No one who lives here really notices the twins of Walkchalk unless someone new comes to town and asks about them. It goes the same way each time. The newcomer is standing in line waiting for a booth at Hartley’s, or at the checkout at Toy’s, or maybe driving out to the fire hall and sees them on one of their walks. Then the person turns, always that thoughtful look, that bunched up face, that look—even if that person has only been here for a little while, a weekend, a day, a few hours—the look that asks, why didn’t you say anything about this, before pulling it together to ask, “What’s the story with those two?”
Story. Well, people usually say, there’s a lot of stories. They’ve been around forever. Some have heard that they were born here, orphaned, sisters raised by well-meaning but crazy spinsters who lived in a run-down farm and let the twins run through the woods. They’re in their seventies now, hunched over, barely five feet tall. They mumble to one another in gibberish and a lot of clawing motions with their fingers and hand waving and so on. We know enough from TV that they have some kind of twin language. Not that there has ever been a TV program on them. We just knew it from seeing other programs on strange but true things about twins. But the strange-but-true twins on those programs always live in cities.
No one would come here for TV. They came for a movie once, made a few years ago. A horror film, based on a true story. They needed a town that looked like a West Virginia mining town from the late 1960s. They only had to change a few of the lights on our bridge, take down a few signs, and there it was. Right where we’d always been.
The twins always carry long paper bags, like extra tall grocery bags. It looks like it’s mostly clothes in them—but it can’t be much of anything. They’re too frail to be able to carry anything more than a few items. They once saw a pair of twin babies at the church’s strawberry festival. They went over and starting muttering at the babies while the parents, pretty new to town, and from the city, tried to grin. Everybody could tell looking at them that they wanted it to be over and for the twins to be on their way. But then one of them tried to pick up a baby. She could barely lift it, and as the mother started to swoop in to grab the baby away, the twin dropped it. The child started wailing and people grumbled and the twins grabbed their bags and tottered off, grabbing a few plates of shortcake as they passed the serving table.
Everyone knew that story at one point. The same summer a girl disappeared from the folk festival and the twins started stealing girl’s blouses and pants in clear daylight from the clotheslines in Applewold, everyone heard the story of how the twins loved babies, loved baby girls, would coo and sputter affection and spittle over babies when parents let them draw near enough.
It was the same year we built a fence in our yard. We told people it was for the dog, even though the dog, by then, was too old to walk much, let alone run out into the road. No one knew we were expecting then, that some biological door that had until then been closed had opened in one or the other of us, such that we were to have a child, and then we soon knew it would be children, and then we soon after that knew it would be girls, and that they would be our princesses.
The twins walked everywhere, unable to drive, having undone the patience and charity of a string of careworkers, and having frustrated the efforts of different agencies to put them in group homes or other situations, they wound up with no means of transport, no money, and, it appeared, no concerns about either condition. They moved out of every halfway house or home into which they had been placed, sometimes forcibly. They live in bathrooms. For a while, it was Wal Mart, where they would bathe out of sinks and sleep under the sinks. The employees didn’t say anything, worked around them, had no idea, really, what to do about them. Then their district manager showed up ranting about “a public health menace” and how Wal Mart “is not a goddamned charity. We give to charity, we do not become one.” After that, workers started leaving food out for them. The district manager, as far as anyone knows, is still not aware of the effect of his inspirational speech.
The women lived at Hartley’s for a while, until another manager—this time the night manager—finally hustled them off because people waiting in line for a table could smell them. In the summer months, they take to the woods. Those who notice them at that time of the year point out the twig stuck in one’s hair, or the grass stains on a lavender cardigan, things like that. People have found them in their barns, in detached garages, underneath decks, in hunting cabins—their resourcefulness is almost equal to a cat’s or a rodent’s. No one has ever heard of anyone getting really angry at them. Everyone knows what they’re like, that they mean no harm, that people are probably safe around them. But there are no saints, either. Without fail, when someone discovers the twins, barns and sheds are locked, new doors are put on garages, hunting camps are boarded up more securely for the season, decks are fenced. There are no spectacular scenes of eviction, just the usual moderate cruelties, the passive rejection that looks to everyone, and what we know too well people tell themselves—just looking out for everyone concerned. It’s not safe.
