by Donyae Coles
I have not performed since that evening, and even now I do not know if it is merely psychological or if there is some greater, unseen force at play. I cannot tell, nor do I have the means to explore the matter. It is my hope that perhaps penning a recollection of that evening will cure me. I miss the work. It was mine. I miss that small part of myself, and I have so little left to hold on to now.
In any case, I know these two things to be true: that I have not performed since that night, and that what I witnessed then was as real as the nose on my face. As real as anything can be real.
Though it is unnecessary, no one will read this missive, but like everything else I must do this. I was always only a means to an end, but still, I will have my own say in some small way here. I will describe myself to you, imaginary reader. I am a smallish sort. Full grown, my height has only reached just over five feet. My form is thin, hips and breasts. I look, to most, girlish, if they do not know me. My patrons, as a rule, did not know me. I am a negro. These things may have disadvantaged me if I was making a traditional living. But for what I did, my appearance served me quite well.
I was, am still, all things being considered, a “medium.”
Not as you might hope. It was all an act, you see. I cannot channel ghosts and spirits, although my mother said my grandmother had been able to. That has never been my concern in her stories, whether or not she had been able to was irrelevant. What I took from her tales was the manner in which I should look when I am summoning and communicating with the dead. That is what people pay for, you see.
I know I have never done so before, but I did manage to summon something that evening. It was not dead. I can still remember how it felt, wrapped around my mind like a turban, feel the squeeze of it when my mind has chance to wander towards that dark memory. Or at least I hope that I am remembering and it is not still anchored there, in me.
But I am getting ahead of myself. I committed to writing this down as it happened, all of it. It would do no good to skip even if no one but me will read this. The words of a negro con artist are not in great demand, but I will write them anyway.
For my work I performed several roles, but I tended towards automatic writing. It is nothing new, what I do, what I did. There were those sisters back in the last century, when mediums were popular, who used to fool their friends and family and a host of others. They had an animal name, but I can’t quite recall it. So many things are slipping away from me these days. Raphael, he was my manager, told me about them when I first started, oh, years ago. I was sixteen then, but I suppose I looked twelve or thirteen. An actual child when I began but not when it happened.
I looked sixteen, I was not. Regardless, I had been at the game for at least a decade. I was no newcomer, and the men that night seemed to be familiar with the game of it all.
Raphael always wore a suit, a dark black one with long coattails and a top hat. He carried a silver-topped cane. With his dark suit and dark skin, he looked like a shadow, the whites of eyes and the top of his cane the only thing that kept him from disappearing into the wall. Which was good! When I performed, it was best that everyone forgot he was standing there at all.
For me, I always wore a white dress. A girl’s white dress with petticoats and lace in an old style. Stockings and shoes that buckled. I always put my hair into two cornrows at the side of my head, the braids down my shoulders.
Him in black, me in white, always. Like a wedding, but it wasn’t like that between us.
The call for mediums wasn’t as popular as it used to be, back in the day of those sisters I told you about, back when my grandmother was alive. But it was still popular in some circles, maybe not for everyone, but you could always find someone to pay to see the negro girl talk to the dead. Especially after that business with the stock market and everyone was looking for work.
I used to feel bad about taking their money. I had only been at it for a few years, but Raphael said that we provided a service and should be paid. We were entertainers and everyone loved that, even in the worst times. Possibly even more when it was bad. That’s how we were able to travel so freely. Like a carnival of two, even the most dangerous of places for a negro opened their doors to see me speak to grandmothers, fathers, aunties, and whoever else I could conjure from the depths.
But there was no one. Save that one time. I mustn’t cry, it will smudge the ink and I must get through this.
Raphael told the patrons we were from New Orleans. That my grandmother had been the famous Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, and I had all of her gifts. He took on an accent when he spun the yarn of my history that made it sound like he was from the Islands. The truth is that I am from Philadelphia and so was he, or at least I think he was. I never knew, not really. He never told me. But it didn’t matter to the patrons. I did not speak. My performance did not require it.
