My husband, Ben Cabrera, had always been fascinated by people from all backgrounds, mainly as subjects for his photography and paintings. For some years before I met him, he had already established an artist/model relationship with a scavenger in the Tondo squatter area of Manila where he had been brought up. The scavenger’s name was “Sabel” and she spent her days wandering through the downtown streets rummaging through gutters, rubbish piles and garbage bins in an endless search for discarded plastic bags that she used as clothes. Every day her appearance changed like an organic sculpture as she added or discarded bags of all hues, shapes and sizes.
Through Ben’s exhibited work “Sabel” had become famous. Everyone knew her and it always struck me as ironic that some of the richest families in the Philippines had paintings of the scavenger “Sabel” hanging on their living room walls.
One day when the circus was in town, Ben suggested we check out the “freak” show. I was hesitant at first, never having visited one before and not knowing quite what to expect. But, out of curiosity, I agreed to go along. And that’s when I met Rudy Santos, the Octopus Man.
I remember clearly my first encounter with Rudy. I remember feeling nauseated, of wanting to turn away my face, run, of wanting to hide and pretend he didn’t exist. I didn’t want to stare at him. I didn’t want to appear rude. I didn’t want to make him feel uncomfortable. Oddly, I realized later, it was only me who felt uneasy for Rudy told me he was used to people staring.
“That’s why I am here, after all, Caroline,“ he said, “for people to look at, to wonder on, to pity and to jeer.”
The Octopus Man was, in fact, only part of a circus side-show in the Philippines. I had already walked through a tent containing Siamese twins, joined at the head, been greeted by their weeping mother, been told by her there was nothing that could be done, no operation that could save them.
I had already met “Little Lucy”, at 18 inches this tiny person told me she was proud of her poster title, “The World‘s Smallest Woman”. She, in turn, had introduced me to a giant, Carlos, all 7 feet 8 inches of him although unfortunately, he said, he could not claim to be the world‘s tallest man. That title , he told me, currently belonged to an American. Carlos the Giant was obviously very fond of Little Lucy. He scooped her up and cradled her gently in the palm of his left hand as though she was a porcelain doll, tickling her tiny ribs with his right index finger to make her laugh. And when he placed her back on the floor beside me he did so with great care, making sure she didn’t fall. Little Lucy reached up, took me by the hand and led me to her “boudoir”. In contrast to the other room where Little Lucy had to be picked up and placed on the sofa, here everything was in miniature – chairs, dressing table, bed, all handcrafted to suit her diminutive size. I had no choice but to sit on the floor. I was not sure at that moment whether I even wanted to stay.
Little Lucy saw my discomfort immediately, felt me searching for a way out. Her tiny hand pointed to the tent flap.
“There,” she said, “you can leave if you want.”
She smiled at me.
“But I would like you to stay as I want you to meet my friend, Rudy.”
It seems I had no choice so I smiled back.
“It’s OK really,” I tried to sound more confident than I felt. “It’s just that…”
“I know,” she nodded, “you’ve never done this before?”
I had to admit it was my first visit to any “freak” show. And now here I was backstage meeting the actual “freaks”. Just the word “freak” upset me. Didn’t it upset her, I asked.
“I’m used to it, ” she replied. “I probably don’t think of it the same way as you do. And, anyway, what else would I do?”
I had to agree there were few options open for someone like Little Lucy.
“I could sit at home, hide from the world, feel sorry for myself.” She was answering her own question. “Or I could be part of this family, seek attention, have people look at me, talk about me, photograph me and, perhaps, “ she winked, “end up on television and become famous.”
“It’s possible,” I answered, “but would you want that?”
“Carlos the Giant was on television once. He liked it. He said I should go on with him next time.” She laughed, a tinkling high-pitched laugh. “But I don’t think my mother would let me – and my little sister would be very jealous!”
Her laugh was contagious, I found myself joining in, feeling more relaxed. “Freaks”, it seemed, had a sense of humour, something I’d never even thought about before. I was startled and somewhat ashamed by my reaction. For why should they be any different from us? Why should they not love, laugh, cry, sense, feel and live like us? After all, the only reason they had to join a circus side-show or a “freak” show was to make an honest living like the rest of us, not to depend on others to support them.
“Shall we go meet Rudy?” Little Lucy’s voice interrupted my thoughts. She jumped down from her chair and walked towards me. Taking my hand she drew me up off the dirt floor and I followed her out of the tent.
“Who is he, this Rudy?” I asked as we strolled across the grass, passing tents on either side of us.
“Rudy? Oh, he’s the Octopus Man,” she smiled, waving her hand at a male torso, sitting propped up by pillows against the wheels of a dilapidated caravan.
“Bring your friend round to meet me, Lucy,” the torso shouted to our retreating backs.
Lucy turned, waved again, “Later, Ricky, we’re off to see Rudy right now!”
I soon discovered that either I had to slow down my normal walking pace or Little Lucy had to run in order to keep up with me. I decided on the former, after all, she was supposed to be leading the way. I finally paced it to take one step to her four. She giggled when she saw me concentrating.
