About the Author

Lori Lansens

Books by this Author
Rush Home Road
Excerpt

Fish

Addy didn’t know where to go. The rain had stopped, but she was still soaked and shivering and her clothes grew stiff in the ill wind. She imagined the child inside her was shivering too, so she wrapped her arms across her stomach, whispering, “We gonna be fine. We gonna be fine,” even though she knew they weren’t. She looked into the black night and was grateful she was bone cold and so hungry she could think of nothing beyond food and shelter.

All but one of the houses in Rusholme were dark and silent. Addy had wandered in circles for a time, then found herself standing in front of the little house on Fowell Street. She could see Laisa sitting in a hardback chair near the window. Her mother’s lamplight flickered, and a dark oil cloud settled above her head. She was mending a good white-collar shirt of her husband’s, ashamed her son had not a good shirt of his own to be buried in. Addy remembered how Laisa’d scolded Leam for the grass stains on his Sunday shirt after the church supper in June when he’d been showing off for Beatrice Brown. Laisa had hated his love for the pretty young girl, believing it was drawn from the same well as his Mama love, and she’d go thirsty if he loved Birdie too much. She’d said, “Fine, you keep your coat on then, Leam, no matter how hot it gets this summer, ’cause them grass stains never coming out them elbows and that teach you about showing off.” But she couldn’t bury her son with grass stains on his elbows, and she was glad to have a chore and to do for him this one last time. Laisa’s hands had stopped shaking when she picked up her needle and thread, and there was comfort in the dance of her fingers and the tiny perfect stitches they made. Addy watched her through the window for some time before she willed her feet to move in the direction of the church.

In the mile between her home and the church, Addy felt the shroud of darkness settle on her shoulders. The rain was hard and lashed her face. The doors to the church would not be locked but Addy could not go inside. It wasn’t God she feared but the fat Pastor and the way his eyes had hated her. The old shed near the graveyard was unlocked and although Addy was afraid of the restless spirits, she opened the door, squatted on the ground, and was glad to be out of the wind. She leaned up against the shovels, telling her teeth to stop chattering and her baby to be still. Then Addy told herself, as she would tell herself all her life, that although she was the cause of what happened, she did not cause what happened.

It was then she thought of the lake and the cliff across the road and how simple to raise her arms like Jesus and spiral down. She imagined what it’d be like under the water, walking on the deep sandy bottom, seeing Chester and Leam swimming there like fish. She thought how they’d wave and say, “Glad you come, Addy. We can all be together now and it ain’t even so bad down here.” But she felt terror at the notion of gulping for air and finding water instead.

Near dawn Addy woke, remembering the horror of the previous day and that it was not a dream and time to go. The gravediggers would be along any time now, and her brother put to rest by sundown. She stood with some effort and opened the shed door to the dark November sky.

The graves of her ancestors were grouped together at the far end of the yard and she went there now, for it’d be Leam’s final home and her last chance to say goodbye. She looked at the gravestones of her father’s people, unknown to her, feeling little for their dead souls. She looked up to Heaven and saw sky. She looked at the ground and saw earth. She closed her eyes and whispered, “Leam? L’il Leam? Are you there?” And because she couldn’t hear him, but was certain he was there, Addy imagined a talk with his ghost, and whispered it out loud to make it feel real.

“L’il Leam?”

“Yes, Adelaide?”

“When we was children and you got sick and near died, I prayed the Lord take me instead and leave you to grow to a man. Did you know that, Leam?”

“I knew that, Little Sister. I know you loved me well.”

“We never did fight and hate each other like other brothers and sisters. I always felt proud of that.”

“I did too, Addy. You were always my good friend.”

“And I told Birdie Brown all the good things about you and never said how you chewed your fingers and weren’t fond of a bath.”

“I know that too.”

“It weren’t Chester done me wrong, Leam. Do you know that?”

“Chester told me how he loved you. He’s sorry he never got to say so. Don’t worry, Addy. The Lord knows the truth.”

