“I was talking about the twins. I believe you smiled at them. You know, it’s rare to see a gambler let down his guard. Almost as rare as seeing a pair of black Siamese twins. Don’t you agree?”
“I apologize, I meant them no harm.”
“Which one is Celine?”
“The one that stood firm. I believe, although I didn’t really see what happened, Celine stared back when you looked at her. She’s a fighter. The other, Louisa May, is more withdrawn. I suspect, knowing the two as I do, that she turned her head when you looked at them.”
“She wouldn’t make much of a gambler, would she?”
“No,” replied Thomas Wilcox, wondering just how much of a gambler this young man really was.
“Does anyone call on them?” Edward asked.
“Are you interested?”
“I could be.”
“It’s none of my affair. Their parents work for me. The twins live here. If you call on them, it’s your business. I’m sure I have them to thank for my good fortune at the table tonight. Good night, Mr. Henry.”
He sent a driver around the next day with flowers: two nosegays of violets and baby’s breath.
A week passed and then another before he came one afternoon to knock at Mattie’s kitchen door and ask if he could meet the twins. “They’re sixteen,” she said, looking at his soft velvet lapels, the lump of gold and rubies stuck through his silk tie. “The mister already told me about you. I know you’re a gambler, and that you let him win the other night. He said you was good, but I don’t know what that means. It’s not for me to say who sees them. You need to talk to their father. He’s the butler. Go round to the front door — that’s where you’ll find him.”
Edward Henry did as Mattie said. He rang the bell and stood, gloves in hand, waiting. Horace Hinton opened the door. Out of courtesy Edward Henry tipped his hat and extended his hand. Horace Hinton didn’t move.
“Mr. Hinton, I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Edward Henry.”
“I know who you are and I know what you want.”
“I want,” Edward said, his face smooth and ungiving, “to have the pleasure of meeting your charming daughters.”
“Celine, she’s the one who wants to see you. Louisa May, she’s different. She doesn’t want anybody looking at her . . . or touching. If you hurt them, either one of them, I’ll kill you.”
“Louisa May” — Celine was helping her sister hook the buttons on her left shoe — “I love him. I don’t want to hurt you, but I love him. I got a right to live my own life. Just because we’re attached doesn’t mean we can’t live. We’re living. Can’t you feel it? We’re alive, the blood is running through our veins and we’re alive.”
“Whose blood? Whose veins? If you marry him, then what kind of life am I going to have?”
“We’ll take care of you. You heard what he said the other night. He promised he’d take care of both of us.”
“And when he’s kissing you. What do I do then? Lie helpless at your side like my dead arm? Should I close my eyes and pretend I don’t see anything? That I don’t feel my lips not being kissed?”
Celine bent forward to catch the last button and pull it through the tight leather buttonhole. They had said too much. They lived too close for harsh words. It was as if at any given minute a sharp word or careless thought could push them over some terrible edge, tearing them apart. They had to be careful.
“Mrs. Wilcox said Dr. John was coming by this afternoon,” Celine said, smoothing the front of her white cotton petticoat. “She said to wear the blue taffeta. He wants to take us to the hospital.”
“You’ll have to help me with the buttons.”
“It’s a pretty dress, don’t you agree?”
“Yes,” said Louisa May as she stood with her sister to move to the closet. “It’s a very pretty dress.”
Celine would not make love with him unless Louisa May was asleep. This was not something they discussed, just something he could feel. It was the same about a lot of things: they didn’t talk because they couldn’t talk, so they just learned to be silent and listen.
He went out gambling almost every night. By the time he came home, the twins were usually asleep. He would undress in the dark; then, before slipping into bed next to Celine, he would touch the crown of her head and carefully trace the outline of her small face with his hands. By the time his hands came together under her chin, she would open her eyes to kiss him.
Once she was awake, he would lie beside her and make love to her. He took his time, letting his hands move silently over her body, always aware of Louisa May sleeping next to her. Celine’s skin was smooth and soft and invited his hands to explore. He ached to touch her back, to see the deep curve of her spine as it slipped from her delicate neck to her dark rich buttocks. But he could not ask her to turn. He could not call out her name. Their lovemaking was silent.
