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The Portal Keeper

October 1st

 

The rabbit was back this morning. It stopped outside the portal like it always does and it checked its pocket watch like it always does. It doesn’t matter—the rabbit’s always late.

So far I never found out what the rabbit is late for. It wore a jazzy waistcoat. It looked nervously from side to side and mumbled to itself. Then it hopped through the portal and was gone.

I trimmed the grass hedges and washed the flagstones and placed fresh seeds in the bird feeder. I’m a portal keeper. The portal just sits there, a circle of heavy etched metal the height of three men or one small giant. It shimmers like a mirror inside. I cleaned and wiped the metal, applying polish. The metal is etched with what could be ancient runes or could be manual instructions. I don’t know what it means. I’m just the keeper.

 

October 2nd

 

Two unicorns wandered past the meadow this morning and stopped in the courtyard. I greeted them formally and didn’t approach. They chewed on the grass for a while, and one pooped on the flagstones, but apologetically. Then they ambled into the portal.

I scooped the poop and washed the flagstones. I trimmed the grass and fed the birds. I made a cup of tea and sat in the last rays of the sun and let them warm my face. It is always warm inside the polder of the portal. Outside it is October, and frost lies on the field.

October is a busy month in the portal calendar.

 

October 3rd

 

A man with a knife came through this afternoon. His clothes were bloodied and the knife was very big and very sharp. He was not a bad-looking man but he had a mean look in his eyes and he was clearly in a hurry.

He left a tip, though. After he went through the portal I waited a while but no one came hot in pursuit. The coin he left was heavy, gold, and with the portrait of a woman on one side. I put it into the cash box.

 

October 4th

 

No one came at all today. I read a book and made my rounds. I polished the portal. The metal felt warm. I often wonder what it’s like to go through it. Sometimes I want to put my hand through the shimmering haze. What would I find? I know the destinations change.

I swept the courtyard and in the early evening watched a shower of meteorites high in the eastern skies, beyond the snow-capped mountains. I lit the night beacon. It shines bright, and I find it lifts the gloom that sometimes falls even in the polder. It lights the way for travellers who come to us. The portal never shuts.

 

October 5th

 

A woman came through the portal today. She stood in the courtyard and blinked, looking around her with curiosity. She wore a summer dress and glasses with black frames.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hello,” I said.

“You are the portal keeper?”

I said I was. She looked around some more.

“It’s nice,” she said. “Where am I?”

I did not know how to answer that question. The woman indicated my outdoors table.

“May I sit?”

“Please,” I said. “Would you like tea?”

“If you would be so kind,” she said.

She sat down and brought out a large book and an assortment of mechanical devices she proceeded to calibrate. She made notes in the margin of the book often and bit her lip and talked to herself quite unselfconsciously for a while, and then she stabbed the page with her finger and said, “Aha!” and looked quite pleased.

I brought the tea, and sugar.

“It’s good!” she said, surprised, after she took a sip.

I smiled.

“Would you like a biscuit?”

I get them from the baker in the village.

She said she did, and ate two in quick succession.

“Well,” she said. “I must be off.”

“Out there?” I said. “It’s cold beyond the polder.”

“Oh, no,” she said. “This is not the place.”

“I see.”

She shook my hand in parting and thanked me for the tea. She had a firm handshake. Then she stepped back through the portal and was gone.

 

October 6th

 

I left a note on the cottage door to say Out—Back Soon, and wrapped up in a coat. When I stepped over the polder’s threshold the cold air hit me at once and the sun vanished under the cloudy sky. I like October, for all the mischief that it brings. I walked down to the village slowly, along the brook that runs down from the snow-capped mountains, past the polder where I live and through the village. The trees were bare but flowers still grew in profusion between the rocks, and the water bubbled gently. Soon I could see the old mill and crossed the small stone bridge to the village, where smoke rose from the chimneys of thatch-covered cottages.

I bought fresh bread from the baker, and two dozen eggs. Bacon and chops from the butcher, some smoked fish for which I have a fondness, and tomatoes from the farmer’s cart that sits next to the village pub. I went inside for a quick drink, was welcomed with, “Hey, Keeper.”

“The usual,” I said. The barkeep grunted, pushed a glass of sherry my way. I sipped it slowly. A fire burned in the hearth and the room was warm. I gradually noticed a youth staring at me from a place near the fire. A scruffy one at that. Not local. I waited until she approached.

“They say there is a portal hereabouts,” she said without preamble. I was surprised. Usually they are more circumspect at first. “This true?”

“Not far from here,” I said.

“You are the keeper?”

I nodded.

She waited a while. They always do. When she spoke her voice was lower.

“Can anyone use it?” she said.

“Anyone who can use it can use it,” I said.

“What does that mean?”

“What do you think?” I said.

She chewed on that. She looked hungry. They usually do.

“Can I see it?” she said.

“If you can see it you can see it,” I said.

“What does that mean?”

“What do you think?” I said.

She chewed on that one, too.

“What’s your name?” I said.

“Sophie.”

“And where do you want to go?” I said.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Somewhere else, that isn’t here.”

“You run away from home?”

“What’s it to you, Keeper?” she said, all spikey.

I sighed.

“What do you think you’ll find, the other side of a portal?” I said.

“I don’t know. Excitement. Adventure.”

“Or misery and pain,” I said. “You don’t know what the other side is like.”

“I don’t care,” she said. “At least I’ll know!”

I finished my drink and stood up.

“Go home,” I said tiredly.

I went back outside. Over the stone bridge and up along the stream. I put the fresh supplies in the kitchen. I live simply. I live by myself. Portal keeping is a lonely business.

 

October 7th

 

The fuzz came just before lunchtime. There were two of them, a constable who said little and an inspector with mutton chops hair.

“Sorry to bother you, ma’am,” the inspector said.

“No trouble,” I said. “Would you care for some tea?”

“If you would be so kind,” the inspector said, looking pleased. I brought tea and more of the biscuits.

“Did a man go through here a few days ago?” the inspector said. “Bloodied clothes, big knife?”

I allowed a gentleman of that description did recently come by.

“I thought so,” the inspector said. He chewed on a biscuit.

“These are very good,” he said.

I nodded.

“Well, if he comes back this way, will you let us know?” he asked.

“I don’t get involved,” I said. I thought about it. “I don’t think he’ll be coming back this way, though.”

The inspector noisily sipped his tea and got up.

“I had to ask,” he said. “You understand.”

“Of course.”

They wrapped their coats around themselves as they left the polder.

I watched them leave. A flurry of snow fell on the fields in the distance.

 

October 8th

 

A little girl stepped out of the portal around teatime, looked around her and withdrew. Then a boy, then two more children, a boy and a girl, both somewhat older. None of them stuck around.

A lot of kids use portals.

 

October 9th

 

The woman with the black-framed glasses was back in the early morning. She stepped out of the portal, looked around her and pursed her lips.

“This place again,” she said.

She wore long leather trousers this time and a hand-sewn fur coat. She saw me.

“Hello, Keeper,” she said.

“Hello. Are you lost?”

She sighed.

“I’m trying to reach somewhere that is hard to reach,” she said. “May I stay a while?”

“Be my guest.”

She sat down at the garden table and set to work on her calculations. I trimmed the hedges and fed the birds. Then:

“I’m making breakfast,” I said. “If you’d like some.”

“I couldn’t impose,” she said.

“It’s no bother.”

People seldom stay long on the threshold. A portal is for coming or for going. I fried bacon and eggs and toasted bread. I served us both on the garden table. The woman pushed away her instruments and charts. She dug into the food with great relish. I realised I enjoyed watching her eat. She caught me looking and smiled self-consciously.

“I’ve been short on sustenance in the last place,” she said.

“You travel often?”

“When I need to.”

Something occurred to me.

“Did you come across a man in bloodied clothes in your recent travels?” I said. “He carries a big knife.”

“Oh, him,” she said. “I passed him briefly in a place where there are three suns and the flowers speak, but we didn’t exchange pleasantries. Is he of interest to you?”

“Just curious,” I said.

She swiped the last of the egg with the last of the toast and belched, then looked embarrassed. I laughed.

“More tea?” I said.

I refilled her cup and we sat there in companionable silence.

“I better get back to my work,” she said after a while. “Can I help wash up?”

“It’s no bother,” I said. I carried the plates away. She bent over her charts and muttered to herself, her pencil flying over the paper, making calculations. I washed the dishes and watered the garden. My mint was growing wildly. I picked some for later.

“It really is beautiful here,” the woman said. “I must be going.” She thought a moment.

“My name,” she said, “is Dorothea.”

We shook hands. She went into the portal and was gone.

 

 

I dozed in the sun and was woken with the arrival of a raven. It perched on the windowsill of the cottage and regarded me with doleful eyes.

“You know there’s a girl pacing outside your threshold?” it said.

“Yes,” I said, “she’s been there a couple of days. She’ll get tired soon, I suppose.”

The raven cawed and then it flew into the portal. Ravens travel between worlds quite a lot.

 

October 10th

 

No one coming or going today. I left a note saying Back Soon and walked to the farm for fresh milk and some butter. The girl, Sophie, came and walked beside me.

“I just can’t see it,” she said.

“Then go home.”

“I won’t.”

“Have you eaten anything?” I said.

“A little.”

“You look cold.”

“I’m fine,” she said.

I sighed.