We traveled, from Philadelphia, all over the country during the busy season. Mostly summers into fall. Winter was too late, too much darkness made people skittish calling up the dead. Spring, too early, no one wants to think about the end when they’re surrounded by life.
So our business was summer into fall. We stayed above the Mason Dixon line, down south, no one would buy the act, but up north, the further you went, the more they loved it.
We would come to their homes or salons, wherever they wanted, it didn’t matter. All I needed was a table, my paper, and two wax pencils. Raphael sat a lamp upon the table, and in his false accent warned that whatever came through is what came through. That I had no control, was only a gate, while I pretended to be mute.
The lights would be put out, leaving only the glow of Raphael’s lamp and I would begin.
I started with circles, always circles, around and around. I would stare forward, my hand moving across the page. The wax pencils didn’t catch like lead, they didn’t break. I could just move my hand and as I finished a page, Raphael would replace it. Halfway through the second or third, I would let my mouth drop, just a bit, and then the words would come.
Not much at first, just an “and” or “the” – nothing too exciting – and always between the circles. Then by the fourth page, I would drop my chin as if I suddenly fell asleep, and then the real words would come. An outpouring of random phrases and notes. A collection of whatever I heard or read that day. Pages and pages of my memories, dumped for all to see. I had, you see, a very good mind for that sort of thing. Not as much anymore, but back then, recalling such things was of no consequence.
I tried to read things I knew the patrons would read. It made it better if they read things on my page they did not expect from a little negro girl. We tended towards the rich, but we would work a crowd of average people, taking a pool of their money. The rich though, they believed in it more. The patrons closest to me would read snatches from the page, making the others gasp and ooh.
I continued on this way for five or so minutes until Raphael would announce that he must bring me out or lose me forever.
He tapped his cane on the floor three times, then I would drop the pencil and lift my head. I kept a sleepy expression and even let spittle fall from my mouth; it was quite the show. He would give me a piece of candy and my part ended. While I sucked on the lolly or chewed the gum, he would pass the pages to the patrons.
Invariably someone would claim that they saw a message in the random words I spewed. The lights were turned back on. We were paid our money and on to the next town we went. It was good money and good fun for me.
The night it happened, the night so burned in my mind, came at the end of the season, just before we turned back for the drive home to Philadelphia where Raphael’s wife waited and my mother, who I still lived with. My mother has since passed. I am alone now, at least I believe I am. The last I saw of Raphael’s wife was when I gave her his cane. I thought she could pawn it or at least she should have it. If she kept it, I have not heard if any ill has come of it.
But, she did not seem surprised. She smiled so sadly, at me. And now that I think of it, she declined to touch me at all in all the years I knew her. I wonder if she thought, no, I wonder if she knew about her husband and . . . well, never mind. It does not matter now.
I am ahead; I am ahead. Let me tell it as it was.
We weren’t far from home; just a few hours, we had started back early, the season a weak one, we had earned little and Raphael decided, well he said he decided, to do something different: he drove down to Maryland. He had heard some lead from a carnie that there could be business down south, better than what we were getting on our usual tracts.
We drove all night and ended up near the Bay. He found us a room to rent and after we slept he left to find that elusive business.
I wish now that he hadn’t. That we had gone straight to Philadelphia, called the season a season and just lived the rest of our lives as we had been, but I don’t know if that would be true. I would like to say it though.
In any case, he came back with a job. So quick! As if he knew exactly where to go, but then, he had always been quick to find us work. People always spoke to him, which was so strange, isn’t it? Even the white people spoke to him as if, oh, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. I must stop. This is not his story, it is mine, and when I think too much on him there is a pressure on my eyes and oh, I must stop.