“But if the Lord knows the truth, why am I here in the graveyard instead of shaking you awake for your day’s work? Why can’t the Lord tell Daddy the truth so he can take me back in his house?”

“That’s all a mystery, Addy. It’s just what is.”

“I got to go now before the gravediggers come.”

“I know.”

“You cold?”

“I’m not cold.”

“Goodbye, Leam.”

“Goodbye, Addy. I’ll be with you.”

Addy opened her eyes, felt the wind whip up around her, and heard a gull scream overhead. She knew the bird was Leam, showing off his new flying spirit, and felt better. The trees were bare but the woods were thick and gave enough cover to hide. Addy couldn’t walk on the road for fear of being seen. She couldn’t stand the shame. Besides, she didn’t yet know where she’d go or what she’d do. She ached from the cold and felt dizzy as she crouched near a fragrant evergreen.

Addy was surprised when she awoke that she’d fallen asleep. She could not feel the tip of her nose. She was poised to come out of the bush when she saw the first of the mourners arrive for her brother’s funeral. She moved through the trees, closer to the church, so she could watch and listen and even join in a hymn. Leam Shadd had been a loved boy and all of Rusholme showed up to send him on his way to the Lord.

Addy shivered, wishing she were inside the big warm church. She imagined the Pastor telling the congregation that the best thing to do was pray for the souls of the sinners, exalt the righteous, and never speak to each other about what had happened. God moves in mysterious ways, Addy knew, and today, she thought, that was true.

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The Girls
Excerpt

ruby & me

~

I have never looked into my sister’s eyes. I have never bathed alone. I have never stood in the grass at night and raised my arms to a beguiling moon. I’ve never used an airplane bathroom. Or worn a hat. Or been kissed like that. I’ve never driven a car. Or slept through the night. Never a private talk. Or solo walk. I’ve never climbed a tree. Or faded into a crowd. So many things I’ve never done, but oh, how I’ve been loved. And, if such things were to be, I’d live a thousand lives as me, to be loved so ­exponentially.

My sister, Ruby, and I, by mishap or miracle, having intended to divide from a single fertilized egg, remained joined instead, by a spot the size of a bread plate on the sides of our twin heads. We’re known to the world medical community as the oldest surviving craniopagus twins (we are twenty-­nine years old) and to millions around the globe, those whose interest in people like us is more than just passing, as conjoined craniopagus twins Rose and Ruby Darlen of Baldoon County. We’ve been called many things: freaks, horrors, monsters, devils, witches, retards, wonders, marvels. To most, we’re a curiosity. In small-­town Leaford, where we live and work, we’re just “The Girls.”

Raise your right hand. Press the base of your palm to the lobe of your right ear. Cover your ear and fan out your fingers – that’s where my sister and I are affixed, our faces not quite side by side, our skulls fused together in a circular pattern running up the temple and curving around the frontal lobe. If you glance at us, you might think we’re two women embracing, leaning against the other ­tête-­à-­tête, the way sisters do.

Ruby and I are identical twins and would be identical looking, having high foreheads like our mother and wide, full mouths, except that Ruby’s face is arranged quite nicely (in fact, Ruby is very beautiful), whereas my features are misshapen and frankly grotesque. My right eye slants steeply towards the place my right ear would have been if my sister’s head had not grown there instead. My nose is longer than Ruby’s, one nostril wider than the other, pulled to the right of my brown slanted eye. My lower jaw shifts to the left, slurring my speech and giving a husky quality to my voice. Patches of eczema rouge my cheeks, while Ruby’s complexion is fair and flawless. Our scalps marry in the middle of our conjoined heads, but my frizzy hair has a glint of auburn, while my sister is a swingy brunette. Ruby has a deep cleft in her chin, which people find ­endearing.

