The Manifestation Cabinet
Ghosts aren’t something you see or hear, but something you feel. It’s not what’s there. It’s what you expect to be there, that isn’t. I didn’t fully understand until my first pet died. My father brought home Lizzie when I was only just old enough to walk. I don’t remember a time before her. My entire youth up until the age of eighteen or so, I would come home after school each day to find her curled up in her bed next to the fireplace.
After she passed, that expectation was so deeply engraved into my brain that I swear I occasionally glimpsed her there in my peripheral vision. Curled up in her bed next to the fire like always, vanishing the instant I turned to look. More than that, I swore I could feel her presence in that bed with my back turned, or from other rooms in the house. One of the many cruel tricks that grief likes to play.
The gravity was so palpable, radiating from the depression in the blankets lining Lizzie’s bed. Untouched since her death, still vaguely shaped like her. A terrible, yawning hole in reality, shaped like the outline of a sleeping dog. Losing Lizzie woke me up to how unprepared I was for the death of people close to me, if I was that consumed with grief over the loss of a pet.
So, I began preparing myself. “Pre-grieving” I called it, imagining the deaths of my mother and father. Of my sister, and every girlfriend I’ve had since that time. How naturally it came to me. After all, Darwin’s theory supposes that the human brain evolved as much for pain avoidance as for pleasure seeking. But the benefits came at a hidden cost, which I didn't realize until it had gone from an experimental habit to an inextricable feature of my personality.
Pre-grieving prevented me from fully investing my feelings into anyone, the normal process of emotional entanglement now halted before it could become irreversible. Do I care for them? Certainly. I’ve treasured the time I spend with friends and family all the more since it happened. But while they pour their love into me, I’m afraid I could reciprocate only partially. Unwilling, or unable, to love as completely as I did before.
That is, until I met Genevieve. The day she answered my modeling ad, peering through the peephole in my front door to find a shapely and well dressed redhead waiting patiently on my doorstep…I knew I wanted more from her than photographs. Hands sweaty, fumbling the camera, anxious that I was sending out all the wrong signals to a lovely young woman that must already be apprehensive about undressing for a strange man.
It was my great fortune that she found my clumsy demeanor charming, rather than reason for concern. I would come to learn that this was because she had substantially more experience being a model than I had photographing them. In the end the shoot went well in large part because she patiently talked me through it, advising me on how to improve the lighting, complimenting my framed prints adorning the walls as well as my collection of antique daguerreotype and calotype cameras.
Ever the patient muse, she did not raise a fuss while I changed out the albumen plate in my darkroom, but lounged contentedly on the day couch, the literal and figurative picture of elegant repose. Even so I feared to keep her waiting, still in disbelief that such a perfect specimen of natural womanhood was waiting for me in my living room, much less in an undressed state.
We became fast friends that day, and in the following weeks, something more. It happened so quickly that by the time I remembered to pre-grieve, my foolish heart had already fallen hopelessly in love with her. Now well past the emotional point of no return, I instead abandoned the cowardly caution with which I’d protected my heart all those years, and gave myself over to a daring new adventure.
It was Genevieve who introduced me to spiritualism. A Thelemite herself, Genevieve wasted no time reading to me from the writings of Aleister Crowley, endeavoring to teach me everything she’d so far learned about magick. We spent many evenings attempting to contact the dead by way of a popular novelty called an “Ouija board”, as well as a method involving an obsidian pendant dangling by a fine silver chain.
She would ask questions as she suspended the pendant, at the end of the chain, over my open palm. If it began to swing perpendicular to my fingers, the answer was no. If it instead began to swing parallel to my fingers, the spirits were answering in the affirmative. If the improvised pendulum instead moved in a circular or elliptical pattern, the answer was one of uncertainty.
One such evening, Genevieve interrupted the activity with an uncharacteristically grim request.
“Victor, you must promise me something. If death should ever separate us, whoever passes first shall make every effort to contact the other.” It shook me to even consider the possibility, never having processed that pain in advance as I did with prior lovers. Nevertheless, I promised.
“What a comfort that will be” Genevieve gushed, voice rich with relief, “to know that death is not the end. That you’ll be waiting for me in some other time and place, on the other side of the grave.” I remarked then that she seemed too certain I would perish first. Distressingly prophetic, in hindsight.
After a year or so practically connected at the hip, we both decided it was high time I made an honest woman of her. The first step in that direction was to meet one another’s parents. Being that hers still resided in France, while my own father’s property in upstate New York was but a few miles from my studio, I had him come pick the two of us up so we could have dinner at the old man’s cottage.
He arrived in my roadster, though by that point it was a stretch to call it mine. Since I began living full time out of my studio, I entrusted him with the care of my prized possession, which he’d long viewed with covetous eyes anyhow. “Oh a steamer!” cried Genevieve, “My mother and I rode in one of these at the ‘78 world’s fair.” Only as it chugged up the hill and came to rest at the curb, I sensed something was amiss.
