She’d expected that being a single mom of twins would be difficult, but the girls mothered each other. They brayed when separated, slept with limbs entwined just like on the ultrasound. One knobby, one plump. No one thought they were related. People thought pet, not sibling. Owner, not twin. But the girls paid attention to no one. They’d swum together as embryos before anyone had known they existed. She’d known the medicine increased the risk of multiples, but even so, hers was a rare kind of pregnancy. High risk, both before and after the girls were born. Risk of discordant fetal growth. Of heart conditions. Of colic and tetanus. Later, of bonding problems. Of favoritism.
She didn’t have a favorite. But the girls preferred each other.
They took bottles from her and fed themselves. They spent so much time lying on the floor nose-to-nose, giggling, that their hair—the same chestnut color—tangled them together. They screamed when she tried to comb out the knots, so now they had identical missing patches where she’d cut them out instead. The human galloped around the yard; the horse sat at the breakfast table. Their sharing left room for the limitations of the other. The horse rarely went full speed; the human wouldn’t use her digits.
They were going to be developmentally delayed. That much was clear.
They were never going to marry.
In her dreams, the girls rode each other in the sunset.
* * *
Equine temper tantrums were worse than human ones. But only humans could say, We wish you weren’t our mother.
She called the girls bilingual, but the reality was that the human spoke for the horse. She’s scared of that van, the girl said when the horse bucked on an afternoon walk. Or, She thinks she’s in danger. Or, She’s worried you’re going to send her away. Or, when the mother showed them her worn copy of BLACK BEAUTY, She hates that book.
What’s wrong with it?
The girl answered, The horses are dumb. And the people are mean.
The horse snorted over her shoulder, big, yeasty breaths. Too big for the couch now, so she stood behind it. The mother remembered their birth, the fast labor, the buzzing of the NICU team—the foal severely premature, the infant severely overdue. Few of these pregnancies went to term, and of those that did, fewer resulted in two live births. The OB-DVM had recommended termination: her choice, which fetus. They’d made her sign wavers. Convinced her to deliver in front of a roomful of witnesses. Most of them, the OB-DVM told her, will never see a birth like this again.
Now her twins leaned against each other, identical looks of disgust at the book in their mother’s hands. She eyed them carefully. Already it was hard to imagine what they were thinking. She missed them as babies, when they’d needed her for small things: to pour the milk and turn on the TV. She couldn’t tell how much they understood about who they were. Or what would happen to them.
People can be cruel, she said.
Her daughter flared her nostrils. Tossed her head. Yes, she said. But horses aren’t dumb.
* * *
School was out of the question. Instead she gathered books on homeschooling, read the message boards, met with a group once a month. At first she divided the girls' lessons, horse child running agility trials while girl child memorized history. When the twins rebelled, kicking and scattering hay, she concocted lessons that occupied both. The girl studied equine art, history, and literature; the horse set her paces to music and math. Together they learned botanical terms on rides through the woods in the hills above town.
She tracked down the phone numbers of a few other parents raising hybrid twins. The first lived in Iceland and hinted at witchcraft. The second rebuked her for questioning God. The third, a couple, had adopted their children: also both girls, also horse-human. She was so excited by their story, similar down to the smallest detail. A few weeks later, watching the news, she learned that theirs was a well-crafted hoax. They'd invented horse child, girl child, twinspeak, based on the family they wanted to be. They were hybrid fetishists, and they were obsessed. The family they watched and wanted was hers.
* * *
The neighbors complained about manure in the yard, hoofprints on manicured lawns. They pointed to a city ordinance that forbid farm animals.
She's not a farm animal. She's my daughter.
The neighbors snorted, stamped heels in the dirt.
* * *
Sometimes the girls fought, turning on each other with the same intensity they gave to love. Usually one of them skulked in the stable while the other wept and nuzzled mother.
It shamed her that she loved this singular closeness almost enough to encourage their fights.
She didn't have a favorite. True, she liked whinnies better than laughs, and reading better than riding. But it would take another child for her to feel favored or play favorites.
She decided to ask the girls how they felt. They carried a picnic lunch to the playground and tossed used horseshoes. After apples, carrots, and sugar cubes she faced them.
How would you like a brother or sister?
Horse neighed and snickered, then galloped in circles around the field.
Human or horse? Girl asked.
It doesn't matter.
It matters to me.
Fine, then. Human.
Girl looked pleased. Don't tell her, Mom.
The word Mom like stained glass lighting windows of sky.
* * *
That was how it started. She'd discovered the winning ticket, word that would bend one child close, closer to her than to her sister. The word was human or the word was horse. All through her pregnancy she confided in each, whispering to girl that she wanted an infant; whispering to horse that she wanted a foal.
Surely when the baby arrived they would forget keeping secrets and stop telling lies.
This pregnancy clicked. This birth was off-camera. A midwife at home, a birth pool of warm water. She sent the girls to stay with a neighbor. The midwife lit candles to welcome her son.
All night she held him, sleeping and nursing. She named him alone and sang their first songs.
The next day, or day after, or the following week, she knocked on the neighbor's door, calling her girls to welcome their brother.
The neighbor handed her a note.
We're safe, it read, but don't come looking.
Two by two. She understood.
CAROL GUESS is the author of thirteen books of poetry and prose, including Tinderbox Lawn and Doll Studies: Forensics. Follow her here: www.carolguess.blogspot.com
KELLY MAGEE's first book, Body Language, won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Short Fiction. Her writing has appeared in Crazyhorse, The Kenyon Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Passages North, Literary Mama, and others. She teaches creative writing at Western Washington University. You can find links to her writing at kellyelizabethmagee.com.