the short story project


Ignacio Padilla | from:Spanish

Siamese Carcinoma

Translated by : Kit Maude

Introduction by Adam Blumenthal

Castor and Pollux are Siamese twins. Their mother invests much effort in order for them to resemble the Greek gods whose names they bare (and who are the twins represented in Gemini mythology). She regards their very existence as “a triumph of faith over the prognostications of common logic.” She expects her sons to inherit a fate similar to that of a pair of famous and auspicious twins from Siam who had “fallen under the protection of the emperor.” However, as the story progresses, it becomes clear to the reader that it does not deal with the mythical or public aspects of the Siamese existence, but rather with the conflicts between them, with the fundamental character differences, with the battle over the body. And Padilla, it goes without saying, does not seek the points of balance, but the moments of violence and force that the twins exert on each other. He gradually abandons the allegedly light tone with which the story begins, and penetrates deeper into the Siamese condition: who has ownership of the body? Can more than one soul exist within the body? Is the fate of one necessarily identical to the fate of the other?


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While he was still awake, Castor was able to appreciate how much he liked hospitals. He so enjoyed being there, bathed in the light of the operating theatre, that he even ventured to ask the nurse if it would be possible to use local anaesthetic. Although afflicted by the pain in his side, he wanted to see and follow everything, he wanted to observe the surgery step by step without missing a single detail. He was keen to share in the surgeons’ macabre jokes, their instructions and incisions and enjoy a privileged view of the resurrection of his body. He wanted to be a witness as well as a participant. He knew, however, that he wasn’t likely to be indulged: this wasn’t going to be a simple operation and, as he could tell from the anaesthetist’s incredulous expression, it certainly wasn’t the time to be making jokes. Even so, as his eyes blurred over under the drowsily-voiced countdown, he couldn’t help but laugh as the first restorative tickle of unconsciousness swept over him: he was happy and at home, he almost felt the owner of his body and would really be so when he woke up, when the doctors had finally cut through the bridge of flesh and guts that for twenty years had kept him bound to his brother Pollux, whose body had for several hours been as cold as the scalpel’s blade.

Perhaps he dreamed. Or maybe the remote images came to him in the split second that it took to shift from a wakeful to a suspended state that couldn’t quite be described as sleep. However it was, the lights of the operating theatre lingered on after the countdown. Only now, Castor wanted to feel, or imagine, that the lights were something else: the slightly less comforting lights of the double incubator that his mother had told him the doctors improvised after the remarkable birth of twins joined at the waist. He had often imagined the scene in the incubator, so much so that he had appropriated the memory. He was sure that in his nightmares he had seen his own unseeing infant eyes, amazed even in their blindness, and his swollen, practically immobile limbs, which contrasted with his brother’s thrashing ones. He had also seen Pollux, a quieter newborn than his brother, who was maybe a little irritated by the body lying next to him: so still, so weightily surprised by the monstrosity that prevented him from moving around the restricted space of the incubator.

The capsule of tubes and artificial heat through which they were observed by a loving but terrified mother would for Castor become firstly a symbol of his dual existence and then an allegory for the pitiless world in which he’d have to share crucial organs with Pollux to survive.

This was why, twenty years later, before he got to the hospital, sure that he had detected the exact moment of his brother’s death, Castor knew that no-one, especially not God, could blame him for taking things to such an extreme. He was convinced that he and his brother had been a radical example of divine fallibility: two souls trapped in the flesh of a single body, beings linked in an obtuse duality, a sublime error whose only possible remedy was the sacrifice of one of the souls in order to preserve the body. Now that the curse was coming to an end in a hospital bed, Castor felt able to congratulate himself and declare that God had eventually chosen to allow the strongest to survive.

