A Connection to Beyond
by Cat Rambo
“Katherine and Margaret Fox have a genuine connection to Beyond,” Papa said. He folded the newspaper into careful quarters and put it on the dining table, looking at me across the wide wooden pool of its glossy surface, the shine broken by a bridge made of Duchesse lace, which fell two inches to either side.Stay home and keep
I knew who Katherine and Margaret Fox were — girls around my age who lived in Albany, New York. A few months ago I’d read an article in Papa’s New York World about how the spirits communicated with them. First they just heard rapping, then they figured out how to make the spirits talk to them. One rap for yes, two for no. The spirit said it was a workman who had been killed and buried under their house. People dug where the spirit said, and there was a body of an Irishman and his trowel buried beside him. He was a mason, hired to mend a wall in front of the house.
“The editor writes that he believes it is the innocence of their hearts allowing them this great gift.” Papa was silent, studying me. Then, with hesitation in his voice he said, “You never hear noises you can’t explain, do you, Jenny?”
“No, Papa.” It was the wrong answer, I could tell. He looked disappointed, the corners of his moustache drooping down.
“Is Mama a spirit or an angel? Or are they the same thing?” I asked.
“She might be.”
“But you said she was an angel. Are they the same thing?”
“People aren’t sure,” he admitted. “Some think spirits are souls who still have business here on earth.” He smiled a little. “I like to think your mama would not want to leave us so quickly. And so she remains a spirit.”
He wiped his hands on his dark pants. “And what do you have planned for this fine summer day, Jenny? What important events lie ahead for this fifteenth birthday?”
“Cake and pink lemonade with Alice tonight,” I said. “Aunt Tilda is making me a new dress, and this afternoon I am going over to let her finish it.”
“And this morning?”
“I will sit on the front porch and sew…no, I will read from the Bible,” I said, watching his face.
He smiled even harder.
Alice from next door came over. We sweetened our lemonade with handfuls of sugar from the sugar barrel in the pantry and licked the sticky grit from our fingers, and then chipped ice for it from the lump in the icebox. We drank it on the porch swing, using the tips of our toes to rock ourselves back and forth. Fat bees crawled through the honeysuckle shading the porch, too sluggish to pursue the liquid in our glasses.
“Next month I’m going away to boarding school,” Alice said. She was one year older than me, but we were in the same classes at Miss Danning’s Academy. She was fatter and blonder than me and I liked holding my arm next to hers and seeing how much plumper it was or how the sun had burned the fair skin.
Papa said I was his Indian maiden. This summer I reveled in the sun for the first time. Mama would have forbidden it. “What will you do next year when we’re graduated?”
“Stay home and keep home for Papa.” I kept Papa’s home and ordered the menus each morning and made sure the cook and the maid didn’t steal anything.
“My Mama says you’re spoiled,” Alice said. The sunlight glinted on her hair as she studied me.
I laughed. “She’s just jealous because she doesn’t have such a pretty home to live in,” I said, not caring whether or not it hurt Alice’s feelings.
“My Mamma says ever since your Mama died you’ve had the run of things and you’ll be put down pretty hard when Miss Tabor marries your Papa.”
“He’s not going to marry her,” I said.
“He’s just not going to. He’s got me to look after him. He doesn’t need That Woman.”
“I’m sure there’s things she can give him you can’t,” she said with a lewd curl to her lips, but I pretended not to understand what she meant.
Her mother rang the lunch bell, a cowbell you can hear throughout the neighborhood, and she slurped down the last of her lemonade and set the glass on the railing. “I’ll see you tonight for cake, right?” she said.
I picked up her glass and wiped the railing with my napkin. “Yes.”
Aunt Tilda was not my real aunt, but she was my mother’s friend. She agreed to make me a grown up dress, black tulle sewn with guipure lace made into a collar a la Vandyke, the pattern taken from Godey’s Lady’s Book. Slicks of light moved across the fabric’s glossy surface. I stood on a stool so she could hem it.
“How pretty!” a voice said from the doorway. It was That Woman. As she came into the room, I smelled lavender and heard her skirts rustling, although I could not turn to look at her.
“And how are you today, Jenny?” she said.
“Very well, thank you.”
“It’s her birthday, Miss Tabor.” Aunt Tilda was still on her knees, setting the hem into place with tiny, deft stitches. I would have liked to have seen her finish it on the new sewing machine, but she worried it would wear out, so she saved it for special occasions.
