"And this slow spider which creepeth in the moonlight,
and this moonlight itself, and thou and I in this gateway
whispering together, whispering of eternal things —
must we not all have already existed?"
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
The Hallstrom comet was tearing through the blackness of the Saint Paul skies from the east, having lit up the Saint Andrew's dome, completing its fifteen-year orbit through the vacuum of the solar system.
Meanwhile, a teenage girl was being urgently pushed inside the Central Hospital's Obstetric Emergency Department. Her young face, transfigured into a grotesque mask of pain, suggested that she herself had been born during Hallstrom's last passage through the Pauline firmament. The doctor, backed up by two nurses, would be little more than twice the patient's age.
"At her age, I was playing hopscotch," joked one of the nurses. "Dr. Lynch...?"
The doctor looked at her in a panic, his forehead sweaty and his face congested, begging for an indication of what to do next.
"Shall we prepare her for a C-section, Doctor...?"
"Yes," replied Dr. Lynch, regaining his self-control.
"Everything will be fine," said the older nurse, stroking the teenager's blonde hair.
The baby girl was removed from her mother's womb, wrapped in a towel, and laid on a table. She looked healthy and robust. She stared at the nurse curiously, without crying. She waited for her brother. As soon as he was laid down beside her on the table, the brothers burst into a sharp sob, making inaudible the last breath exhaled by their precocious mother, the miracle of life and the mystery of death forced to share the same aseptic space.
The doctor again exhibited signs of disorientation.
"Dr. Lynch? Do you want me to contact Social Services?"
The young woman had been admitted to the emergency room at Central Saint Paul Hospital already in labor, brought there by who knew who, she had probably walked in on her own two feet, God only knew how she had managed to keep her pregnancy secret until the end. Didn't she have parents? Her medical records had been left blank, and on the clothes she was wearing they hadn't found any kind of identification, not even a piece of paper with a phone number they could call to report the girl's sad fate.
The twins, as anonymous as their mother, would provisionally be given a series of numbers that would distinguish them from the other unborn babies until they were directed to the institution that would try to deliver them to a family, or families, willing to adopt them.
"What? Yes, please do that... If you need me, I'll be outside, I need some air..."
The cigarette smoke spiraled towards the sky, the same sky where the Hallstrom comet was beginning a new elliptical orbit around the planet Earth, on a journey that would take it to the farthest corners of the solar system for fifteen years, after which it would graze the Earth's atmosphere again, bringing who knows what other wonders.
Gabriel Brennan and his wife Alice, neé Kinney, were God-fearing people and had been married for twelve years. They were as well-to-do as they were devout, and keen on helping their church in a variety of social works. A self-made man, the son of a civil servant and an elementary school teacher, Gabriel Brennan had made his immense fortune in the retail business, starting as a delivery boy in a small home improvement store, which he one day would own, and was now the almighty manager of a vast chain of stores, the Polaris stores, selling everything needed to furnish a home, from furniture to fixtures to lighting and decorating. His generous, tax-deductible charitable contributions had earned him a reputation as a philanthropist, promoted him to a solid pillar of the community, and brought him into the ranks of Opus Christi, where he was among the most influential and powerful figures in Saint Paul. His greatest source of pride had been the awarding, with pomp and circumstance, of the Grand Order of Saint Paul, a rare distinction reserved for the city's highest individuals. He appeared to be a friendly man, although his explosive temper was legendary, having overcome the many setbacks he had faced, in business and in life, with fits of rage and even some violence.
It was one of those fits of anger that led him to fire Alice Kinney, at the time an employee in his first store, never imagining that one day they would meet again and fall in love with each other. Alice had been his emotional counterpoint ever since. Calm and conciliatory, she had helped Gabriel control his temper, while doing volunteer work at soup kitchens, the Central Hospital, and several nursing homes. Despite their happy marriage, something was missing in the Brennans' lives, a blessing that was slow to descend upon them. Gabriel and Alice had been trying to have children practically since they had been married. The medical examinations they had both undergone had not revealed any physiological problems.