I’m five feet five inches tall. When we were born, my limbs were symmetrical, in proportion to my body. Presently, my right leg is a full three inches shorter than my left, my spine compressed, my right hip cocked, and all because I have carried my sister like an infant, since I was a baby myself, Ruby’s tiny thighs astride my hip, my arm supporting her posterior, her arm forever around my neck. Ruby is my sister. And strangely, undeniably, my ­child.

There is some discomfort in our conjoinment. Ruby and I experience mild to severe neck, jaw, and shoulder pain, for which we take physiotherapy three times a week. The strain on my body is constant, as I bear Ruby’s weight, as I tote Ruby on my hip, as I struggle to turn Ruby over in our bed or perch on my stool beside the toilet for what seems like hours. (Ruby has a multitude of bowel and urinary tract problems.) We are challenged, certainly, and uncomfortable, sometimes, but neither Ruby nor I would describe our conjoinment as painful.

It’s difficult to explain our locomotion as conjoined twins or how it developed from birth using grunts and gestures and what I suppose must be telepathy. There are days when, like a normal person, we’re clumsy and uncoordinated. We have less natural symbiosis when one of us (usually Ruby) is sick, but mostly our dance is a smooth one. We hate doing things in unison, such as answering yes or no at the same time. We never finish each other’s sentences. We can’t shake our heads at once or nod (and wouldn’t if we could – see above). We have an unspoken, even unconscious, system of checks and balances to determine who’ll lead the way at any given moment. There is conflict. There is ­compromise.

Ruby and I share a common blood supply. My blood flows normally in the left side of my brain, but the blood in my right (the connected side) flows to my sister’s left, and vice versa for her. It’s estimated that we share a web of one hundred veins as well as our skull bones. Our cerebral tissue is fully enmeshed, our vascular systems snarled like briar bushes, but our brains themselves are separate and functioning. Our thoughts are distinctly our own. Our selves have struggled fiercely to be unique and, in fact, we’re more different than most identical twins. I like sports, but I’m also bookish, while Ruby is girlie and prefers television. When Ruby is tired, I’m hardly ever ready for bed. We’re rarely hungry together and our tastes are poles apart: I prefer spicy fare, while my sister has a disturbing fondness for ­eggs.

Ruby believes in God and ghosts and reincarnation. (Ruby won’t speculate on her next incarnation though, as if imagining something different from what she is now would betray us both.) I believe the best the dead can hope for is to be conjured from time to time, through a note of haunting music or a passage in a book.

I’ve never set eyes on my sister, except in mirror images and photographs, but I know Ruby’s gestures as my own, through the movement of her muscles and bone. I love my sister as I love myself. I hate her that way too.
This is the story of my life. I’m calling it “Autobiography of a Conjoined Twin.” But since my sister claims that it can’t technically (“technically” is Ruby’s current favourite word) be considered an autobiography and is opposed to my telling what she considers our story, I have agreed that she should write some chapters from her point of view. I will strive to tell my story honestly, allowing that my truth will be coloured a shade different from my sister’s and acknowledging that it’s sometimes necessary for the writer to connect the dots.

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Wife's Tale
Excerpt

A Pretty Face

Alone in the evenings, when the light had drained from the slate roof of her small rural home, and when her husband was working late, Mary Gooch would perform a striptease for the stars at the open bedroom window: shifting out of rumpled bottoms, slipping off blousy top, liberating breasts, peeling panties, her creamy flesh spilling forth until she was completely, exquisitely nude. In the darkness, she’d beg her lover the wind to ravish her until she needed to grasp the sill for support. Then, inhaling the night like a post-coital cigarette, Mary would turn to face the mirror, who’d been watching all along.

The mirror held the image Mary Gooch knew as herself, a forty-three-year-old brunette standing five and a half feet tall, so gilded with fat that hardly a bone from her skeleton could insinuate itself in her reflection. No hint of clavicle, no suggestion of scapula, no jag in her jaw, no scallop in her knee, no crest of ilium, no crook of knuckle, not a phalange in the smallest of her fingers. And no cords of muscle, either, as if she were enrobed by a subcutaneous duvet.