“Her birthday!” That Woman’s voice went up high, as though she was pretending to be excited. “Shall I make you something for your birthday, Jenny? Perhaps a little morning cap made of lace?”
“No, thank you,” I said politely.
It wasn’t what they expected me to say, and I could tell they were exchanging glances. The only sound in the room was a delivery cart’s rattle from outside and two finches singing to each other in the trees near the window.
“It’s a rather…dark dress, isn’t it?” That Woman asked.
“It’s what she wanted,” Aunt Tilda said. She and I had argued about this already, but I said Papa would rather have the dress be black. Black makes me look mysterious, like something out of a poem.
“I am still in mourning for my mother,” I said.
“Ah.” She stood there, looking at me as Aunt Tilda began to pin a ruffle along the skirts around my ankles. “She died of pneumonia early last fall, did she not?”
“She did,” I said. “She’s buried in the church where the willow droops over the wall. It’s a very romantic spot.”
She laughed. “It’s been almost a year now, though, Jenny,” she coaxed. “Surely it is time to put on a little finery, to spread your wings and flutter for the boys.”
“I am a decent, well-behaved girl,” I said. Aunt Tilda made a stifled snort deep in her chest. The silence spread until Aunt Tilda cleared her throat.
“Give my regards to your father,” That Woman said and was gone.
Aunt Tilda waited until she was out the door before she shook the fabric out and pinned it anew. “There’s no need to be rude, Jennifer Miller.”
“I said thank you.”
She hrmphed. “Butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth, would it?”
I didn’t know what she meant. I thought about crying. People will stop talking to you sometimes if you cry. But Aunt Tilda sees through that.
“You’re going to have to face facts,” Aunt Tilda went on. “That woman’s got her cap set at your father, and you might want to think about the fact she may become your mother.”
“I have a mother. She’s in heaven.”
Papa said our usual preacher, Reverend Flint, was the best preacher in Cleveland, but I still fell asleep during the sermon unless I bit the inside of my mouth and pinched my legs. I pinched myself and wondered whether spirits came to church. I imagined them swirling around up by the ceiling, but I thought maybe Mama would come to us, a swaddled mass of veils and angry eyes, staring at me. I scared myself with the notion for just a moment, deliberately, knowing in my heart it was all fakery. There’s nothing after we die.
Reverend Flint was a very tall man. His arms and legs looked like a spider’s – like one of the daddy long legs I found sometimes in the morning grass. His hair always seemed damp, as though he had been swimming, and it sat close to his skull.
His voice echoed over the dim stir of the crowded church: “We are finite creatures, and therefore, how can we possibly offend a source so infinite that all our petty vanities and acts are as nothing? It is not God who must be reconciled to human beings, but human beings who must be reconciled to God.”
Sometimes I could tell when the sermon’s end is coming, but sometimes not. It was hot in the church and I could hear a fly buzzing in the window, and all the little coughs and sniffs people try not to make.
Outside the church afterwards, Papa was talking about spiritualism with some other men.
“Horace Greeley has stated Spiritualism and Free Love are tied together,” Mr. Townsend said. “He said ‘If there is any truth in Spiritualism, I am afraid the spirits who visit us mainly tenanted bad bodies while on earth and have not improved since.’”
They all laughed, except for Papa. “Spiritualism, on the contrary, leads us away from carnality. To be spiritually minded is life and peace.”
“Are you gentlemen solving the world’s problems?” It was That Woman. She held onto her brother’s arm.
“We are indeed.” Papa smiled at her, although some other men looked funny at her. Women don’t usually come talk to the men. Aunt Tilda says young women are far too bold in this modern day.
“I hear you are a suffragette,” Mr. Bowler said to her. I wasn’t sure if that was a bad thing or a good thing, but she smiled.
“I am indeed,” she said “Last April, I was at the Woman’s Rights convention in Salem and had the honor of hearing Lucretia Mott speak. She said there is no issue affecting the human family more than Woman’s rights.”
“The convention where the women refused the men any right to participate?” another man said. “Will we see you wearing bloomers next?”
Most of the men guffawed, and her face turned red, but she stayed where she was. “Women are making great strides in this century. In Pennsylvania, they’ve opened a Woman’s Medical College. Indeed, Reverend Flint has been talking of bringing a woman to preach at church here, Mrs. Sojourner Truth.”
“A colored woman speak at church?” the man next to Papa scoffed. “I would as soon go see a talking dog.”