“I don’t mind running,” she said, “it’s good for the figure. We, little people, tend to put on weight easily, you know.”
Again, something else I’d never thought of. I had already learned a lot this day, I told her, and there would be many more lessons, I felt sure, by the end of the day – humility, compassion, respect and stepping outside one‘s natural comfort zone.
“Oh, Caroline, you sound so serious,” she mimicked,. “Life is one long lesson, didn’t you know? Just remember to laugh whenever you can. That’s what I do.”
Little Lucy what a plucky lady you are, I thought. And aloud I asked, “How many Little Lucys are there in the world?” It seemed to me that every freak show had their only Little Lucy.
“Oh many,” she giggled, twisting her long dark hair in ringlets around her fingers, “and I’m in contact with most of them…they call me the original but I‘m not really…“ She looked up at me, “Guess how old I am?”
Now, this was something I hadn’t considered. How old could she be? By her size, she would only be two or three, a mere toddler. By her looks, she could be in her teens. By her coquettishness, she could be in her twenties. And, by her wisdom, she could be a wise old woman. It was impossible to tell. I shrugged my shoulders, nonplussed.
“Come on, guess!” she commanded, enjoying herself immensely. “You must have some idea!”
“Not a clue,” I said and told her the reasons I found it hard.
“Just a little guess….please,” she pleaded.
“Well, let‘s see,” I frowned, “25?”
Little Lucy laughed out loud. She shouted to an elderly woman bent double over a laundry tub.
“Hey, Beatriz,” she shouted, “my friend here thinks I’m 25!”
The old woman turned. I expected her to straighten up but she didn’t. She shouted back, her eyes staring not at Little Lucy but at the ground at her feet. I realized then Beatriz must have a crippling spinal disability and be unable to stand up straight. Her whole life was spent looking at the ground.
“What does your friend know about age?” Beatriz laughed, “What does your friend know about suffering? What does your friend know about anything?” She turned back to the laundry tub, plunging her hands into the frothy water.
“Beatriz is not an old woman,” Little Lucy whispered, “simply a defeated one. She’s only 38 but has lived on the street all her life. Her parents didn’t want her. Her family didn’t want her. Her friends didn’t want her. Nobody wanted her. So she came here, only a few months ago. Now she’s one of us.”
I looked back at Beatriz. I was glad she had found a home with people who cared.
“So, how old are you?” I asked.
“The same age as Beatriz,” Little Lucy laughed her tinkling high-pitched laugh again. It was hard not to laugh with her. “That surprised you, didn’t it?”
It certainly had. I walked ahead thinking about how I came to be in this strange place with these people who were so different from me. I felt Little Lucy tug at my jeans.
“Here…we’re here!” she announced, steering me towards a tent with a primitive sign announcing in large hand-painted letters “See. Prove. Believe – See The Incredible Syphopagus Twin, the Octo Man“. Beside it was a crudely painted image of a man’s head and torso superimposed on the body of an octopus. I hesitated, drew in a deep breath. I was not sure I wanted to go inside. Little Lucy grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the tent entrance.
“Come on,” she said, “you’ll like him, I promise…you won’t regret it.” She disappeared inside and I felt compelled to follow.
Seated on a wooden bench at the far side of the tent was something terrible. Could it be a visual trick, I wondered, was this for real? Please, I begged to myself, don’t let it be for real. Meanwhile, Little Lucy was rushing forward, grabbing the young man’s legs, the young man’s three legs. I felt sick, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see more.
“Here Caroline…this is Rudy…Rudy, this is Caroline!” she beamed, still hugging his legs. The young man bent over and kissed the top of her head.
I knew I had to shake hands – but then, which hand? This Rudy also had three arms, one of which hung limply from his chest. But he was smiling at me and holding out one of his hands. With the other functional one he scooped up Little Lucy placing her on his lap. She wriggled coquettishly, still beaming. Was this love, I wondered? I stepped forward and shook the extended hand. By now I was feeling quite ill and desperately wanted to make a swift exit.
“Sit down,” Rudy said, pointing one of his arms towards a chair. Feeling faint I was happy to oblige, to get my breath back, to refocus my attention. I could hardly bring myself to look at him and, from what he said to me, I knew he instinctively felt my shame.
“I cannot say I am sorry for the way I look,” he said, “that is how I am. I cannot help it and I cannot do anything about it. Doesn’t the Bible say “be thankful for all God’s mercies?””
“I’m afraid I am not too familiar with the Bible,” I answered, forcing a smile, “I’m not religious.”
“I understand,” Rudy smiled back, “nor am I really…but it does have some things to say that are helpful to live by. Love thy neighbour as you love yourself.”
“I bet Caroline is wondering how you can love yourself, Rudy,” Little Lucy giggled, snuggling up to him.
Again I felt distinctly uncomfortable. She was absolutely right, of course, but I wouldn’t want to admit it, least of all to Rudy.