“What have you done, old man?” I demanded. The spry little septuagenarian hopped out of the driver’s seat, eyes obscured by a pair of leather motorist’s goggles, neck adorned with a gray wool scarf. Even I never bothered with eye protection, surely that’s what the windshield’s for. But Dad so loves every aspect of motoring, fashion included.
“Accusations already? Is that any way to greet your dear old peepaw?” He slid the goggles up to his forehead, revealing his piercing blue eyes. Ordinarily a riotously loud beast even by steam standards, belching great clouds of vapor with an ear piercing whistle as it thunders down the road, today the handsome machine was instead silent save for a barely discernible hiss.
“Compressed air! It’s the new thing! If you truly don’t like it I can always convert the old girl back to steam, all I replaced was the boiler.” I lifted the side panel of the boiler compartment to find a hefty pill-shaped tank. It didn’t look so different. “No more waking up half an hour early each morning to warm it up!” he boasted. “Instant pressure, on demand! Doesn’t even handle any different, the operating psi is very similar.”
Genevieve observed that streetcars in Paris work much the same way, but benefit from a citywide compressed air distribution network. She asked where exactly one fills up on air in New York. Dad winked and told her to let him worry about that. Cause for concern, coming from him.
Still skeptical, I asked about the range. He suddenly looked sheepish, and I felt my stomach sink. “...Well you see, this is a conversion, so there wasn’t room for as large a tank as I’d like. If you can do without a trunk, that’s a different story! It’s all based on the work I did designing compressed air minecart pushers for the coal mines in-” Arms crossed, I demanded a straight answer.
“...Perhaps five miles. Six if you have a light touch on the throttle.” He pointed to one of the many rotary levers sprouting from the center of the steering wheel. I sighed loudly, upset but also amused to some degree. Dad devoted himself completely to tinkering ever since he and Mom went their separate ways. When they were together, she insisted on keeping his various gizmos confined to the workshop. Since her departure however, the mess had sort of crept out of the workshop and into the cottage like an oily growth of metallic clutter.
“Mining equipment, you say?” Genevieve was altogether more impressed than I felt she ought to be. He thumped his chest. “Sixty two patents to my name! Twelve more than that so-called Wizard of Schenectady. Stuffed-shirt Steinmetz believes that carriages of tomorrow will all be electric. Not so, says I! Not steam, nor electric, but clean and quiet compressed air! You see, down in the mines, you can’t very well use any vehicular power plant which burns fuel. The air would get fouled in a hurry. Nor batteries, lest sparks ignite pockets of flammable gas.”
Genevieve nodded attentively, glancing over at me and winking now and again. Loving this no doubt, noting parallels between myself and my father to tease me about later. She’d worn an impractically large, floppy hat adorned with feathers, which she struggled to hold onto as what remained of my poor mutilated roadster got up to speed. When she tired of that struggle, Genevieve tucked the hat under her seat, instead allowing her blazing red hair to flutter freely behind her.
I had to admit, the ride was pleasantly quiet. We could actually hold a conversation, something I wished Genevieve would wait on until we arrived at the cottage, lest she distract my father from the task of driving. I noticed the pressure gauge read worryingly low but didn’t know whether that was normal or cause for concern until Dad pulled into a trucking depot by the harbor.
There he negotiated with a stunningly ugly lout in a tattered cap and stained cotton undershirt, sackcloth trousers held up with a single suspender. He fiddled with a six foot tall contraption dominated in the center by a weighty looking flywheel, which I soon recognized for an industrial air compressor used to top up truck tires. “How much air, mac?” the ungainly brute inquired. Dad rubbed his chin, eyeballing the gauge. “About 4,350 ought to do it.”
His answer elicited a surprised look from the compressor attendant, or whatever his normal duties entail. “I dunno if it’ll go that high.” Dad tucked a folded bill into the man’s suspender. “Well give it a shot, we’ll take as much as it can give.” The machine struggled mightily, emitting the most unpleasant racket I think I’ve ever suffered through as the needle on the dash crept up to just under 4,000 psi.
“Will that be enough?” Genevieve asked with a tinge of concern in her voice, as our freshly pressurized motor carriage huffed and puffed its way towards city limits. Dad assured her it would, a bit of bravado I saw straight through, having overheard him promising investors all maner of impossible things on more occasions than I care to recount.
In fact, we ran out of air just half a mile from the cottage. The three of us were then reduced to getting out and pushing the damned useless heap the rest of the way while I shed a tear, inwardly, in memory of my poor beautiful roadster. I kept the angst to myself though, Genevieve always had a queer habit of jealousy towards machines. My cameras for instance, or anything else which competed with her for my attention. Throughout my childhood, Mother was the same way, pulling Dad away from his projects at every opportunity.
