The most important thing I learned from Madame Blinovsky (born Mabel Smith, Dubuque, Iowa, 1871) was that everyone has lost a brother. And back then, everyone had. We were barely a decade past the Spanish influenza, and before that the Great War. Pestilence and childbirth might claim their share of sisters, but war and accidents have always upped the ante for brothers.
My father was too old for the Great War to claim him, but not for the flu, nor were his children too young. My surviving brothers and sisters were all so much older than I that the family memories they shared might have been related of distant grandparents, and my mother was too busy keeping a roof over our heads to spare much time for either her grief or my loneliness.
"Well," said my oldest sister after Mother's funeral (I was just short of fifteen at the time). "Well," as if I weren't even in the room, "something has to be done about Mary Catherine."
So I did it.
I quit school, got a job in the local coat factory, and moved out to a furnished room. Less than three years later the only people who could afford new coats didn't buy them off the rack, and the factory closed. Two months after that I was about to be arrested by a gangly young cop for stealing oranges when someone said, "Ah, Offi-zer Flanner-ee! Geef the keed a break."
Madame Blinovsky paid for the oranges and took me home with her to try out her trap-door for size. About then that cop looked pretty good. A guy with a second-generation brogue would surely not be too hard on a freckle-faced girl named Riley, whereas some foreign woman with a trap-door in her parlour--! (I only found out about Dubuque later.)
"My last assistant got stuck," she explained. "I had to keep the clients singing 'Shall We Gather at the River' while I shoved her back down. I told them I was wrestling with a demon. People will believe anything my dear, so long as they want to."
Madame Blinovsky taught me sleight-of-hand and the double envelope trick, how to treat cheesecloth with Balmain's Luminous Paint, and how to leave people believing I'd answered their questions when they'd really answered mine. When she passed to the other side, during FDR's second term, I inherited the house with the trap-door, and Mary Catherine Riley, now Madame Morgana ('AKA Madame Morgana' as a good and useful friend of mine would put it) began specializing in other women's brothers.
By that time flashlights had made luminescent cheesecloth a dicey stock-in-trade, and growing agnosticism took the mickey out of hymn-singing. But, having been raised a Roman Catholic, I wasn't a great hymn-singer. I nailed the trap-door shut and covered it with an oriental rug. My only assistants were the local blue book and the public library, supplemented now and then by a little help from the above-mentioned good and useful friend. I could have operated in broad daylight if I'd wanted. But candlelight enhanced the atmosphere as I intoned, "Someone here... has lost a brother..." A twitch. I note her age. A young girl during the Great War.
"Lost to... something... foreign."
"In a foreign land?"
Nothing. Not the war, then. But...
A slight jerk, a barely audible intake of breath.
"It's not the land that's foreign, but the word."
If it wasn't the war, than only one foreign word, for her, could conjure death everywhere.
A single tear shown in the candlelight. "He sends... I'm sorry, I'm losing contact... he sends love..."
"She's too upset to ask now," the woman who had introduced the sister to the seance whispered to me afterwards. "But Lucy hoped -- she absolutely worshipped William, you know. He was a doctor. He died looking after his patients during the Spanish flu. Doo you think you might re-establish contact with him? It would make her so happy..."
The friend didn't remember telling me this, nor adding, when I asked, that he had died in Minneapolis. After that it was, as they say, a piece of cake. Even in that time of pervasive death, a doctor rated an obituary, and so, it turned out, did his nurse. Dr. William Siebold was my first success story: his deep, slightly hoarse (from lack of sleep) voice was still advising his sister Lucy regularly.
Dick's voice was easier, since it hadn't yet broken in the first year of our century when he jumped into the river to save his little sister Katie from drowning. Richard Stout, boy hero, also rated a full obituary when he died of pneumonia. I remember Dick fondly, as Katie Stout remembered me handsomely in her will.
My first World War II brother was Private Joseph A. Goodwin, who, barely out of his teens, survived Normandy, only to die in the Battle of the Bulge. It is a credit to their sex that most of the men to come out of that battle were reluctant to talk about it. But the appropriate army lists gave me all I needed to overcome Joe's sister's initial scepticism, and Julia Lovich (nee Goodwin) supplied all I needed to make up the rest.