They kept trying, always with the same hope and faith in God, although lately their faith and hope had been getting thinner. The husband even suggested that he and his wife go to a fertility clinic, but Alice ruled it out, arguing that if God didn't want them to have children, the solution was not to seek man's science but to accept His will. They talked vaguely about adoption, which seemed to meet their consensus, however, they concluded that it would be best to stop thinking about it for a while. The marriage resented the pressure they were putting on each other and on themselves.
The couple's relaxation on the subject would be rewarded the day after the Hallstrom comet went by over their heads. Alice Brennan crossed paths with Nurse Burns in one of the many hallways of Saint Paul's Central Hospital on her way to the Geriatrics and Gerontology Department where she used to read to the bedridden elderly and help with baths and sheet changes. Mathilda Burns had just finished a twelve-hour shift and was going home, but she wanted to tell Mrs. Brennan about the twins born the day before, about the tragic death of their teenage mother, about how she had never seen two such beautiful babies in her entire life, what eyes, what skin, what perfection!
Later, already with one foot out of the hospital, apropos of nothing, Alice remembered the little orphans. Were they still in the nursery? Were they really so beautiful, as Mathilda had told her? She would just peek at them, just out of curiosity. She asked the nurse on duty about them, and looked in the direction her finger was pointing. They were sleeping serenely, side by side, he dressed in blue, she in pink. They were absolutely identical. Their heads were tilted so that they were touching as if they were Siamese. Their hair was almost white, so blond, their skin was milky white, their mouths resembled two small strawberries, their bodies were thin and long.
"They're going to be tall when they grow up," Alice prophesied.
The twins, christened Agnes and Joshua, were welcomed to the Brennan home with great excitement and joy. Gabriel had been somewhat reluctant at first and had been persuaded by Alice's insistence, but what sealed the deal was undoubtedly the sight of the little orphans, who seemed to be looking in each other's direction, even though they were in separate cradles. He had never seen such beautiful babies in all his life, what eyes, what skin, what perfection! They had been blessed by God with two of his angels.
They were little trouble, even if multiplied by two, yet the Brennan couple could not complain of sleepless nights. Agnes and Joshua would fall asleep at dusk and only wake up in the morning. They cried in chorus when they were hungry or when they soiled their diapers. They suffered from tummy aches and earaches in perfect simultaneity, as if they were two versions of the same being, one male and the other female. They babbled their first words in unison and the inaugural steps were taken together. They learned their letters and their numbers with the same speed and ease, as well as the rudiments of living in society, filling their parents with immeasurable pride at the good manners they demonstrated in the presence of other adults. Before going to bed, they knelt at the foot of the bed and recited the Our Father, just as their mother had taught them.
With each passing year, the teachers never tired of praising them and promising them a bright academic future, invariably ending their appreciation with a note of concern about their lack of sociability. They didn't play with anyone and barely exchanged two words with their schoolmates. Although not hostile, they built an invisible wall around themselves, an impassable barrier between them and the world, not in the way autistic children do, but deliberately and consciously. The parents regarded all this with tenderness mixed with apprehension, convinced that with advancing age the twins would become more sociable. Alice liked to watch them playing outside her bedroom door, and it was not uncommon for them to abruptly fall silent when they noticed her presence.
They slept in the same bed until they were nine years old when their mother saw fit to let them each have their own room. But the brothers protested, shouting at the top of their voices that they didn't want to be separated, they who were always so phlegmatic. The father was furious at his children's insubordination, threatening them with belt in hand, vociferous as he could, but Agnes and Joshua remained unyielding. The Brennans had no choice but to reverse their decision. Alice did, however, manage to convince them to sleep in separate beds.
At age eleven, Agnes and Joshua were still as inseparable and reserved as ever, perhaps even more withdrawn. Sometimes Alice had the uncomfortable feeling of sharing a home with two strangers with sphinx-like faces, behind whom lurked a world of unfathomable thoughts and ideas. They had no friendships whatsoever and seemed to have no interest other than books.
