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Image: Lolostock, Canva

Image: Lolostock, Canva

It lies on the crisp hospital sheet, absolutely grotesque. Dr Arnold tells us it’s called a ‘fetus in fetu’. Our son’s unformed twin. Most likely joined via the umbilical cord in gestation, now just a jumble of elephantine bone and skin, about the size of an apricot. Three canines – there’s no denying they’re teeth – protrude in a jagged line across its circumference. When we first saw it after the operation, there was a shock of hair pressed to its side, still moist from having Thomas’s stomach juices washed away. It looked like the slick of hair and scum drawn from a shower’s plughole. I gagged, felt nausea water my mouth. But the hair, the colour of wheat and nearly ten centimetres long, is dry now, almost glossy. It looks like her hair. Like Hannah’s.

‘It’s been living in Tom’s abdomen,’ says the doctor, glancing over to where Thomas lies asleep, in recovery. ‘He should be good to go in a couple of days. No more tummy upsets. No more vomiting.’

‘What do you mean “living”?’ asks John.

Dr Arnold purses her pale lips, considers what to say. ‘It’s been growing inside Tom’s stomach, growing with him.’

‘Like a parasite?’ The distaste on his face the same as when he changes nappies.

Dr Arnold bobs her head side to side, a little like the bobblehead dog we used to have on the dash of the Holden. ‘Yes. I guess so. A parasite.’

‘What will you do with it?’ I ask her.

The doctor bends down, scrutinises the small mass. ‘They’re extremely rare, you know.’ She’s far more interested in it now than in our son. Her blonde hair is drawn back with a navy-blue ribbon tied in a bow. I wonder if she has a neat row of ribbons arranged on her dresser, a rainbow to choose from according to her outfit. She says, ‘I don’t think it’ll be destroyed. I’m sure the research team would like to have a gander at it.’

‘But I’d like to keep it.’ I haven’t given the words any thought. I watch surprise lift the doctor’s brow, the recoil of my husband. ‘It was part of Thomas. You said it yourself.’

I watch surprise lift the doctor’s brow, the recoil of my husband.

‘Yeah, as a parasite, Shelly. Get it together.’ John smirks towards the doctor.

At least it survived, I think.

I’m wrapping salad sandwiches in the tuckshop when I get the call to say I can finally pick up the twin. That’s what I’ve started to call it in my head. But not to John. He’s already joked that he wouldn’t be surprised if I give the parasite a name. He was only half joking, though. There was contempt in his voice, too, like when he points out the flab that mushrooms over the waist of my jeans, or when he catches me watching Home and Away.

I want to peel off my disposable gloves, shove the squares of sandwich paper over to the next mum, but it’s nearly eleven o’clock, time to deliver the baskets of food. The other mums already think I’m a bit of a cow, a bit stand-offish, but it’s just that I don’t have the time or money to hang out with them. I listen to their talk of trips to Fiji or Melbourne, and the packages they receive from stores in the USA, but what do I have to add? The only reason I’m here is to see Thomas’s smile when he hands me a sticky coin for a fluorescent iceblock.

I have to pick the twin up from the hospital’s pathology centre. The woman on reception pulls the jar from a zip-lock bag, and the twin is awash in formalin.

‘What a gruesome little creature, huh?’ She laughs. ‘I bet your son was glad to be rid of it.’

I’m sorry that it’s not dry anymore, that the length of wheat hair is no longer glossy. The hair is darker in the jar, like seaweed, floating around its host.

When I arrive home I’m not quite sure what to do with it. I place the jar on the deck table, and the formalin takes on the bottle-green of the table’s plastic surface. Thomas is delighted with it when John collects him from school. He shakes the jar, so that the teeth clank against the glass. I want to stop him, but John’s with him, and they are both studying it like it’s a science experiment. I watch them through the kitchen window as I prepare a salad for dinner. I follow the recipe I found in a magazine. I have the rocket and haloumi, but not the pomegranate. My salad looks a little bereft without the gleaming ruby seeds, but who on earth can afford a pomegranate at four dollars a pop?

‘Can I take it to school?’ asks Thomas.

‘Of course, mate,’ says John. ‘How cool will it be to tell everyone this is the twin you gobbled up in Mummy’s tummy?’

John grabs Thomas’s stomach, wobbles it, until Thomas squeals. But then John sees my face.

He comes to my side, rests his hand on my shoulder. It’s reassuring, but has weight too. ‘It’s not real, you know. It was never a real … you know.’

I shrug off his hand, slice the haloumi. ‘I think we should bury it.’

‘Bury it?’

‘Yeah.’ I think of the flat grounds of the crematorium. The straggly rosebushes, the square plaques. ‘Yeah. In the backyard maybe.’

‘Like the guinea pig?’ He’s grinning at me now.

‘Yeah. Maybe.’

John calls Thomas in for a bath, and while the chops are on the griller, I return to the deck, pick up the jar.