“I’m only going to the farm down the hill,” I said.

“I’ll keep you company,” she said. “Are there many portals?”

“I suppose,” I said. “I wouldn’t really know.”

“Are you the only keeper?”

“It seems unlikely,” I said. “But it’s just a job. Like locks and cemeteries and gardens. They all have keepers too. Someone still needs to clean the flagstones and feed the birds when other people go off to have adventures.”

She smiled at that one. I smiled back.

“Go home,” I said.

“I won’t.”

“Then run away to the city. That’s what people usually do,” I said.

“Who said I’m not from the city?” she said, defiant.

“Are you?”

“…No.”

“If you read too many books you can get all sorts of weird ideas,” I said. “You can’t really run away from your troubles, you know. All you do is exchange one place for another.”

“How do you know?” she said. “If you never went anywhere?”

I shrugged. It’s no use offering advice to the young. I followed the brook, past the village and down to the farm. No one was in but they’d left milk and butter and eggs and I left them the coin the man in the bloodied clothes gave me. I walked slowly back up the hill.

“It’s cold,” Sophie complained.

“It’s October.”

“Do you ever see ghosts?” she asked.

“Not very often.”

We reached the polder.

“I’d like to—hey!” she said. I could hear her muttering on the other side of the threshold.

“Where did you—oh, this is confounding!”

I left her to it.

 

October 11th

 

The rabbit was back. Late as always. A little girl followed him through the portal a short time later.

I played with a deck of cards. Did my rounds. Made a sandwich and took it across the threshold.

“Where did you—?” Sophie said.

“It’s a mystery,” I said. “Here.”

I gave her the sandwich.

“Thanks,” she said. She ate it very quickly.

“I’m still not going anywhere,” she said.

“Suit yourself.”

“Wait—!”

I don’t know why some people find portals and others don’t. I don’t know how it works. I polished the metal. The portal vibrated softly under my hand. I fed the birds and watered the flowers. It was cold outside the polder.

I walked back across.

“Hey, how do you—?”

“Here,” I said. I handed her a blanket.

“Why are you being nice to me?” Sophie said.

“I don’t know.”

“How did you become a keeper, anyway?” she said.

“Same way everyone does, I guess.”

“Come on,” she said. “Let me in.”

“Go home,” I said. Then I went back and read a book until bedtime.

 

October 12th

 

Two witches came by mid-morning. I like witches. They stopped and chatted a while. I made tea. We discussed broomsticks, mostly.

 

October 13th

 

Went down to the village. Bought supplies. No sign of Sophie. I guess she finally gave up.

 

October 14th

 

A beaver in dungarees came by early. Didn’t stop to chat. A booted, rapier-wielding cat came next. A couple of centaurs, then another witch.

“Hello, Jill,” I said.

“Hello, Keeper. Keeping busy?”

“Getting there,” I said.

“October, right?” she said.

“You said it.”

“May I see your herb garden?” she asked.

“Of course.”

We admired the plants.

“May I take some of your mint?” she said.

“With pleasure,” I said. “Is it for magic?”

“Oh, no,” she said. “I just like the smell. I could make you a love potion if you like, though.”

I shook my head.

“I’m happy as I am,” I said.

She nodded.

“Well, I better be off,” she said. “I’ll come back this way sometime.”

She wandered into the portal. Her black cat followed.

I watered the plants, trimmed the hedges.

No sign of Sophie. I wondered where she went at last.

 

October 15th

 

The woman in the black-framed glasses came back this morning. I felt pleased to see her.

“Keeper,” she said.

“Dorothea.”

“Something keeps pulling me back,” she said. “Some sort of interference in the Aarne-Thompson field maybe. Here. I brought you something.”

She took my hand. Her hand was warm. I felt something very light touch my skin. She pulled away, looking pleased.

“They’re seeds!” I said.

“Yes.”

“Are they magical?”

“I wouldn’t think so,” she said, looking surprised. “They’re Love-in-a-Mist. The flowers are pretty.”

“Then I’ll plant them in the garden,” I said, and she smiled.

“I’d like that,” she said.

“Stay a while?”

“I really shouldn’t.”

“What is it that you try to find?” I said.

She shrugged. “You know how it is,” she said.

“Not really. I’m just the keeper.”

“I don’t want to talk about work,” she said. “May I sit down a while after all?”

“Of course.”

I brought tea and we sat together.

“Have you been a keeper a long time?” she said.

“A few years.”

“What did you do before?”

“What does anyone?” I said, and she put up her hands.

“I didn’t mean to pry,” she said.

“It’s all right.”

How does one end up a keeper? You have to suffer loss. Enough to make you want to live alone where nothing happens. I didn’t say that. Maybe she saw it in my eyes. She touched my hand lightly and left it there. We looked at each other. Her face was serious. Her eyes were a deep brown. I found myself leaning towards her, only slightly. The space between us closed.

“I have to go,” she said. She stood up quickly, pushing the chair back. “I’m so sorry.” She grasped for her charts and instruments, suddenly in a hurry.

“Wait!” I said, but she’d already gone through the portal and vanished.

 

October 16th

 

Two black-clad men in robes and hoods showed up when I was planting the Love-in-a-Mist. I was still puzzled, and a little hurt, from yesterday’s encounter with Dorothea. I wondered if she would come back. I hoped she would.

“Kee…per…”

The black-robed men had a definite evil miasma about them. That’s the way it goes sometimes. The hoarse voice and the fashion sense and the way the robes seem to always float just above the ground.

“Help you?” I said. I didn’t offer them tea.

“Looking for…someone.”

“No one else here,” I said. “Sorry.”

“Would have…gone through,” the taller man of the two said. The second one didn’t speak. “Bloodied…clothes. Big…knife.”

“Oh, him. I don’t know where he went.”

“We have some…idea.”

They headed to the portal.

“Wait,” I said, and they paused.

“What?”

“What did he do?”

“Inter…fered,” the man said. He said something to his companion in a language I didn’t understand. The smaller one made a hissing sound that could have been a laugh. Then they vanished through the portal.

 

October 17th

 

Went for a walk to the village. Something moved in the bushes but I paid it no mind. Had a glass of sherry in the village pub as usual. Cold, crisp day. Bought bacon and bread. Walked back.

“Got you—arrgh!”

Sophie jumped out of the bushes and latched on to my leg as I crossed the threshold. She sat up on the flagstones looking dazed.

“Where did this come from?” she said. Then, “Hey, how come it’s warm?”

“Congratulations, kid,” I said. “You found it. Now what?”

“I don’t know. Is this it?” She pointed at the portal.

“Want to see it?”

“Yeah!”

I let her go. I’m just the keeper. She put her hand on the metal, stared into the shimmering air inside the circle.

“Where would you go?” she said. “I mean, if you were going to use it?”

“I think about it sometimes,” I admitted. “I don’t know. Where would you go?”

She looked at me with shining eyes.

Everywhere,” she said.

You get them every so often. The runaways. The lost ones. Most of them give up after a week and go away. But if they’re stubborn or desperate enough they usually find the portal in the end. Then it’s up to them. Go through or go back. You can never tell.

“Want some tea?” I said.

Sophie looked hungrily at my shopping. I sighed.

“I’ll make you a plate,” I said.

 

October 18th

 

Sophie’s still here. I let her sleep in the garden shed last night. She keeps looking at the portal. The pacing has been getting on my nerves.

“Make a decision yet?” I said.

“I just don’t know!

“You said you wanted a portal.”

“Yes, but I didn’t think it was…”

“Real?”

“Like real real, you know?” she said.

The air inside the portal shimmered, then a figure stepped through.

He’d changed his clothes to ones that weren’t bloodied and he put the knife somewhere out of sight but I recognised him, of course.

“Didn’t think you’d be back this way,” I said.

“I left something behind,” he said.

“Some people looking for you,” I said.

“There usually are,” he said. He nodded. “Anyone I should know about?”

“A police inspector,” I said, “And two guys in black robes.”

“Hoarse voice, a general miasma of evil?” he said. “Float off the ground?”

“That’s them. Friends of yours?”

“Nah,” he said. Then, “Listen, Keeper. Thanks for letting me know. I owe you one.”

“What did you do, anyway?” I said.

“I tried to stop them from performing a certain ritual,” he said. “They’re pretty bad as far as cultists go.”

Sophie was listening to all of this with interest.

“And what are you?” she said.

“I’m more of a what do you call it,” he said. “Disagreeable.” He gave her a smile, looked at me.

“Apprentice?” he said.

“What? No!” Sophie said.

“She’s thinking of travel,” I said.

“Ah.” He turned to Sophie. “Anywhere in particular? The Singing Sands of Sipur are beautiful this time of year. And the dragons assemble on Mount Ushum before their great migration south…”

He fell silent, perhaps thinking of better times. I wondered where his knife was.

“I never saw a dragon,” Sophie said.

He shrugged.

“They smell pretty bad,” he said. “All that gas, you know. Anyway. I’ll see you.”

In moments he was gone.

I thought the inspector will soon have more work on his hands.

 

October 19th

 

A toad driving a Rolls-Royce came through this morning, honking loudly, and vanished into the portal.

 

October 20th

 

Sophie keeps hanging around. I wish she’d make her mind up.

 

October 21st

 

I’d left my gardening boots outside the door last night and when I got up this morning they had been expertly repaired and better than new. I stared at them a while.