“That’s supposed to be the appeal,” someone else said. “Doctor Johnson says the wonder is not what a preaching woman says but that she does so at all.”
That Woman’s brother tugged at her arm. “I must go speak to Mrs. Pennington.” His voice was soft and gentle. “Come, sister, accompany me.”
She left, but not without a last smile at Papa.
“That one’s got her cap set at you, Fred,” someone said. I didn’t know if she was too far away to hear them or not. I watched her back as she and her brother retreated. There was dust on her crinoline’s hem and the ugly smear made me glad.
That evening, we had cake after dinner out on the porch with Aunt Tilda and Alice. The cake had white and pink icing, and I served it on the best Doulton china, the one with ivory patterns like knotwork along the rims.
Out on the street, the neighborhood kids played kick the can and shouted back and forth. Mama said they were common and I couldn’t play with them. Of all the girls on the street, only Alice passed muster, and even that was barely.
Papa slouched back into his Adirondack chair as I poured him more coffee. Alice took advantage of the motion to take more cake, pursuing bits of frosting with her fork.
“Have you had a pleasant birthday, Jenny?” my father said.
I nodded. “Yes, Papa.”
He put a parcel wrapped in white paper and tied with a pink ribbon on the table. I opened it to find a book, Modern History, from the Fall of Rome to the Present Time.
“Most instructive.” Papa said.
It wasn’t a nice present, but when Mama was alive, she didn’t allow presents, so I counted myself ahead. I flipped through the pages and look at the illustrations.
“I saw Miss Tabor today when I was out on my lunch constitutional,” my father said.
“Oh?” Aunt Tilda said, archness in the words.
“She was looking quite well.”
“Indeed?” Aunt Tilda’s voice grew even more meaningful as she glanced at me.
“Quite well.” He unfolded his newspaper and leaned back while Alice, Aunt Tilda, and I watched the children chase each other across the sleepy brick street.
Before going to bed, I studied the parlor table. When I was little, my mother would slap at me for kicking the leg. It made a hollow sound when I did it, a satisfying sound.
I found my mother’s sewing basket in her room. I sorted through the spools of thread, trying not to look at the colors. I remember her making herself a blue dress, a yellow dress, a pink dress, and embroidering flowers on the hems. At the bottom, I found two thimbles, one sized for me, one sized for her. I took hers.
Late at night, when the moonlight washed into the windows, spilling over the floor like milk, I went down to my father’s bedroom and knocked on the door. He came out, yawning.
“What is it, Jenny? Did you have a nightmare?”
“I heard knocking,” I said. “Not the front door, but in the walls.”
He blinked himself awake. “Really?” His voice was filled with excitement.
If I was patient, I hoped, I would not need to lead him.
“Did you try talking to them?” he asked.
“One rap for yes, and two for no,” I said. “They want to talk to you.”
He started for my bedroom, but I said, “They want a proper séance.”
I knew how to do it from the stories of Katherine and Margaret. I lit candles on the sideboard. We sat across from each other at the table. He reached forward and took my hands, closing his eyes.
Underneath the table, I twitched off my slipper.
“Spirits, are you here?” His voice was hesitant. “Marion? Is it you?”
It was hard to move my leg without moving my hands, but the thimble on my toe made a satisfying rap on the table leg.
My father’s eyes flew open.
“Did you hear that?” he gasped. At my nod, he closed his eyes again. I pretended to close mine, but peeked out beneath my lashes, in case he was watching me.
He wanted Mother, so I brought her back for him, rapping out messages, trying hard not to imagine what she might say to me if she knew my fakery. He asked if she was well and happy and I had her say that people in heaven sing all the time, and she hoped he’s taking good care of me. His voice was tender and caressing – sometimes I’d heard them talking like that behind the closed oak bedroom doors, so heavy that they muffled sound.
My leg was exhausted and shaking with the effort when he said, “Marion, tell me, do you remember that night up on Fool Mountain?”
I didn’t know what to say, but “yes” seemed obvious.
His smile faded. “Well, Marion, I think that’s enough for tonight.” He pushed away from the table. I slipped the thimble off my toe.
A servant must have seen the séance last night and spread the gossip. Both Alice and Miss Tabor came asking about it. I lied to Alice and said I didn’t remember anything, but she kept pushing and pushing.
I told her, “Papa wanted to see if we could talk to Mama, that’s all.”
“My Mama said there were lights on at all hours over at your house,” Alice said.
