Though Oliver might not have always been able to remember much, he knew this world was one he had never been granted access to before. A new stone mansion overlooked a broad street in a neighborhood of the city Oliver didn’t know existed. Furnished with ancient portraits and faded daguerreotypes, the deep red of the interiors exuded a moneyed superiority one can only be born to inherit—even if the walls were the only vestiges of a heralded past.
And there in a newer frame was an unbelievable portrait of the aged Temperance zealot herself, Widow Harship, who had lost her husband to the devil’s juice and became a devout follower of Spiritualism, unable to let the worms and mourning veil fall from her eyes, and it was she who was standing behind a black servant in the doorway receiving Oliver and Maggie as they knocked on her door.
“Youse the Underwoods?”
As the participants filtered into the parlor, Oliver sat at the head of a great round table studying his nails. In the middle of the table was placed a Bible, a lit candle which was to clear all negativity within the space, and an old bell that once belonged to Izzy Threadbone, which was purposed to increase the divine vibrations within the room. Maggie sat at a desk behind him and to his right with a stack of papers and pencil to record the features and demeanors of all who filtered through the door. Cornelius Hopleaf, as planned, was one of the first participants to enter the room and sat at the table to Oliver’s right, who directly faced the widow.
Also seated at the table was Cloyd Spitz, a former Methodist preacher who became a Spiritualist subsequent to his wife’s appearances to him after her suicide, and which cast all his previous religious convictions into dark doubt. Then there was Jonas and Clara Rich who begged for coins to pay for the session (and which Oliver and Maggie refused to accept). Also present were Mrs. Archer, Mrs. Grange, and another widow called Matilda Orvis, the latter three being fellow believers and friends of Widow Harship, who had organized the meeting through her church, the Universal Advent, and who in their serious and darting gestures seemed more avian than human. Their church, however, did not take kindly to the beliefs and inquiries of Spiritualists, and therefore they had to seek outside assistance in these matters.
After all were seated a palpable pocket of nothing began to swell above the table, a silence and uneasiness that was a strange absent presence seeming to spread and threaten to envelop those seated at the table. And just when this bleak void was about to reach their nose tips, Maggie’s chair skidded back from where she sat, and as she stood the void hovering over the table shrank to two points and seemed to retreat into Oliver James Hogue’s eyes as he lifted them and scanned the sitters.
Miss Threadbone walked over to where he sat, placed her hands on his shoulders and addressed the circle: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, we want to thank you for joining us tonight and will proceed momentarily. First, however, we must establish certain rules for the evening. The most important of these are not to address the medium,” Maggie tightened her grip upon Oliver’s shoulders to display his role in the imminent activities. “Spirits are quite fickle and we must remember that the next world often causes a kind of amnesia as to their previous and human realm. Therefore, we also ask that you refrain from yelling or disrupting any spirits that might manifest. Sadly, many of them have forgotten vocal timbres, accents, and enunciations, so despite your pleas and cries, it is highly probable that they will not recognize you—even if they see you.”
All the sitters looked from one to the other doubtfully, only Cornelius smiled and nodded as though not but a buffoon would be ignorant to such facts. Cornelius Hopleaf, needless to say, found that he was most adept and easily comfortable in these situations, as though a chance to act like someone else actually gave him the excuse to be himself.
“The other rule of the evening is patience. We are not conjurors, magicians, or black artists, no. We will not force any shade to greet us in any way. Instead, we rely on the overwhelming magnetic attraction that our medium possesses to draw them to us. It is most best to let the natural gifts of our divine conduit here,” Maggie let a kind smile fall to the head seated beneath her, “allow the natural processes and divine influence he can wield be allowed its own operations—no matter how mysterious and unbelievable they seem to us—to take their right and proper function.”
Everyone looked at everyone else, not wanting to meet Maggie’s eyes, because, despite all the warmth she tried to bring to them and her voice, something seemed to have gnawed away a vital humanness she, as a human being and all, was supposedly supposed to have been naturally endowed with and that was not just empathy and understanding, but a common eye that dilates and contracts with the natural fluctuations of light and shade. Instead, her eyes maintained a distanced and almost otherworldly gaze that in and of itself often disconcerted the doubtful and hesitant.
Receiving no response, Maggie again squeezed Oliver’s shoulders and continued. “In that case, we ask that you take the hand of the person to your left by the wrist all around the table. Your right hand should be grasped and your left hand grasping, is how it should be.”
Therefore, Widow Harship held Cloyd Spitz’s hand and he in turn grasped Jonas’ right hand who then held his wife’s who then took Cornelius’s into her own, and so on around the line.