He told me before we went what it was. What type of crowd. This would be men, a small party, he explained, his eyes bright with excitement. All men paid more when they saw me. They were easier to fool, they fell over themselves to believe it. They were supposed to be some order or some such. I am not entirely sure, to this day, who they were or what they believed. I never had a chance to ask them, and even if there had been time, I would not have been able to. My character, you understand, was not one who spoke.
As it was, we gathered our supplies and after the sun had set, we followed their instructions to the house. The air smelled wet. Crickets sounded in the reeds. The world outside of the car was dark, a black pane just beyond the headlights. The lonely manor where we would perform, as we had done a thousand nights before, rose as if from nothing at all.
The building had clearly been erected with some care and a great deal of money. I understood Raphael’s excitement. These people, whoever they were, were well-to-do. Whatever financial woes troubled the rest of the country had missed their doorstep. Sturdy brick and arched windows glowered back at us.
Through the windows we could see every light in the house had been turned on, so bright! Even so, something felt queer in me. My belly twisted at the sight, a strange prickling at the back of my neck that itched at my mind so much that I wished I could reach under my skull and scratch it until it stopped.
I touched Raphael’s arm then, as he pulled around the back of the manor and stopped the engine.
“Maybe we should skip this,” I said. “I don’t feel well,” I tried.
He laughed. “Nerves? After all this time? Come on girl, you were made for this.” He chuckled and patted my head as if I really were a child and he my doting caretaker. “Besides, you know what it be if things go bad.”
He carried a gun. There had been no cause to use it in all our time together. No one wanted to anger the spirits!
He picked up his case from where it sat on the floor by my feet and exited the car. We came in through the back, as we always did. A servant let us in, a white man who wore a shirt and slacks. He held the door for us as if we were expected, which was a good sign. Thick carpets swallowed the sound of our footsteps. The halls we walked through were lined with alcoves, each one holding a different statue depicting some person in a strange, contorted pose. It took me a moment to realize they were all men, seemingly tortured by the air itself. If they were figures from mythology, I did not recognize them.
As we walked deeper into the house, the sound of voices carried to us. More than the handful of men that Raphael had said. The crowd seemed large, and I hoped they didn’t try to stiff us a reasonable fee for it. My concerns were meaningless, there was no amount of money that could pay for what happened.
We entered a ballroom. As I had suspected, the space was filled with men, all in black suits, much nicer than the one Raphael wore. I let my face drop, taking on my role as a poor girl child.
“Ah! You made it! Brilliant! Gentlemen, this is the medium and her companion!” an older man, gray hair and a pouch of a belly stepped forward, crossing the room to us. He looked down at me, all smiles. “Such a pretty thing.”
A round of whispers went through the crowd and the sick feeling came back. The scratching just under my skull. I ignored it, pretended as if there was nothing there, itch or brain.
“Dis is mo’ dan you say,” Raphael spoke, taking on his own part.
The man laughed, “Not to worry, not to worry! As I said, there will be only five of us tonight. We’re so lucky you came into town. The medium we had couldn’t make it down from New York, you see, I thought we would have to cancel the whole affair but then, here you are with your darling child. A blessing.”
The crowd agreed, heads nodding, mumbled words. The man smiled again and held his hand up, beckoning for someone else.
Four more men, dressed similarly, stepped from the crowd. They ranged in age but two were young, close to my real age then, perhaps. I was not sure and really; it does not matter.
There were no further words from either the man who had greeted us or his companions. Instead he walked, swiftly, as if he had some appointment to meet, and Raphael followed him so I did as well. The others came behind us. A cage of bodies.
It is so hard to sort my thoughts, but I think I wish I had turned there, gone back to the car, but I had no good reason to leave and all the reason to stay, you see. The season had not gone as well as we hoped and we needed the money; my mother, Raphael’s wife. But I think I wish I had left. It is so hard to say now and oh no, I mustn’t cry.