They both knew it right from the beginning, and their mother did too in spite of her efforts to make them into a kind of mathematical equation, to the extent of giving them the names she did: mythical twins reborn as a freakish pair. This act of cultural pedantry, which may have been the unconscious but unforgivable expression of their mother’s ironic streak, was not her only attempt to keep them on an equal footing. To the contrary, in addition to the names that on every clear night reminded the twins of their fate, there were many other attempts to make them seem like a reflection of the gods, identical creatures who had the good fortune to be marked by singularity on a globe burdened with ordinariness. In a triumphant tone that Castor could never understand, their mother would boast that the doctors had predicted that her sons would only live for a very short time. Births like that, the woman would repeat to the journalists who came to visit her during the first few years, were more frequent than was generally believed, as was the premature birth and almost simultaneous expiration of the newborns. This fact explained why she saw her children as a triumph of faith over the prognostications of common logic. It was also why she collected and proudly displayed reams of stories and information about the very few cases of similarly extreme Siamese twins who had reached an adult age, including the two beautiful twins who had been born in Siam and fallen under the protection of the emperor, no less.

She was sensible enough not to mention that these twins and many others had been circus freaks and fodder for sensationalist tabloids. Very little was said during these maternal press conferences about the nightmares they and other tragic twins had to endure, and even less about their sex lives, the strange way they satisfied their appetites, their basic routines and their other needs. When someone tried to nudge her onto this private territory, she swerved away, offering her visitors more tea and showing them old photographs of the princes of Siam who presented their smiling faces to the camera, seemingly proud of their deformity. In his room, Castor thought that this pride wouldn’t be any help in tempering the melancholy of these unusual creatures. Whether it saw them as prodigies or freaks, it was obvious that the world would never stop asking questions about Siamese life: the secret whats, hows and whens of their odd existence.

Castor thought that the most notable omission in the flood of information about Siamese twins that his mother provided journalists was their arguments. Journalists never bothered to ask about their disagreements and fights, the result of natural differences in character between the twins that added a degree of drama to his fraternal marriage of the flesh with Pollux. The best example of the kind of disagreement they had was over the famous photo of the twins from Siam: one afternoon, just after they’d turned thirteen, Castor stuck the photograph at the head of the bed. At the sight of it, Pollux exploded in anger, saying that they didn’t need a photograph to remind themselves of their tragedy. There was no reason to revel in their situation; they weren’t freaks. Perhaps more to annoy his brother than out of any love for the photo, Castor insisted on leaving it there. Pollux tried to take it down and during the struggle he discovered that Castor was much stronger than he was. Fighting really wasn’t worth the effort: afterwards they both hurt in the same way, and they both lay battered and exhausted on the bed in resignation under the smile of the Siamese twins.

From then on, in a repeat of the scene in the incubator, Pollux renewed his efforts to distance himself from his brother. It was he who did the research and exhaustively assessed the possibility of one day undergoing the risky operation to separate them. At the time, surgery of that kind was effectively impossible not just because of the large number of organs involved but also the insurmountable economic barrier. To this one had to add Castor’s indifference to any mention of their separation. Contemplative, sceptical or just resigned, Castor was at first a passive spectator to his brother’s efforts and soon afterwards began to sabotage them. To Pollux’s despair, he insisted that God had wanted them to be born that way and God would decide when to bring them to an end, still joined together. God would end their lives and send them to some kind of Paradise for Siamese twins, or perhaps Hell, which couldn’t be very different. Castor often indulged himself in fantasizing about what would happen to them on Judgement Day or during the Resurrection of the Flesh. Would they get special consideration? Would they automatically be forgiven their sins? Would the saintliness of one allow the other, an incorrigible reprobate, entrance into Paradise? Subject to their dual existence, Castor and Pollux would continue to stumble through life, hidden away for as long as possible and adding to the secret anguish and subsequent neglect of their mother, who would eventually stop meeting with the press and maybe even start to doubt the benefits of her offspring’s freakishness.