We made for a dreadful sight when at last we arrived. Clothing soaked through with sweat, faces red, collapsing into the grass as we caught our breath. Genevieve remained cheerful somehow, remarking that it would all make for an entertaining story when the two of us next attended a party. I was not so inclined to look for silver linings as I was to see my roadster restored. I argued loudly about it with Dad while Genevieve bathed, but gave up soon enough and joined her.
Rather than wait for Dad to bring some water up to heat indoors, Genevieve and I simply bathed in the river. Dad’s cottage sat right up against it, a grand and ponderous water wheel supplying him with all the electricity his projects could possibly use. As yet the power company hadn’t seen fit to run poles out into the countryside, and Dad being the way that he is, of course he wasn’t going to sit on his hands waiting for them to change their mind.
I appreciated that he had the decency not to spectate, though he knew well enough that Genevieve was what one might consider a woman of ill repute. I’d shown him more than a few prints from our sessions in recent weeks, so it wouldn’t be anything he’s not already seen. An uncomfortable thing to have in common with my father, perhaps, but prudishness is the first casualty of my line of work.
Genevieve lounged contentedly in her spare petticoat while her dress and underthings dried on the line. It wouldn’t take long, not in such unseasonably hot weather. Dad hobbled over to the stirling fan in the corner, placing a fresh jar of oil into the base and lighting the wick. After a minute or so heating up, the blades began to spin, furnishing us with a refreshing indoor breeze. Genevieve clapped, delighted as ever by modern contrivances. Having grown up surrounded by all this mechanical nonsense, I sometimes forget what a novelty it is to outsiders.
“Oh, how does it work then?” she pried. “You’ll tell me, won’t you? I can’t promise I’ll understand all of it, but I might surprise you.” He beamed with pride. “Built it myself! It’s a heat engine, spins when one side is hotter than the other. Those fins at the top, behind the fan, are for cooling.” She pointed to the base, where he’d put the fuel. “And that’s the end that heats up?”
He nodded, commending her for being observant and a quick learner. I watched her eyes sparkle as Dad entertained her with technical trivia. Something she was apparently even more interested in coming from him. Perhaps because, in this context, it didn’t threaten to monopolize my interest. “I confess I’m surprised though,” she added, “that the fan isn’t electric. I noticed all the lights are electric, rather than oil.”
She then recalled that my studio still uses oil lamps. I admitted I wasn’t yet convinced of the reliability of electric lighting and hardly wanted an outage interrupting my shoot. “At least with oil lamps I can always see at a glance how much is left.” Dad wagged his finger. “That’s where the batteries come in, boy.” He led the two of us to the dynamo room, where the water wheel just outside connected to a gearbox, and then to a monstrous cylindrical metal housing.
He gestured to a shelving tower opposite the dynamo, upon which there sat row after row of black boxes with pairs of interconnected red and black terminals poking up through their lids. “Nickel Iron” he boasted. “Courtesy of Edison Electric. Every house will have them one day.” I asked what they cost. He was suddenly tight lipped. “As I thought. An incurable early adopter is what you are! How is all of this expensive machinery more practical than simply using oil lamps?”
He pouted and groused about “the way of the future” and “men of vision never being understood in their time” until Genevieve took his side, assuring him that all of it was very impressive indeed. Just as abruptly as I’d soured his mood, Genevieve restored it. “I’m fast taking a shine to this one” he said of her. “Maybe I should’ve had a daughter after all.”
That evening is my last clear memory of my darling Genevieve. Taking dinner together, cracking open a bottle of wine by the hearth. She noticed the empty dog bed next to it, which I reluctantly explained. It wasn’t only my father I got to introduce her to that evening, but Lizzie as well, after a fashion. A “new side of me” she called it, which I’d neglected to share with her until then. I wasn’t ashamed; Genevieve always spoke highly of male sensitivity, particularly the love of animals. Rather, I still wanted to forget.
What a hell of a thing it is that I was with Lizzie at the end, but not Genevieve. I couldn’t be with her in the crucial moment, to cradle her in my arms and whisper softly as she passed. I had to find out by telegraphy two days after her ocean liner, the SS La Bourgogne, sank to the bottom of the English Channel just a few miles from port. She was to go on ahead of me, and I was to join her after putting some last minute affairs in order. How I wish now that we’d been on the same ship.
Mad with grief, I was quick to pour out my anger onto anybody remotely connected to the accident. I made a fool of myself that way, desperately seeking someone to blame, but of course there wasn’t anybody I could fault. The cause of the accident was unknown, and the news only took as long as it did to reach me because they notified the families of the victims in alphabetical order.
I never took up the bottle, feeling with some certitude that if I ever began drinking I would never stop. But sobriety soon became a luxury I could no longer afford. Possessing no taste for alcohol, I instead disappeared for some weeks into a local opium den, hypocrite that I am. Prior to that point in my life I had only an academic understanding of the effects of opium. The direct experience of it was something altogether different.