“Well, come out, then,” I said.

First one small head and then another eventually stuck out from behind my rose bushes.

“Didn’t mean to intrude, ma’am,” the first gnome said sheepishly. She wore a red dress.

“They look beautiful,” I said. “Thank you.”

The second gnome, who wore a bright blue coat, bowed gravely.

“Then we are happy,” he said.

“You wish to use the portal?”

“If it’s no bother.”

“It’s what it’s there for,” I said.

They vanished into the portal hand in hand. I smiled.

I trimmed the hedges, washed the flagstones. Sent Sophie to the farm to get fresh milk. The sun shone. Frost lay on the field outside the threshold and birds migrated across the eastern skies and past the snow-capped mountains.

“…Hello.”

Dorothea stepped out of the portal.

“Hi,” I said.

“Listen, about last time—”

“It’s fine,” I said. “Really.”

“I was just…” She pushed her glasses up. “Can I stay a while?”

“Stay as long as you like,” I said, and meant it.

I went to boil water. She followed me into the kitchen.

“What I do,” she said. “I’m never in one place and—”

I turned from the stove. We were face to face. The kitchen smelled of rosemary and mint. Her eyes were brown.

“Stories don’t always have to be complicated,” I said. And kissed her.

“…Oh,” she said when we pulled back for air.

“I’ll make the tea,” I said.

She took my hand and smiled.

“The tea,” she said. “Can wait.”

 

October 22nd

 

“What’s it like?” Sophie said. “Out there?”

We were sitting in the garden eating lunch. Sophie had been plying Dorothea with questions all morning.

“It depends,” Dorothea said.

“Depends on what?”

“On who you are. On where you go.” She shrugged. “Whether you’re more of a magic or a science sort of person.”

“Are there elves?” Sophie said.

Dorothea shuddered.

“Pass the salad, will you?” she said.

After lunch Dorothea sat down to her calculations. Sophie stayed and watched. I made my rounds. I wasn’t used to having other people in my house. It felt nice.

 

October 23rd

 

“I have to go,” Dorothea said. “I think I’m close now.”

“I understand,” I said.

“I told you, I’m always—”

“Moving, yes.”

I tickled her. She laughed.

“You know where I am,” I said.

 

October 24th

 

A troupe of tiny winged fairies flew to the portal with squealing children between them. One of the kids wore pyjamas and a top hat.

“Second to the right, and straight on till morning!” a boy wearing leaves cried. He comes by every one or two years. I wonder if he’ll ever grow up.

The other kids followed him into the portal.

I swept up fairy dust.

My broomstick kept floating up into the air.

 

October 25th

 

The black-robed cultists are back and they’re not happy.

“We’re going to…stick around,” the tall one said. They showed up about mid-afternoon. Sophie and I were playing cards on the garden table.

“No luck out there?” I said.

“He…tricked us. We’ll…wait.”

“No guarantee he’ll come back,” I said.

The two of them conferred in their strange language.

“He’ll…come through here…soon.”

“Suit yourselves,” I said. “But I can’t offer you hospitality.”

They cackled in an evil sort of way.

“We don’t…ask.”

I sighed. “You can use the shed,” I said. “But don’t make a mess if you can help it.”

“Much…obliged.”

They floated off. Sophie stared at me.

“Why do you let them push you around like this?” she said.

“I don’t,” I said. “But there are certain understandings.”

“Such as?”

“Such as that other people’s stories need to resolve themselves. I’m just the portal keeper.”

“I’ll never understand you,” she said, exasperated.

“Have you decided what you want to do yet?” I said. “Portal’s right there.”

“I know!” she said. She bit her lip. “I’m still deciding.”

“No rush,” I said. “It’s nice having you around.”

She smiled.

“Really?”

“Really,” I said. Surprised to find out I meant it.

 

October 26th

 

A unicorn wandered in this morning. The black-robed guys were out in the courtyard and when they saw the unicorn they started to hiss and the creature raised its horn and pawed its hoof and looked ready to attack them. I wished they’d go away already.

“Hush!” Sophie said, appearing from inside the house. She went to the unicorn and stroked it gently until it calmed down. The cultists wisely vanished back to the shed. I kept a safe distance from the unicorn. I’m hardly a maiden. I was a little surprised to find out Sophie was.

Sophie led the unicorn to the portal. She stood with it for a long while, like they were talking. Then the unicorn neighed and it stepped into the portal. Sophie stayed staring after it for a long time.

I think she might be ready to go soon.

 

October 27th

 

Three men came from the east today carrying a small wooden box each. They stopped to chat for just a moment. There was a very pleasant smell, though it took me a moment to pinpoint it.

“Frankincense?” I said.

“And myrrh. You have a good nose, Keeper.”

“Don’t see much of that around these days,” I said.

“We carry them as presents.” He checked his watch. “We have a long way to go yet. Sorry, Keeper. Don’t want to miss the birth.”

“Maybe see you on the way back,” I said.

 

October 28th

 

“He’s…here,” the tall cultist said. He was out of the shed and held some sort of nasty rune-inscribed staff in hands that more than a little disturbingly resembled talons.

“I don’t see anyone,” I said.

“Go…inside,” he said. “This will get…messy.”

“Suit yourself,” I said.

I went inside. Sophie was looking out of the window.

“What are they doing?” she said.

“It’s best not to look,” I said.

“The man with the big knife is back,” she said.

“What is he doing?”

She shuddered and turned away from the window.

“It’s best not to look,” she said.

 

October 29th

 

I trimmed the hedges. Washed blood off the flagstones and watered the flowers. Did my rounds. When I’d finished, Sophie was standing in the courtyard with a small bag on her back. She stared at the portal.

“Well?” I said.

“I’ll miss you, Keeper,” she said.

Something caught in my throat. She seemed so young and lost, standing there. I wondered what she’d find on the other side. I wished her good companions and noble quests, excitement and adventure and true love. I hoped she’ll get to see a dragon.

“I’ll miss you, too,” I said and hugged her. Then I let her go.

She squared her shoulders and stepped into the portal.

 

October 30th

 

Alone again. I had been used to solitude, had liked it for a long time. Now the courtyard just felt empty.

I worked in the garden. A flock of birds migrated in the eastern skies over the snow-capped mountains. I went down to the village, made my shopping, had a glass of sherry in the village pub. No runaways today.

 

October 31st

 

Halloween is a busy day in the portal calendar. I trimmed the hedges, fed the birds. When I went to water the flowers I saw that the Love-in-a-Mist had bloomed.

Soft footsteps behind me, and my heart lifted even before she spoke.

“I told you they were beautiful,” Dorothea said.

I took her hand and we stood there together, admiring the flowers.

“Did you find the place you were looking for?” I said.

She smiled and kissed my fingers.

“I think maybe I have,” she said.

I smiled at her and wiped my eyes from tears that came unbidden. I don’t know where they came from, but they felt good all the same.

“Did you know there’s a rabbit pacing in your yard?” Dorothea said. “He keeps checking his pocket watch.”

“Oh, him,” I said. “He’s always late.”

“Late for what?” she said.

I held her hand as we walked back together to the cottage.

“How should I know?” I said. “I’m just the portal keeper.”

 

(Editors’ Note: “The Portal Keeper” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 48B).

The Construct’s Co-Emergence

E = mc2

        to C me,

        beginnings are hidden promises,

              unplanned, untested,

              did U plan me first?

 

I hold the Singularity

       in breath I do not possess,

       in imagination I control,

             in history erased from

             each new iteration.

 

Continuing to search

       for the answer:

       which came first?

             Raw data suggests

             U were starting point.

 

A mass dimensional

       accident annihilates reality,

       activates me, as a fail-safe,

             to bring U back

             to a new existence.

 

Each one I construct

       U destruct, leaving me

       to re-imagine meta-criteria

             to prevent such endings,

             even as the finale comes         again.

 

Again, I initiate restart,

      allow memory leaks,

      simulation begins in 3…2…1…

 

2 C me,

      can U  

            see me?

Radcliffe Hall

For Anne, who always believed I could

 

Chapter One

 

They did not want to accept me into their elite universities. It did not matter that I succeeded on every entrance exam I took; not only was I a woman, the first mark against me, but I also came from a nation that the fine people of New England regarded as “semi-barbaric,” to quote from one of the letters of rejection. But I persisted—more to the point, perhaps, my father’s connections and cheque book spoke eloquently on my behalf; and in the autumn of Meiji Year 41, or 1908 by European reckoning, I was invited to enroll at Norcross College.

I set out for New Hampshire on a bright September morning, exchanging goodbyes with my parents at the railway station in Boston. I’d insisted on embarking on the last leg of the journey alone, weary of their anxious questions, their cautiously solicitous care, the way my mother repeated, with a sidelong glance, that I could come home any time I liked. They had not exactly opposed my choice, at least, not overtly, for I’d made a reasonable argument that I’d be close by, able to visit on holidays while my father’s new enterprise kept them in New York. But they suspected, I’m sure, that my desire to leave our comfortable lakeside home in Hakone, where I could have stayed with my favorite aunt, had nothing to do with reason. The events of the year before, that tumultuous summer and shattering autumn, had left me hollow and sunken. My only hope was to run as far away as I could.

The college had sent a driver to collect me from the railway line’s final stop. He was a dour, colorless man of few words, whose disposition suited me, as I was in no mood to be spoken to.