Outside school hours, the Brennans moved from their duplex in Saint Paul to their farmhouse on the outskirts. If their father or mother urged them to leave the house and go for a walk in the neighborhood, they would be seen soon afterward sitting in the shade of a tree, their faces covered with books with obscure titles. They received all kinds of books in the mail, some of them with strange Latin names like Liber Investigationis, Ars Magna et Ultima, or De Lapide Philosophico. They displayed an intelligence that did not match their young age, and of the two it was Agnes who had taken on the role of spokesperson for the duo.
On the eve of her seventh birthday, Agnes wanted to know if Alice had met her real parents. She hadn't planned to have this conversation with her children until they were older, but then she was forced to tell them the truth. She asked her daughter if anyone had told them that they were adopted, maybe she had heard someone at school talking about it, but Agnes said no, no one had told her anything, she had only to look at Gabriel and Alice to realize that they were not her biological parents.
At school, they had excellent grades and exemplary behavior, except for a few incidents that caused them to drop out of Sunday school and Moral and Religion classes. Problems with Professor Sanderson, a former seminarian with a pronounced stutter, began in the very first lessons, with Agnes referring to the subject as 'Immoral Irreligion'. Wanting to know what her favorite subject was then, Agnes muttered:
The teacher asked her to repeat it, after much stammering, and Agnes raised her voice, saying:
In one of the exams, Agnes finished her essay with a syllogism:
'God is infinite. Infinity equals zero. God is equal to zero.'
In Sunday school, Agnes became involved in violent arguments with the priest who was ministering to them. On one occasion, she was asked to narrate the story of Adam and Eve in her own words. Agnes stood up, cleared her voice, and said:
"If God created Eve from a rib of Adam, it means that they both shared the same DNA. Since Eve was a clone of Adam, she was similar in every way to him. In other words, not only were Adam and Eve twin brothers, but they were also homosexual twin brothers who committed incest..."
After many reprimands, the straw that broke the priest's patience was when Joshua ("et tu, Joshua?"), usually quiet and not given to polemics, declared that, in his opinion, the Antichrist, being the reverse of Christ, would necessarily be a woman in everything equivalent to the Messiah.
Just as Alice had prophesied, Agnes and Joshua were tall for their age, she being imperceptibly taller than he. Joshua had sharper facial features than his sister and slightly darker hair. Other than that, they shared protruding cheekbones, crimson lips, soft white skin, and delicate gestures and mannerisms imbued with shyness. Their stringy bodies, devoid of superfluous fatty tissues, were slender, their shapely legs leading to thin waists topped by long arms. Hormones dictated that the pubes of both started to be discreetly covered by a thin mantle of soft, golden hair. In Agnes, small round breasts with pointed nipples surrounded by pink aureolas were emerging, and Joshua displayed a perfectly formed and functional sex. As much as the laws of men did not coincide with those of Nature, they were both capable of generating offspring.
Along with the physical mutations, their relationship was also undergoing changes. They, who knew each other as they knew themselves, now found themselves overcome by extreme modesty about their own nakedness, and especially about the nakedness of the other. They took turns getting dressed and undressed, or back to back, and at the slightest glimpse of the tiniest bit of bare skin other than their own, they would turn their heads, reddening their cheeks with a violent blush. At night, they were tormented by thoughts and dreams that could condemn them to eternal hellish flames. They could barely sleep, sometimes waking up at dawn sweating and with wet underwear.
The situation dragged on painfully for months, growing more and more unbearable until Agnes took the initiative one hot summer night. Joshua was on the borderline between sleep and vigil when he felt his sister's body against his, sipping her warm breath and entwining her tongue in his. Agnes was naked from the waist down, and Joshua felt his hand become slippery as he touched the hot vulva that was offering itself to him, at the same time as his sister ripped off her panties and took his erect penis in her hand. The thin membrane of skin that attested to his purity broke, bathing her brother's sex in blood, which slid easily into her. Agnes lay on top of Joshua, biting her lips, trying to suppress a moan of pain and pleasure lodged in her throat that might give them away.