Long a favored drug of the Mohammedans, made from poppies they grow so prolifically, it was precisely the emotional balm I was looking for. I knew going in that it would be a bottomless pit of addiction, easy to fall into and difficult or impossible to climb out of. None of that concerned me in the days following the receipt of that telegram, as the only alternative I could countenance was to throw myself from the Brooklyn Bridge into the icy embrace of the East River.
Instead, I gave myself to the pipe. First days, then weeks blurred together into an interminable smear as I wasted away in a curtained alcove, tucked into the far corner of the humble establishment’s dimly lit back room. Occasionally the lady proprietor, or one of her two homely daughters, would make the rounds offering food and water.
I chose this particular den on 23rd street simply because it’s the only one not owned by Chinamen. I was not yet so far gone as to entrust my helpless body to a bunch of yellow devils, lest I wind up shanghaied on top of everything else which had recently gone wrong in my life. If not for my father I might’ve died in that dingy, fume choked pit.
He found me in a truly pitiable state, though I was too far gone to suffer any shame. I half-remember him dragging my limp frame from the alcove, across the dusty floor and out into the searing, awful sunlight. “I didn’t raise a coward” he grumbled while he propped me up in the back seat. “I’d rather have found you in the river.” The blow did not land, in part because I was still delirious and in part because the old man’s habitual harshness lost its sting some time in my twenties.
What did he rescue me from? Even after delivering me to my studio, not much changed. I spent all day in bed, rising only to empty my bowels or to take what little nourishment my stomach would accept. A balancing act, as initially most of what I put into it only came right back up. A consequence of withdrawal no doubt, but which sort?
My dreams offered no relief either, for she was in all of them. If it is true what some say about the nature of dreams as a bridge between the worlds of the living and the dead, then this is where the haunting began. So much like the opium, these dreams were a poisoned well I could not stop myself from returning to. Drinking eagerly of that sweet nectar, day and night, even as I felt it corroding my insides. I knew it’d kill me eventually…but I knew just as certainly that I’d die sooner without it.
Simple enough, to obtain my own pipe and supply of "medicine" with which to continue my downward spiral in the privacy of my studio. Opium cravings proved to be the only force besides hunger that my body would still respond to. There’s no such thing as dabbling when it comes to opium. A passenger in my life at first, always present in the back of my mind. Then a back seat driver, constantly nudging the steering wheel until one day, I was the one in the back seat.
Devious little substance, which has no body or intellect of its own, but also no need of either. The human substrate, upon which it grows like a cancer, performs every function of life on its behalf. Creating more of it, spreading it to new frontiers, fighting every effort to stamp it out. The proverbial serpent of Eden, which requires only the briefest moment’s weakness to damn you forever. Or the vampire of European folklore, who for all his terrible powers, cannot enter except by invitation.
Self-medication only made the dreams more vivid. So, when I thought I heard tapping at the window accompanied by Genevieve’s voice whispering my name, initially I paid it little mind. Only because it returned long after I sobered up did I bother to investigate the source of the noise. Again I concluded that I must’ve dreamt it, as my studio’s on the third floor and it hasn’t a balcony.
“Still feeling sorry for yourself?” asked Dad on his way in the door. Unannounced and uninvited, as was his habit, though he did at least bring the mail in for me. Unloading it from under one arm into a pile on the table by the door, he turned to address me. “Wrong attitude, that’s your problem. This is an opportunity in disguise! Romance only distracts the minds of men from their true purpose.”
Weakly, I inquired what he imagined that purpose to be. “Why, technological innovation of course! That miracle which we alone, among all the creatures of the animal kingdom, are able to perform. Your mother never understood that and neither did Genevieve." Even in my compromised state, at this I had to object. “My wife is dead. Will you please just leave me to my sorrow?”
“Not your wife!” he continued undaunted. “Fiance” I corrected myself. “She was to be my wife, though. We came so very close to being wed, had she only taken a different ship.” He strode to my side and threw off the covers. I shivered at the sudden chill. “Only your fiance, we’re agreed. No use agonizing over what-ifs, that path is closed to you now. But you’re still a young man! If I cannot dissuade you from wasting your life chasing slender ankles, there’s still plenty of time left to give your mother and I some grandchildren to spoil.”
“You know, with such an atrocious manner of offering comfort, you might’ve missed your calling as a doctor”. He laughed. “The human body is indeed a marvelously ingenious machine, but my ambitions are greater still. And what of your own potential? It’ll hardly be reached by moping in bed all day.”
“It’s only been a month” I grumbled, “were I not your son, you’d be dodging bullets now.” Once more he laughed, until he spotted the pipe sitting on my nightstand. He snatched it before I could protest, tossing it out the open window. “Again!?” he shouted. “You’re better than this! For God’s sake, pull yourself together! Tomorrow waits for no man!” With that he at last left me in peace, whereupon I resolved to head to the nearest tobacconist for a replacement pipe after checking my mail.
