Authors: Katherine Howe
Also by Katherine Howe
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
The House of Velvet and Glass
The Penguin Book of Witches
G. P. PUTNAM'S SONS
an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
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Copyright Â© 2015 by Katherine Howe.
Interior images Â© after6pm/Shutterstock, Mi.Ti./Shutterstock
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For Charles Susman and Marion Magee,
who went until the wheels fell
Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?
he cafÃ© in the basement of Tisch, the art and film school at New York University, was redecorated this year. After entertaining a number of ambitious design proposals, including one with a water wall illuminated from within by pulsating LED lights, they decided to go with a retroâNew York theme that featured subway-tile walls, stained mirrors, large filament glass lightbulbs, and hand-weathered bentwood chairs. They revamped the menu, too, adding old-school New York deli food, like huge pastrami sandwiches on rye, hot potato knishes, and half-sour pickles the size of a freshman's forearm. Everyone seemed pretty confident that the redesign would make the space more inviting for students than when it had a 1990s look, with grunge band posters and retro shag carpet and papasan chairs. Nobody ever went down there then.
They decided to dress up the wall behind the salad bar with silkscreened reproduction newspaper articles, all collaged together. For some reason most of the collaged newspapers documented long-forgotten tragedies, like the Draft Riots in 1863 or the Astor Place Riot of 1849. The decorator's assistant whose job it was to find and
silkscreen the newspapers, they found out too late, had kind of a macabre sense of humor, and had been rejected by NYU.
She's since been let go.
Fortunately, nobody ever bothers to read the articles.
On the lower left part of the wall, overshadowed by the metal rack that holds the cafeteria trays, is the following story. There's a smear of ketchup across the title, but it's so low down on the wall that no one has noticed, and the bloodred stain has been allowed to stay.
The New-York Star Sentinel
October 28, 1825
TRAGEDY STRIKES CANAL JUBILEE GRAND AQUATIC DISPLAY
Dozens Feared Lost as Barge Sinks amid Cannonade
The celebration of the marriage of the waters between Buffalo and the Atlantick reached a tragic climax off the Battery yesterday during the celebration of the Grand Canal Commemoration.
The day's revels began as a grand cannonade announced the entry of the Erie Canal boats into the waters of the Hudson River. There they were joined by steam-ships carrying representatives of the Canal Corporation flying flags of the City, escorted by pilot-boats, barges, and canoes with Aborigines from Lake Erie to see them safely to the waters off New-York. Upon passing the North Battery the flotilla's arrival was heralded with a National Salute, and it proceeded to round the island and traverse the East River as far as the Navy Yard, where it was met
by a Frigate flying the flags of the City, which fired another National Salute.
The officers of the Navy then joined the Corporation and their guests on the flotilla proceeding to the Battery, where the Grand Aquatic Display met with the Mayor and the Governor, together with representatives of the Mechanics, Merchants, Military Officers, Citizens, Tradesmen, the Students of Columbia College, the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and all the Societies for the Grand Procession throughout the City. All ships and vessels were splendidly decorated, festooned with flags and pennants in celebration of the honor of the day.
By special order of the Canal Corporation the Evening Celebration began with the ceremonial illumination of City Hall beginning at seven, together with all Theatres and Public buildings similarly illuminated with suitable bunting and decoration. As the illumination neared its apogee, a grand display of fireworks of entirely novel design ignited over City Hall, with echoing fireworks and Cannonade bursting over the flotilla moored within sight of the Battery's many thousand spectators. The standers-by agreed such a sight was never before seen in the City of New-York, and when the barge nearest land erupted in a roar of great blue-purple flames, many were heard to remark that the Fire Brigade of the Seventh Ward had outdone themselves with their sponsorship of such a fine display.
However, the tragedy of their mistake was soon apparent, as screams pierced the night from the unfortunate barge, which carried distinguished family and guests of the Canal Corporation. Several pilot-boats approached to render assistance, but in vain, driven back as they were by tremendous heat and rains of sparks. As the flames licked into the night sky, the silhouettes of
the unfortunate souls trapped aboard could clearly be seen, their hands rending their clothes as they were burned to cinders.