Their love had not stopped growing ever since, a love that had always united them, but which only now they knew how to express. They had the distinct impression, untranslatable in words, that their love had always existed, resisting the passage of time and the inevitability of death, and this impression grew stronger night after night in the intimacy of their bedroom. They knew how to satisfy themselves as if they had always done so, and the notion that they were committing a terrible sin, before God, before their parents, and before society, had the effect of exacerbating their sexual excitement. The secret they were hiding made their relationship more impregnable than ever.
During the day, their behavior was no different from usual, although it was difficult for them to keep their hands off each other and they took every opportunity to caress each other. With their parents away from home, busy with their businesses and errands in Saint Paul, they dared to do in the open what they only did under cover of complicit darkness, the sunlight falling on their skins where thousands of tiny golden hairs shone like tiny suns. They abandoned themselves in each other's arms every night until dawn, and although they hardly slept, they radiated freshness and vitality, as if their love possessed regenerative and analeptic properties.
So intoxicated were they with happiness that it did not occur to them that the normal result of a sexual relationship is pregnancy, although they regarded Agnes' increasingly dilated delay of menstruation without concern. In time, it even seemed natural to them that Agnes was pregnant. The embryonic being she carried in her womb would be the ultimate expression of their undying love.
The twins knew they had to flee the house. It was not hard to imagine what Alice and Gabriel's reaction would be upon discovering that not only had their children committed incest, but the abominable fruit of their sinful union was on the way. If these facts became public knowledge, the scandal would feed the front pages of the tabloids for weeks, forever tarnishing the reputation of the illustrious member of the Opus Christi, recipient of the Grand Order of Saint Paul, and his philanthropic wife. They would surely attempt damage control by forcing Agnes to have an abortion and sending Joshua away, perhaps to Military College in Saint Andrew, giving the result of their unholy love up for adoption.
Over the course of months, the brothers gathered money and planned their escape, studying the best way to disappear from the city without a trace. Taking one of the family cars was too risky, the train or bus offered less chance of being caught. Once the day was decided, it was agreed that they would leave everything prepared so that they could escape after dinner. They had to be at the Rail Terminal by midnight to catch the train to Saint Andrew.
On the day of departure, Agnes woke up strongly nauseated. She walked out of her room, so as not to disturb Joshua, and locked herself in the bathroom, her hands and knees resting on the cold floor, her head stuck in the toilet, and a burning sensation in her esophagus. Alice got up soon after. She was a light sleeper. She walked down the hall, barefoot, and opened the bathroom door.
"Agnes, do you feel sick?" she asked, rushing towards her daughter.
"It's nothing. It's just something I ate for dinner that upset my stomach. I feel better now."
As soon as she finished saying this, Agnes vomited again, regurgitating small amounts of gastric juice.
"I'll call a doctor."
"No," said Agnes, raising her voice exaggeratedly. "No need, I'll be fine in a minute. Go back to bed. I'll just wash my face, and I'll go too..."
Agnes' harsh tone surprised Alice, especially as it contrasted with her weakened appearance. Agnes rose to her feet with difficulty, barely able to stand, her legs shaking.
"Go away!" ordered her daughter.
Alice was almost getting ready to obey her when a thought crossed her mind, an absurd idea that she tried to reject, her daughter was practically a child.
"Sorry, Agnes, I'm just worried about you, that's all. Come on, come to bed. If you're not better tomorrow, we'll call a doctor. All right?"
She put her arm around her shoulder and ran her hand across her forehead, wiping the sweat that covered her. She lowered the toilet seat and made her sit up, stroking her untidy hair. Agnes became calmer. Alice knelt beside her, speaking softly.
"Is your stomach feeling better?"
Alice laid her lips, lightly, on Agnes's shoulder, and caressed her belly.