There were others, of course, some even more profitable, but those three, the Selfless Angel of the Influenza Ward, The Boy Hero, The Steadfast Martyr, were my favourite creations. They beat the hell out of leading choruses of "Shall We Gather at the River," to which few of my clients even knew the words any more.
But, dear Lord, people were still desperate to believe.
Madame Blinovsky had never had to tell me that.
Barbara Black came with a friend to a group seance at about the time the Korean War was providing me with a new crop of brothers. By the time she arrived on my doorstep for her first private consultation, I knew that she had never consulted a psychic before, that both her parents were dead, and that her brother had served in Korea.
I also knew as much as anyone living did about how Captain John N. Black had died--and it wasn't in Korea.
Barbara seated herself in one of the two wing chairs, carefully adjusted the skirt of her smart grey wool suit, and planted her feet firmly on the floor. I pulled the curtains against the September sky, dimmed the electric lights, lit the candles and seated myself in the wing chair on the opposite side of the low table.
"I brought something, like you asked," she said. "You should be able to get something from it. If you're not a fraud."
Oh my, tough cookie, I thought as she handed me the man's wristwatch. I let the case rest on my fingertips. The crystal was cracked, the hands still. One bent pin hung from a hole where the links of the expanding band had been pulled apart.
"A gift," I said.
"From Father. When John was commissioned."
Only then did I turned it over to look at the engraving I'd felt on the back. J.N.B., 1949. "John Newhouse Black," I said. I pulled out the stem, set the watch and wound it, to give her time to realize I'd known his full name. "We must each touch it."
The watch ticked quietly away as I placed it on the table. The candle flickered slightly as her hand came past it to rest on one end of the broken band. I placed my fingers on the other end, closed my eyes, and mentally counted out a minute.
Then I said, slowly, as if listening to someone else, "There is... distress."
No response. I waited a beat. "I feel someone is... wants to tell you..."
No response. I dropped my voice, then. "Barbara! Barbara, I did it for you. For father..."
The slightest twitch on the watch band with the word 'father.' Time to take a chance. "Why did you lie to father?"
"You know why!"
Bingo! I let my eyes fly open, shook my head slightly, and asked in my normal voice, "What was I saying?"
"You were talking about lies. In this funny voice."
"Cynicism blocks the channel," I chided.
"I'll just bet it does."
"I think he may be gone. But if you'd like to try, once more..."
"I might as well get my money's worth."
“Money...” I sighed (for her benefit) and placed my fingers back on the watch band. After a slight hesitation she did too. I closed my eyes, and dealt my first specific.
"I see water," I said, in my own voice. "Water... white stone. And... gold?"
Gold is a good metaphor for -- almost anything, actually. Then my voice really dropped. "I know what you want, Barbara!"
The watch jerked out from under my fingers. I felt the heat of the flame as the candle tipped over and hot wax spilled across the table. My eyes flew open. The flame was out.
"What do you want, Barbara?" I asked in my own voice.
"Ask him," she said, and walked out without even apologizing for knocking over the candle.
When you've got in the habit of improvising, objects sometimes give you ideas you don't recognize until you've spoken. If father gives expensive presents to the son... I thought about that as I scraped up the wax with a table knife.
Barbara resented that present.
Barbara had the watch now. A broken watch.
And Barbara called for another appointment.
She had let the watch run down. I set and wound it again. No candle this time.
"I'm receiving... something... From..." Beat. No reaction.
"A need. Your need..." I let my voice go deep. "Father. Why didn't you give father the watch?"
A twitch. Wonderful, how much such a small movement can betray. Play the guilt card.
"If not for father, for me..." I let my voice trail off, raised my head slowly, opened my eyes. "Is there something you'd like to ask John?"
"Yes," she said, sarcastically. "I'd like--"
My head jerked back with a roar of masculine laughter. "You'd like to know what happened to Arnie, wouldn't you, Barbara? Well, I can tell you. He's dead. And I know what you'd like to know even more than that. I know where the money is."
"My time's up," Barbara said, and rose.
On the doorstep, the first fallen leaves, gold in the light, whispered around her feet. She clutched her coat more tightly around her.
"I have to apologize," she said. "I really thought you were a fraud." And then, "I'll call you."
