The reader, Joe Williams, would like to dedicate the reading to their Father who recently passed away: “Allan Williams was Joe’s hero. Never short of experiences to share or advice to give he had been a merchant seaman, a kangaroo hunter, and a movie extra, among other things. As an example of how to live no-one could have asked for better, even up to his final days, and his passing on the third of May has left a void. He will be missed.”
by Leanna Renee Hieber
My first memory is of being struck by lightning. It was exquisite.
I was standing in my grandfather’s field just before the storm broke. White hot arcs threaded across the whole of the charcoal English sky. Trembling with thrills, I wanted to reach up and touch the delicate vein-like threads of light. It would seem they wanted to touch me too.
“There’s nothing more wondrous than a good, riotous thunderstorm, my boy,” grandfather had said with a gamesome punch to my shoulder that landed too hard. But I learned that’s how one shows affection to a male child; with a touch of force.
That’s when the bolt anointed me. I stood riveted as my bones rattled and crackled, my blood boiled and a thousand angels screamed in my ears. When it was over, small wisps of smoke curled up from my hair and coat.
Grandfather stared at me in horror. “You should be dead, child.” He clapped me again on the back, a sting of shock passing between us upon contact, and walked away.
I wasn’t dead but he was right about one thing; I’ve yet to see or feel anything more wondrous than a sky full of electricity.
When Mr. Swan’s incandescent lamp came to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the Year of our Lord 1879, three years ago, it was destiny. We lived just at the end of Mosley Street, in a two storey town-house with finery on the outside that crumbled on the inside. I was fourteen years old. Mother died a year prior. There wasn’t enough evidence to blame father directly, but I blamed him anyway, and while our exterior appearances were spotless, everything inside rotted.
I hoped that year, after enduring a loveless life of misplaced piety and fierce abuse from a man whose only purpose in life seemed to be to torture my brother and me, that light would make all men equal. At least, that it would illuminate the rights and wrongs of the world in bright, sharp focus like a blazing Arc light. Light would illuminate the deep shadows of our house and lay skeletons bare in black closets for all to see. At least that’s how I reconciled it when my ability first took a life. I could wield light like the sword of justice.
When the bulbs of Mosley street first buzzed, I buzzed with them. I wasn’t sure what it was at first, the celebration out on the street was so festive, I thought I might just be caught up in the thrill. When I felt a smile- a genuine smile I hadn’t felt upon my lips since that lightning storm- threaten to split my face in two, I turned to that man-made sun and worshipped it. Just as my fervor crested like that of a revivalist in a tent spreading the ecstasy of the Holy Ghost, the Arc light directly above me flickered and burst. Everyone turned to stare, as if it was somehow my fault. My cheeks turned red with shame.
“Not to worry, ladies and gentlemen! We shall change the world!” said one of the engineers in charge, rushing to assure the crowd upon the street, edging towards the pole I stood beneath. I edged into shadow, tucking into my schoolboy jacket that wasn’t quite the right size. “But you can’t expect to do so without a few broken bulbs along the way!”
It was my fault, I came to understand. Other bulbs, not far from my top floor window, would flicker as my mood flared or guttered. I had plenty of empirical evidence as I watched the lights, sometimes all through the night, listening for one of Father’s rages and debating whether I would or wouldn’t intercept on behalf of my little brother Jack, who was neither nimble nor quick. I think I was often spared because Father was scared of me after the lightning didn’t kill me. Something he saw in my eyes. Sometimes I’d see the hairs on Father’s bare, scarred forearms raise when our gazes occasionally met.
If the lights were a symphony, I could raise or lower my baton and in response, the song of the current would either crescendo or decrescendo, making me quite literally a conductor of electricity. Unsure whether to revel in the secret or fear it, I kept it to myself.
Wires are so like veins, and I became more comfortable thinking of myself as vessel rather than as a person. The hum of the lights in concert with my heartbeat, our systems had become entwined. When the switches of the Mosley plant were engaged and I heard the particular whine in my ear; I knew I was tethered to the divine. I was an inextricable part of that righteous illumination. Like Zeus and Thor, I would deal in commodities of sparking glory.