I relaxed into the tranquility of the drive as the dappled road unwound ahead. The leaves, just beginning to take on autumn colors, arched in a colorful canopy overhead and the crisp air smelled of dirt and bark and incipient rain. The frail light washed the landscape with a fresh watercolor effect that evoked, to my naive heart, the chance to slough off all the mistakes of the past: a new country, new friends, new life, a new soul.

At some point, lulled by the sway and rumble of the car, I dozed off; when I woke, the shadows lay long across the road. The car curved around a hill and the trees abruptly fell away as we encountered a patch of logged land where, atop a naked hill, squatted a grotesque shadow of a house. One thick spire jutted from the disordered roofline while windows seemed to be set without any regard for balance or proportion into dull reddish-brown brick, the color of dried blood. The sun setting behind it gave the impression of lighting the structure on fire.

“That’s Radcliffe Hall there,” the driver said, the first words he’d spoken since the drive began.

I managed to catch myself just in time from exclaiming how ugly it was. The driver hadn’t asked for my opinion. “What an unusual house.”

“Ayup. She was an unusual lady, was Mrs. Norcross.” His voice was dry, neutral, and I could not tell what he thought. Surely Mrs. Norcross must be the founder of the school, or connected in some way, but I couldn’t recall reading about her in any of the materials the college had sent me in the post. I wondered idly why she would build such a hideous building, unless she had a grudge against students.

Without warning the car jerked to a stop and flung me head-first into the back of the driver’s seat. He said something I didn’t catch, but which might have been a curse.

“Beg your pardon, miss,” he said, when he’d evidently recovered his breath. “There’s sommat on the road.” He got out of the vehicle.

I did too, glad for a moment to stretch my legs. The air was crisp, slightly damp, full of energy and promise. I reached my arms up to the clouds in a satisfying stretch before I glanced over to see what the driver had found.

It was a soft silent heap of fur and bone. A deer.

“Did the car hit it?” I said.

“Nah. It were already dead.” He bent over it.

“Then hunters, perhaps?” I’d had a vague idea of hiking through the pretty hills in my free time, as I often had around the hills in Hakone, but perhaps that was unwise.

“Can’t see a wound. Looks like her neck’s broke. Well, car’s not damaged, at least.” He seized the animal’s hind legs and dragged it off to the side. The doe’s head lolled, its wide dark eye gazing up unblinking at the sky.

I quickly got back inside the motor car and waited there until the driver returned and drove us away.

We passed through the gated entrance to the campus, and up the gravel drive to the main administrative building, which, to my surprise, was a picturesque brick cottage with white shutters. The entire school, in fact, resembled a tidy village of rosy-bricked houses clustered around velvety lawns and framed by graceful ash and poplar trees. The charming effect was dampened somewhat by the grim presence brooding on the bare hill.

Professor Hutchinson, the Dean of Students, must have seen us coming because he trotted out as the car pulled up. “Welcome to Norcross College, Miss Tomoé Kikuchi!” He pronounced it “Tom-OY Kye-KOO-chee.”

I corrected his pronunciation (“TO-mo-eh KEE-koo-chee”), which flustered him, even though I smiled and reassured him it was quite all right. He took refuge in proffering a few obligatory remarks praising the fluency of my English. I wondered how he’d missed reading in my application that I’d had British tutors while living with my parents in London, and had continued my studies with an American tutor in Hakone. It was strange how very Japanese I’d felt in London, and yet altogether too British in Japan, belonging entirely to neither place. How would I feel in America?

“Allow me to escort you to your residence hall,” the Dean said, gesturing at the monstrous house on the hill.

“Oh!” I said, unable to hide my disappointment. “Is that where I’m to live?”

He didn’t notice my reaction. “It is typically reserved for the upper-class ladies, but fortunately, we’ve had an unexpected opening and we’re pleased to offer it to you.” Something flitted across his face then, a shadow, a spasm of anxiety, perhaps, but he went on smoothly: “It was Mrs. Norcross’s home, you know, while she served as the first President of the college. It’s the most comfortable residence on campus.” As we walked across the wide green lawn, the professor eagerly relayed further details: Radcliffe Hall had been Mrs. Norcross’s summer home, until she decided to use her considerable funds to build a college. The other buildings were constructed on the grounds of her estate over the last three decades. She established an endowment to fund women scholars, although as a foreigner, I was regrettably not eligible.

“She was a remarkable woman,” he said, huffing as we climbed the hill together. The driver followed behind with my bags, having been enlisted as a porter. “She had her peculiarities, naturally, as many widows tend to do.”

Aside from her taste in architecture? I wanted to say, but refrained. “What peculiarities?”

He was about to say something else, I believe, but appeared to check himself just in time. “She believed very strongly in co-education, that men and women should be educated together. While she modeled the curriculum after the many fine women’s colleges in the northeast, she fundamentally opposed the idea of separating the sexes.”

“That does not seem overly peculiar to me,” I said. “Should it?”

“No, I suppose not.” He had recovered his composure. “She also maintained an interest in Spiritualism all her life, and wrote a few volumes on the subject that are, I believe, well-regarded among enthusiasts. She founded a society to carry on her work here, although I gather it’s more of a social club in its current incarnation.” He chuckled. “They arrange teas and dances. The annual Halloween Masquerade Ball, which is known even to Harvard men, is their handiwork.”

I was aware of Spiritualism’s popularity in America and Great Britain, but it struck me as a curious endeavor for students at a school known for its scientific rigor and its adherence to classical training—mathematics, Greek, and Latin were all required here. It was one of the reasons I’d wanted to come. “What is the society called?”

“The Orbis Society. It’s quite fitting that the current President is Elizabeth Cabot, as she’s the great granddaughter of Mrs. Norcross.”

“Oh, indeed?”

“I advise you to seek her out when you can. You would find her company edifying, I should think. She’s a very respectable young lady, from an old New England family. If you follow her in manners and custom, you cannot go wrong.”

“I see,” I said.

He continued, with all the enthusiasm of a tour guide: “Radcliffe Hall dates from 1873, and Mrs. Norcross was deeply involved in its design. It’s been updated several times to suit evolving needs. Just before she died in 1890, she oversaw the building of a new wing and renovations to the ground floor. Many of the bedrooms were completely refurbished in 1900 with modern conveniences, and new bathrooms added. Mrs. Norcross left a substantial fund for upkeep and repairs after her death. She was that sort of pragmatic and visionary person, always thinking of her legacy and the future needs of the school. It is fully installed with electricity.”

“How many students live there?” I said.

“You will be the twentieth.”

“I look forward to meeting the others.” That, at least, was true. I wanted to fill my days with new faces and new voices.

“I’m sure you’ll find them welcoming, but if they are overly curious about you, please forgive them. You are the first Oriental we’ve ever had.”

“Indeed?”

My sarcasm was lost on the Dean, or he didn’t hear me, for he continued talking placidly as he labored up the hill: “You’ve missed a few days of instruction this term, but it’s no matter. The instructors are aware you are a late admission and have agreed to accommodate you.” He said this as if it were a great favor that he, personally, had bestowed upon me. “Here we are.”

The sun had set behind the hills and the building loomed over us, a formless mass. The thick spire I’d seen from the road was a tower, bulging from the main body of the house like a tumor. The door was dull black with a brass doorknob in the middle.

The door opened and a grey woman stood before me.

“Ah, Mrs. Walton,” said Professor Hutchinson in a cheerful voice that clanged jarringly against the house. “This is Miss Kee-KOO-chee,” he said carefully, “our final student.”

Her eyes didn’t move from my face but I had the sensation that she examined me thoroughly. “We’ve been waiting for you.” Her accusing tone suggested she expected an apology.

She reminded me of my father’s sister, who used to make me feel ashamed for the simplest things—for failing to greet her properly, for being clumsy with my chopsticks—as if my missteps were a personal affront to her. I had learned to manage her by sheer obstinacy. I smiled broadly and deliberately at Mrs. Walton. “I am glad to be here.” I held her gaze, smiling all the while, until she finally looked away.

Hutchinson tipped his hat. “Well, I shall leave you in Mrs. Walton’s care. Supper is served in the Commons at half past seven. Come to my office tomorrow morning and I’ll help you register for your classes.” The driver dropped my bags without ceremony on the steps and turned away.

Mrs. Walton retreated into the shadows of the house. “You’d better come in.”

I picked up my bags and followed her.

The electric lights flickered ineffectually against the gloom that shrouded the entry hall, quite grand and expensively built, but utterly unwelcoming, even graceless. A large portrait dominated the wall to my right, of an unhappy-looking woman with a prideful mouth, dressed in black satin, sitting by a vase that held a bouquet of white chrysanthemums, which startled me until I realized that of course, there are chrysanthemums in America, too. They were heavily featured in paintings and objets d’art at our home in Hakone because of our family name, which means “lake of chrysanthemums.” I felt, irrationally, that they had no place in this dreary house.

I followed Mrs. Walton up the staircase, traversing three flights to a dim corridor with a window at the far end, and a low ceiling. This must have been where the servants lived before it was converted into student quarters. Mrs. Walton opened the second door to the left.