Some people ask me if I'm not afraid to live alone with so many spirits close at hand. I smile, gently, knowingly, and reply, "Oh, my dear, they wouldn't harm me."
And of course they wouldn't. Dr. William, heroic Dick, steadfast Joe, all of them are my children, in the same way that Nayland Smith and Fu Manchu are Sax Rohmer's children. Better than children. Real children often hurt their parents more than any total stranger ever could. But Fu Manchu will never rise up off the page and strangle Sax Rohmer. No more would William, Dick, and Joe ever hurt anyone. I'm not paid for pain.
I thought you were a fraud, Barbara Black had said.
I thought I was too, I had almost answered.
I spent the next day checking back through my sources, but found no reference to Arnie. I might have spent the time more profitably. Barbara Black never called.
But two weeks later she turned up on my doorstep, pushed through the door without waiting to be asked, and marched down the hall to the consulting room. I picked up the phone and dialed.
She turned back.
"I'll have to cancel another appointment, if you insist on having a unscheduled consultation," I said.
She took the receiver from my hand and replaced it in the cradle.
"This won't take long," she said. "Don't bother dimming the lights," she added, dropping into the client's wing chair.
"As you wish," I said, and sat down in the other wing chair, resting my hands lightly on the broad round arms.
"You really had me fooled," she said. "Until I asked myself, how would I go about finding out about me? Tell me, what do you do when people give false names?"
"If you're convinced I'm a fraud the police will be only too happy to listen to you," I said.
"The hell with the police. I want to know how much you know about Arnie." She reached for her purse.
My previously-mentioned friend insists (and I concur) that a woman who is regularly alone with almost total strangers should take precautions. I may have abandoned trap-doors, but I've kept up my sleight-of-hand. I had my handgun out of the compartment in the arm of the chair before hers was half-way out of her purse.
"If you leave now, I won't press charges," I said.
Or rather, that's what I meant to say.
Instead my voice went deep. "Put down your gun, Barbara, that's a good girl."
My hand steadied, as if I were someone used to holding a gun. (I know how to use one, my friend saw to that, but I am not used to it.)
"Really, Barbara," the voice went on. "I only want to show you where the money is. We can take this good lady's car."
Barbara Black paled. Then said, "Oh, very clever, Madame Morgana, but it won't work."
"Money, Barbara," the voice wheedled. "Money! Remember the time you stole the Sunday School collection and then didn't dare buy anything with it because everyone would have known where you got the money?"
"Father turned into a real old skinflint when Mom died. With me, anyway. I didn't get a gold watch." And then she paled even more, and swayed slightly, as she realized who she was answering.
"You deserve the money, Barbara."
"Madame Morgana?" Barbara quavered.
"Oh, she's all right," the voice said. "The money's at the quarry, Barbara. I'll show you where."
I kept my gun in my hand--I could do nothing else--and followed Barbara to the garage. I took the passenger seat at the voice's direction. Barbara baccked the car into the street. I discreetly checked in both directions.
The phone had connected, just before she forced me to hang up. But the street was empty.
The last rays of the setting sun shone on scarlet sumach overhanging limestone outcrops painted with "Jesus Saves" and "Class of 54". Streetlights illuminated the car like a movie out of sync as we drove through Buck's Crossing (pop. 6110) with the usual motel, seedy-looking liquor store, diner offering hot pork sandwiches.
"There's your old high school," the voice said. John said. And as I named the voice it snickered in my head, "Captain Black to you!" before adding aloud, "And the bank!"
Barbara didn't answer. The car slid away from the town into the night.
Barbara, still silent, turned off the two-lane highway onto a tarred road. John remained silent too, although I could still feel him. My thoughts crept cautiously around that presence, trying to reach out to...
William? Dick? Joe?
Sam? you may ask. And I answer, as Madame Blinovsky told me so many years ago: everyone has lost a brother.
John laughed. Because, of course, I received no answer from any of them.
Comfortable-looking farm houses gave way to gaunter buildings. Crooked fences cast long shadows that moved as if they were alive in the headlights. Barbara turned the car onto a gravel road. About ten minutes later she pulled off under some trees where an old driveway, weed trees grown up between the ruts, was briefly visible before she turned off the ignition and the headlights.
"We'll have to walk from here," Barbara said. To me.