Within minutes all that remained of the unfortunate barge were some few charred logs slipping beneath the nighttime surface of the harbor, and the screams of helpless onlookers echoing through the night, as elsewhere in the city the spectacular Grand Commemoration concluded amid applause and universal acclaim when his Excellency the Governor ceremoniously united the waters of Lake Erie and the Great Rivers of the World with the Ocean.
The New-York Harbormaster refused to speculate as to the cause of the barge's conflagration, only suggesting that an errant spark had ignited the bunting hung thereon. This correspondent, however, observed what appeared to be anti-slavery sloganeering on the doomed barge, possibly the result of radicalism.
The United Brotherhood of Luddites has notified this paper of an imminent statement of responsibility.
The Canal Corporation has declined to comment on the record.
've been having trouble with time lately. But I must have been thinking about her even before Tyler said anything.
“Would you tell her to sit down?” Tyler hisses.
He's squinting through the eyepiece of the camera that we've signed out from the AV department supply closet. It's a 16 millimeter, so it's not like there was a waiting list or anything. I'm not even sure they'd notice if we forgot to bring it back. In fact, it's possible Tyler's not planning to bring it back. Pretty soon they're going to be collector's items. I wonder what one would go for on eBay? A lot, I bet.
“What?” I whisper back.
“Her. That girl. She's blocking the shot.”
“What girl?” I crane my neck, looking, and the hair on my arms rises. At first I don't see who he means. It's too crowded, and I'm too far back in the corner.
Tyler gestures for me to come look with an impatient crook of his finger.
The room we're in is not much bigger than my bedroom back
home, and crossing it without accidentally groping somebody is going to be tough. It's packed with, like, twenty people, all milling around and turning off their cell phones and moving folding chairs to get close to the table in the center. Red velvet curtains cover the walls. It should be bright, because the picture window faces the Bowery, but the window has a velvet curtain, too. Even the glass door to the town house's stairwell is taped over with black construction paper. There's a cash register on a counter off to the side, one of those antique ones that rings when the drawer opens. And there's a door to nowhere behind the cash register, behind a plastic potted plant. That's where Tyler's set up the tripod.
The only light in the room comes from candles, making everything hazy. A few candles drip from sconces on the wall, too. Other than that, and a cheap Oriental carpet latticed with moth holes, there's not much going on.
I don't know what Tyler thinks is going to happen. We're each supposed to make our own short film to screen in summer school workshop, and Tyler's determined to produce some masterpiece of filmic experimentation that will explode narrative convention and reframe visual media for a new generation. Or else he just thinks using Jurassic format will get him an easy A, I don't know.
I pull the headphones off my ears and nest the boom mike against the wall behind where I'm standing, in the corner farthest from the door. I'm worried something's going to happen to the equipment and Tyler will find a way to make me pay for it, which I cannot under any circumstances afford. I'm disentangling myself from headphone cords and everything and accidentally bump the back of some woman's head with my elbow. She turns around in her seat and glares at me.
I mouth at her.
I keep one eye on the microphone, as if staring hard at it will
prevent it from falling over, as I edge around to where Tyler's waiting. The air in here has the gross, wet summer feeling of too many people all breathing in a room with no air-conditioning. My hair is slick with sweat. I can feel the dampness in my armpits, too, a fetid droplet trickling every so often down my side. I really hope I don't smell. I didn't start wearing deodorant 'til sophomore year of high school, when one of the coaches pulled me aside for a talk so mortifying I don't know if I'll ever get over it.
It's a more diverse group than I'd expected in this room. Mom types in khakis, a couple of panhandler guys in army surplus jackets and weedy beards, a girl with tattoos snaking around her neck and straight 1950s bangs, and at least one guy in a suit, like a banker. There's a black guy in a Rangers jersey and saggy jeans. One really young girl with a hard-gelled ponytail, here with her baby. I'm surprised she'd want to bring a baby here, but there's no telling with people sometimes. Some of them exude the sharp pickled smell that people get when they've been drinking for a very, very long time.
I'm climbing monkeylike around the room, trying and failing not to get in everybody's way, and the woman sitting in the middle, who owns the place, gives me a sour look because I'm being so disruptive.
“The angle should be fine from where you are,” I whisper to Tyler when I reach his corner.
“Yeah, no kidding, but she's completely blocking the shot.” Tyler pops a stick of gum in his mouth, which he does whenever he wants a cigarette but can't have one. Or so he says. I don't think he really smokes.
