“For nine years the quintuplets lived in a sort of theme park know as "Quintland", to which about three million tourists came to observe them through a one-way screen. The little girls became a major visitor attraction for the province of Ontario, bringing in an estimated $250 million dollars per year in today's dollars (The Dionnes by Ellie Tesher).
As the sisters would later write in the book We Were Five, "There was so much more money than love in our existence. It took a long time to realize what it did to us all."
-Women in Canadian History
Roger found the postcards on their American Tour of ’74.
At some kitschy little gas station in the middle of nowhere between Memphis and Oklahoma City, when he was scanning the aisles for the barest hint of some proper booze (not just that cheap stuff left on the bus), he got stuck on a little merry-go-round of sepia postcards at the front of the store. Something about them coaxed him over, until he was studying them absentmindedly, wondering what drew him to them in the first place, his fingers playing idly over the glossy sheets of cardstock.
It was near the bottom where he saw it, in a series on American Wonders: The Amazingly Identical Taylor Quintuplets.
Five little boys staring at an off-screen cameraman with deadened smiles, they could have passed for mass-produced dolls in the way they looked completely and utterly identical, the only difference being the colors of their outfits that were lost to the sands of time (A lie. April was always blue, May was always orange, June was always yellow, July was forever green and August was red). Perfectly coiffed blonde hair, big blue eyes, chubby angelic features, a dimple on the left cheek and a name boldly stenciled on the front of their matching polos as well as on the hems of their tiny shorts. Named for five consecutive months of the year (the polite equivalent of calling them 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
April, May, June, July and August Taylor.
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with brittle porcelain-doll smiles.
They were born in late July of 1949, or so the postcard exclaimed, but they should have been born in late October (if they’d been carried to term). Born more than three months premature, it left them fighting for their lives for a very long time. They only weighed about ten pounds between all of them at birth. And all the nurses at the West Norfolk & Lynn Hospital, at Exton's Road King's Lynn were so surprised at the five tiny miracles brought to life in their backyard that their picture still hung up in the same hospital ward today.
The quintuplets were sold to a sideshow in Vermont just a few weeks shy of their first birthday, by a drunk and abusive father who blatantly understood the monetary value of his five-time miracle of nature.
They were the first set of monozygotic (meaning that they came from one egg that split and kept splitting) all-male quintuplets to survive birth.
And the second set of quintuplets to survive in general.
So they grew up in a veritable fish-bowl, being gawked at daily by visitors to the sideshow and made to act like well-trained little monkeys, until they were nearly seven years old. By then, they were blessedly sent back to live with their newly divorced mother and newborn baby sister, but the damage was long done.
The years of ostracizing and lack of individualized care had resulted in issues that would follow the boys for the rest of their lives.
Being born prematurely had damaged April and August’s eyes.
April’s retinopathy was mild and meant that the child would require corrective lens for the rest of his life (that he still refused to wear now, Roger tapped his own pocket absently as the thought crossed his mind… never gonna happen), but poor August was rendered blind by the lack of proper treatment and his eyes would forever shake sightlessly beyond his control.
The woman who came to retrieve them at the train station, harried and wan, with strands of gray-blonde hair falling out of her bun, was their mother. But she was also a circumstantial stranger.
June burst into tears the first time he saw her, August hated the way she smelled and wouldn’t let go of a scowling July to go approach her, while April stood protectively in front of his brothers with his little hands on his round hips. So it was only kiss-up May who went to her and threw his chubby arms around her. The contact she had craved for so many years.
She wept into his downy blonde waves of hair.
“Hello, Miss Mother.”
May was the unspoken leader of the quintuplets, but he was still just as lost as the rest of them.
They were all scarred by those early years in different ways.
April grew up with a dream to be rich and famous in his own right and not that of his spectacular birth. To grow up and leave that sideshow behind him, to never be an Amazingly Identical Taylor Quintuplet again for as long as he lived. To be lauded on his own skills and merit instead of on the circumstances of his birth. He dreamt of being a rockstar, of being a famous drummer.