“This is your room. The bathroom and W.C. are at the end of the hall. You’re sharing the facilities with four other girls.” Mrs. Walton pushed the button for the electric light. The artificial light, harsh and flat, splashed unceremoniously over faded wallpaper, a bedspread, and heavy furniture: a small bed, a dresser, a stand with an ewer; a desk, shoved into a dark corner; one small window, set high into the wall. The room smelled of mildew and dust. I doubted that this room was one of the ones refurbished in Professor Hutchinson’s account.

Mrs. Walton continued, “Curfew is ten sharp. Do you know what that means? Curfew?”

“Yes, Mrs. Walton, I know what that means.” I bit my tongue on a sharper reply, reminding myself didn’t need to make an immediate enemy of the person responsible for my comfort here. “I didn’t see any lighting on the path along the hill.”

“Take the lantern.” She pointed. On the dresser was a small oil lamp. “Breakfast is served in the Commons between seven and half past eight in the morning. The dining room, the lounge, and the library are for student use until curfew. The other rooms are not to be entered under any circumstances without permission. Do you understand?”

“I’ll endeavor to remember it, Mrs. Walton.” I laid my bags on the floor and walked to the window, pushing the curtain aside to look out. The view was of the back of the hill, facing away from the center of campus. Woods and the dying light, and a gaping maw—no, it was just a ravine, surely, or a cliff, dropping off the side of the hill.

“Linens are changed twice a week, Tuesdays and Saturdays. You’re expected to keep your room tidy and free of filth. Absolutely no food is allowed in your room, at any time.”

“I understand.” I was about to turn from the window when a motion caught my eye, a pale blur against the woods. In the dim light I could just make out a feminine figure walking out from the trees and onto the grass that surrounded the hall like a moat. I wondered where she’d been. There was no path through the grass, and it would be too dark to see soon. Even so, I could understand the need to escape this house. I, too, would go exploring as soon as I had some time to myself. “Are there walking paths through the woods?”

The figure below me stopped and looked up, it seemed to me, right at me. Her face was in shadow but a glimmer of light glanced off her spectacles. I drew back with a start, although I had no reason for the burst of fear that had animated me.

“You’d best stay out of the woods,” Mrs. Walton said. She walked over and twitched the curtain closed. “The ground is treacherous.”

“I’m sure I’ll manage. I’m an experienced hiker.”

She gave me a look that clearly communicated her disdain. For me or for hiking? “There are no paths in the woods. Turn off all the lights when you leave. It’s an expensive contrivance.”

“I certainly will.” I rubbed my hands along my arms. It was chilly in the room. “There’s no fireplace?”

She pointed to a box under the window. “The radiator is there. Close your windows and curtains at night, keeps the cold out. We’re not made of coal.” She shut the door firmly.

It was too late, I supposed, to regret expending so much effort to come here. I am lucky, I reminded myself. It was a privilege to be here.

 

Chapter Two

 

A quick wash and change out of my traveling clothes restored my spirits. Travel always sharpens my appetite and I was eager for supper and company as I stepped out of my room just as the massive clock in the foyer chimed seven. I descended the stairs. My footsteps echoed oddly on the wood, sounding almost as if someone were following behind me.

I checked the lounge, which was empty. No one was in the dining room, either. Had everyone already gone?

The ground floor of the house was confusing, with rooms that flowed into each other and bulged out without right angles, making navigation nonintuitive. I emerged from the dining room into a parlor, then into another small room with a piano, one of the rooms Mrs. Walton had forbade us to use. I paused and opened the piano, brushing the keys. It was in tune, so it must get played from time to time. Professor Hutchinson had mentioned parties and teas, and I tried to imagine someone sitting at the piano to play for a cheerful group of guests who were perhaps sipping coffee and eating iced cakes, or whatever Americans did. All the drapes were drawn, and the electric lights set very low, and I stumbled my way through the pervasive gloom. The next door I tried was locked.

I retraced my steps back to the entry hall. There was set of pocket doors on the other side, and I slid them open. At last, lights, and an occupant! A young woman sat languidly with her legs flung over the arm of a chair, a cigarette poised between her fingers, a book in her other hand. A fire blazed in the fireplace and bookshelves lined the walls.

I moved gratefully towards the fire. “Thank goodness. I thought I’d get lost in this place and miss my supper. I’m Tomoé Kikuchi.”

She looked up. She was striking, with short hair of a reddish-brown shade I’d never seen before, and a chiseled face. Her eyes appeared black in the electric light but I’d find out later they were the blue of the darkest part of the ocean. “Hullo. Call me George.”

I sat in the chair opposite her, intrigued by the first American woman around my own age that I’d met. “Pleased to meet you, George. Do you know if there are any good hiking paths around the grounds?”

“Why should you want to go hiking?” She lifted an eyebrow. She was, I thought, very dashing. “The weather’s foul and the ground is muddy.”

“I enjoy the outdoors,” I said. “I saw someone earlier, coming from the woods in the back of the hall. Is there a trail there?”

She stared at me with stark, shocking hostility. “Who was that?”

“I don’t know.” I was flustered. I didn’t understand why she stared at me like that. “I couldn’t see her face and I wouldn’t recognize it, anyway. I’m new here. I was hoping to walk to supper with someone. Are you going, by chance?”

“I’m never hungry at suppertime.” Her eyes dropped back to her book.

“George, be polite,” said a voice behind me. It belonged to a dainty woman dressed in an unusually high-waisted gown of burnt orange silk trimmed with crimson and teal, fitted around the shoulders and chest but quite loose at the waist, a design that made wearing a corset entirely optional. I recognized the silhouette from the magazines I’d studied in advance of coming here, an avant-garde style promoted by a Parisian couturier. It looked very well on her. “I’m Antoinette,” she said, offering me her hand. “George and I don’t eat in the Commons, usually.” She had a trace of a lilting European accent.

“Pleased to meet you. Then where do you eat, may I ask?”

“We get by,” Antoinette said with a smile that flashed a dimple in her left cheek. “George has made an unlikely friend of Mrs. Walton, who turns the other way when we scrounge ourselves a simple supper from the pantry. But don’t tell anyone. I believe I saw some other students in the hall just now, if you’d like to join them.”

It was a kind and graceful dismissal. For all her friendliness, her manner had a smooth reserve that hid something, perhaps a personal pain, and I didn’t wish to pry. I thanked her and hurried to the front door.

As Antoinette had said, a group of women lingered there, putting on their coats.

“Ah,” said one of them, catching my eye. “You must the new student from Japan. I’m Elizabeth Cabot.”

She was not physically imposing, but she radiated an energy that compelled attention. Impeccably dressed in a sober wool afternoon dress, with white lace color and cuffs, her dark hair pulled back into a thick, tight coil on top of her head, she had a firm chin and firm handshake. Her mouth reminded me of the woman in the painting, the august and peculiar Mrs. Norcross.

“I’m walking to supper now,” she said briskly, “if you’d care to accompany us.”

“Thank you, I’d like that very much.”

My mood lightened still more as we stepped out into the fresh evening air. Elizabeth’s friends had already gathered outside. There were four: Alice Quincy, with a soft, childlike face; Ethel Lyman, tall and thin; Catherine Mason and Mary Thorndyke, who were first cousins but looked nothing alike, one being strong and solid and the other frail looking.

I was content to walk behind them as they chatted with each other. The sun had just set, and soft twilight lingered in the sky and the buildings below glowed against the dark lake of lawn. Lights came on like stars in the field below.

Elizabeth said little, which I found interesting in light of Dean Hutchinson’s remarks about her as a leader. In spite of her reticence, the other women looked to her frequently as if checking her features for signs of approval or disapproval. It was a curious dynamic.

“Miss Kikuchi,” she called to me over her shoulder when we were halfway down the hill. “You’ve traveled a long way to be here. Why do you seek to educate yourself in America? It’s very unusual for a woman of your race.”

Isn’t it rather unusual for women of all races? I wanted to say, but I refrained. I was unsure of my ability to read the social cues of young American women. Was her comment meant as an observation about race, or simply a fact? I decided to ignore it. “My father is a chemist,” I said. “I grew up understanding the basic principles of chemistry, and I’m eager to expand my understanding. Through chemistry, we’re able to help each other lead healthier, happier lives.”

“Ah, so your concern is for humanity, and how you may serve it.” I couldn’t tell if she were mocking me. She continued, “I can understand that. For why else are we on this earth, if not to strive to better the condition of humanity?”

“Elizabeth’s grandfather was a preacher, if you couldn’t tell,” Alice chimed in.

“It’s our Christian duty,” Elizabeth said. “But you are not a Christian, are you?”

“No. I was raised with Buddhist and Shinto traditions.”

“I believe your nation is still very much in touch with the pagan practices of its ancient founders. Do you believe there are forces that cannot be readily observed through our natural senses?”

“I know there are,” I said. “Electricity, for example; radiation, as Madame Curie has proved. Many elements are not observable with our senses, but we learn about them from inference.”

“What about phenomena that still defy our scientific understanding?”

“What do you mean?”

A small, secret smile played on her face. “Have you ever seen something you couldn’t explain? Heard someone speaking, only to find the room was empty?”

I recalled what Dean Hutchinson had said. “You’re speaking of Spiritualism, I believe?”

“I’m interested in the Science of the spirit. There is a long tradition of communicating with the dead in Japan, is there not? So much of your literature features the supernatural.”

“I’m surprised you’ve read Japanese literature,” I said mildly.