And so when Father, in a drunken rage, tossed my brother down our moldering staircase and his little neck cracked just like all the foundations of that house, the current came up and through me like a wave. Holy retribution flung a thick cord forward like a snapping whip, lacerating my father with a number of volts I could hardly quantify.
The court ruled it self defense even though there was great confusion as to how a hot fireplace poker could have done quite that much burning damage to a body. Father, I came to find out, owed a deal of money to various important folk. The city was only too happy to seize his assets in reparation. Not caring a whit about me, the court suggested the work house as cities do with any youthful problem they want out of their sight.
Instead I disappeared. My gift urged me to live by reinvented terms. Forging a document to claim I was eighteen, I sought a higher wage than apprenticeship’s slavery and went to work in the one place where no one would suspect aberrant voltage; the electrical company that put Mosley Street on the map.
I took the name of that street as my own. The past was erased. Only present energy remained. Losing myself to the songs of the current and their various conductors, I began praying to my saints to bring me to their shores.
I’ve not the head for the mechanics of great inventors’ work. But I’ve the body to conduct it. Working at the plant allowed for experimentation of current through my body. There I learned how to control what should, for all intents and purposes, have fried me like an egg on a skillet. Overhearing my superiors talk about all the latest developments in the field, their declarations resonated in my bosom like prophecies.
Saving every shilling, resentful that I should have been denied any of my Father’s meager holdings, I hated the dirty, small-minded men who resided in the flophouse beside the plant where I deigned to lay my head upon a soiled mat. This fury aged me. My soul languished and my only restless contentment was the whir of the turbines and the prickle of current through my skin. I prayed harder at the altar of invention.
Of all my saints, Edison, in particular, engaged me. As if I were a fisherman, he called me to abandon my nets and come follow him… I’ve read every word my prophet has written, followed his every move, patent and innovation. I studied his contemporaries. I puzzled over Tesla’s Alternating Current versus Edison’s Direct. The former individual is a madman. But my prophet is a cool and capable businessman. I’m a man of particular taste and I like the word direct. It feels right. When one is talking about a conduit of energy, the matter should flow directly from source to target. To alternate is to be inconstant. I am a director.
Through Edison, all things are possible. Building on the foundations of Watt and the luminaries of the 18th century, I daresay that fearless American might just make Shelley’s wondrous nightmare of reanimation a plausible reality in our every-day lives. There’s nothing he cannot do. He has been inventing- or at least patenting- everything of world-changing import. The current- his current- cannot be denied. America, his America, will set the world awash with blinding orbs. The buzz of progress, gods of industry; all will bow down to the small island at the core of the Empire State.
Thusly, the moment I heard of the dynamos Edison was building in that leviathan of all cities; New York, New York, my need to leave Newcastle-upon-Tyne and discard my quiet, friendless life that was more adorned on the outside while decaying on the inside became a burning longing for transplant.
The plant powering Mosley Street eventually fired me after one too many shorts to their circuits during my shift- that, and the foreman found me sleeping beside far better bedfellows; the generators. But the company’s callous severance was only destiny’s sign declaring I was finally meant for greater grids.
Yet while I’d scrimped and saved, I didn’t have enough for a steamer ticket and an apartment in territory ruled by “the Wizard of Menlo Park”. Industry powered the wealthy, not the workers who lit their candles. So I claimed what was rightly mine out of the foreman’s safe. A lashing bolt seared the lock to reveal bank notes enough for my recompense. No one could know it was “odd little Mosley” that lifted them; no one really knew a thing about me.
I was the actual eighteen years of age I’d been pretending for so long when the current’s song finally sailed me across the Atlantic. En route to this upstart colony that shall become Atlas holding up the world, I pitied all those on that boat who could not see what I saw. I saw the great churning city as if I were seeing her bones; girded with light. I saw every building shimmer, every roadway and ferry boat blazed; I wept at the raw power that was possible and I rejoiced that I would be embedded in the bloodstream of goliath circulation. And I began plotting how I would meet the man I worshipped.
I procured a basement level apartment on Pearl street, close to my saint’s plant, close to the precious life-blood itself; six dynamos able to produce 100 kilowatts each. At night I lay awake, my hair standing on end, aroused, alive, vibrating. Who needs a lover when the current is all the exquisite caress a man could crave? I confess, when I wield the current in my hands, the experience has a carnal taste, and I am spent afterwards.