I was allowed my own voice long enough to say, "There's a flashlight in the glove compartment." I took that second of freedom in which I retrieved the flashlight to leave the gun in its place.
We stumbled upward, over tree roots, into hollows deeper than the false light of the flashlight led us to expect. I clutched my shawl tight against the cold.
Who the hell is Arnie, and what does he have to do with all this? I thought. John only chuckled.
The path descended, the shadows thinned. I could distinguish sky and scudding clouds between the poplars that had grown up where the original woods had been shorn away to get at the limestone underneath. As we stepped out of the woods onto bare rock a breeze scattered leaves, silver in the moonlight, gold in the flashlight, across the black water. To one side I could see a building, probably a shelter for the quarry workers and equipment.
"I know the money's not in the shed," said Barbara. "I looked. So where is it?"
“In the quarry, of course," John said.
I shivered, despite my velvet robes and shawl. Not a frisson of fear. A Memory:
of a real chill; cold autumn air on my wet body, rough rock against bare skin as I hauled myself out of the water. The gun in my jacket pocket bumped my side as I pulled on my clothes.
"In a waterproof box," the voice said. "Shoved into a crevice underwater, just below where we're standing."
A Memory: of a pebble, rattling behind me; a shadow; an arm circling my throat before my still-cold fingers could get the gun out. How I twisted, trying to get free before his other hand could find the gun, but my fingers caught on metal. The expanding band of a wristwatch...
But that wasn't right. My gun was back in the car, after all.
"You're a good swimmer, Barbara," the voice said.
"Not in October," she said between chattering teeth. "Not in the middle of the night. I'll come back in daylight."
And she actually turned to go.
I grabbed her arm.
Even then, she might have got away, except for her shoes. One high heel skidded on wet leaves, caught on uneven rock. As she tottered, my body reacted with her imbalance and used her own weight to propel her over the edge into the water.
She grabbed my robes, pulling me sprawling on the rocks, lost her grip and trod water.
"Madame Morgana!" she said, just before the voice used my hands to push her head under. Barbara struggled free. Her head popped up, and she managed to gasp before she was pushed under again, "Madame Morgana. It's not John!"
"You told!" the voice jeered. "Now it's your turn."
It should have concentrated on the business at hand. That little speech was enough for Barbara to struggle up again and say, "It's [ital. on]Arnie!"
She grabbed a fold of velvet, and pulled hard, and I rolled into the water with her.
"Oh, shit," said Arnie.
I couldn't have put it better.
At first my robes, buoyed on trapped air, held me up. But the cold shocked me into immobility, and the velvet absorbed water, sank to entangle my legs, and pulled me down. I opened my mouth to take in air, just as Barbara pushed me under. Instead of air, water rushed into my mouth and nose. My struggles only brought in more water.
I thought, I'm going to die.
All those years of faking the afterlife, and now I was about to see the real thing.
If there was one.
Oh, Sam, I thought. Oh, Sam, I'm going to die...
I must not have locked the door, because there were three clients waiting for me, seated in the chairs along the hall. As I walked down the hall (it seemed awfully long) I saw it was two men and a boy. The boy wore a clean white shirt, a tie, and a neatly pressed suit with long pants, as if his mother had dressed him for the occasion. The first man also wore a suit, but it was dreadfully rumpled, and smelled of liquor.
The second man was wearing, as near as I could tell under the filth and blood, a uniform. What remained of his face showed several days stubble and deep circles under his eyes.
"Shall I call for a doctor?" I asked.
"It's all right, ma'am," he said. "This gentleman here," indicating the man in the rumpled suit, "he's a doctor."
I had so few male clients, I should surely remember that voice. I entered my consulting room, closed and locked the door, and sank into my chair to consider the situation. No trap-door opened, but nonetheless a light that wasn't Balmain's Luminous Paint arose. Wavered. Coalesced.
"Hello, Mary Catherine," said Sam as he seated himself in the wing chair last occupied by Barbara Black.
"Why now?" I screeched at him. "Where were you when I needed you? When I begged for you! Why now?"
"Well, Mary Catherine," he said, "you just weren't in that much trouble before."
Everyone has lost a brother.
I had no need to look up any records for Samuel Patrick Riley, 1911-1918. Those dates were engraved in my mind as they were in stone, under a marble lamb next to the granite that marked my parents' grave. Yet here he was, just as he would have been had he lived. Nor, it was clear, was I faking it.