“We're going to begin,” the woman in the turban intones, and all the people start settling down and putting their phones away.
The camera's on a tripod, angled down over the circle of heads, right at the center of the table. The table itself is like a folding card table, but everyone's crowded around it, so at least a dozen pairs
of hands are resting there. It's covered in a black velvet cloth, and between the knotted fingers are a couple of crystals, one polished glass ball that looks like a big paperweight, a plastic indicator pointer thing from a Ouija board, a dish of incense, and some tea lights. The incense is smoking, hanging a haze over everything, like the smoke that drifts after Fourth of July fireworks.
It's a total firetrap in here. I don't know why I agreed to come. But Tyler was dead set on getting footage of a sÃ©ance for his workshop film. I don't know why we couldn't have just staged one with some kids from our dorm. That would have been easier. And he's not a documentarian, anyway.
Not like me.
“Spirits are fragile beings,” the woman in the turban continues in a fake-sounding accent, and everyone but us leans in closer to listen. “They can only hear us when they're ready. When the right person goes looking for them. We must be very serious and respectful.”
“Look,” Tyler insists, plucking at my T-shirt. The woman glares at him, but he doesn't pay any attention. He comes down off the footstool that we brought and gestures with a lift of his chin for me to confirm what he sees.
“I'm telling you, man, I'm sure it's fine,” I whisper as I step up on the stool and screw my eye socket onto the eyepiece of the camera. But when I look, a weird crawling sensation spreads across the back of my neck. It's so intense, I reach up and rub my hand over the skin to get rid of it.
At first it's hard to tell what I'm looking at. We've put a Tiffen Pro-Mist filter on the camera, for extra artistic effects or something, and my pupil dilates with a dull ache when my eye goes from the orange glow of the room to the softened pastel outlines in the filter. It looks like Tyler might have framed the shot too narrowly. He's aimed the camera right on the woman's hands in the middle, so it should be
showing me her knuckles wrapped around a glass ball, next to a tea light ringed in halos of pink scattered light. But all I can see is what looks like a close-up of the black velvet tablecloth.
“Can we talk to, like, anyone we want?” the girl in the gelled ponytail asks at the same time that I say, “Dude,” while reaching up to readjust the angle. “You're in way too tight. That's the problem.”
“Bullshit I am,” says Tyler. “She got in my way.”
“Shhhhh!” One of the mom types tries to shush us.
“Who did?” I ask Tyler.
I zoom out about 10 percent and then pan slowly across the tabletop, using the tripod handle like Professor Krauss taught us, expecting any second to stumble across one of the crystals magnified to the size of a truck. Tyler thinks he knows how to use this equipment, but I'm starting to have my doubts.
your pardon,” the woman in the middle interrupts us. “Are you boys almost finished?”
“Just about,” Tyler says, raising his voice. “Thirty seconds.” To me, he hisses, “Don't screw up my shot, man. I've got it all set up.”
Like hell you do,
I think but don't say.
“Spirits who are at peace cannot be disturbed,” the woman goes on, trying to talk over our whispering. “Anyone we reach will have a purpose for being here. It's our job to determine what that purpose is. To help them. Bringing them peace will bring us peace, too.”
“So we can't just ring up Elvis, huh?” the banker jokes, and a few people laugh uncomfortably.
I've panned the camera slowly across what I thought was the velvet tablecloth, but I come to rest on a small satin bow. I pull my face out of the viewfinder and look up, squinting through the candlelight to find what the camera is looking at. But I don't see anything. The table looks the same, crystals and Ouija thing and whatever. No bows anywhere. The person nearest the line of camera sight is the guy in
the Rangers jersey, who's bent over his cell phone and not paying any attention to us.
“But I, like, wanted to talk to my nana and stuff,” the girl with the gelled ponytail complains.
“Huh,” I say.
“See her?” Tyler asks.
In the camera, outlined in eerie art-filter light, I find the satin bow again. I adjust the focus and zoom out very slowly.
The bow proves to be attached to the neckline of somebody's dress, in the shadow of lace against pale skin. I adjust the lens another hairsbreadth. I inhale once, sharply, the way I do when jumping into the lake by my parents' house for the first time at the beginning of the summer, when the water hits me so hard and cold that it makes my heart stop.
Tyler's rightâthere's a girl blocking the shot. A girl like I've never seen.