They lived together in a strange, strangling house of silence, Louisa May turning her head when they talked, dropping her eyes when he looked her way. Occasionally Celine would leave notes tucked away in his coat pockets, or folded carefully under his silk neckties. These were the things she couldn’t say, the words she couldn’t cry out when they made love.
But Celine was not the only one he had to care for: he felt responsible for them both. It wasn’t easy for him to talk with the two of them, who were so close they had few words left to share with him or anyone else.
When he and Celine were first married, he tried to find a companion for Louisa May. One night, he invited a friend, another gambler, to come to dinner with them, but the stares from the other diners put an edge on the evening. Later, in the middle of the night, he heard crying. When he woke he saw Celine was holding her sister, rocking her from side to side as though she were a small child. When he reached up to touch Celine on the shoulder to ask what was to be done, she pushed his hand away. Sensing he should leave, he slipped quietly from the bed and spent the rest of the night in the front parlor.
The next afternoon when he dressed for the evening, he found a note in his inside coat pocket: “I’m scared. Louisa May doesn’t want people to stare at her. Please, no more. I wish we had a child.”
Like her other notes, this one left a number of questions he would never be able to ask her: why was Celine scared? Had Louisa May’s crying frightened her? Had the people in the restaurant frightened her? Who was the we in “I wish we had a child?” He would never know.
To love Celine was also to love Louisa May. He could not separate them any better than anyone else could. When he married Celine, he had also married Louisa May, although Louisa May had not married him. Sometimes he did not understand anymore whom he had married or where Celine ended and Louisa May began.
He had wanted to ask Dr. John about children. But he didn’t know what to ask. Could Celine have children of her own? What would that do to Louisa May? He wasn’t a praying man but sometimes he prayed, his hand resting against the smooth, sunken belly of his sleeping wife, that someday a child would come to them.
It was on one such night that he first noticed Louisa May was awake. He and Celine had just made love. He lay on top of her for a few minutes, enjoying the slow, even breathing of her coming sleep, then lazily rolled to his side. Their lovemaking had been good; he felt she had been satisfied as well as he. As she lay sleeping beside him, he moved his hand to rest against the warm, flat surface of her belly under her nightgown. It was then that he saw Louisa May watching him. He left his hand on Celine’s belly and lowered himself down to his pillow. He closed his eyes. Louisa May had not turned away when their eyes had met.
For the next few weeks, whenever he finished making love to Celine and she had fallen asleep, he looked over at Louisa May, only to find she was watching him.
When he had first met them, he had wondered how they were different. Now he wondered if there were really two of them. They seemed one, yet he had touched only half of what was there to touch. He had never seen or touched the places where they were joined, as they were always careful to keep covered, even when they slept. He had never seen the two of them naked or bathing. For the most part, Louisa May tried to remain separate from Celine and Edward. But now he felt her stares invading his life in much the same way he had invaded hers.
It made his hands tremble. He wanted to touch her. It was as though what was his was forbidden to be his.
One night after a good night of gambling, he came home to make love to Celine. The lovemaking was more passionate than usual, Celine carefully moving her hips to meet his, opening her lips to him. She couldn’t cry out, but instead dug her fingers into his back, pulling him closer to her, in an attempt to smother her cries. Shortly afterward, she fell asleep, and when he moved to free himself from her arms, he saw Louisa May crying.
She was silent in her cries, tears rolling to the side of her face, her mouth frozen. Before he rolled away from Celine, he reached over and touched Louisa May’s lips. She did not pull her face away. Assured she would not cry out, he let his hand trace the full line of her mouth and her chin.
His body stirred. He wanted to touch her breasts. He wanted to kiss the tears on her face, then let his mouth taste every inch of her body.
He took his hand away, then rolled to Celine’s side. His wife was sleeping. Her breathing was smooth and even. He let his hand trace the outline of her arm, resting for a moment at her hand. She did not move.
It was late. The room was dark. He wanted to whisper something to Louisa May. He wanted to tell her he loved her, but he couldn’t. Instead, he moved to her side of the bed and lifted the covers, touching the soft outline of her breasts, letting his hand make love to her while she lay in silence.
Louisa May knew what Dr. John would find. She had felt the small life turning within her like a butterfly a few weeks before. It was a strange commotion that rumbled and roared within her ears. No one else could hear it.