"Mary Catherine, just what do you think the afterlife is, anyway?" Sam asked. Talks like an older brother too, I thought. "Do you really think we just sit around waiting for some relative to ask you where to find a lost ring, or if they should marry, or invest in Acme stocks?"
"I deal in what people want to hear," I answered with some irritation.
"Mary Catherine! Where do saints go?"
"To Heaven," I said. Even Protestants knew that much.
"What makes you think that saints even remember about Acme stocks, much less care?"
"I don't deal in saints," I said.
"You sure don't," he nodded. "So consider the other extreme. Which of the two is most likely to come when you call?"
“Neither of them ever did," I said. But Arnie did... I was sure Sam read my mind; he didn't bother to say it aloud.
"Of course," he went on, "There's what you and your colleagues like to refer to as 'another plane,' although I recall we had a different name for it in catechism class. You get a real a real mixed lot there. Mary Catherine, meet Captain John Black, U.S. Army, Reserves. Deceased. I believe you wanted to ask him something."
The man who materialized beside Sam's chair wore a suit, but he didn't look comfortable in it, as if, perhaps, he hadn't had time to adjust from uniform to civilian clothing.
"Who... who was Arnie?" I managed.
"It's a little late now, isn't it?" John Black answered. "He was in Korea. In my company. But not for long, I saw to that. He did things--" Captain Black's mouth moved in a very unsoldierly fashion. "We all did things in Korea. But he enjoyed it. How he found ouut where my family was, I don't know. But we're all on record somewhere, aren't we?" The smile he gave me was, I imagined, much like the one he gave Arnie along with his discharge.
"He met Barbara. He told her we were friends. To her he looked like freedom from an overbearing old man. To him she was access to a conveniently isolated spot to hide after robbing a bank. What he planned for her after... at least she never found that out. "When I finally got home from Korea the first thing Barbara tells me is that Arnie's at the shack by the quarry. If I'd called the police, that would have implicated Barbara. So I went up to the quarry on my own. You know what happened then."
I did. I could still feel his watch band stretch and snap under my fingers.
"The next day Barbara found my body, and my watch. The cops told Dad I'd probably drowned myself--unresolved war traumas, all that shit, pardon my French. Barbara knew better. Dad did too.
“The watch was missing. But the police wouldn't accept a missing watch as evidence of murder, although they might have thought differently about a broken one.”
"But what happened to Arnie?"
"Got about two hundred miles before loss of blood and fever finished him. Ended up on someone's dissecting table with a label on his toe reading 'John Doe'. At least Barbara learned her lesson. Until you came along."
"Never call demons from the vasty deep," Sam put in.
"You can sit there and be self- righteous!" I said. "You didn't have to make a living. You were safely dead!"
"A living!" said Captain Black. "You and Arnie. Two of a kind. No wonder he latched onto you."
The door--hadn't I locked it?--opened, and the two men and the boy filed in. How could I not have recognized them? Dr. William Sieboldd, Angel of the Influenza Ward. Private Joe Goodwin, Steadfast Soldier. And Dick, Boy Hero. They seated themselves on the sofa the way a jury would take its place in the box. I knew nothing of courts martial, But apparently I was going to get at least part of a jury, if hardly an impartial one.
"This woman," Captain Black told them, "lied to your sisters in order to obtain money from them."
Hearing it put that baldly, I hung my head.
William cleared his throat. "Uh... you know," he said, "I'd really rather she didn't tell Lucy about Nurse Andersen. Or how I really died."
"Excuse me," I said, looking up. "Lucy knows how you died. Of Spanish flu."
William cleared his throat again, pulled a flask from his jacket pocket, opened it, then shook his head and screwed the cap back on. "I died of alcohol poisoning," he said, twisting his mouth into a smile nearly as unpleasant as Captain Black's. "If I hadn't been continually drunk I might have noticed Nurse Andersen was exhausted from taking up my slack.
She died of flu." He looked at the flask. "Sorry, gentlemen," with another twisted smile, "I must abstain." He shoved the flask back in his pocket.
Private Joe shifted uncomfortably.