But I did not, and found myself in a room not unlike any number of rooms I had been in before. There, the table, round, dark wood, that I would sit at. Chairs ringed it, one for me, the rest for them. Other than that the room was, for the most part, bare. Thick carpet covered the floor as it did everywhere else, a wardrobe stood to one side, but that was all there was. Oh, and a window. They left the curtains open, the world black as pitch outside but later, much later, I was glad of it. In the now of then, it set my guts into a twist. It seemed unnatural to show the outside world anything of the trick.
Raphael worked quickly. He sat the lantern upon the table, then the paper, a thick white stack. Next to it, two wax pencils laid side by side. He turned the lights down himself, returning to my side, his cane silent on the floor.
I breathed out and began.
I am not sure what was different about that night. The location? Certainly. We had never been there. The men? I had no chance to ask them for explanations. But these factors being the reason is unlikely. It is too ordinary an explanation of things.
I took up the wax pencil in my left hand. I am ambidextrous, or at least I was. I seem to have lost the knack for it. Isn’t that strange? But the patrons, they like for it to be the left, so I always used that hand.
I placed the tip on the paper and began. For a while, it was all right, exactly as expected. I began with my circles, big and wide. The page changed, the circles shrank down, down, down until they would be words.
I don’t know when I felt it first, I can’t recall, not clearly. What I do recall was that the men who had hired us, me, stared at my pages hungrily, they licked their lips, enraptured, and for a moment I felt powerful.
It gushed, there is no other word for it, gushed into my consciousness, filling the space between my thoughts quickly. It came abruptly. The world familiar, the work as it always had been, and then not. Like missing the last stair in your own home. It gushed. My hand skittered across the page. Where there should have been words, the beginnings of the trick, I drew only nonsense. Strange symbols and letters.
The men grew excited at this and I felt, in the part of me that could still feel, however fleeting that was, Raphael shift next to me. I wanted to say something; I wanted to stop, but I could not. My hand moved on its own and he switched the paper.
Lights that were not lights sparked in my vision. Something pushed against the very air of the room as if the reality we lived in was merely a painting, and just on the other side waited some force that needed only the slightest additional pressure to break through the flimsy barrier. The room, the very air and form of it rippled and danced before my eyes.
I wanted to stop. I could not stop.
The man who had brought us to the room shouted, “This is it!”
What? I could not say. My mouth dropped open, as it always did, and felt something pressing on my tongue but from the back of my throat as if it, whatever it was dropped from my brain into my mouth. My brain, that precious piece of meat under my skull, it itched. Oh, that terrible burning itch covered it and I longed to reach up, through my eyes and ears and scratch it, to relieve even a tiny amount of that terrible discomfort. But I could not stop writing.
The men roared in glee. My hand crossed the page, filling it with symbols. Raphael changed the paper. Tears fell from my eyes, spit from my mouth and I wet myself. As I sat, wet with my own fluids, the thing, whatever it was, expanded, the itch a terrible burn now, too deep to reach.
It is a strange thing to describe. I remember it vividly, how could I forget the most beautiful and horrifying thing I had ever seen? But the words do not exist in this language to describe it. Or perhaps I have forgotten them, I forget so much. So much of me. But I will try.
It filled the space that was not space. I do not think they could see it, those men, but it filled the space, taking every inch of everything. This bright darkness pulsed and filled my ears with its strange song, its disjointed and perfect rhythm. All around me the awful mass of it rolled through the room, through the world, nothing human, nothing like anything that had ever been on the Earth that I knew of. Its flesh was so beautiful, colors I could not name that made me sick and pained my eyes. I had a sense that it was massive, that we were only blessed with a small part of its greatness.
But still, I knew something of it. Some mostly faded memory of my grandmother that even now hangs on to me, whatever is left of me. There was something there of when she spoke of gods from where our people came from before we were in America, ancient and unknowable things. I can’t remember their names, I can’t remember so much, but I remember the feeling when she spoke of them. That awful and beautiful powerlessness.
My grandmother died before I was born, but I remember that. I’m sure she told me. And the thing that twisted and was in that room, in me so completely felt like that.