On their way to the Terminal, Joshua was gripping the steering wheel with both hands, concentrating on respecting the speed limit. Agnes was curled up in the passenger seat, looking through the glass as if mesmerized by the bright lights of the city. The alert would only be given the next morning, with the arrival of the maids around seven o'clock. In the meantime, it was convenient not to be pulled over by the police. A teenager behind the wheel of a top-of-the-line Mercedes would result in their arrest, the impounding of the car, and lead the authorities to the Brennans' duplex. Inside the train, Joshua was finally able to relax. He pressed Agnes against his body, breathing in that perfume that was so familiar. When the train started moving, he closed his eyes and tried to process the events of that night.
Around midnight, he was awakened by angry voices, and sat up in bed, shivering. Was it a nightmare? No, it was not. He got up, without turning on the light, and staggered down the hall. In the bathroom, Agnes was crying, surrounded by her parents. They kept asking her who the father of the child was, Alice, through tears and sobs, and Gabriel, his face flushed and belt in his hand, vociferating furiously, saliva glistening at the corner of his lips.
"Tell us who did this to you!"
"Please, Agnes, we just want to help you. The person who did this to you must be punished, you're just a child..."
The pronounced curve of Agnes' belly had confirmed Alice's suspicions, but now she was sorry she had gone straight to tell her husband. Gabriel was beside himself.
"Dad, it's me."
The three turned to see the squalid figure of Joshua looming in the doorway, his face strangely grim. The sentence, uttered in a low voice, had filled the small bathroom space with faint reverberations reflected off the tiles.
"Joshua, go back to your room..." said Alice to him."
"It's me," he reiterated.
"It's you, what?" asked Gabriel.
"The father of your grandson."
Alice fell to her knees, her palms facing the ceiling, her features painted with terror and repulsion, tearfully invoking the name of the Lord, begging for His forgiveness. Gabriel, less mystical, his face red with anger, threw his belt at Joshua, striking him in the face with the metal buckle.
Seeing him prostrate, Gabriel directed his vengeful fury at Agnes and thrice slammed the belt into her arms, which she had instinctively raised to protect herself. Joshua stood up in one leap and snatched the belt from his father's hands, who stared at him, startled by the violence of his gesture and the terrible expression on his bloodied face. Wrapping the belt around Gabriel's neck, Joshua positioned himself behind him, lifting him up and holding him in the air for what seemed like an eternity.
Finally, he set the inanimate body down, one would say carefully, as if afraid of hurting his dead father. Alice watched her husband die with her mouth open in a silent scream, her eyes mirroring the horror that had invaded her, a stream of urine flowing from between her legs onto the bathroom floor. She fled down the hall, stumbled, and collapsed. Her son followed her, walking slowly. On top of the telephone table was a lamp. Blood gushed from Alice's skull in irregular gulps, an image that brought to Joshua's memory the description of one of the Biblical plagues.
After calming Agnes down, Joshua took her to her room, got dressed and helped his sister get dressed, and filled two backpacks with clothes. From the safe in the living room, he pulled out two wads of bills, and five minutes later they were on their way to the Terminal.
Agnes and Joshua found refuge in the decrepit premises of a disused factory, one of many that were part of the now-defunct industrial complex in Saint Andrew. It was hard to tell what had once been produced there, the mechanical fossils inside offering no clues. The factory office was empty and in relatively good condition. Most of the glass was intact and the bathroom still had running water, a functional sink, and a toilet.
Exploring the vicinity, Joshua discovered an old mattress, thrown into a ditch by the former owner. Venturing out of the complex, he crossed the highway that bounded it to the north and managed to snatch two blankets from a clothesline. On the way back, he went to a gas station and bought water and sandwiches. There they felt safe, like Adam and Eve in a post-industrial paradise.
Upon arriving in Saint Andrew, the couple had gotten a room at a roadside motel. The desk clerk had barely lifted his eyes from the newspaper, collecting payment equivalent to a week's stay and handing them the room key without truly looking at them. Better this way.