Mary remembered, when she was nine years old, stepping off the scale in Dr. Ruttle’s office and hearing him whisper the word to her slight mother, Irma. It was an unfamiliar word, but one she understood in the context of the fairy-tale world. Obeast. There were witches and warlocks. So must there be ogres and obeasts. Little big Mary wasn’t confused by the diagnosis. It made sense to her child’s mind that her body had become an outward manifestation of the starving animal in her gut.

Such a pretty face. That was what people always said. When she was a child they made the comment to her mother, with tsking pity or stern reproach, depending on their individual natures. As she grew, the pitying, reproving people made the comment directly to Mary. Such a pretty face. Implied was the disgrace of her voluminous body, the squander of her green eyes and bow lips, her aquiline nose and deep-cleft chin and her soft skin, like risen dough, with no worry lines to speak of, which was remarkable because, when she wasn’t eating, that’s what Mary Gooch did.

She worried about what she would eat and what she would not eat. When and where she would or wouldn’t. She worried because she had too much or not nearly enough. She worried about hypertension, type 2 diabetes, atherosclerosis, heart attack, stroke, osteoarthritis. The contempt of strangers. The mouths of babes. Sudden death. Protracted death. She worried all the more because all the worry made her sleepless, and in her dreamless hours hosted more worries, about her husband, Gooch, and the approach of their silver anniversary, about her menial job at Raymond Russell Drugstore and about her list, which she imagined not as Things to do but Things left undone.

Weight is only numbers on a scale, she told herself, and her mirror just another point of view. Squinting at her naked reflection when the moon was waxing and the angle just right, Mary Gooch saw beauty in the poetry of her contours, in the expressive, expansive, edible flesh, and understood why an artist sketching nudes might find appealing the mountainous gut, and favour the pocked shore of sloping thigh, and enjoy the depth and shadow of pendulous breasts and multiple chins. A shape ample and sensuous, like the huge round vase handed down on the Brody side of the family, in which she arranged her ditch lilies in the spring. Or like the dunes of virgin snow on the hills beyond her home outside small-town Leaford.

Mary wished to be a rebel against the tyranny of beauty but was instead a devotee, coveting its currency, devouring images in glossy magazines and broadcast TV, especially the kind that chronicled the lives of the rich and famous. She lingered over the body shots, outlining with her fingertips, like an appreciative lover, the rock-hard abdominals and concrete glutes, sinewy arms and pumped deltoids–so daring on a woman–coltish legs, wasp waist, swan’s neck, lion’s mane, cat’s eyes. She accepted the supremacy of beauty, and could not deny complicity in the waste of her own.

It was often an unbearable burden for Mary Gooch to carry both her significant weight and the responsibility for it, and she naturally sought to blame. The media was her target, just as it was another of her addictions. She would tear through the pages of her magazines, gratified by the celebrity cellulite, horrified by the gorgeous anorexics, noting the fall must-haves, sneering with the critics about fashion disasters, then realize she’d eaten a quart of premium ice cream, coerced by the advertisement beneath the picture of the TV cutie with poor taste in men. Mary knew it was all the media’s fault, but finger pointing was too much exercise, and she couldn’t sustain the blame for long. Especially since she was so often confronted by the stupid genius of just saying no.

Jimmy Gooch, Mary’s husband of nearly twenty-five years, read Time and Newsweek and Scientific American and The Atlantic and National Geographic. He watched CNN, even when America was not on red alert, and cable talk shows with clever panelists who laughed when nothing was funny. With Gooch working late most evenings, and busy playing golf on the weekends, Mary reckoned they were down to spending only a hand ful of waking hours a week together and wished to relieve the silence between them, but didn’t share Gooch’s passion for politics. The couple sometimes found common ground in musing on the vagaries of human nature. “Read the essay at the back,” Gooch had said recently, tapping her on the head with the rolled-up magazine– a gesture she charged was aggressive, but he argued, playful.