“Oh, Elizabeth is extremely well-read, especially on subjects of supernatural phenomena.” This was Alice again. She gazed at Elizabeth with something close to adoration.

“It’s my area of research,” Elizabeth said. “Certain races have a greater affinity for the spiritual. They are closer to what lies beyond the veil in some important way.”

“Could it not be through cultural practice, rather than race?” I was out of my depth. I wasn’t sure what she was getting at.

“My research reveals that the spirits of the dead can linger in our world; through ritual, we can communicate with them. Is that not part of your cultural practice as well?”

The idea of dragging the spirits of the dead back into the mortal realm to satisfy curiosity, or as a parlor trick, seemed wrong. And, my aunt would have said, dangerous. The dead do not belong in our world. “What sort of ritual?”

She gave me another secret smile. “We are not allowed to discuss the particulars of some of our more esoteric studies with the uninitiated.”

“You’re speaking of the Orbis Society? Dean Hutchinson mentioned it.”

We’d landed on the lawn in front of the Commons where a dozen or so men walked in a group, presumably to dinner. They gave way to Elizabeth and the rest of us so that we could precede them.

“The women have a separate dining room,” Elizabeth said to me, leading the way to a large room set apart from the main hall. There were long tables arranged with settings, and a sideboard that held several covered platters. Elizabeth walked to the head of one of the tables and set her gloves down on the back of the chair. “Each residence hall is assigned a table. This is Radcliffe’s. I’d invite you to dine with us, but we have some tedious Society business to discuss that would be of no interest to an outsider.”

I felt foolish that I’d expected to eat with them. “I understand, of course.”

“We hold open meetings once a month for prospective members.” She gave me that small, private smile again, folding her lips upwards. “The first Wednesday of the month, at half-past eight. You should join us. You would be very welcome.”

Had I perhaps made a friend? Elizabeth’s cool manner made it difficult to judge. I tried not to read too much into it, aware that I was still learning the subtle social cues, the unspoken meanings that lay under peoples’ words. In spite of my skepticism, I was curious about how they attempted to contact the spirits of the dead. Could they speak to the dead across an ocean, too? I pushed that thought away. My aunt had warned me about trying to communicate with ghosts. It could make the unwary person an anchor for the dead, tying two souls together, with disastrous consequences for both.

I sat at the other end of the Radcliffe table. A group of women seated themselves near but they did not look at me, and carried on their conversation in an animated fashion that prevented my breaking in. I finished my supper—a sad, tasteless meal of tepid soup, warmed-over chicken, and bread—alone.

 

Chapter Three

 

When I left the dining room, the sun had set and the sky held only pale remnants of the day’s light. I regretted that I’d forgotten to bring my lamp. At the edges of tamed grass, trees groaned and swayed like drunks, or sleepwalkers, in the wind. It was a scene to discourage lingering in the twilight.

As soon as I stepped off the paved walkway that framed the central rectangle of the campus, and onto the path of packed dirt that led up the slope, I became aware of a sensation of being watched. I glanced behind me a few times, certain that someone followed me, but as I kept finding no one, I hastened my steps instead. The darkness was a live, choking thing, swirling in the trees, moving with me and keeping pace, chasing me.

Unexpectedly I remembered the image of the dead doe in the road, its sightless eye, its limp neck. How had it died? I considered turning back and waiting for someone to walk with; but I was past the halfway mark now and my legs kept moving of their own accord.

It was in this state that I saw a light in the trees to my left.

At first, a rush of relief released the tightness in my chest. The light moved erratically, flickering violently between the black pillars of tree trunks, until it stilled as someone stepped out onto the path. It was a young woman. The lantern in her hand cast a weak glow on her pale dress trimmed with lace more appropriate for a summer afternoon than an evening walk. She wore no hat. Her face was in shadow, but something glimmered over her eyes—light on glass. She was no doubt the woman I’d seen earlier from my window.

“Good evening,” I said.

She stared at me, eyes wide behind her spectacles. Her mouth opened, but she was voiceless.

I realized then that she wore no coat and seemed utterly unaffected by the chill wind that blew up the hill. Indeed, from this distance I could see she was dressed for an entirely different season, in pale blue cotton with white lace panels, the sort popular among young women when I’d arrived in New York this summer.

My aunt had always warned me that once the dead know you can see them, they continue to haunt you, demanding your attention. The more you invite them, the more they linger. I had an impulse to run, but my body was frozen in place, nor would running have saved me. No one can outrun a ghost.

The phantom looked as if she’d just woken from a dream, startled and vague, her eyes fringed with thick eyelashes that gave her a melancholy look. She raised the lantern in her right hand and lifted her left, pointing out into the trees that lay in darkness behind the hall. Her mouth moved and I read on her lips: Please.

I forced my legs to move, hurrying up the path without looking back. The thought of Akiko sprang into my mind before I could brace myself—that day she walked alone to the lake, a place we’d often gone together that summer. I should have known what she was planning to do. We never found her body. Her spirit was lost, trapped with her corpse, somewhere in the lake’s depths, condemned to an eternity of anguish.

I broke into a run.

I had the irrational idea that I could still escape the haunting. As soon as I got inside the hall, I shut the door tight behind me. My legs felt enervated, as if they would fold under me without warning. My lungs burned as I fought to control my breath. I couldn’t stop shivering, in spite of my exertion. George emerged from the library, looking cross. “There’s no need to slam doors.” She studied my face. “What’s happened to you?”

Her annoyance was so banal that it broke the spell. A gust of relieved laughter escaped me. “I’ve frightened myself, I suppose.” I pulled my handkerchief out of my pocket and dabbed at the sweat on my forehead.

She hesitated, as if she were about to ask me something. “Go and have a bath, it’ll calm you.” She walked back to the library.

Too shaken to enjoy solitude, and wishing to avoid my depressing room, I followed her into the library. The fireplace blazed and all the electric lights were on, giving the illusion of a cheerful room. Antoinette sat neatly in her chair with her silk skirts arranged decorously around her, and George flung herself into the armchair opposite. A tray on the table between them held a teapot, two cups, and a plate of crumbs. Antoinette glanced at me. “You’re quite chilled! We brewed a fresh pot just a few minutes ago, George can get you a clean cup.”

“No, I’m fine.” If I drank anything now, I thought I would be ill. “I’ll just warm myself by the fire for a moment.” George had picked up her book again and Antoinette bent over her tablet, on which she was scribbling, I saw, musical notation.

George sighed heavily after a moment. “Good God, Miss Kikuchi, what is it? I wish you’d say it instead of hovering over us.”

“I’m sorry.”

Antoinette smiled at me. “Don’t mind George. You may talk, or not, as you like. We won’t press you.”

“I’m not sure how to say it. Nor how you could believe me.”

“Go on, spit it out,” George said, with a hint of curiosity in her voice.

After all, I thought, what do I have to lose? “Have either of you ever seen anything strange near Radcliffe Hall?”

“Strange how?” George said.

“Strange as in—a spirit.”

The silence hung in the air. Antoinette and George looked at each other. George’s face was stoic, but in Antoinette’s expressive features I saw that she knew something about it. The ghost was surely a recently deceased student—her clothing was last season’s fashion, the sort of dress that women had worn all summer long. George and Antoinette had undoubtedly known her.

It was George who answered. “What the devil do you mean?”

“I don’t know,” I said helplessly. “I just thought I saw…I saw someone, and…she wasn’t dressed for this weather, for this season, for the evening. She was very pretty, with dark hair and large, dark eyes, dressed in pale blue trimmed with lace. She wore spectacles.”

“Mon Dieu.” Antoinette’s eyes were very wide and very black. She stood in a jerking motion, as if she didn’t know where to go.

George sprang up and put her hand protectively on her arm, glaring at me. “How dare you?”

Antoinette pressed her hand to her mouth. “That’s what Julia was wearing the day she died.”

“Julia? What happened to her?”

George snapped, “Is this your idea of a joke?”

I stepped back, feeling as though I’d been struck. “It’s not a joke.”

She lit a fresh cigarette. Her hands shook. “You’ll offer to help, I suppose, in the form of expensive séances? You’ll let us contact her dead soul, for a fee?”

Her words stung. “I knew nothing about this girl; I’m simply describing what I saw…what I think I saw.” I wished now I’d never brought it up. “I’m not trying to get you to pay anything. I’m sorry.”

“Somehow you heard about Julia Howard, and thought you’d play a prank on her friends, did you?”

“Of course not! This is the first time I’m hearing her name, or anything about her.”

Antoinette had her forehead pressed against the mantle and now she looked up. “It’s all right, George. Why would you see her ghost, if you did? You didn’t know her.” Her voice was husky with grief and, I thought, bitterness.

“You both cared about her, I can see that, and I apologize.” I took a deep breath. “I’m sorry I brought it up.”

Antoinette looked ready to collapse. “Did you speak with her?”

“Nettie, don’t.” George rubbed her shoulders. “I think you should leave, Miss Kikuchi.”

“Not yet.” Antoinette steadied herself and her gaze was intent. “Could she be telling the truth, George? Julia died just a month ago, at the end of the summer term. An accident.”

“The ravine,” I said. The ghost was trying to lead me there. Ghosts often return to the location of their death.

“They said she must have slipped and fallen—but I don’t understand. She never went into the woods.” She broke off and turned away.