Bills mainly. Spending several weeks out of my wits made it dangerously easy to overlook bills until the deadline for their payment had come and gone. There was an envelope tucked into the mail which turned out to be filled with cash. My father has never once so much as told me that he loves me, or is proud. Still, he shows that he cares in other ways.
I’d have binned the rest, except that a trio of business cards caught my eye. The first read “Beady and Scholls Resurrection Services.” It was accompanied by a handwritten letter personally addressed to me. Likewise with the next card in the pile, which bore an invitation to avail myself of an “automatic writing” service. The third folded out to reveal an advertisement for “Sylvia Baudelaire, spirit medium”.
I knew to expect this sort of thing, as a colleague was also circled by such vultures following the death of his son to consumption. What I couldn’t figure out is why they thought I had money. Just how much do they think a photographer earns? I fetched a letter opener, carefully extracted the contents of the first envelope and began to read.
“Should this message reach its intended recipient, Victor Travigan, it is my earnest hope that it finds you well, all things considered. I understand you recently suffered a terrible loss. Perhaps you’re already familiar with the various means man has devised for contacting the spirits of the dead throughout the ages, given what is known of your late fiance’s interests. I, too, am something of a shutterbug and word gets around in those circles, as I’m sure you know.
I would urge you not to be taken in by the many frauds and gimmicks cluttering up the spiritualist community, but to instead place your trust in the most ancient method of contacting spirits known to the western world, automatic writing. It originated in the ancient orient during the Song dynasty. Known then as spirit writing, it has since become the topic of considerable scientific study, which revealed the ideomotor effect underlying this phenomenon.”
This fellow was barking up the wrong tree, to put it lightly. Genevieve had indeed informed me of this practice during our evening exercises. I was no more inclined to trust oriental claptrap then than I am now, but I bit my tongue while she demonstrated it for me nevertheless. It looked an awful lot like writing with your eyes closed. There was nothing obviously supernatural about either the method, or the contents of the paper afterward.
Reason enough to bin the letter, along with the card. I worked the next envelope open along the seam, unfolded this new letter and read it as well. “We, the proprietors of Beady and Scholls Resurrection Services, are writing to one Victor P. Travigan in regards to the recent passing of your bride to be. Complete details of the accident have not yet been released to British news outlets by the French authorities, so please forgive the sensitive questions we must have answered pending any possible business between us.
Our proprietary method builds upon medical discoveries concerning electricity as a motivating vital force, a patented revitalizing tonic we’ve named “Vitriol”, and the results of cutting-edge experiments involving the restoration of life to recently deceased animals. “Recent” being the key word here.
You see, whether or not you can make productive use of our service depends a great deal on what condition your fiance’s body was recovered in. Are you yet in possession of that information, sir? As we’re based out of London, and the sinking occurred in the English Channel, we believe we may be uniquely positioned to offer you a truly rare opportunity on account of our close proximity and the preservative qualities of frigid seawater.
If you’re at all interested, waste no time in ordering your beloved’s mortal remains transferred from the morgue in Normandy to our facility in London, before there is time for significant decomposition to occur. On the other side of this letter are detailed handling protocols that include packing the body in ice, advice you’d be wise to follow. We hope to hear from you shortly, so we can get the process moving while there’s still time.”
A nasty joke of some sort. Made me sick to my stomach, though in fairness I’d not eaten since Tuesday and smoked a great deal in the interim. What manner of depraved lunatic would waste a grieving man’s time with such morbid nonsense? I gave it no further consideration, the letter soon joining its brother in the bin where they both belonged.
I pocketed the overdue bills, closely studying the single remaining business card on my way to the elevator. Something of a modern novelty, of course my Dad delights in making use of it but I warmed to it much more slowly. A rickety, dodgy looking iron cage, nothing about it inspires much confidence. But by this point I no longer felt particularly attached to my life, so in I went.
After pressing a button to signal the elevator operator on the ground floor, the whole mess creaked and rattled on descent. The fellow at the controls, once I reached the bottom, was revealed to be a uniformed boy of perhaps fifteen. He extended his open hand in expectation of a tip. I obliged, not wanting to make an enemy out of him should I not feel up to climbing the stairs upon my return.
I didn’t make it far before the sweating started. At first I put it down to my lack of exercise over the past month, but then came the aches. I found myself performing a mental inventory of how much “medicine” I had at home, and how long it would last me under various potential rationing schemes. Lost in thought, I only barely managed to dodge the mailman on his autoped, presumably heading back to the post office after completing his morning rounds.
I caught the streetcar, stopping off at Horn & Hardart for a modest breakfast as I was skint and didn’t yet know what paying all those bills would cost me. Exchanging a dollar bill from Dad’s envelope for a roll of nickels, I pondered the many offerings before settling on a slice of pecan pie. Inserting a coin and twisting the knob opened the little glass shutter, through which I retrieved my prize.