Perhaps as a result of his brother’s evident physical supremacy, Pollux started to see his brain as the only possible source of independence. Castor, meanwhile, allowed himself to be dragged around the classrooms as an annex to Pollux’s overweening determination. He expounded a haughty indifference to his studies, and was almost scornful of the absurd fact that he had to sit exams that his brother would pass with honours and he wouldn’t even bother to answer. Like his hypothetical entrance into Paradise, Castor knew that he needn’t worry: he couldn’t be expelled or sent to a school for slow or problematic children. Whatever happened they’d let  him continue in the shadow of his industrious – some said brilliant – brother, for whom the embarrassment of Castor’s disastrous performance at school was payback for Castor having to show his face in public and put up with the stares of their schoolmates, as well as the parents and teachers. Castor often pretended to have a cold, a migraine or an intense pain in the stomach to force them to stay or go back home. Pollux reproached him for his fakery, telling him that nothing was wrong with him: “I know that nothing’s wrong with you.” To which Castor laughingly replied “How do you know? Huh?”

Back at home Castor expanded on his vengeance against Pollux for having exposed him to the world: while his brother studied, Castor would flick through magazines, need to go to the bathroom with exasperating frequency and listen to loud music. For his part, Pollux, hindered by his brother’s physical superiority, would work around his brother’s attempts at sabotage: he would study while Castor was asleep, try to ignore him and cover his ears.

Their mother died when they were seventeen. Now no-one was left to think of them as dignified or superior beings. Following her death, racked with anguish and a sense of abandonment, Pollux delved even deeper into his books, studying as much as he could. He even began to display signs of a remarkable lucidity which he made use of to write essays that may not have paid well but at least gave him some form of financial support and had the added advantage of not having to show his face in public. Even so, Castor complained about their being exposed when Pollux continued to publish and insisted on meeting journalists. Only occasionally, when the sturdily built Castor was in a good mood, did the brothers agree to give an interview during which Pollux rarely got a word in edgeways amid Castor’s stream of ironic commentary.

During their orphanhood, Castor realized how comfortable it was to live with a hardworking brother. And he also found in blackmail a new form of power over the body that he shared with Pollux: he would only reluctantly allow himself to be fed, and he threatened his brother every time he complained about his indolence. Castor knew that he didn’t even have to fear a legal complaint from Pollux. What would the judges say? Would they decide who of the two of them was the owner of their body? The law didn’t make that kind of distinction: any verdict would be unjust.

Castor began to suspect that the death of one would bring about the death of the other, and he saw this as a kind of retribution for some imagined fault of his brother. It was under this premise that he started drinking. With morbid amusement, he set about the slow destruction of their sad body. In response to Pollux’s determination to cling on to life, Castor got drunk endlessly, enjoying the prospect of the day when their liver, fed by shared fluids, burst. Pollux begged him to stay sober, imploring him to respect the fact that the body wasn’t his alone. Complain to God, Castor answered, downing more bottles, glasses and jugs. Drinking became his only pastime and only purpose in life. Pollux clung on to life while Castor tried to bring about their death: a happy, intoxicated death during a binge that his brother shared against his will when the alcohol overflowed into his bloodstream and made him vomit the contents of his stomach over his writing while his brother, who had a greater tolerance, enjoyed the tipsy feeling.

Finally, one night they woke up with an intense pain, a pain that announced the bursting of their liver. Pollux called the emergency services while Castor allowed himself to die in pain, of an anguish that seemed more intense than his brother’s but that was and had always been the same. Against all expectation, the hospital found a donor, just one, for a transplant. While a pained Castor and a passed out Pollux were taken away in the ambulance, the orderlies, doctors and nurses asked themselves who would end up with the providential organ. But there wasn’t time to decide anything: the liver got there in time for Castor and too late for Pollux, who died in the ambulance, unable to stand the pain and frustration; unable to stand life itself. What a shame, Castor said to himself in the operating theatre a little before he asked the nurse for a local anaesthetic. But then he found that the death of his brother didn’t bother him overmuch. The tumour would be cut out, it was dry, and the surviving body would receive new organs from Pollux. Tomorrow, maybe, when he was completely free, he would very seriously consider quitting drinking.