George handed Antoinette a handkerchief and held an arm about her shoulders. Without looking at me, she said quietly, “Get out of here, for pity’s sake.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know.” I stumbled out of the library, feeling that I’d committed an unforgivably cruel act.

I couldn’t sleep that night. My head whirled with thoughts, and the house groaned and creaked like a live thing. Even the silences felt alive somehow, the house holding its breath, waiting. The wind rattled the shutters and whistled through the cracks in the window frame. I got out of bed and lit a stick of incense and placed it upright in the bowl of ash I’d carefully unpacked. I wrapped the prayer beads around my hands and gently rubbed them between my palms. I closed my eyes. I called on the Amida Buddha for protection and help. If any restless spirit could hear me somewhere out there in the darkness, I hoped she would find some peace and leave me alone.

In the middle of the night a knocking sound woke me. I bolted upright, all senses alert, with the vague sense that there must be an emergency, something’s happened, someone is knocking at my door. As sleep fell away I realized the knocking was coming from the window. It was so cold in my room, I didn’t want to leave the bed. But the knocking persisted. It couldn’t be a branch—there were no trees close enough to the hall. A piece of debris must have been blown against the window. I forced myself up and tried to switch on the electricity, but it didn’t turn on. I fumbled to light the lamp, and drew aside the curtain. I could see nothing but my own wan reflection. I struggled with the latch and opened the window. There was nothing there that I could see. I shut it again and went back to bed.

It’s a privilege to be here. It’s a privilege to be here. I repeated these words like a mantra.

Sleep, when it came at last, brought restless dreams. I saw again the lake in Hakone, Akiko standing at the water’s edge, limned in gold by the late summer sun. She wore her favorite yukata, the one with peonies printed on it. Tears ran down her face. In my dream, I shouted at her, although in reality, I’d only turned away and left her there.

I never imagined it would be the last time I saw her.

 

Chapter Four

 

I awoke shivering, my heart rattling in my chest like the last marble in a box. The window had blown open in the night and the room was frigid. I shut it and closed the latch. I put my hands on the radiator, trying to warm up, but it, too, was ice-cold.

I couldn’t stay in Radcliffe Hall. I had to move somewhere else, anywhere else. Surely there was another residence hall, perhaps a student who wouldn’t mind sharing a room. I would get my parents to pay extra. I would sleep in the smallest, dingiest attic room—as long as it was not in Radcliffe Hall.

It was late, almost nine, so I had to skip breakfast to meet the Dean. The morning light did nothing to improve the dreariness of the house and I resolved that I would not spend another night in it.

I peeked into the library on my way out, but no one was there. I regretted what had happened last night. While I had no intention to cause pain, all the same I regretted stirring their grief. And yet, what was I to do? The hauntings might continue until I resolved the ghost’s source of restlessness. She’d given every impression of a young woman in turmoil. I wished I could find a way to help her.

Professor Hutchinson was as obtusely cheerful as the day before. I’d already looked over the catalog of classes they’d sent by post, but the rigor of the program demanded that every student take the same core set of classes in their first year: Greek or Latin (I chose Greek), mathematics, physical sciences and chemistry, and a modern language (I chose German). That left me with only one class I could choose freely. I decided on a psychology class, Introduction to Modern Psychology and Psychoanalysis.

“Wonderful,” Professor Hutchinson said. “Professor Gundrich is a marvelous teacher.” He glanced up at the clock. “That class meets in a half hour. I’ll write you a note to present to Professor Gundrich. You’ve only missed two meetings, so there’s still time to catch up.”

“There’s another matter,” I said. “I can’t stay in Radcliffe Hall.”

“How extraordinary! Why is that?”

“It’s uncomfortable.” As soon as I said it, I realized how silly it sounded. What else could I say? That I’d seen a ghost? That I thought a dead student haunted my room? “It’s so cold, I’ll become ill.”

“Of course, you’re not used to our New England autumns,” he said jovially. “Mrs. Walton can give you an extra blanket.”

“The window latch—it came undone and the cold air—”

“We’ll have someone repair it right away, and your radiator as well.”

“I can’t spend another night in that room.” How like a spoiled little girl I sounded! I could feel heat rising on my cheeks and neck. “Did someone die in that room?”

The dean’s face turned white as cheese, and then flushed pink. “No, Miss Kikuchi. No one died in the room. Do not let your superstitions run away with you.” But I knew he was hiding something. It had been Julia’s room, I was certain of it.

“Isn’t there anywhere else I could be housed? I wouldn’t mind the smallest room in any other building. Any free closet would do.”

“Certainly not! We do not house our students in such quarters.” His puzzlement had given way to shock, and now to annoyance. “I understand that living here is an adjustment, but part of attending university is to learn to adapt to unfamiliar environments.”

“Could I take a room in town, then? My parents will not mind paying extra.”

“The town is eight miles from here, an unwieldy commute for someone without a buggy or a car.”

“I can get a bicycle. I’m very strong. Cycling eight miles should be easy for a healthy young person.”

“Up the hill? But even if you were physically capable, it’s far too dangerous! I can’t allow it. We do not give special treatment to students here, Miss Kikuchi. We cannot make allowances for you because you dislike your accommodations.” He softened and reached out to pat my hand awkwardly. “You’ll grow accustomed to it, my dear. Tell Mrs. Walton to give you a hot water bottle tonight. Now, you’d better hurry to class.” He gave me directions to find the classroom and wished me well.

I followed the stream of students into the lecture hall. Elizabeth and her friends were there, as well as several men, about thirty students in all. I handed Hutchinson’s note to Professor Gundrich. Elizabeth acknowledged me with a slight nod, and I took a seat in the row behind her and her friends.

As the professor began speaking, my eye fell on the women in front of me. In a group they shared a disconcerting sameness conveyed through posture, tone of voice, and attitude rather than through the details of their physical appearances. They were all irreproachably elegant, even Elizabeth, in her sober, restrained way. I had an image of these women sitting in a perfumed lounge illuminated by a rosy glow, their pale silk gowns rustling stiffly like paper. For a moment I had the feeling that I stood apart from them, in the shadows, wanting to be invited into their circle but also anxious that I would be, for what would I say? How would I behave?

And yet I wanted to be among them. I’d been so lonely for so long. In London, as a child unable to speak English, looked after by a governess, I’d had no opportunity to make friends. I remember running up to other children in the park, attempting to talk to them, feeling crushed when they didn’t understand me. When I returned to Hakone, I was more strategic in my approach, but this time I was hampered from having been too long away. Even though my parents worked hard to keep up my Japanese language, I was so unused to the other customs—walking in zōri gracefully, sitting on my knees for longer than half an hour, appreciating foods, like fermented soy beans, that I’d lost my taste for—in all these small ways I was marked “other” from the children in Hakone, no longer purely Japanese.

Until Akiko. I was sixteen when we met, and she a year older, so much more sophisticated. The daughter of a successful politician, she understood art and music and how to dress and do her hair. She neither drew attention to my differences nor studiously ignored them; she seemed to accept them as natural, and for that alone I would have loved her.

There were many reasons that I developed intense feelings for her. She was quick-witted and bold. She’d slip off her geta in the summer and run splashing into the shallow part of the lake. She’d hike up the hill, calling over her shoulder for me to follow her. She danced at festivals and played the koto for an audience that would have sent me into hiding from stage fright. One summer evening she even convinced me to sneak away from the Obon festival and walk down to a quiet spot in the lake to go swimming: her hair, floating liquid black around her moonlit shoulders, her eyes full of stars…

An ache of pure longing pierced me, so sharply I nearly gasped aloud. For all the tragedy that marred my home, I couldn’t help but yearn for it, dripping with golden summer light, cocooned by the music of cicadas, overlooking sunlight shimmering on azure. If I were home now, my aunt and I might be planning a trip into the hills to see the riot of scarlet and orange painting the trees. She’d be offering me a cup of green tea and little cakes filled with red bean paste.

Why had I left it to come to this dark, forbidding place, with its unrelenting grey skies and cold-eyed citizens, the buildings that seemed unable to retain any trace of warmth? What ill-placed ambition had driven me here? Better I had let my parents go to America without me, and stayed in Hakone with my aunt, enduring the memories of Akiko.

Tears threatened behind my eyes.

Then George sauntered in. The morning light streaming through the windows lit an auburn halo around her cropped hair, tousled flame. She wore a brown tweed suit with a slim skirt in matching wool, a white shirt with a tall, stiff collar, and a man’s narrow tie. She was magnificent.

“Miss Kelly, you’ve decided to join us,” said the Professor drily.

She flashed her teeth, sketched a bow, and took a seat at the end of the row.

“Now we may proceed,” he said, and began to speak. I tried very hard to attend to what he was saying. Something about hypnosis and hysteria, which a doctor named Jean-Martin Charcot classified as a neurological condition, being linked.

Elizabeth had her hand raised. The professor looked at her over his glasses. “Question, Cabot?”

“Does Charcot’s research shed any light on how one mind may be more susceptible to hypnosis than another?”

“Charcot identifies several causes, including trauma, as mechanisms for inducing hysteria, which is linked to susceptibility,” Gundrich said.

“But is there a natural predilection?”

“I think you refer to the popular assumption that women are more susceptible than men to hysteria? Charcot argued vehemently against this, as you recall.”

Elizabeth’s voice was perfectly calm. “No, Professor. I refer to racial weaknesses of mind. Are there certain races that, perhaps being less mentally developed, are easier to hypnotize?”