Our own girls have started to walk, to ramble and troll the backyard, to turn over leaves and find slugs, to chase the purple balls that almost float in the grass. They are princesses, fairies, creatures that flit with the clever birds and expansive trees of a kingdom they know and will soon abandon as they grow. From the deck where we sit watching our girls in the yard, we wave at neighbors who stroll up the alley. We can hear the horses down the hill from where our house is one in a cluster of homes near the power company headquarters. When the fire sirens go off in the town below, we hear the horses kicking in their stalls, their whinnies loud enough to be heard in the baby monitor. Those nights, we hear everything through those speakers, the breathing of the two girls, the noises of the house, the horses, the air that wanders through.
Sometimes we think we hear people passing in the alley, and because everyone knows the women move around in the dark, it is easy to tell ourselves it is them, and it is easier still to think that they pose no threat.
The fire sirens are loud and calling what everyone already knows. A girl is missing again, another youngster, about the age our girls are now, playing in a driveway and then gone, easily, quietly, suddenly, completely gone. Everyone knows the story and the mother, a teller at the bank. Everyone knows the father has lived elsewhere for a while now, know the grandmother spreads rumors, works at the post office and opens the mail of people she doesn’t like, keeps a gun under the seat of her minivan. Is a regular attendee of church, and lets everyone know it.
There are those who know, for certain, that it is the twins. That the twins had something to do with it. The girl wore pink, wore braids, was the fussy kind of prim little lady that the twins always talk over, the kind of girl they cross a picnic or a store to get to. Those who know the mother worry it is too easy to blame the twins, that people are missing the fact that it may be anyone. The grandmother and her friends proclaim loudly that it is some deviant boyfriend their slut mother brought home.
It’s the grandmother’s son, the girls’ father, no one has seen. Her son who came back from Iraq quieter and thinner than when he left, her son who hasn’t held a job more than a few months, her son who was asked to leave a firing range when he tore up targets with a fully automatic AK. When he was a cook for a few weeks at Hartleys, he hit a waitress for dropping a bowl of soup on his leg, and later had not the words to describe what the police figured out he thought was a reflex. For him, pain was a lash, a trigger to something he had taken into himself and would let out when his vision turned to red. Her son joked once about the twins, how some old dude could let those bitches in the house and have a little party. The latest rumor is that he has left town, looking for work in Pittsburgh, every once in a while calling his ex-wife and yelling until, weeping, she slams the phone down again and again.
The pickups of the volunteers throw blue light on our houses as they scream past on the road or rumble and bang down the alley behind us. Their noise makes feedback in the baby monitors, left on from the night before. Our girls watch Snow White on DVD and eat mac and cheese. We stand by windows, turn on the scanner, listen to the AM station out of East Brady, listen to the theories about vengeful gods and the end of the world, and the tight voices of people afraid to talk about how little they know.
Later, when most everyone else is asleep and darkness lets us pretend to have a reprieve until morning, we walk the yard, picking up toys. We both see the movement at the same time, see the shadows among the buildings, see the hunched forms that could be bears, could be raccoons, could be the twins. As if the night creatures are out considering the threats. The toys thud hollow into the buckets, their plastic cool and damp with dew. The grass is shaggy and shadowed, rangy at the fence. More than a few garages and back buildings sport new spotlights, triggered by movement. Some nights, when we can’t sleep, we watch the different patterns that shifting lights make on our ceiling, knowing the night moves through and among us out there.
Many are startled but few are surprised when the twins lead a little girl out into a field behind the Wal Mart just after dawn. We put our bags down, others stop getting out of their car, and across the lot, people begin to drift toward the spectacle of the girl emerging from the woods. Her knees are cut up, and she shakes with fear or fatigue or hunger. The twins bob and shuffle beside her. The twins’ hands shake and it is not clear if they are cold, as it is the first frost this morning, or if they are talking. The girl’s face has a smear of blood across a cheek that is old enough to be rust colored. Two men from the loading dock hop down to the macadam, start to walk, then run to the girl. Crows burst out of the stubbled corn field before the woods, the only sharp black in a field silvered with dawn and frost.
Then two lot attendants pushing carts back to the store stop, leave the carts, and start running. Their radios crackle, fried with alarm. People stream out through doors, carts left half full and askance in deserted aisles where the light is as even as industry. At first there is chatter, and then it is quiet, so still that the only noise is the footfalls of the twins and the girl as they cross into the cut stubs of cornstalks, and the sobs as the girl falls forward into the hands of the first man to reach her. We cannot understand what the girl says. She cries too hard, too deeply.
The twins stand in the cornfield as the girl goes with the men. They remain long enough for someone to suggest they had taken her. Some argue, others agree, but no one sees who first throws a rock. But everyone sees it arc, the arm that threw it strong enough to hurl it high and long. It lands well short of the twins, kicking dust into the air with a skittering sound. Then another rock sails out, and another. Voices boil into rage, the parking lot clamors. More rocks sail and the twins turn and shuffle back toward the woods and it is only when an ambulance siren begins to creep over the noise does the crowd part, shift, and disperse—making room for the ambulance, making its way back into the store, making the town return to itself.
