Michael Chin

For all the smoke and mirrors of a circus, there are some true talents. See the contortionist bend her body in half, creased the wrong way, farther than you’d ever imagine the human spine could collapse.

It looks like it would hurt.

There’s no faking that.

She performs under the name Brenda, but those who know her well understand that was actually her sister’s name.

The Contortionist only started to learn her craft after Brenda took ill.

That first bend, less art than experiment, saw The Contortionist fold a calf over behind her neck. She didn’t get it on the first try. But while her parents were off for a series of doctor’s appointments, first in town, then out of town, then overnight, The Contortionist had nothing but time to practice.

She resented Brenda then.

Brenda was bedridden when she got home. While The Contortionist didn’t appreciate having to take her sister’s turn over and over at washing dishes and cleaning the bathroom, it was hard not to pity Brenda. She grew pale past white, skin translucent enough to see purple underneath. Skinnier by the day, and not in a flattering way, because she’d always been rail thin. Now she looked frail. Breakable.

The first lesson in contortionism is to understand that the body won’t break. To trust it will bend, as long as you add pressure by measured degrees. As long as you stretch. As long as you practice.

The Contortionist put both legs behind her head and walked on her hands. It made Brenda laugh.

The Contortionist walked, bent forward, head between her ankles, so that it was difficult to process whether she were walking forward or backward. Brenda looked on from sunken eye sockets, with something like awe.

Brenda had lost her hair by the time The Contortionist got her hands on a straitjacket.

Brenda was restricted to communication by writing on a steno pad, and she was weak enough to struggle with tearing off pages. Hardly strong enough to manage the pen in her fingers.

The Contortionist asked how she was doing.

Brenda wrote, Trapped.

So The Contortionist shifted gears. Brenda was no longer the audience she prepared to perform in front of, but her co-conspirator in plotting her act. Brenda wrote her own theories about how to slip the straitjacket, or sometimes simple encouragement, like when The Contortionist cried, to keep going.

The Contortionist owes her career to Brenda — she’ll offer that much to the newspaper reporters who drop in on the circus town to town. Contortionism may have remained an idle interest were it not for the prospect of sisters disappearing together.

Case in point, The Contortionist’s act always ends the same way. She folds herself into a box that seems too small to contain a life. That’s the last any audience sees of her, pulling the lid shut beneath the spotlight, wrapping herself in darkness before the stagehands carry her away.