“I see her,” I say to him, covering my sudden irrational panic. “It's not a problem.”
“We can reach her,
your nana needs to be reached,” the psychic explains with apparent impatience. “If she has something in this world holding her back.”
“Told you,” Tyler says to me.
“What, you saying my nana's not at peace, and it's my fault?” the girl's voice rises.
“I'll take care of it,” I say to Tyler.
“No, no,” the psychic backpedals. “That's not what I meant.”
“You can trust Madame Blavatsky, sweetie.” One of the mom types tries to soothe the girl with the baby. “But you should let her get started.”
The weird crawling sensation spreads across my neck again, but
I can't rub it away because I'm busy climbing back around the periphery of the room to reach the girl with the satin bow. She's just standing there, not talking to anyone, looking down at her hands. My heart is tripping along so fast, I'm having trouble catching my breath. I don't want to make her feel weird or anything. I also kind of hate talking to people. But more than that, she'sÂ .Â .Â .
“Yes, we really can't wait any longer,” the woman in the turban says. “Spirits only have limited time, once summoned, to resolve their unfinished business. If we don't act quickly, we risk damning them to an eternity in the in-between.”
The medium's starting to get pissed off. I'm not positive, but I think Tyler's paid her for letting us film. Which we're not supposed to do for workshop, but whatever. She sounds really annoyed. I don't blame her.
kind of annoyed. At Tyler, mostly, for dragging me along to do sound when I could be working on my own film.
be working on my own film, especially considering how much is riding on it. In fact, all I want is to be working on my own film. But I find myself pulled into other people's stuff a lot. I get caught up.
“What do you mean, limited?” asks the guy in the Rangers jersey. “Like, they on the clock or something?”
Tyler thinks he's going to be the next Matthew Barney. He's doing an experimental film of people in what he calls “transcendental states,” using all different film stock and filters and weird editing tricks that he's refused to reveal to me. I don't think we're going to see much in the way of transcendental states in a palm reader shop upstairs from an East Village pizzeria. But we already spent the afternoon with the AX1 filming drummers in Washington Square Park. I think he's running out of ideas.
“Or something,” the medium says, and when she says it, a sickening chill moves down my spine.
The girl with the satin bow on her dress is standing on the opposite side of the room from the camera, not far from where I stashed the mike, looking nervous, like she's doing her best to blend into the wall. She's awkwardly close to the edge of the table. Nobody seems to notice her, a fact that causes my ears to buzz.
Now that I've seen her, I feel like she can never be unseen. She looksÂ .Â .Â . I suck at describing people, and
feels especially pathetic. But the truth is, I don't understand how I haven't been staring at her the whole time we've been here. As I edge nearer, my blood moves faster in my veins and I swallow, a fresh trickle of sweat making its way down my rib cage. I can feel her getting closer. Like I can sense where she is even when I can't see her. She's not paying any attention to me, her head half turned away, looking around at the walls with interest.
The girl is so self-contained, so aloof from all of us, that she seems untouchable. Watching her ignore my approach, I wonder how you become someone that other people make room for, whether they know it or not.
She's wearing one of those intense deconstructed dresses they sell in SoHo. My roommate, Eastlin, is studying fashion design, and he's got a sweet internship in an atelier for the summer. He took me to the store where he works one time and showed me this piece of clothing, which he said was a dress, which was dishwater-gray and frayed around the edges, covered in hooks and eyes and zippers and ribbons. I couldn't really understand what the appeal was. To me it looked like something I'd find in a trunk in my grandmother's attic. When he told me how much it cost I dropped the sleeve I was holding because I was afraid I'd snag a thread and have to take out another student loan.
I'm definitely afraid to touch this girl's dress. Seeing how she
wears it, though, I begin to understand what Eastlin's talking about. Her neckline reveals a distracting bareness of collarbones. Her hair is brushed forward in curls over her ears in some bizarre arrangement that I think I saw on a few hipster girls in Williamsburg when Tyler took me out drinking there. She must sense me staring at her. Why won't she look at me? But she's finished her examination of the curtains, and if she's noticed me approaching her, she's not letting on. As I move nearer, near enough that I can practically sense the electrical impulses under her skin, she steps back, retreating from the edge of the table into the red curtain folds along the wall. I glance at Tyler, and he waves to indicate that she's still in the shot, and I should get her to sit down already.