Edison does not know I exist. Not yet. I know enough about him that he’ll likely find a way to use me if he knew what his life’s work does to me. I would. Use me, that is. If I were him. We two are of a mind. So I must approach him carefully and make sure that if I become his acolyte, that I’m free to pursue my own ventures. I have a calling. I am a messenger. I am a child of all the world’s lightning gods. The how is not as important to me as the fact that it is. I am a changeling for a changing world. Industry churns towards progress and electricity means that the gods are harnessed and fallen. Orphaned, I’ve become industry’s child and mankind has been spinning the world forward on its axis to catch up with me.
I’ve been in New York a month, and what started with fitting the Morgan residence has begun a craze of rapid expansion. Electricity now makes Pearl Street blaze bright and other nearby homes and street corners are following suit. The activity has me buzzing night and day; I feel my head might explode.
When my delirium mounts, I walk my street at dusk. Every beautiful person I see, man or woman, illuminated in a manufactured light so much more beautiful than sun or candle, I long to draw them close, to share the spark I could offer from my skin to theirs. But whenever I get close, a hum rises around me, a lamp somewhere nearby flickers and the attractive persons look up and away from me. A guttering light is like a falling star, it longs to be seen. As do I. In longing to be noticed, my thoughts would inevitably return to my prophet.
Today, I saw him. And he saw me. But did not understand.
There was a fair, in Brooklyn, and I took the Fulton ferry across, swept eagerly along the strong East River currents. Perhaps the only thing as thrilling as a lightning storm is being buffeted along the cobblestone streets of New York City like a feather on the breeze; tasting the great tumbling mass of human energy like one might savor a spice upon the tongue. Now and then I brushed against someone’s shoulder. A shock would pass between us and when they turned to me, apologizing for the collision, I smiled. Apprehension flickered in their eyes. I confess, the transaction left me fulfilled; a maddening itch had been scratched, a hungering need satiated.
Surging with me embedded inside, the organism of excitable humanity spilled from the docks out onto an open midway filled with various attractions. Rich smells, outlandish side-shows and festive sounds all collided in a rush of competition for attention. But I was there for one sole purpose and heeded no other call. The moment I saw him, I froze.
There, beneath a tent, surrounded by gadgets, wires, and an elephant, was Edison. My throat went dry. He was an intense looking fellow who had drawn quite a crowd around him. He had that ability and notoriety. Moisture beaded beneath the thin hairs of my mustache I’d been struggling to grow for years.
Edison was demonstrating the dangers of Nikola Tesla’s Alternating Current by applying a live wire directly to the hide of an elephant. Really, it didn’t matter if it was Alternating or Direct, current was current and electrocution would happen no matter the format. Certainly the elephant didn’t care what type of current it was, it was in pain regardless. But Edison was a businessman. And businessmen needed to protect themselves and the reputations of their technology by any means necessary. Everyone was, appropriately, shocked.
I’m not sure what my emotional state was at that moment exactly, whether I was as sharply focused as a disciple ought to be before his teacher, or if I somehow associated that elephant with my brother, but I surged up to the fore of the group. I wove through a sea of bowler hats, seamen’s caps and the occasional investor’s top-hat.
Something was wrong. The generator wasn’t quite humming at the pitch it should, a sonority I knew like that of my own breath. The current generated to light bulbs, play music and sizzle the elephant’s hide wavered and was about to go out.
“Fix the problem,” Edison barked at an aide.
I could help him. It was the generator that was the problem, didn’t they hear it? I stepped towards the tables bearing a line of contraptions set with wheels and wires- a mere rope had been put out around the perimeter- and put my hand out. Edison looked up sharply, aware of anyone too near his precious property.
“It’s me, don’t worry,” I murmured, choosing Edison over the elephant. Showing him that I was the stabilizing force, I took my hand away and the sea of hats shifted, glancing around at guttering bulbs, stuttering phonograph and a recovering elephant. But the creature’s comfort was short-lived as all buzzed bright, music blared and the animal shuddered in pain once more the moment I replaced my hand above the nearest turbine.