“It’s easy, Caroline,” Rudy’s smile widened. “People tell me I’m special. I’m different but I’m special.”
“And we like being special, don’t we?” Little Lucy interrupted.
Rudy nodded. “I’m only seventeen but I’m the only boy in my class who has a job.”
“Yes, he’s earning money here to put himself through college, I’m so proud of him.” Little Lucy beamed again. ”He’s a top grader in his school.”
I now realized this was more a mother-son relationship rather than a boyfriend-girlfriend one. My nausea was beginning to dissipate, my head starting to clear. Again I was faced with something revelatory. The Octopus Man not only attended a normal school but he outshone his classmates. He was earning money to go to college. He would probably do well, be a high achiever. Little Lucy had every right to feel proud. No wonder she wanted me to meet him.
Aloud I said, “I’m really impressed, Rudy. Congratulations. What are your favourite subjects?”
“History, politics…and I love geography,” he answered, “I want to read about people I will never meet and places I will never visit.” He grinned at me. “Lucy tells me you’re a traveller. Tell me about the places you‘ve been.”
“Oh, yes please, Caroline!” Little Lucy clapped her tiny hands.
And so I did. And they were a rapt audience, their eyes widening when I recounted vignettes of my trip across Russia and Siberia, their smiles broadening when I described my experiences since arriving in the Philippines. Every time I hesitated, Little Lucy clapped her tiny hands and shouted, “More!”
And so it went on, a long afternoon we spent together. Rudy gleaned as much information from me as he could, repeatedly asking questions, gaining knowledge. Occasionally he would shake his head sadly, whispering, “I’ll never see that for myself!” And Little Lucy would reply, “Oh yes you will, Rudy. One day you really will! Remember what we agreed?”
And Rudy would smile, “Yes, Lucy, you’re right. I will.”
Towards the end of the afternoon, I felt comfortable enough to ask Rudy about his extra limbs.
“Ah,” he joked, “you’re no different from all the rest. You want to see them, don‘t you?”
I felt embarrassed. I had been caught out. “I simply want to know you better,” I said, “know what you have to live with.”
“So that you can feel pity for me? So that you can feel fortunate for yourself, is that it?” Rudy sounded disappointed for the first time.
“No, that’s not what I meant at all. I’m sorry.” I hoped I hadn’t hurt his feelings. In my confusion what I said had come out all wrong. I merely meant I was curious to know how he remained so positive living with the kind of terrible disability he had. I still couldn’t understand it. But nor, it seems, could I explain myself without sounding offensive.
I apologized again.
“No worries,” Rudy smiled, “I understand.” He started unbuttoning his shirt and trousers, revealing the source of his disability. An extra arm extended from below his right armpit, an extra leg hung limply from below his belly button. And, high up on his chest, just below his left collar bone, an extra ear protruded surrounded by a mass of black hair.
“Meet my twin!” Rudy said.
I thought I was fully prepared for a shock but discovered then that I wasn’t. My head reeled, I thought I was going to faint.
Sensing my horror, Rudy asked, “Aren’t you going to ask me if I can have them surgically removed, that‘s what people usually ask?”
“No,” I stuttered, “that’s not what I was going to ask you. But, now that you’ve mentioned it, would you? Could you?”
Rudy looked at me. “The answer to your second question is ‘yes, apparently it’s surgically possible’ but the answer to your first question is ‘no’. This is my twin brother and I couldn’t destroy him. He lives with me, I live with him. We live our lives together, forever.”
The lessons I was learning that afternoon were almost too much to absorb. I knew I would have to leave Rudy, Carlos the Giant, Beatriz, Ricky the Living Torso and Little Lucy soon in order to collect my thoughts, think about what I had seen and heard, imagine myself in their world, how I would live my life, what my attitude would be, how I would cope. They had done so much for me, opened my eyes to so many things I had simply blotted out before as just too painful, too pitiful and too unpleasant. They had helped me lose my fear of the unfamiliar, taught me to accept the unacceptable, broken down my natural barriers. With them I had met dignified human beings with every conceivable physical aberration yet it was me, me who was supposed to be “normal” , who felt distinctly “different”.
But what had I done for them? A simple answer – nothing. Yes, for one brief moment I had transported them to other worlds, given them glimpses of places they would surely never see, introduced them to peoples they would surely never meet. That thought made me sad. I had gone through the gamut of emotions that afternoon with them. I had felt perplexed, awed, disheartened, fearful, sickened, happy and inspired. And now I felt an overwhelming sadness, not for them but for myself. But what right had I to feel sad when faced with these exceptional lives? Later, back in my own room, I reflected on what Little Lucy had said:
“Just remember to laugh whenever you can. That’s what I do!”
I smiled. At that moment I knew they would be OK, those two, Little Lucy and Rudy, the Octopus Man. They were survivors. They were special. They would definitely be OK.
- Craniopagus Parasiticus or Parasitic Twin is an extremely rare condition. Currently, Rudy Santos is now officially the oldest man in history to ever live with this deformity.