“What does your mother do, stand watching ours day and night?” I asked. Alice changed the subject and talked me into making taffy. Later Cook complained to Papa about the counters being sticky, and he forbade me to make candy anymore. What was the use of being the woman of the house if I couldn’t make candy?
Miss Tabor came and spoke to Papa about it too. They sat out on the porch and I lingered in the parlor at the open window, listening to them talk in the darkness.
“Rumor holds you have been conversing with the Empyreal Realms,” Miss Tabor said lightly.
Papa was silent for a moment before answering. “I must confess, Miss Tabor…”
“June, if you please.”
“June, then. I must confess that in my foolishness I’ve always believed there was another realm into which the spirit passed upon death, barely separated from our own. And that the layer’s thinness accounted for such phenomenon as ghosts.”
“You speak as though you do not believe in it anymore,” she said.
“Do I? I wonder sometimes how much of what we see is our own wistful interpretation or else charlatanry and fraud.”
“Indeed, you are in a cynical mood,” she said. “I’ve never heard you like this.”
“Since my wife’s death I have had less faith in human nature.”
“Why since her death?”
“I must tell you this story in the deepest confidence,” he said. “My wife had pneumonia and was much weakened, at a time when our house was full of visitors, due to the Christmas holidays. She was found after dinner in her bed when her sister went upstairs to check on her.”
Locusts shrilled in the trees as he spoke. “The thing is this. The doctor came to certify the body before it was taken to the funeral home and asked me if my wife had fallen, for she had curious bruises around her face.
“I lied, of course, and said she had fallen.”
“Why? I don’t understand,” Miss Tabor said.
“The person who was known to have been with my wife was my daughter Jenny. I did not want to expose her to unpleasantness occasioned by the fact someone had taken the opportunity to remove a dying woman from this world.”
“Are you saying your wife was murdered?”
“Do you believe in spiritual affinities as spoken of by Swedenborg?” Papa asked.
“The idea that some souls naturally embrace each other? I have heard it spoken of.”
“My wife and I were the opposite,” Papa said. “We were the product of a match arranged by our parents when we were both in our infancy. I was eight when she was born, and I remember the grown-ups making sport of the upcoming nuptials and asking after my little bride to be.”
“But surely you came to a sympathy once you were married?”
“My wife,” Papa said, “was not a pleasant woman. She made everyone’s life wretched. She knew she was dying of tuberculosis, so she set about driving us all crazy.”
“I still don’t understand.” Her voice was quiet and calm. “Are you saying you killed your wife or that your daughter did?”
I didn’t hear Papa’s answer. He raised his voice. “Go to bed, Jenny,” he said.
When I came home from Mrs. Tabor’s, Papa was in the parlor with another man. I didn’t like the way he looked. His face was red and he had ginger hair. He wore a bright blue vest with a gold chain leading to the pocket.
“Jenny, this is Mr. Cain,” Papa said. “Abraham, this is my daughter.”
“The gifted miss herself!” Squatting on his heels, Mr. Cain peered into my face. Then he reached out and felt my head. “Ah, I can see where she gets it. Her bump of sublimity is well developed.”
“You are a practitioner of phrenology, sir?” Papa asked.
“Only a dabbler, only a dabbler in that ancient art.”
Papa turned to address me. “Mr. Cain arranges for spiritual tours, Jenny. So people like yourself can share their gifts with other people looking for guidance from the spirit world. Do you think you would be willing to conduct a séance with him present?”
There was no way to say no, so I nodded.
“I’ll be right back.” Papa left, and Mr. Cain and I were alone. I could feel him looking at me while I studied the design on the carpet. Tulips and lilies next to each other, first a row of red and white tulips, stiff and formal, then a row of orange lilies, the green leaves edged with blue.
“Let’s understand each other,” Mr. Cain said, his voice low. “You and I both know you’re faking it, but your father doesn’t need to. Let me see you in action and I won’t blow your gaff.”
I looked at him, not sure what he meant.
“I won’t tell on you, dolly, but I do want to see.” He grinned slyly. “You might teach an old dog new tricks, eh?” His face was pinked with heat and gleamed from the sweat. I heard Papa coming down the hall before I could reply.
We sat around the table, and Papa drew the curtains across the windows, letting the room fill with shadows. We joined hands and closed our eyes.