The station in East Brady tuts over the response of the crowd. The grandmother of the girl complains to the line of people at the post office that she wants to know why the girls’ slut of a mother wasn’t there when her baby came out the woods. The manager of the Wal Mart has called corporate to send someone out to help them talk about why the first rock was thrown and what it meant. It is widely discussed how the girl’s father is not around, hasn’t shown up for work, appears to have abandoned his pickup outside a truck stop out by I79. The owner of Hartleys promises a month of dinners for anyone with information leading to an arrest.
We watch the papers for the twins, watch the alleys, watch the lights and the streets. We watch the men smoke in front of the American Legion, watch the ministers spell out their admonitions in plastic letters snapped onto the signboards in front of their churches. We watch the people on our street plastic their windows and stack their wood, chain and lock their trash cans, rake their leaves while looking at the trees, at the hills beyond, at the smoke rising sure and warm from every house closed against the cold settling in the fields.
The twins return to haunt their winter abodes again, but find doors closed, managers crossing their arms in doorways, barn doors locked. The warmth of buildings disperses as quickly as the smoke shreds over the chimneys and peaked roofs. At night, people hear them pull on barn doors, the creak of wood and the report when the planks bang and slap against their frames. They shuffle into diners and move toward restrooms, ball caps turning to watch them, until a woman in an apron as worn as her face turns them back, or when a man shaven with a high and tight gestures back to the street. At the Sheetz, the police check in once a day. The human services office tells people to send the women their way once again, but the twins never linger long enough to hear the message. And if they do, they never follow it. We hear they have not been to the office on aging this year, not to the human services bureau, not even to the apartments near the hospital where, in years past, they have found sympathy among the bent and slowed women who live there.
The girl returns to school. The AM station in East Brady invites the grandmother to make her case one week before Christmas. The girl’s mother gives notice at the hospital, and we learn she will move, down to Pittsburgh, to Greensburg, somewhere where there is more work, better schools, hers the familiar story that has unmade this town for going on thirty years.
On the shortest day of the year, a hunter marches from the woods and into Hartley’s. His face is serious as a woodsman’s axe, and he asks the manager to call the police. He leads two troopers to the twins, stiff, frozen, on the shady side of a bank deep in the woods, past the power company building, past the right of way, almost to the radio tower. The troopers remove their hats and stand on the quiet ridge looking down at the bank and the glade at the base, at the little stream dropping through the rocks that, had they followed it, would have led them back to the Wal Mart. A farmer carts their bodies out on a bier drawn by a horse.
The tributes include the young girl’s inexplicable and sweet drawing of Ronald McDonald praying, posted on an easel at the plain patch where they are laid to rest; a week of old-time gospel music on the AM station; free coffee from Hartley’s for the men and women holding candles in the field where the girl was found; and scores of knitted mittens that start appearing tied to telephone poles, newspaper dispensers, parking meters, and other places that we know, even though nothing is said, we know were knitted for them.
We will learn, years later, that the girl remembers her father taking her, leading her out of her home, leading her to his truck, making her drink cocoa to get ready for a long drive, you little shit. He had meant to flee, stopped for a shot to steel himself, calm his nerves, and the girl, woozy, had staggered out of the truck, gotten lost in the dark, amid the sounds of crows and leaves and the skitter of the possums and raccoons. She imagined she was a princess running from a queen, that she was found curled beneath a tree, her head resting in the crook of a root.
She may tell how fairies found her, speaking a strange language and feeding her scraps of bread, keeping her warm through the night as they lay with her, smelling of fur and caves and holes in the leaves. She will recall how they worked their way through the woods for a day and a night until she recovered enough to know she was lost and could talk the women into taking her someplace she would be found. She thinks she remembers them saying, we will take you to the castle.
But for this winter, for the rest of its darkest days, the creatures of our alley trigger the garage and shed lights like starbursts from beyond, and our daughters tell us that the ghosts of the twins still live with us. They tell us they hear their spells, hear their language, and as they do, their hands are never still.
Gabriel Welsch writes fiction and poetry, and his latest collection of poems is The Four Horsepersons of a Disappointing Apocalypse (Steel Toe Books). He lives in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, with his family, works as vice president of advancement and marketing at Juniata College, and occasionally teaches at the Chautauqua Writer’s Center.