I looked back at the men and saw only monsters, their faces contorted, twisted out of shape. Their eyes bled from empty sockets, their fingers digging, digging, digging to get at that itch, the itch that plagued me so, but I could not stop writing. And now, they could not see the secrets they had so wanted.
The pages were gone, I wrote upon the table. I took up the second pencil and scrawled like a machine across the wood, crossing over my own marks over and over again until there was nothing to be seen but the smeared mess of wax, the sleeves of my dress filthy with it. The thing, powerful and indifferent, filled everything it could because it could.
That maddening itch redoubled, and I thought I would die from it, then Raphael’s cane struck the floor. Three dull taps on the carpet.
And then, he spoke. He said, “Thank you.” And this is strange because he had never done it before, and I only just remembered or I would have asked his wife, you see. What he meant, I do not know, and now it’s too late, too late. It was too late then too.
I fell forward to the table, my face hit hard wood and for a while, I was gone.
There is not much left to tell of it. I woke hours later. How many? I am unsure.
I woke alone, in the same room in the position I had collapsed in. Leaning against the table was Raphael’s cane. Light streamed through the window but the world was quiet. So very, very quiet.
I stood and looked around. There was blood. It had soaked into many of the pages I had written upon. I could not bear to look at them again. My eyes caught the symbols and the itch came. I remember them even now but I try not to think of them. I try but it is hard. But that is now. Then, there were no bodies to speak of. Just five piles of clothes as if the men had stripped and dropped them into their chairs. All that was left of Raphael was his cane which I clutched in my hands, and the gun, which I left on table. Something twisted in my throat and I could not, I could not.
My feet made no noise on the thick carpet. The doors swung on silent hinges. I left the room and made my way through the large house. The curtains were drawn open showing me a world of outside but there were no birds, no sounds of life. Throughout the halls I found piles of clothing. All suits, nothing but men had been there and of them there was nothing else left. I couldn’t bring myself to look through them for wallets or valuables and moved as quickly as I could back out into the fresh air, hoping that once I was free of the walls I would be able to hear something of life again.
Nothing made a sound. Not even a breeze moved. I hurried back to the car to find that Raphael had left the keys in the ignition. Quickly I slid into his seat, started the car, half expecting it to fail to make a noise.
The sound of the engine seemed unnatural, but I nearly cried when I heard it. I drove away from there quickly. It was twenty miles, at least, before I heard a bird again. Strange; being next to a bay, there should have been something, but nothing at all moved, save me, for that entire stretch. I did not stop to wash or rest. I drove for hours, a curious thing, the tank remained full, all the way back to Philadelphia.
I burnt my white dresses. I gave the cane to Raphael’s wife. I sold the car. I told everyone Raphael ran off; I didn’t know what else to say.
I thought everything would be all right, for a while. I tried to go back to performing, for parties, little functions around the city as a curiosity, but I couldn’t. It was so strange. As soon as my wax pencil touched the page, the itching would start, the press in the back of my mouth and I could not.
But, I am tired of living like this. It has been a year, did I tell you that? Well, now you know. Or at least I think it has. The calendar says it is so, but my heart, my skull says different. Time is so slippery. I have tried to get down faithfully what has taken place. I will put it in the desk. I do not know if I will look at it again.
What I will do is try to perform again. It has been a year. “The stars are right,” Raphael would say, but he is gone so now I will say it. There’s a party at a lodge, a room full of men. They have promised me good money to see the curious sight. It will be all right. Tonight I will perform again. I don’t think I’ll wear this white dress again.
About the Author
Donyae Coles is a writer surviving America through hoodoo and sheer willpower. When she’s not weaving her dreams and nightmares into stories and art, she’s hanging out with her spoiled cats and equally spoiled family.
About the Narrator
Laurice White is a voice actor who has read stories for all four Escape Artists podcasts, and for John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey on The End is Nigh and The End is Now, the first two volumes of The Apocalypse Triptych.