“We’ve got a short somewhere, fix it,” Edison barked to his colleagues without breaking my gaze. His bowler hat a bit askew, his bright eyes narrowed, then widened, confused. I willed him to understand as he stared at me; the gift we could be to one another. Surely he could ascertain what had happened to my body that I didn’t have the science to comprehend. But evidently Edison did not desire further illumination for he barked again: “You. Get away from there. What are you, one of Tesla’s?”
My face twisting in disgust at that rival name, I opened my mouth to protest, but words died in my throat. I took a step towards my inspiration but at Edison’s gesture a burly man wearing a Pinkerton badge appeared as if from nowhere to block me. His leather glove masked the stinging spark upon contact with my shoulder, but we both felt it. “Turn around, idiot,” the man growled, giving me a shove back towards the midway. Big as the guard was, fear sparkled in his eyes and a flare of satisfaction warmed my wrenching stomach.
There was so much I wanted to say. So much I wanted to show my great prophet, so much I wanted to ask, so much experimentation I longed to do… But Edison was lost to me behind a swarm of hats. My extreme anxiety made a whole string of his lights explode one by one. I heard him shout a curse about saboteurs.
Bile churned, nervous sweat poured off my brow. Clearly, that disaster was hardly the encounter I’d hoped for. But I comfort myself with the knowledge that in time, Edison will have to know me. He’ll have to give me audience. I can become part of the grid and there will be no way to ignore me. His competitors too, will have to consider me a force to be reckoned with.
A few bulbs along Pearl Street blew as I returned to my narrow, lit town-house apartment next to a fine private residence wholly wreathed in electric convenience. While the gentleman next door has paid top dollar for his fixtures and even more for the wiring, I’ve installed fixtures just as grand. As for the wiring, well, that is directly my responsibility. Of course I should have anticipated that eyebrows may be raised. Singed, even. The island of Manhattan does like to make sure all it’s pennies are collected, now doesn’t it?
While today’s fair was no joy, tonight proved a further trial; the first of what I assume will be many stumbling blocks along my pilgrim progress. A small hiccup. As industry moves inexorably and more terrifyingly swiftly forward, mankind makes futile efforts to slow it’s Frankenstein children with laws and paperwork. Perhaps I shouldn’t have killed the messenger. But he overstepped his bounds.
Peeping through the front glass, the reverberations of the door-knocker echoing in the hall, the small man in a bowler whose squinty eyes made my jaw clench in aversion was asking for trouble. “Mr. Mosley?” he called in a whine.
I opened my door. “Yes?”
He must have gathered my name from the rental papers. Someone had been looking into me. Would it were Edison himself checking in, but I’m sure he and his tax collectors work separately. Besides, at first blush I must have appeared mad. And in this context, I might only appear to Edison a thief, not a disciple or child of his invention. But I had a right to my own gifts, they could not be bought or sold.
“I’m here with the electrical company,” the man said.
He stood there as if waiting for me to invite him in. I did not. The bulb above his head on my sheltered stoop buzzed brighter. “Yes, well.” He gestured, around him, towards the bulb above and to the sconces behind me in the entrance hall. “You’ve lights. And those aren’t gas. I can tell.”
I looked around. “Why, so they are. Lights.”
“You’re not… registered… And yet, there you are with electric-”
“Yes. Isn’t it beautiful?”
The small, beady man did not answer me. Clearly, he didn’t think my illumination as glorious as I did. He had no imagination. Just like all those sightless sots on my boat across the pond, he did not see the New York I felt in my veins. He did not know what I had here on Pearl Street, what I’d had on Mosley Street, what I could do to any street. Anyone.
“I imagine someone ran you wires from the home next door-” he drawled.
“Intentional or not, you are pulling current when this house has no registered circuits. That is illegal. One must have a meter. One must be registered. Light isn’t free, you know. Light isn’t a right, it must be earned. This is a summons to court, and this is your cease and desist-”
He held up papers. My ears rang. I took the pages from his sweaty palm and crumpled them, tossing them behind me into my hall.
“Sir, be reasonable, else I’ll call the authorities-”
“Go ahead, but they won’t understand. None of you do,” I said.
Outside, my block was oddly unpopulated. I took that as convenient providence. My divine justice was clear. A glorious song crested in my ear.