It was the first time in all her nineteen years she had ever felt apart from Celine.
She loved the little rippling motion that spun her body away from her sister. She closed her eyes when it came, shutting out what few remaining pieces of the world attached themselves to her flesh. Her skin felt new and fresh.
She dreamed one night that the baby within her was whole. Perfectly whole, and his flesh was smooth and cocoa-colored. The dream was so wonderful she hated to wake herself in the morning and began pulling against her sister’s insistent pushing and prodding. She didn’t want to be up and going. The baby wrestling within her was wearing her out. She needed to sleep and bathe her eyes in the luxury of her baby’s sweet dreams.
“We’re going to see Dr. John,” Celine said, shaking her. “There’s something wrong with you, I can feel it. It scares me, Louisa May. Please get up.”
Louisa May kept her eyes closed, fighting back a wave of nausea and fear. She didn’t want to see Dr. John. For the moment, she just wanted to lay still and listen to the rushing noise made by the beating of their two hearts. She pulled her shoulder away from Celine, hoping to tear her crippled arm from her sister’s flesh.
“Louisa May,” Celine screamed, “talk to me, tell me what’s happening to you.”
She had to tell her. She couldn’t let Dr. John be the one to tell Celine; she would have to tell her herself. She could feel her sister’s warm, thick arm surrounding her shoulders, her breath whistling through her matted hair.
She used her good arm to steady herself and pull away from her sister’s grasp. She looked down at her sister’s full arms and hands and marveled at how beautiful they were. “I love you, Celine,” she said. “I’m pregnant.”
Celine looked away, biting her lip to keep from crying out in pain. She would run if she could, but she couldn’t, so she sat, her head and shoulders turned as far away as she could turn them. If she’d had a knife, she would have cut herself free from her sister. But she had no knife. She could feel the flesh where their bodies joined burn with the strain of her pulling, then she felt her sister lean into her.
“I’m sorry, Celine,” Louisa May whispered. “I’m sorry.”
“The Queen would like to meet you.” Dr. John spoke as he walked into the room. He had a manner of looking from one to the other of the girls whenever he engaged them in conversation: playing a kind of three-way game of eye contact. When they were younger, it had made them laugh. But that was before. As he talked now, he fiddled with his waistcoat lapels, brushing away imaginary lint. He was afraid to meet Celine’s gaze or to look into the dark, sad eyes of Louisa May.
“I have taken care of the arrangements. I will be accompanying you to Windsor Castle next Tuesday. I will pick you up at 9 o’clock so that we can be there in time to be instructed in the proper protocol.”
He was glad Louisa May was not showing yet. It would still be a while. Also, given the unusual arrangement of their dresses because of the join at their hip, in all likelihood her pregnancy would go unnoticed for a long time. However, he had no idea what strain the pregnancy would put on the two girls, how it would affect them physically. He worried most about their hearts; he was still unsure about what internal systems they shared. He had known about Celine’s wish to be pregnant and had always worried about having to deal with the various medical implications. He had never imagined Louisa May would be the one to bear a child.
“I will talk to her attendant personally and explain that you should not remain standing for any length of time. I have not told them of the reasons, only that it is medically unwise for you to do so at the moment. I will not be with you in her chambers because she has requested to see you alone. It goes without saying that you will answer any and all questions put before you by the Queen.”
He had looked but had found no recorded births by Siamese twins. He would be the first physician in history ever to attend the birth not only of Siamese twins but also of a child born to them. He had asked another physician to see the girls with him and to help with the birth.
“Before you go to see the Queen, I would like Dr. Jameson to examine you. It’s just a precaution, but I want to be sure everything is as it should be, and that a visit such as this will not put too much strain on you right now. I’ve asked Dr. Jameson to assist me during your pregnancy.”
As he looked down at the floor, trying to avoid making eye contact with either one of them as he spoke, he could see Louisa May’s good hand nervously picking at the lace at the edge of her bodice. Celine sat bolt straight, unmoving as he spoke.