As he had been drumming all of his life.
He drummed on the soles of his feet as a baby, on the bars of his shared crib. He drummed on his brothers much to their whined annoyance and he learned to pick up the beats and rolls that made up the world around him, the sound of tires on gravel, the heartbeats of his siblings, everything had a steady racing beat and had him stomping along to the rhythm.
But it was August who taught him how to listen for the changes in texture, to have his tap-tap-tapping mean something.
To August, drumming was more than just sound, it was a way to discover the world around him. (That was when April promised to always be his brother’s eyes).
But one should never underestimate the might of tiny August Taylor, he may have been born the smallest and the frailest, but he was always the strongest of the Taylor brood.
Unflinching and unafraid.
Sarah, one of the fortune-tellers at the sideshow used to say August had an dara sealladh, the second sight. Which the other boys had always found strange because August was blind and aside from a few splashes of light and color, saw nothing at all.
Then they saw how strange things always seemed to happen around August. Double yolked eggs, milk that never curdled, butterflies and moths that played peekaboo amid his messy blonde hair.
How he knew things.
Things he had no business knowing the way he did.
The youngest of the brood was also rarely emotional, but one night he burst into tears and rushed into the proper part of the circus, dragging April along with him, to throw himself into the hands of one of the younger acrobats, a boy called Sorrel.
“Your rigging is going to fail and you’re going to fall and break your neck tonight… don’t go up, Sorrel! Don’t go up!” The little boy had sobbed, hiccuping and gasping for air. April had been terrified by the sight of his brother in such a state.
It was only later that he would learn about the curse of Cassandra, the prophetess whose prophecies were true, but that no one ever believed.
Sorrel went up that night and then… he went down.
Circus folk bury their own.
And the quintuplets vowed that when August cried, they would always listen. No matter what. No matter where.
Because August was never wrong.
The same thing held true today. (Roger thought of Gus as a teacher at the little school that he’d started in Liverpool, St. Vincent’s School for Blind and Partially Sighted Children. Teaching Braille and music to a whole new generation of children, who deserved the same opportunities as any other).
May, the second-born, was the unofficial leader of the quintuplets, and always had been. (Roger pressed his thumb directly over the picture of the middle Quin until it nearly broke the seal).
Perfect May Flowers who would grow into a three-time Olympic medalist, two-time Olympic Champion, World Figure Skating Champion, Junior World Figure Skating Champion, European Figure Skating Champion for three years running… And those were just the titles that Roger could remember off the back of his hand. He was sure there were many many many more. At twenty-four May had already revolutionized a sport that World War II had just about destroyed. Britain’s darling little skating champion, a tiny blonde cherub with big blue eyes who sported a temper far worse than Roger’s own and a prideful streak that could’ve sunk the Titanic faster than the iceberg did.
May Taylor was incapable of being wrong or apologizing for his mistakes.
He was unrelenting, inflexible, and clever, using those terrifying qualities to fight tooth-and-nail for his brothers.
May was the reason they never fell apart, no matter how many times their world was torn apart at the seams. May kept the quintuplets together, kept them in line and kept them moving forwards.
He was a hard-ass, yes, but he was their hard-ass. Their only parent when the world had seen it fit to give them only duds.
Roger had seen May crash to the ice in agony and stand up in a single breath to finish a routine with blood dripping down his face. Then bitch endlessly later because he’d lost a point, as he couldn’t throw a triple-axel with blood dripping in his eyes.
If May was the resident hard-ass, then June was the one you went to when you needed a good cry.
June who proudly wore his heart on his sleeve, and was incapable of saying ‘no’ to anyone or knowingly hurting someone’s feelings. He could read his brothers and their emotions like an open book, he always knew when May was pushing himself too hard, or when August didn’t want to ask for help, that July really wasn’t as scary as everyone thought he was, and that April was pulling away more and more as time went on.