Filling my stomach rejuvenated me somewhat, but the symptoms continued to mount. By the time I made it to the post office and finished mailing out the overdue payments, my hands were shaking. The fellow at the desk appeared none the wiser as he packed my envelopes into a sealed canister, sending it downstairs where it would be loaded into the underground pneumatic tube network.
However I yawned frequently enough to arouse the suspicion of an old woman in the next line over, who shot me considerable side-eye. I was able to pass it off as the consequence of working late nights recently. Her suspicion quickly gave way to motherly concern. She recommended some concoction called Bovril I’d never heard of as a pick-me-up. I lied that I’d surely try some next time I had occasion to.
In fact I’d not done anything remotely resembling work since my receipt of that telegram. Which reminded me to stop by the telegraphy office, where I sent my condolences to Genevieve’s parents. Hopefully they would not ask about the delay. As the address on the card was on the other side of town anyhow, I stopped by my studio to self-medicate before the shakes could get any worse.
Refreshing might be the wrong word for it, but it did make me regular enough to prevent attracting further attention to myself. I didn’t stop by the usual den on 23rd street because I knew that if I ever returned, weeks would once again pass before my face next felt sunlight. It was still incapacitating enough however that I couldn’t complete my errands until late afternoon.
The sun hung low on the horizon when I arrived outside the Museum of Spiritual Technologies, where her business card led me to believe I would find a “Madame Sylvia Baudelaire”. Upon inquiring about her at the front desk, the attractive but conservatively dressed receptionist informed me that Sylvia was unavailable at the moment, on account of a seance that was underway. I didn’t realize she meant right behind the velvet curtain to our immediate left until I heard mournful wails, loud thumping and the rattling of pots and pans emanating from behind it.
“You may browse our exhibits while you wait” she offered. But before I could take her up on it, she added “once you’ve paid for entry, of course.” Ah yes, of course. I provided her with ten nickels from the roll I bought at the automat, before tucking it back inside my jacket. It wasn’t much of a museum for what I paid.
The first section, a corridor running along the outer wall of the building with windows at five foot intervals to one side, was a gallery of “spirit photography”. A purported spirit camera sat in a recently dusted glass case. Perhaps it would impress someone less familiar with cameras, but to my trained eye it simply appeared to be a bog standard CDV with some wires, tubing and superfluous dials affixed to the frame.
The photographs, all of them cabinet cards measuring about five by seven inches, seemed ordinary at first until I questioned how the subjects wound up in such contrived situations if not to intentionally produce a “spirit photograph”. Two men hanging around in a graveyard for example, not something I or anybody I know has ever done on a whim.
“Hardly seems like ghosts would hold still for a picture.” I turned abruptly, startled to discover Dad standing beside me. “What’s the matter, boy? Didn’t hear me pull up? That’s clean, quiet air power at work!” I rolled my eyes and asked what he was doing here. “Well, I thought you might get suckered into something of this nature.” He hesitated, and his voice softened. “She believed so strongly, you could never resist getting caught up in it.”
Truthfully, it was a relief to have him along. Enough of his mindset rubbed off on me growing up, for better or worse, that I was already inclined to view spiritualism as a dubious enterprise. But at the same time, he wasn’t wrong about Genevieve. There were times, late in the evening when the fireflies came out and her delicate fingers worked the planchette, that she made it as real for me as it was for her.
“...Also, I read your mail” he confessed. I scolded him until he clarified that the cards were sitting atop the pile, plain to see. “Mountebanks always come sniffing around the aftermath of a tragedy.” He nudged me with his elbow. “...If love makes us mad, then what of the grief stricken mind? There exists a certain variety of unscrupulous charlatan willing to tell the mourning widower whatever he most desperately wishes to hear, for a price.”
I reassured him that I concluded much the same about the first two business cards. “This one seemed like it might be different, though. I do admit, the photography angle spoke to my interests.” He raised an eyebrow, nodding towards a cabinet card hanging on the wall before us depicting a pale, faded ghost baby rising from the stroller. Two maids recoiled in fear, one to either side.
Presumably the audience isn’t meant to consider how long those ladies would’ve needed to hold their supposedly unprompted pose for the exposure to finish. All the rest were of the same variety. Every detail happened to be just right to create a chilling mood, a photographer always coincidentally present with all his equipment set up at the crucial moment when the ghost appears.
The next hall was at least more interesting, if not more convincing. Various examples of cutting edge “spirit technology”, the devices all individually locked within protective glass cases with framed prints of their inventors on the wall just behind each case. “While I don’t appreciate you reading my mail, I may just fish the first two letters out of the trash for you later. You wouldn’t believe-”
He interrupted to assure me he would. “Far too much of that nonsense these days, as an inventor I’ve seen it all. Electrical vitality belts for increasing male vigor. Electrical headbands for stimulating dreams. Just because electricity is the new thing, so it’s ill understood. Mystics always hide their claims within whatever’s not yet well understood, so that almost nobody is qualified to decisively say they’re lying.”