On the second night since their arrival, they were glued to the television screen following the latest developments in the Brennan case. The businessman and his wife had been found dead in the duplex they owned in Saint Paul. One of their cars, a silver Mercedes, had been taken away and the whereabouts of the couple's children, twins Agnes and Joshua, were unknown. Gabriel had been hanged by his own belt and his wife had suffered a head injury from a lamp. The car had meanwhile been discovered in the Terminal's parking lot. One of the most plausible scenarios, according to the SPTV news anchor, suggested that the twins had been kidnapped by the Brennan killers, although there had been no ransom demand. The other scenario, a more far-fetched and gruesome one, blamed the children for the death of their own parents, followed by their escape in the silver Mercedes and its abandonment in the Terminal park. The police were asking anyone with any information that might lead to the location of the twins to call one of the lines set up especially for the case.
Agnes turned off the television, looked at Joshua, and the two began to pack their clothes into their backpacks. They walked on and on, staying away from main roads and residential neighborhoods until they reached the industrial complex. They knew they couldn't stay there forever, especially not with a child due to be born in a few months, but while they stayed there they spent the days and nights exchanging caresses and talking about the future, a radiant future full of happiness and love. Agnes' belly was growing day by day, as well as her appetite, surely a sign that her child would be strong, healthy, and even more beautiful than his parents. He would be an exceptional creature, destined to achieve the most remarkable feats, leaving an indelible mark on the world.
The Hallstrom comet was crossing the dark skies of Saint Andrew's from the east, having made the inhabitants of Saint Vincent raise their eyes to the firmament, concluding its decade-and-a-half trajectory through the void of outer space.
Meanwhile, Agnes was being pushed inside the Central Hospital's Obstetric Emergency Department. She had woken up with an unbearable pain in her belly that was too big for her frail body and a damp feeling in the middle of her legs. She shook her brother with her bloodstained hand, asking him to take her to the hospital.
"Joshua, I'm scared... something's not right... with our son..."
"Calm down, Agnes, everything will be fine," he tried to reassure her, unconvinced of what he was saying, frightened by the amount of blood staining his sister's legs.
Joshua picked her up on his lap and carried her to the highway that bordered the complex to the north. There was no traffic. Maybe they were all watching the comet, the same comet that had announced his and Agnes' birth, as their mother used to tell them.
They crossed the highway and Joshua laid Agnes down in a pile of herbs, promising not to delay. A terrible scream of agony from the mother-to-be made him hurry his pace. After five minutes he returned in a car he had stolen from a convenience store. He carefully placed Agnes in the back seat and drove off at full speed.
"Don't leave me, Joshua," she pleaded, lying on a stretcher in the emergency room of Saint Andrew's Central Hospital.
"I'll come back for you later. Don't tell them your real name. If we get caught, they'll separate us and take our son away from us. I love you, Agnes, I love you very much..."
A nurse and a doctor bumped into Joshua and pushed the stretcher down a hallway. He walked back to the entrance, staring at the spot where he had lost sight of his sister. Two uniformed policemen were watching the ER, and one of them studied Joshua with lingering interest. He touched his colleague on the shoulder and pointed at him, whispering something to him. The other looked at the teenager, nodding his head in agreement.
"Hey, you there!" shouted one of them, with authority.
In a single movement, Joshua spun on his heels and started to run.
"Patton, call for backup, I'm in pursuit of the suspect," said the other agent, drawing his gun.
He ran as fast as he could, getting a good head start on the cop, who still wouldn't leave his trail. He ran through narrow, dark streets, climbing over park benches and bushes, trying to lose him, but the chase came to an end at a dead end. Joshua tried to turn back, being barred by the police officer, gun in hand.
Just as he was about to raise his arms and surrender without offering resistance, he had a strange sensation of vertigo. An oppression in his chest prevented him from breathing as if his soul was being sucked out of his body. He felt something breaking inside him, something fundamental on a cellular level. Exhaling his last breath simultaneously with Agnes, he hid his hand in his jacket pocket and made a sudden movement. The policeman reacted immediately, firing a sharp bullet that pierced his heart.
At the hospital, the cries of two children, a boy and a girl, echoed in an aseptic room that held within it the mystery of death and the miracle of life, while Joshua fell backward, landing heavily on his back amidst the garbage and filth, his eyes wide with astonishment reflecting the fiery tail of the Hallstrom comet.