The article spoke of the ills of North American culture, the mistaking of acquisition for success, gluttony for fulfillment. Gooch clearly meant for Mary to draw a comparison to her gastronomical indulgence, and she did, but the piece was provocative in its own right, posing the question: Are people generally happier now, with instant access and quick fixes and thousands of channels and brands to choose from, than they were before the Industrial Revolution? Mary instantly decided no. In fact, she wondered if the opposite was true, that in the hardscrabble life of her pioneering ancestors, whose singularity of purpose was clear, there had been no time to ponder happiness. Chop wood. Carry water. It was impossible to imagine that the early Brodys, who’d cleared Leaford from the Burger King to the gas station, had ever endured a sleepless night.

Having read enough magazines, and having spent hours lurking in the self-help section, Mary Gooch knew that she wasn’t alone in her morbid obesity or her abstract malaise. Symptoms of despair were everywhere, and formulas for success within her grasp. A person could get a good night’s sleep and wake refreshed, shed unwanted pounds without dieting, make dinners for six in twenty minutes or less, rekindle sexual passion, and achieve five personal goals by the end of the month. A person could. But in spite of the step-by-step instructions, Mary could not. The secret remained classified. She appeared to be missing some key ingredient, something simple and elusive, like honesty.

Mary had been raised without religion but instinctively drew a separation between her spirit and body. Her spirit had no gravitational pull. Her body weighed three hundred and two of earth’s pounds–the two pounds significant because she’d once vowed that she’d kill herself if she got up beyond three hundred. Another promise broken. Further recrimination. The truth of what drove her hunger was as present and mysterious as anyone’s God.

Certainly grief fed the beast, and with her encroaching middle age came more and greater opportunities for it. Every passage, but particularly the corporeal kind, further embellished Mary Gooch. Thirty pounds for her mother, accumulated over many months, years ago, although Irma was not actually deceased. The babies, so long ago, had added fifteen and twenty pounds respectively. Then it was the ten when her father died in the spring. And another ten with Mr. Barkley in the summer. She felt vaguely charitable assigning the poundage to her loved ones, in the same way that she was mildly comforted by calculating her load in UK stones, in the British style, rather than North American pounds.

During her painful cycles of grief and gain, Mary thought it would be better to have any religion and lose it, than never to have one at all. She relied on dubious knowledge and remedial understanding to cobble together a system of beliefs that she was forever editing and amending, depending on the latest magazine article or persuasive celebrity endorsement. Except for the rule of three–an enduring belief, if unfounded by religious text. Terrible things happen in clusters of three. Death, serious accidents, financial ruin. One. Two. Three. What would end the trilogy after her father and Mr. Barkley, she wondered. Another death? Or just more deceptively endurable misfortune?

Hauling her corpulence the few steps from her truck in the parking lot to the back door of Raymond Russell Drugstore, starved for breath, heart valves flushing and fluppering, Mary would think, It’s me. I will end the trilogy. Here comes my fatal heart attack. Drowning in regret, she’d see everything clearly, the way reckless adults do, too late. But like all things, the feeling would pass, and she would click on another worry, each one dense and nuanced enough to sustain her interest, with intriguing links to distract her from the larger picture. The ticking of time. The machinations of denial.

Mary Gooch did not so much pray to God as wish to God, of whom she was sporadically unsure. She wished to God for an end to all wars. And that her manager would catch his scrotum in the cash register at work. She wished for her mother’s peaceful death. And that she had something nice to wear to her silver anniversary dinner party. And then there was the wish that preempted all other wishes, the one she wished hourly, eternally– that she could just lose the weight. This wish Mary would offer to her uncertain God in the smallest and most humble of voices. If I could just lose the weight, Gooch would love me again. Or sometimes it was, I could let Gooch love me again. The state of her body was inseparable from the state of her marriage, and the universe.
If I could just lose the weight.
For all her uncertainty about God, and in addition to the rule of three, Mary Gooch believed in miracles.

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