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For Patty and Mike, the initial shock was followed by acceptance and then absolute devotion.

AT FIRST IT SEEMS two girls are galloping across the snow-dusted school yard. Then it appears there is only one. Two pink ski caps bob along, and two pretty, mirror-image faces - one ginning giddily, the other dreamily frowning. But below the neck the numbers don't add up: a single torso in a purple parka; one pair of arms; one pair of rubber-booted legs. Abigail and Brittany hop into a waiting car. Inside, Mom gets two kisses and one hug. she drives her daughters home.

Picture of the twins

A double bed with a Lion King comforter dominates the sisters' bedroom. Their way of being, however, is as much about singularity as it is about doubleness. "This is me," says Brittany, pointing to a snapshot on the wall. Abigail runs a finger along an antique chest: "My dad gave this to me when I was little," she says. she winds up a musical figurine, and the girls pirouette to the tune, each with a graceful arm held high. In the kitchen, Britty sips milk. Abby, who despises milk, chugs orange juice. Still, through their mingled bloodstreams, Britty is supplying Abby with calcium and protein; Abby is sending Britty a dose of vitamin C.

The girls are asked to tell the world something about themselves. "I'm not going to be separated", Britty declares. "And I don't have two heads," says Abby.

Diagram of Organs

Abigail and Brittany Hensel are conjoined twin - products of a single egg that for some unknown reason failed to divide fully into identical twins. (Doctors and family members generally avoid the term Siamese twins, with its sideshow overtones.) Just one child in 50,000 is born connected by some body part to a womb mate, only about 500 such babies are known to have survived their first year, and fewer than a dozen - precise numbers are unavailable - are living in the United States today. Rarer still is Abby and Britty's particular condition, known as dicephalus: No more than four sets of surviving twins in recorded history have shared an undivided torso and two legs. Each of the Hensel twins has her own heart and stomach but together they rely on three lungs. Their spines join at the pelvis, and below the waist they have the organs of a single person. Each controls the limbs and trunk, and feels sensations, on her own side exclusively: If you tickle the ribs on the right, only Abby giggles. Yet the girls manage - no one knows exactly how - to move as one being.

The paradoxes of the twins' lives are metaphysical as well as medical. They raise far-reaching questions about human nature: What is individuality? How sharp are the boundaries of the self? How essential is privacy to happiness? Is there such a thing as mental telepathy? Bound to each other but defiantly independent, these little girls are a living textbook on camaraderie and compromise, on dignity and flexibility, on the subtler varieties of freedom. And together with their courageous parents - two adults who are as extraordinary as these two children - they have volumes to teach us about love.

In their basement rumpus room, the Hensels are having a rumpus. Patty, a brisk 37-year-old who could play the ex-cheerleader in a sitcom, tries to stop DaKota, three, from smashing his tiny car to bits against the wall. Little sister Morgan, 21 months, rides hard on an old-fashioned rocking horse. Abby and Britty have seized a plastic racket from a chest brimming with toys.
"Let's play golf!" Abby cries.
"You can't play golf with that," says Mike, 40, a burly man with an open, friendly face. "That's for tennis."
"Doesn't matter," says Abby. Her father shrugs and rolls a ball toward the twins, who putt it back. Three antlered heads - two deer and an elk, bagged by the hunting Hensels - gaze down indifferently on the fun.

An unmistakable air of well-being suffuses this household. The house itself is a fine one: a solid two-story colonial, perched on 20 acres of midwestern flatland Four hounds and a horse have the run of the property. With Patty's income as an emergency-room nurse and Mike's as a carpenter and landscape worker, the couple are among the more prosperous in their village of 300 people. (To keep the girls from being deluged with attention, LIFE is concealing the town's identity.)

Abby and Britty are lucky to live in such a setting, and they're lucky to have a set of parents intrepid enough to help them navigate a difficult path. If the Hensel adults ever feel overwhelmed, they don't show it. "I don't think we've ever said, "Why us?" says Mike. Instead they seem to relise the challenges posed by their two eldest daughters. They have taught Abby and Britty to swim, to ride a bike and to explain that they came from a single egg - and are therefore special - when other kids ask questions. They buy the twins snazzy outfits, then have a seamstress modify the upper portions. "It's important to create two separate necklines," says Patty. "Otherwise it would make them look like they're one person." They encourage the girls to express their individual tastes in everything from leggings (Abby likes blue, Britty prefers pink) to hobbies (Britty is into animals; Abby loves to draw). While the Hensels are not particularly religious -

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