"Thanks to you, Julia still thinks I died... honourably," he said. "And maybe I did. But..." He looked me in the eye, just for a second. "I was asleep on my feet, Ma'am," he said. "You can march in your sleep, I bet you didn't know that. Well, you might. Sir." Nodding to Captain Black. "I wanted a cigarette so bad. I didn't even realize I was lighting the match."
"You what?" I said.
But Joe was speaking to Captain Black now. "I don't want Julia to know, sir." He turned back to me. "You know. How Jerry knew where we were. I was ashamed. That's something I still haven't, um, got a grip on."
The boy had been watching Joe. Now he looked at the doctor, then back at Joe.
"Well," he said finally, "I guess if you fellows can... I mean, I really did save her life. That part's true. But Katie was tagging along when she knew I was going to meet my friends, and she wouldn't go away when I told her." He looked down. "So I pushed her."
"I didn't know that!" I said.
"She'd never tell on me. But after all, I was the one who died, and she felt bad."
"That's all very well, young man," said Captain Black. "But the fact remains this lady lied. What did your mother tell you about lying?"
"Nuts," said William. "She didn't lie." (Did he slur his words a little?) "She just, ah, listened to a suggestion or two, that's all."
"Just a minute," I said. "What do you mean? I did lie! I made it all up. Anything that wasn't on public record, anyway."
"Did you?" said Joe. "When you set out to tell a lie, you maybe can't always be sure whose lie it is."
"Well if they weren't mine, then who-- oh." Of course. Ihad heard that voice before... Only I'd thought it was mine...
Dick started to sing then, and faintly, somewhere, an unseen little girl whom I had last known as an old lady joined his boyish voice in harmony.
"Shall we gather at the river..."
And for the first time I understood hymn singing. It didn't just cover awkward noises, didn't just soften the susceptible, leaving them even more ready to believe what they already wanted to believe. It brought the singers together, if only for a moment, with others they loved, living and dead. Perhaps even with God.
“Where bright angel feet have trod, With its crystal tide forever...”
Captain Black was the only one not singing. Instead he was speaking. To me.
"Don't you dare hurt Barbara." he said, and then he vanished.
And I looked around, and they were all gone, except for Sam.
“Shall we gather at the river, The beautiful, beautiful river...”
I reached out for him, but he was no longer there. And I began to cry, because I'd never had a chance to ask my brother...
Choking sobs turned to a retching cough as the warmth of my consulting room vanished. I was wet and shivering, sprawled in the dark on cold, hard limestone, and vomiting water.
I tried to roll away from pummelling hands.
"Madame Morgana!" Barbara's hair was plastered against her face, wool suit misshapen and dripping, nylon stockings in shreds. Her high-heeled shoes were probably at the bottom of the quarry along with my slippers.
My water-sodden robe drained into a pool around me as I struggled to a sitting position.
"Madame Morgana, I'm sorry. I just thought, if you were unconscious, he couldn't -- I couldn't think of any other way. I was so afraid it would be just like John." She swiped at her wet face with wetter handds.
"It's all right, dear," I said. "John was never angry at you.
Do you think we can get to the car? It has a heater."
"There was a reward, wasn't there?" I asked. "For the money."
"Supposing I were to tell what I know? About the money, that is."
"It would be good for your business."
"Actually, dear, I'm thinking of retiring. That's why I think we should share."
"Why should I? Supposing I were to tell first?"
"Don't you think people might wonder how you so suddenly knew? I, on the other hand, have experience telling convincing stories. Also -- turn here, dear," as we got to my street.
"But if you're really psychic..."
My friend had not failed me. He got out of his car as she brought mine to a stop.
"That's why I'm quitting," I said, as he came around and opened my door.
"And about time too, Mary Catherine Riley." He clicked his tongue as he felt my soggy sleeve and saw my bare feet. "What have you been doing, mavourneen?"
"And it's about time you dropped that fake brogue, acushla. Barbara Black, this is my friend Detective Flannery. Born in Belfast. Belfast, New York, that is. He tried to arrest me once. Cup of tea while we dry off? Something in it, perhaps?"
x x x
I've always been a sucker for a good petard hoisting. Madame Morgana's qualifies. The eerie, dream-like sequence at the quarry gave me the willies. A fitting first story, for 2004, me thinks. How about you? Comments to our BBS, please.