It had always been the same: one of them sat occupied in quiet motion while the other sat braced as if to receive some sort of blow. It was as though the normal tensions pulling within a person were borne on the outside for Celine and Louisa May. If one studied how each twin sat or turned her head, one knew immediately the two sides of the coin that were being weighed and reviewed by them. He remembered so well, when they were five and Louisa May had to have her foot broken and set to make it straight so she could walk, it was she who sat ready to absorb whatever pain there might be, while Celine pulled at her clothes, swinging her two good feet as though she wished she could take flight for the two of them and run.
Their physical proximity was only a part of their curiosity: their uncanny oneness was a fascination for him as well. With very little discussion, they had always managed their emotions as though these sprang forth from the same heart. They often saw with one set of eyes and moved with one purpose, as though they were a single being who by sheer accident bore an extra head and an extra pair of legs and arms. He had never before experienced with them a time in which they seemed to live so far apart.
He did not know how they would ever manage to suffer through and survive what lay before them.
The Queen was smaller and less regal than they had imagined she would be, but neither one of them turned her head to the other or made any comment. Later, when asked, they remarked they thought the Queen rather ordinary.
The Queen, on the other hand, found them fascinating. She hated Windsor Castle. Hated London, in fact, preferring Balmoral, but London provided her with diversions Balmoral lacked.
When the twins walked into her chambers, she was surprised by their grace and ease of movement. She had heard they were beautiful, and she found them to be so. Their skin was dark honey-colored, and their eyes and hair pitch black. She believed the darker races to be more interesting in appearance than her own, but had never told anyone so. She would make a note of it in her journal.
“Which one of you is Louisa May?”
“I am, your Majesty,” Louisa May said, pulling out the fullness of her skirt with her one good hand and bowing slightly.
“My mother was named Mary Louisa, and my governess, Louise. It is a pretty name. And you’re Celine?”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
“I’ve been told that you need to be seated. Although it is highly irregular, I understand it is a necessity. I have had a bench brought in so that you might sit comfortably, but first, if I might, I would like to walk around you — if you don’t mind.”
Neither woman spoke, but both bowed to indicate their approval. Louisa May closed her eyes as the Queen moved from in front of her to her side. She had been looked at so many times before by so many pairs of eyes; she had learned to shield herself from their stares by closing her own eyes and imagining they were looking at someone else. She felt the baby within her flutter, as though to draw her away from the Queen’s chambers and her questions.
Celine could feel the weight of her sister pull against her as though she were trying to escape. She knew without looking that Louisa May’s eyes were closed. Celine stood firm, her hands stiff at her sides, as though she were being measured by a seamstress for a dress. The looking, she told herself, was part of their being connected. She hated the stares and examination as did her sister, but bore it in a different way.
“I understand you are joined at hip and shoulder. Is that correct?”
“Yes, your Majesty,” Celine answered for the two of them.
As the Queen moved in front of them again, she noticed Louisa May’s eyes were closed. Out of courtesy, she looked away.
“Please, be seated, you must be uncomfortable having had to stand so long. Forgive me.”
There were things she wanted to ask them, but wouldn’t. Because she was the Queen, they would have to tell her, but somehow that seemed wrong to her now. She watched them move and marveled at how easily they made their way, neither one leading, but walking in unison instead, without a hint that they shared any communication as to which way they should move. She wondered how they slept at night and how they bathed. How it was that one was married and the other not. She wondered what it would be like to be engulfed day and night by another body, never knowing a moment of solitude. She envied them and wished for one fleeting, foolish moment she and Albert had been so connected, so she could have felt his every movement, known what it was to feel the pounding of his heart in her veins.
She did not ask them about their mysteries, but talked instead of Prince Albert, and how he had died on the day the twins were born. As she talked, she watched their faces and their hands, noticing how Louisa May’s crippled arm lay motionless between the two sisters like a wall.
The Queen wondered what could be said between two people living and breathing so closely in the same space for so long. She saw in both of them a strength and a sadness that moved her in a way she could not easily explain.
They spent close to an hour with her in her chambers. After she dismissed them, she called her servant and asked that her curtains be drawn closed in order to shut out the remaining light of the day. She wished to be left alone, she told the servant, so that she might write in her journal.
That night, after her chambermaid had turned down her covers, poured fresh water, and left, the Queen knelt upon her pillows so that she might bring herself closer to the portrait of Albert that hung above her bed.
“Oh, dear Albert, how I miss your unerring strength.