Maggie lowered the lamps of the room, took the ladder-back chair she had been previously sitting in, placed it behind Oliver and put her hands on his shoulders.
After a few minutes of utter silence, Oliver could feel the uneasiness in each participant around him as it jumped from hand to hand and was compounded by the very leap from person to person. Oliver also felt his own weight and uncertainty lifting from him. If fact, he seemed to feel that he was being detached from himself: the faces and voices of those at the table were wiped from his mind and all he could physically feel was two electrically charged anchors on his shoulders, anchors that seemed to hold him down to his chair.
“You who have passed over, who have stepped over from this world into the next, reveal yourself and communicate once more with the living.” Oliver said these words without realizing they were issuing from his own mouth; they seemed to be floating around his head and while they were heard they did not seem to be uttered, especially not from him.
“What do you want from me? What do you seek me for?”
A deep voice popped in a strange static from Oliver’s mouth and became visible, like a scroll of smoke was curling from his lips. Then the two questions hovered just above the candle in the middle of the room, rotating and taking a globe shape where black holes opened like eyes, but the whole thing was so thin and spectral that each person at the table could see through it to the person seated opposite them. Gradually the shape too seemed to be looking, straight into Oliver’s face.
Gasps opened around the table and with no volition Oliver’s lips began to emit sound:
“What do you want?”
“Alfred, is that you?” Widow Harship ejaculated the query in a frenzied voice and looked embarrassedly round the table.
“Aye!” The voice bellowed. However, the voice was no longer coming from Oliver’s mouth, though that was frozen open as in a state of paralytic horror. This occurrence elicited yet another gasp and the face above the table began to spin counterclockwise, seeming to survey the faces of the table. “Will you not see what your eyes already discern? Will you not believe what you already know?”
As Cornelius went to clasp the hook to his belt, and before he could even commence the simulated rumbling of the table as he’d been taught, the table itself began to wobble and shake autonomously, as though someone were dancing upon its surface. The Bible, candlestick, and bell, however, remained stuck to the waxed surface as though glued.
“They made none one.”
“Then made one into a son.”
Suddenly the voices of two children, a boy and a girl, talked in a kind of singsong chant above the table with an unwholesome giddiness.
“Only a son?”
“An only son!”
“Jonas, boy is that you?” The elder Jonas Rich inquired, his voice wavering and wounded at the impact of the young boy’s once timid, and now invisible, voice.
“Emma?” Clara called out uncontrollably as she wrung her hands in despair.
“There is no other but me and my brother,” Little Emma said with an eerie cheerfulness.
“Both of us dead before our mother,” Jonas the younger finished, and the table began to shake again.
“Oh no! Only the body dies.”
“Despite the churchmen’s lies!”
It was then the candle flame was guttered and the Bible was opened, the pages shuffling as though by an invisible hand.
“Where? Where are you?” Clara implored.
“Right beside you mama,” Emma said in a voice suddenly muffled in the sound of beehives.
“Heaven?” Jonas the Elder could not contain the grief that began to leak from his crowsfeet.
“There is no next world, there is no other world.” Young Jonas’ voice took a sentimental tone of reassurance, or perhaps of condescension—old Mr. Rich was never good at deciphering them things. “Like a city stacked and packed with buildings and lives we all live in one moment, we all live in one space, but we inhabit different layers, some seen and some mysterious to the others around us.”
“Death never ends.” This time it was Alfred Harship moaning in a sepulchral agony. “Death never ends!”
Mrs. Archer, Mrs. Grange, and Matilda Orvis all gaped silently and fanned themselves with their bony hands. Across from Oliver, Widow Harship trembled and grew pale, the blue veins pumping against her skin. Oliver himself was still open mouthed and blank eyed, an odd hum vibrating his throat and making those close to him—even Cornelius Hopleaf—nauseous and on the verge of hysteria.
“None are dead—only your memories of us are dying, as our memories of you are gradually defaced and thereby made whole, allowing our souls to assume their original course.”
They made good money that night.
“Hot damn, boy! How the hell’d you learn to throw your voice like that?”
“Your voice: first that Alfred then the children, that was something else.”
“I….” Oliver remembered nearly nothing of the incident. He just seemed to open his eyes and everyone was staring at him with a mixture of wonder and fear. All that presented itself to his memory was different states of physical sensation.
Cornelius shook his head and laughed. “Let’s get us some whisky!”
Raised in the flatlands of central Illinois, Brandon currently resides in Denver, Colorado. His first book of poetry, expired Rx, was released by Monkey Puzzle Press in 2010.