The gadgets in the glass cases certainly seemed to fit the bill. Spirit phone, spirit horn, spirit battery, spirit machine table, the latter two attributed to a “Jonathan Koons”. Next up, a “wireless coherer”, evidently the work of one “Oliver Lodge”, with the rest of the gizmos falling along similar lines. I was surprised to see a framed picture of none other than Thomas Edison above the spirit phone. I thought him to be made of better stuff. Just below his picture was a brass plate engraved with a quote of his, some nonsense about “memory swarms”.
Dad informed me that Edison’s flights of fancy began around the time that he fell in with Madame Helena Blavatsky’s “Aryan Theosophical Society”. I balked. “It’s worse than I thought. First Conan Doyle, now Edison? It’s getting to where you can’t trust anyone to have their head on straight.” Dad chortled, adding that in his line of work he’s met plenty of men too brilliant to believe they could be tricked. “Some of the cleverest men I know are also the biggest rubes. Then again, any man that fears being wrong will never invent anything, as an inventor must be wrong a thousand times before he’s right.”
I joked that my mangled roadster must be among those thousand. He took it personally. “We’ll just see about that! History will be the judge. Though if my latest project is a success, then motor carriages will be the smallest part of my legacy.” Before I could ask what he meant, we were interrupted by a matronly woman in a pompous black dress adorned with lace fringes.
“The Travigans, I take it? Junior and senior?” She offered Dad her small, pale hand, but he declined. I apologized on his behalf. “He’s a doubting Thomas I’m afraid.” Sylvia smiled, brushing a few graying strands of her otherwise raven hair out of her eyes. “All the better. An authentic medium has nothing to fear from skeptics.” I noticed her sleeves terminated in a pair of jeweled finger loops as she gestured for us to follow. Must be doing alright for herself.
“This is where I ply my craft, gentlemen” Sylvia announced upon our arrival to an ornately decorated room just behind the grand velvet curtain I’d seen on my way in. The walls were lined with shelves bearing all manner of expensive looking curios. “Make yourselves comfortable.” Dad and I took our places in beautifully carved oak chairs at either end of a tremendous round mahogany table.
“As you may already know” she began, “it remains a matter of scientific controversy that there exist invisibly small creatures all around us, which cause every kind of illness. Even decades on from that monumental discovery, which so shook the foundations of medicine, many still struggle to believe in unseen agents of human misfortune.”
Dad sighed loudly. I could tell he wanted to argue with her. I shot him a stern glance to arrest that notion. Sylvia shrugged it off. “Now, who is it you would like me to contact?” Dad finally interjected, asking why she didn’t already know. I hushed him, and she continued.
“While many mediums claim to possess psychic talents, I personally do not. The only information I receive about the dead comes straight from their own mouths. Moreover, as I assumed was clear to you both, another detail which differentiates me from other mediums is my use of certain technologies to facilitate contact between the worlds of the living and the dead. As such, if you hoped for a spectacle of magic and mumbo jumbo, you’ve come to the wrong place. Aside from the method used to initially attract the spirits to this room, mine is a strictly scientific process.”
Dad harrumphed and crossed his arms. Honoring my desire that he not interfere, if nominally. It took no small amount of cajoling to make him uncross his arms, when the time came for the three of us to hold hands. The prior month of isolation in that dismal opium den had so starved me of a woman’s touch, the feeling of Sylvia’s hand in mine struck me as quite alien.
How like Genevieve’s, to the extent that I could still remember it. Yet at the same time, noticeably different in the finer details. Some foolish, forlorn part of my brain scorned the contact as if it were a form of infidelity. As if touching any part of another woman’s body, ever again, somehow dishonored Genevieve’s memory. Despair seems to bring with it a subtle psychosis.
Sylvia closed the curtains, enveloping us in darkness before lighting a single candle in the center of the table. Then she proceeded with what I recognized, from my exercises with Genevieve, to be a statement of intention. “We three seekers are gathered here in the hopes of contacting one Genevieve Martin. I beseech her to reach out to us, on behalf of one Victor Travigan. Genevieve, if you can hear me, draw near as you can to the sound of my voice. When you are with us, please give us some sign of your presence.”
I waited. Earnest and anxious, despite my equally desperate desire not to be fooled. Then again, what did Dad say earlier about the fear of being wrong? I noticed I was sweating. Are the cravings getting closer together? Just my nerves, I quietly hoped. But after an unbearably tense interval…nothing happened. Dad began to get up from his seat…when suddenly, the table shook.
I gasped in astonishment. He froze in place, eyes wide. Then slowly, slowly, returned to a seated position. The candle flickered. Sylvia smiled. Coy, seemingly all knowing, our fearless captain in these uncharted waters. “Genevieve, is that you? Please rap the table or wall twice, if it is.” Henceforth there came two loud, sharp raps emanating from the table.