And if June Taylor was Yang, light, bright and inquisitive. Then July Taylor was Yin, dark, brooding and calculating. Those two were the polar opposites of each other. June was the human incarnation of a child’s bouncy ball, happy and often found giggling at just about nothing at all. July was an unstable pyromaniac with a gremlin smile that tended to be unsettling, even to his brothers. (All but June, who thought July was hilarious).
“I like fire.” July would whisper thoughtfully as a little boy, staring unblinking at the lighter that he was running over his palm.
June would giggle and clap his hands, as the rest of them backed away in fear. “Spell my name again!”
July would obediently pour bubble-bath into the rough shape of the name June, and then light it on fire.
Roger couldn’t stop staring at the postcards and he couldn’t just leave them there, so he grabbed the whole stack of The Amazingly Identical Taylor Quintuplets, shoved them in his jacket and strode straight out the door, heading back to the bus with July’s stolen lighter burning a hole in his pocket.
He remembered the pictures.
Happy Birthday, Taylor Quins!
The quintuplets posed around a massive birthday cake in sparkly party hats and matching sailor suits, always with the same order of names printed on the bottom. April, May, June, July, August.
Five On A Ride!
The quintuplets posed together on matching tricycles, their little polos bearing the names that they stopped going by at age seven.
Roger whipped out the bloody lighter and lit one end of the first postcard, watching it swallow up August’s face into a melted mess of sepia goo. August who had always preferred to go by Gus and had built a life for himself in Liverpool far far away from the growing pains of the past.
Then the flames swallowed up a frowning July, who chose to go by his middle name of Bram and worked as volcanologist, studying seismic activity somewhere near San Andreas in California. Where he could get paid for being the creepy little pyro that he was. The fire bled into June at the same time as July, whose middle name was Paddington, that and his cuddly nature often got him called Bear by his siblings. Little Bear the artist who went off to study somewhere in New York City and illustrate children’s books.
May was next, May who was now called Shelley after the poet. He was stubborn and didn’t seem to want to burn away like the rest of them. He held on the longest to their Quin bond too, even when April left them. Ozymandias.
April’s visage was the last to burn away.
In actuality, he was the first to go.
To run away and join a rock-band, leaving his brothers broken-hearted and waiting for him to come home. Certain that of everyone who had left them in their lives, that their brother wouldn’t be one of them. Surely April, the endlessly restless Quin would come home… wouldn’t he?
He never did.
Now, April had no idea where half of them were. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d spoken to any of them. That bond that had sustained them during their childhood, when they’d had nothing but one another to retain their sanity, had deserted them.
Roger dropped the last still smoldering pieces of the postcard into the nearby ashtray and shoved the rest back into his jacket, just as his bandmates rejoined him on the bus.
“Christ Rog, did you smoke a whole pack in here?”
For a moment, he was surprised at the sound of his own name.
It was still so jarring that there was no April stenciled across his chest anymore.
[A letter from the surviving Dionne Quintuplets to to Bobbi and Kenny McCaughey, parents of the McCaughey septuplets]
“Dear Bobbi and Kenny,
If we emerge momentarily from the privacy we have sought all our adult lives, it is only to send a message to the McCaughey family. We three would like you to know we feel a natural affinity and tenderness for your children. We hope your children receive more respect than we did. Their fate should be no different from that of other children. Multiple births should not be confused with entertainment, nor should they be an opportunity to sell products.
Our lives have been ruined by the exploitation we suffered at the hands of the government of Ontario, our place of birth. We were displayed as a curiosity three times a day for millions of tourists. To this day we receive letters from all over the world. To all those who have expressed their support in light of the abuse we have endured, we say thank you. And to those who would seek to exploit the growing fame of these children, we say beware.
We sincerely hope a lesson will be learned from examining how our lives were forever altered by our childhood experience. If this letter changes the course of events for these newborns, then perhaps our lives will have served a higher purpose.
Sincerely, Annette, Cecile and Yvonne Dionne”