The bulb above the man’s head shattered as I reached towards him. I could see the small man fix upon my eyes, upon the threading spark he saw there; my pupils like a Tesla coil, I saw the glowing strands reflected in his own widening spheres, his gaze shifting in distinct cycles. Confusion to wonder to horror. I smiled.
“What are you-” the man choked.
There was a gurgle, a vicious sizzle, a hearty convulsion, a stench and a man lay charred at my feet, hair smoking. I know it’s my fault that he lies blackened and burned. Yet, as I search my heart like a detective who takes his kerosene lantern down a dark city alley, I find no regret huddling in the shadows.
Slumped against my doorframe, spent, Today’s shame was now wiped clean by the surge I wielded. I felt the same calm peace like when Father lay smoldering next to broken little Jack. Retribution grounds me.
Rallying to action, I knew the block would not remain unpopulated and the light would make all things evident to passersby. That was the problem with light; it may illuminate a scene but not circumstances. Light did not make cause and effect clear; a snag in my belief that light made all things equal. Light was more subjective, really.
I deposited the man’s body beside the fine home next door, near it’s shining new fuse box, concluding the visual context would provide explanation enough as to the cause of death. Fraying a wire made a nice touch. I placed his hand upon the exposed cable. Perfect. Live wire; dead body.
“Let there be light” scripture says. Religious fanatics and pastoral shepherds will encourage their sheep to “step into the light.” There, in the light, one shall be purified. There, in the light one shall be safe. Well. That depends. It depends on what one means by safe and who one is trying to guard. The subjectivity of light.
My state of reflection has drawn me up the uppermost stairwell of my building and out onto the pitch-covered rooftop to gaze out over Pearl street; my beautiful, burning, lit Pearl Street in the oyster of America. My adoration causes a flicker. The flutter of my heart is made manifest in the lamps across the street and in the shafts of illumination they cast.
As the grid of the city expands like a growing, living thing, I shall graft myself into it. Here I stand; planting my feet at the core of this great heart, the pulse of the world. As the century is about to turn, he who holds light holds power. I find it fitting that electricity has become synonymous with the word power. I do not wield mere light. But power itself.
And what is that I see in the great, pitch black sky? A flicker of lightning to bring me home; blessing its prodigal son. I lift my hands to the sky. Current reaches out in return, seeking my embrace. A bolt anoints me. Lightning’s fiery consummation reminds me that I am special. That I am exempt from the life of everyman. I am of the gods. When that terrifying and exhilarating paralysis releases me, I am invincible. That is what I am.
And God said: “Let there be light.” But now that light is made by the hand of man, I shall decide whether “And there was light” is deserved, or whether it shall be withheld. So please, Manhattan. Don’t anger me. Don’t come knocking on my door unless you welcome the kiss of voltage. Don’t ask what I am, look into my eyes and see.
Burn bright, day and night. Burn bright, dear city. Feed your power and feed me. Embrace me like the lover I deserve, New York. I am in your blood and you’ll die without light to feed your sleepless circulation. You industrious city; striving so hard and so fast, you need creatures like me. In your coming reign, O great Empire city, remember who can wield your current. Who needs Edison when we have each other? You, beautiful and powerful island, are my charge.
About the Author
Leanna Renee Hieber is an actress, playwright, ghost tour guide and the award-winning, bestselling author of Gothic, Gaslamp Fantasy novels such as the Strangely Beautiful, Magic Most Foul, Eterna Files and The Spectral City series. Leanna’s Dead Ringer, a historical paranormal mystery podcast series, is forthcoming from Realm. She is expanding her Dark Nest Chronicles with Time Immemorial, a new timeslip novella series with Scrib’d / Bryant Street Publishing, releasing in digital and audio editions with Leanna narrating. A 4-time Prism award winner and Daphne du Maurier award finalist, Leanna’s books have been selected for national book club editions as well as translated into many languages. Hieber has been featured in film and television on shows like Mysteries at the Museum and Beyond the Unknown.
About the Narrator
When not inhabiting cyberspace or various fantastic fictional worlds Joe exists in South London. A nerd by trade and geek by nature they spend their days in disguise as a mild-mannered IT greybeard. Their evenings, when not diverted by a remarkable wife or manipulative dog, are spent gaming, reading comics, and definitely writing something soon.