It gave me petty pleasure to see Dad disquieted. He is so often all bluster, and there is so little in the world which can disrupt it. However I was no less rattled, even having read extensively from independent seance reports by academic investigators. Still, to experience it in person was proving quite a different animal.
“Hm. Yes, I see.” Sylvia cupped her ear as though someone were whispering into it. “Genevieve tells me that the two of you were to be wed, before she drowned tragically some weeks ago in a maritime accident.” Dad scoffed. “You read the papers, I see.” Still a bit of fight in him, even though I could tell he was shaken.
Sylvia was evidently practiced at maintaining her composure in spite of heckling, as Dad’s most recent attempt to get a rise out of her was no more effective than any of the others. Likely a common experience in her line of work. “Genevieve tells me it’s beautiful where she is. Not to despair, or to feel lonely, because the spirit realm is everywhere. Sharing the same time and space we inhabit, but invisibly. Wherever you go, she’s with you.”
I heard a faint, muffled woman’s voice. It seemed to originate from just above the center of the table. “Genevieve??” I cried, abandoning all discipline. “My love, can it be you?” The voice returned. This time, I could just barely make it out. “Victor,” came the womanly whisper, followed by a series of taps at the table. I made the connection a moment later with the taps at my window the other day, and the voice I thought I heard whispering my name in the early hours of the morning.
It was a struggle to restrain my tears. My heart now raced and my breath quickened. “I believe it’s safe to say that she’s present in the room with us” Sylvia smugly concluded, making sustained eye contact with my father as she spoke. “Now comes the cabinet.” The...cabinet? I realized I must’ve not read the program carefully as there was clearly more to the seance than I thought going in.
Indeed, there in the corner stood a full height cabinet, nearly touching the ceiling as it was supported up off the ground on a pair of sawhorses. It was revealed to us when Sylvia removed the silk sheet which hid it from view during the seance, or whatever service this strange and apparently powerful woman meant to provide. She opened the doors and beckoned to me.
Sylvia must’ve glimpsed confusion on my face, dimly illuminated from the side by that single candle, because she clarified that I was meant to climb inside. “For what purpose?” I demanded, voice faltering. She gently reassured me that no harm would befall either myself or my father. That the enclosure before us was a “manifestation cabinet”, an invention of the brilliant Davenport brothers, spiritual technologists of international renown. “Within this chamber, an electrical attraction field concentrates ectoplasmic vapor, of which spirits are composed, until it solidifies.”
From Sylvia’s word salad, I intuited the cabinet could supposedly give physical form to ghosts. Also that it was supported up off the floor for much the same reason as the box a magician saws in half; to help the audience suspend disbelief. In my mind, that didn’t bode well. Still I obliged, all too willing to believe on account of the softly whispering voice, and the familiar tapping. I stepped up into the cabinet, which contained a pair of chairs positioned inside facing one another. Lining every interior surface was a grid of fine copper wire, not unlike a Faraday cage.
Upon noticing a small selection of musical instruments hung from hooks on the inside wall of the cabinet, I asked what they were for. Now, for the first time, Sylvia’s tone betrayed some measure of impatience. “Please understand, Mr. Travigan. Genevieve has exerted herself considerably to be here with us. She cannot stay for long, thus time is of the essence. At this point I should not have to coax belief from you. It is your choice. Would you like to feel the touch of your beloved? Are you going to believe, or aren’t you?”
When she put it like that, there hardly seemed any other way forward except into the cabinet. I took a seat opposite the empty chair, followed by a series of deep breaths I hoped would calm me. They did nothing of the sort. “One last thing” Sylvia added, handing me a strip of dense black cloth. Before I asked, she informed me it was a blindfold. “The secret of the dead is not ours to know” was the only explanation I received.
Once I tied the ends of the blindfold together behind my head, Sylvia shut the doors, plunging me into darkness. Curiosity led me to lift the blindfold briefly, in spite of her warning. I could see not even the smallest hint of candle light leaking through the seams around the doors. I felt around the hinges and discovered the edges of the doors were lined with felt, presumably for just this reason.
“Is your blindfold secure, Mr. Travigan?” came Sylvia’s muffled voice from the other side of the cabinet doors. I called out that it was. “Very well. Whatever you do, however sorely tempted you might be, I urge you not to remove your blindfold at any point during what is to follow. The darkness should be enough to protect you, but I see no reason to chance it. Brace yourself!” Unsure what she meant, I gripped the edges of my chair with white knuckles on rapid approach to the unknown.
I heard a series of clicks. Then a low pitched hum, accompanied by the sensation of all the fine hairs on my body standing on end. I knew it to be the work of an electrical apparatus, but I knew not what would come of it…until I heard her voice. No longer faint or muffled, now unmistakably Genevieve…inside the cabinet with me. “Victor”, she whispered.