I stare at it for a long while and, not for the first time, wonder if it was a boy or a girl. Its hair is not as dark as Thomas’s, so for that reason alone I think maybe it was a girl. Another daughter I’ve been robbed of.

Its hair is not as dark as Thomas’s, so for that reason alone I think maybe it was a girl. Another daughter I’ve been robbed of.

For a few months after Hannah was born I didn’t want her. Before that, when I was pregnant, I thought I was ready for children. Thought life with a baby was going to be like in those nappy advertisements, full of a carefree love as soft and sweet as talcum powder. But then the pulsing wound that surged against stitches, the sore bosoms as taut as balloons. Splinters of resentment lodged in my heart for that poor baby, whose cheeks held the blush of a seashell, whose earlobes were as velvety as a peach. I wasn’t prepared for how truly potty I became from lack of sleep. It took a while for my skittling thoughts to gather, to grasp the fact that I wasn’t Shelly anymore. I’d shifted. I had become Hannah’s mum.

I can’t sleep well again. I listen to the clock tick, to John’s snoring. I lie still, let sweat prickle my scalp. But at least I’m not in pain anymore, not physical pain like after the car accident. I should ask my doctor for more sleeping pills, but I’ve always felt like that’s cheating, like I’m trying to shut out memories of her.

I also spend hours wondering what the twin would have looked like had she survived. Would she have had Hannah’s thin face, or Thomas’s more sturdy features? Hannah’s hazel eyes or Thomas’s blue ones? And I fret about what to do if we ever move house. Will we dig up the twin from where we buried her in the yard?

After Thomas had his day of show and tell, John took me to Bunnings to choose a plant to bury the twin under. He wouldn’t let me get a citrus, said it was gross, said he wouldn’t eat the fruit from the parasite’s tree. And, anyway, it was too expensive. So I chose something called a plectranthus, which had little bell-shaped flowers in Angel Pink. I thought that was appropriate. It was on special for eight dollars.

The soil in our yard is dry and stubborn. I chose a spot behind the mulberry tree, and my little garden spade chiselled against rocks and roots, but I couldn’t ask John for help. Eventually, I had a hole deep enough. I inspected the twin one last time, a swirl of flesh and hair, and then nestled the jar deep into the ground. I pushed the dirt back into the hole, leaving enough room to plant the plectranthus. And then I leaned over it, my palms resting against the ground. I didn’t cry.

I inspected the twin one last time, a swirl of flesh and hair, and then nestled the jar deep into the ground.


We take Thomas back to Dr Arnold for a check-up. She’s wearing a purple ribbon this time, to match the pinstripe in her blouse. She’s pleased with Thomas’s progress, pleased he’s put on a little weight.

‘Did you ever pick up that specimen we found in his stomach?’ she asks us.

I nod.

‘Did they tell you it was just a teratoma, after all? Not a fetus in fetu.’

I can only stare. It’s John who asks her what she means.

‘It can be difficult to tell them apart, you see,’ she says. ‘A teratoma is a tumour. It’s made up of various tissues, which is why it can resemble a fetus in fetu. But when pathology had a look at the mass we found in Thomas’s stomach, they couldn’t detect a spine or other organ matter. So they think it was only a teratoma.’

My mouth is open, but no words come. The doctor pushes her hand across the surface of her desk towards me. ‘Don’t worry, Shelly. It was benign. Nothing to worry about.’

‘But the teeth? The hair?’

Her head bobs from side to side. ‘Yes. Common.’

I smile. I don’t know how to respond. There’s an uncertain frown on John’s face. Thomas flicks through a Bluey book.

On the drive home I look out the window, squish as close to the passenger door as possible. The tips of my ears feel hot, as I wait for John to tease me. I buried a tumour in the backyard.

As soon as we pull into the driveway, I walk through to the back and unfurl the hose from its rack. I turn it on full blast and yank it over to the plectranthus. Its plump leaves wilt under the midday sun and the flowers have taken on a pulpy brown tinge.

I need to soften the soil, dig it up. The water pools on top of the tough dirt, refuses to sink in.

‘Shelly, what’re you doing?’

I stare at John. I can see he’s on the edge. He teeters between sarcasm and concern. But I feel as hard as the soil, as barren. ‘I’m digging up the teratoma.’

‘You don’t have to do that, honey. Just leave it.’

I shake my head. ‘No. I don’t need the reminder.’

‘The reminder of what?’

The sun’s rays sting the skin at the back of my neck. ‘Of what I’ve lost.’

‘But, baby, you never had it in the first place.’

I fall onto my knees and tear at the soil, rip my fingernails into it. The soil is damp at first, but dry beneath. I rest back on my haunches. My shoulders are shaking.

I’m laughing.

This is a short story from Mirandi Riwoe’s The Burnished Sun. The Burnished Sun is available now at your local independent bookseller