“If you could only have been here, my dearest Albert,” she said, “you would have known what to do. If you could have seen them, you would have understood, and, as I did, would have wished to be bound together, shoulder to shoulder. But their eyes — their eyes felt so dark. I know if you had been here, you would have been able to tell me what the Queen should do to free them.
“Whenever I doubted before, you would be there telling me: act like the Queen.
“It was easy then, dear Albert, but now, without you near to direct my hand, I do not know what it is to be Queen anymore.
“If you had been here, you would have seen their beauty as well as their sadness. You would have noticed how they touched the earth like dancers, one knowing the movements of the other as though they had one soul.”
Then the Queen sat down on her bed, slipping her bare feet and legs beneath her eiderdown coverlet, turning her back on the picture of her prince.
“My love, my breath of life, how I wished you were here today with me again. Yet, how I knew, watching them, that when we were together there were things, so many things, that kept us apart. Since you are gone from my touch, we are closer together now than we could have ever been before.
“Oh, my sweet Albert. If I were truly Queen, great sovereign ruler of the vast British Empire, at the very least I should be able to lift my jeweled staff and cut the two bound twins asunder. And having done so, command them both to love and rejoice in their partings.
“If I were truly Queen.”
John Edward Hinton Henry was born September 4, 1881. Dr. Jameson stood by, but it was John Wilcox who eased his head and shoulders out, as the baby screamed and kicked to the tears and applause of his mother.
Louisa May had labored throughout the previous night, crying out only once when the pain was so bad she couldn’t keep her wits about her anymore. When Louisa May screamed, Celine reached out and took hold of her sister’s trembling shoulders, cooing softly in her thick black hair that all would be well, she was there.
When at last John Edward came, Celine reached out to touch the child that was half hers and would be the only child the two of them would ever know.
“Is he whole?” Louisa May asked, watching his wet, squiggling body struggle against the firm grasp of Dr. John’s massive hands.
“Yes, Louisa May, he’s whole.”
“Then I want to call him John. John Edward,” she said.
“I approve,” said Dr. John. Then he held the baby out at arm’s length so Louisa May might take her child. But she would not reach out to claim him.
She looked away from the doctor to her sister. “Would you take him, Celine? Please, and hold him close to me so I can touch his face.”
The birth left both of them weakened. It was hard for Dr. John and the other physicians to explain, but the consensus was that somehow the two of them shared more than a common space on earth. More than likely, they shared the same circulatory system, and the birth pushed it beyond its strength.
Mattie took John Edward to the park on most afternoons. It was a special time for her because he was the normal baby she never had. She could take him anywhere, and no one would stare as though she had done something wrong.
Following the birth of his son, Edward Henry learned to move more silently through his house. He was afraid of the words that had never been spoken among the three of them. But he gloried nonetheless in their little boy and encouraged him, as Celine and Louisa May did, to think of them as his Mother Louisa and his Mother Celine.
When the spring came, Edward Henry took his two women out one day to watch John play with his grandmother in the park. They didn’t get down from the carriage, but sat, a lap robe hiding their joined skirts, watching their child from a distance. It was a glorious day. The air was fresh and warm and the leaves on the trees bright green in their spring budding, while mustard-colored crocuses sprang forth along the footpath, lighting the way through the park.
Edward Henry tried at that time to tell them both how much he loved them, but he couldn’t find the words, or the space within their silences for him to speak.
They would die the next fall from pneumonia. Dr. John would leave their hospital room just minutes before Celine’s death, leaving Louisa May to wait in solitude for her own life to end.
“Do you remember when we saw the Queen?” Louisa May asked, staring at the wide, blank ceiling of their room. “She was rather ordinary and not at all regal like I thought she should be. Don’t you agree?” She prattled on, feeling the strange single beating of her heart against her chest. “You were so brave then, Celine. Answering her questions, speaking for both of us, knowing all the time I had another life that was not yours inside of me.
“Celine, my dear sweet Celine, why have you left me? Why aren’t you here when I need so much to tell you that he loved you? Edward really loved you. I could see it in his eyes when he touched you. We didn’t mean to hurt you. I meant to tell you so many times. I wish I had told you. I’m sorry, Celine. I wish I had told you.”