I didn’t mean to do anything, not at first, but Mr. Cain’s fingers tightened on mine until it hurt. He wouldn’t let go. Finally I managed to make the table rap by putting my toe under the leg and jerking it up, careful not to move the rest of my body.
“Ah, spirits, speak to us,” Papa said. His eyes were still closed, but Mr. Cain was looking at me. “Do you have a message?”
“A message for me?”
“From my wife?”
Mr. Cain’s fingers clenched mine so tight that I gave up the idea of having the spirits tell Papa not to let me go. I’d have to persuade him in some other way. There was a long silence.
“Are you a member of my family?” Papa asks.
I couldn’t think of what to do. The air pushed in around me, hot and still, and Mr. Cain was still hurting my hand. I used all my strength trying to push at the table, but it was so heavy that my chair tipped over backwards and I fell on the carpet, my fingers bruised. I started crying, but I didn’t know whether it was from the pain, or the frustration. Nothing was going right.
Papa was there, his arm around me. Behind me Mr. Cain stood, staring down at me and smiling.
Over dinner, Mr. Cain told us about the spiritualists who he arranged tours for. He said they come from all over the world. One was related to English royalty, he said.
“I am a follower of the principles developed by Antoine Mesmer and use them to manipulate the magnetic fields in the body and induce trances in the girls. Pretty girls, all of them,” he said, winking at Papa. “You’d fit right in.”
“How do you provide for their education?” Papa asked.
Mr. Cain squinted at him before answering. “We bring tutors on the tour, of course. Each girl applies herself to her studies, which include elocution, literature, and etiquette. And travel, as you know, polishes one. The girls get to interact with society of the highest degree.”
“It sounds ideal.” Papa smiled at me. “Don’t you agree, Jenny?”
I chose my words with care, like picking cards out of a hand. “I would feel homesick. I would not want to leave you, Papa.”
“Sometimes parents are willing to make sacrifices for their children,” Mr. Cain said. “Many of the parents certainly do not need the wages the girls earn, but wish to see them advance in society.”
“Exactly,” Papa said.
“You are no fool,” Mr. Cain said.
“No,” Papa said. “My wife and I had a saying: ’I’ve never visited Fool Mountain.’”
It felt as though the floor dropped away below me, but I had nothing left to say. At least during the first séance I was able to tell Papa not to marry again. At least I did that.
Three days later, the carriage came to take me away. Papa loaded my trunk on it, its brass-knobbed corners glinting in the sunlight.
Mr. Cain hadn’t thought much of my talents. While Papa was gone, he told me I’d be taught how to spill ectoplasm from my mouth and to roll my eyes upward and pretend to be speaking in voices other than my own.
“You’re pretty, though,” he’d said. “That goes a long way. Ah, we’ll be friends, Jenny my love. Fast friends indeed.”
He took my hand and helped me up into the carriage, which smelled sour and musty. The horsehair-stuffed seat was bumpy and uncomfortable. He patted my knee as Papa came to the door.
I tried one final argument. “Papa, I don’t want to…”
He cut me off. “Nonsense, Jenny, you’ll have a fine time and become a fine lady. And you’ll bring your marvelous gift to the world. Helping people reach their loved ones is a noble cause indeed.”
He slipped me a dollar coin. “For a special occasion.”
The carriage jolted and rumbled forward as Papa stepped back. That Woman was waiting for him. She put her hand on his arm as he waved to me, smiling. Mr. Cain reached over to take the coin.
“I’ll just put this away to watch over for you,” he said, sliding it into his pocket. “Oh, Jenny. Fast friends indeed. There’s so much left to show you.”
John Barth described Cat Rambo’s writings as “works of urban mythopoeia” — her stories take place in a universe where chickens aid the lovelorn, Death is just another face on the train, and Bigfoot gives interviews to the media on a daily basis. She has worked as a programmer-writer for Microsoft and a Tarot card reader, professions which, she claims, both involve a certain combination of technical knowledge and willingness to go with the flow. In 2005 she attended the Clarion West Writers’ Workshop. Among the places in which her stories have appeared are ASIMOV’S, WEIRD TALES, CLARKESWORLD, and STRANGE HORIZONS, and her work has consistently garnered mentions and appearances in year’s best of anthologies. Her collection, EYES LIKE SKY AND COAL AND MOONLIGHT was an Endeavour Award finalist in 2010 and followed her collaboration with Jeff VanderMeer, THE SURGEON’S TALE AND OTHER STORIES.
© 2012 All rights reserved Cat Rambo.