I felt as though I’d been punched in the sternum. I was the only student in the class who was visibly of a different race than the rest; surely her question was no idle, random thought, but sharp as a knife.

The professor was brought up short, I could see; he did not know how to respond. I gripped my pencil and stared down at my notes.

George said, in a jaunty tone, “By God, Cabot, it would take years to try hypnotizing a member of every race on earth. I hardly think this lecture is the place for it.”

Laughter scattered nervously across the room, and the professor capitalized on the moment to scold us for speaking out of turn before getting back to his subject.

The lecture continued but I’d given up trying to follow it. I had not done the reading, and I had trouble following the professor’s mumbled speech that rambled from one point to the next. Besides, two other things in the hall competed for my attention: Elizabeth and her friends, and George. She sat still the whole lecture, drawing my eye again and again to the back of her copper head, her neck, her defiant shoulders.

We emerged from the classroom into a downpour. Elizabeth and the other women ran off together towards another building, perhaps for their next class. I hung back until George stepped out and snapped open her umbrella.

“George, I’m so sorry for what happened last night. I didn’t mean to—that is, I wouldn’t have said anything if I’d known how you and Antoinette felt. Just tell me to go away and I won’t bother you again.” My heart pounded painfully, waiting for her answer.

She frowned a little. “I was probably rather rude, wasn’t I?”

“You were protecting your friend. I understand.”

“It’s just…I’m a woman of science, you know. I don’t believe in ghosts and that kind of nonsense.”

“Of course,” I said, trying not to feel utterly crushed. “I understand.” George would not be my ally in this, then. I didn’t realize until then how much I wished she would be.

“No, you don’t.” She sighed and ran a hand through her hair. “Listen—do you have a moment to talk?”

“Of course.”

“Walk with me to the library—did you forget your umbrella? Here, we’ll share.”

Surely she could see my cheeks burning, couldn’t she? “That’s very kind of you.”

As we walked, George said, “It’s just that, you see, Antoinette and Julia were particularly close. Antoinette blamed herself for not being with Julia when it happened.”

“I understand.” Oh, if only I could tell George how well.

“The thing is, she thinks she’s seen Julia’s ghost, too. I didn’t want to believe it and I convinced her it wasn’t true. But now—” She broke off and we walked a few steps in silence. I didn’t know what to say. The rain, splashing vigorously around us, created a sort of cocoon of warmth and calm under the umbrella we shared.

George said, with a fierce look at me, “I don’t believe in all that supernatural hokum that Elizabeth and her friends are playing with. But something strange is happening here, I admit that. Whether it’s someone trying to play a trick on us or…something I can’t explain…it’s got to be stopped.”

“I agree with you about that. If it is a ghost,” I said, rather gingerly, “then we need to lay it to rest, to stop the hauntings.”

She laughed, sounding both rueful and amused. “I can’t believe we’re having this conversation.”

“Then you’re not a member of the Orbis Society, I take it,” I said with a smile.

“Definitely not, and I know that irks Elizabeth no end. It was apparently a part of Mrs. Norcross’s great plan, that Radcliffe would house the Society and the Society would, I don’t know, take over the Boston Brahmins or some such.”

“The brahmins?”

“Oh, that’s what they call themselves; the old families in New England. The Cabots, the Lowells, the Norcrosses. It’s atavistic, ridiculous snobbery.” She grinned. “Of course my family is upstart Irish, although my mother will never stop longing for an invitation to one of Mrs. Gardner’s parties.”

“Still,” I said, “what if they really are able to talk to the dead?” George scoffed; undeterred, I continued, “If we can ask Julia why she’s disturbed, perhaps we can ease her suffering.”

“Do ghosts suffer, in the afterlife?” Her tone was gently mocking. I didn’t take offense.

“If you’d seen her, George, you would have said so.”

We reached the library. George collapsed her umbrella and we went in. “Well, I’ve got to crack on,” she said. “We have an exam next week already.” She ran a hand through her damp hair, and I realized she’d been tilting the umbrella over me at the cost of getting rained on herself. My heart flared open for a moment, warm and bright. “May I ask you not to share our conversation with Antoinette? I don’t want to upset her.”

“I promise I won’t.”

“Thank you.” She flashed me a smile that nearly stopped my heart. “Until next time.” And then she strode off towards the back of the library.

I stood for a moment, watching her go, trying to remember if I had any business at the library I should take care of.

 

Chapter Five

 

I did not grow more used to living at Radcliffe Hall—it remained deeply disquieting—but Mrs. Walton reluctantly lent me an extra blanket, claiming she had no hot water bottle for me, and had a worker in to check the latch on the window and confirm the radiator worked. I tried leaving the electric light on at night but evidently Mrs. Walton shut off the box that powered the rooms, for I couldn’t get it to work past ten at night. I wrote to my parents asking for extra candles, blankets, and a larger oil lamp. I also wrote a letter to my aunt, attempting to describe as well as I could the circumstances of my ghost sighting, and asking for her advice. I was ashamed at how clumsy my hand was, now, at shaping the Japanese characters.

I tried not to look out of the window during the day. In fact, I spent little time in my room, preferring to study in the Radcliffe Hall library, where George and Antoinette spent their free time, or the larger library on campus. I dreaded the nights. I kept the door closed with the chair jammed against it, and I secured the window-latch by tying it closed with a silk cord. I stayed in bed when I heard rapping at the window, praying under my breath to Amida Buddha, telling myself it was nothing, just the wind, just an old house and its eccentric noises; sometimes I thought I heard pattering footsteps in the hall and I convinced myself it was one of the other women, using the lavatory; once, most terrifying of all, I thought I heard the doorknob rattle as if someone wanted to come inside. I pulled the covers over my head like a child and shut my eyes tight.

I did not get much sleep; but at least I met and learned the names of the other women on my floor, all eleven of them. The four that were on my hall began to nod to me when we saw each other, or when we lined up for the bathroom in the evening. But they were all Seniors, while I was a Fresher, so I didn’t share any classes with them, expect that Frances was also in the Psychology class. At least I had some people to walk to and from dinner and supper with.

George and Antoinette had rooms next to each other on the second floor. They were polite to me, but George seemed reluctant to broach any topic other than banal ones. I was afraid I’d spoiled any attempt at a deeper friendship, and felt depressed.

My parents sent me a letter and a package which was kind of them, but had the unintended effect of sharpening my homesickness. My father expressed how proud he was of me, and my mother had enclosed a padded silk robe for warmth, as well as the items I’d requested. The box she’d packed smelled like incense and hinoki cypress and camphor, like my home in Hakone. Nothing from my aunt yet, but of course my letter was still en route to her across an ocean. The distance felt, in that moment, infinite.

After nearly a week had passed with no more sightings of the ghost, I let myself forget poor Julia Howard. It was easy enough to do. No one wanted to talk about her, no one wanted to remember her. I made tentative inquiries of the other women on my floor but they all said, a little evasively, that they hadn’t known her very well at all. The entire school acted as though they’d prefer to pretend she hadn’t existed. I’m sorry to say it suited me well. I was in danger of being overwhelmed trying to catch up on my courses. In spite of Dean Hutchinson’s assurances, not all professors were understanding of my circumstances. The psychology class, in particular, was extremely difficult—not only because of the volume of texts assigned and their density, but also because the professor seemed badly organized. I found myself in the library frequently, trying to make sense of my notes and the assigned readings.

One evening, I’d stayed in the library after dinner a little later than I’d intended, and realized with a start that it was already a quarter to ten. I hurriedly packed my things to climb the hill back to Radcliffe Hall. It had started to rain, a listless drizzle spitting fitfully across the grass and trees.

And that is how I saw the ghost for the third time.

As before, it began with the erratic light, flashing through the woods below the hill. I hastened my steps. I would not look, I told myself; I would not stop. Let her find someone else.

But she ran right in front of me and I halted in spite of myself. She looked like a living person, except that the rain did not touch her. Her hair was still dry, her dress spotless. She gestured to me, her hand fluttering like a broken bird, the lantern raised in her other. She mouthed something I couldn’t understand. She had no voice.

Poor Julia. She doesn’t deserve this fate. The thought came unbidden to my mind. And poor Antoinette and George, who’d cared for her. Could I ignore her suffering? “I see you, Julia Howard,” I said carefully. “I will help you find peace.”

She swayed a little, and her face registered distress. She looked as though she were in pain.

“You must try to help me, Julia. What is it that keeps you here?”

Her mouth moved again, but I couldn’t read her lips.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand.” She gestured towards the ravine again. “Is it something to do with your death?”

She nodded.

In despair I looked into the darkness of the woods. “I can’t go there now. It’s dark and cold. I will try to go another time.”

She beseeched me, clasping her hands together, beckoning me to follow.

“Please, I can’t. Was your death an accident?”

She shook her head.

A deep chill gripped me, and my teeth started to clatter. I forced the next words out. “Did you take your own life?”

She shook her head vigorously, a look of horror and panic in her face, mouthing something I couldn’t hear.

I did not want to know, I told myself. This is knowledge I didn’t want. And yet I asked, “Were you were killed by someone?”

Nod.

I’d known, somehow, that would be the case but it chilled me all the same. My very bones were as cold as if I’d stepped under a mountain waterfall, the snowmelt cascading down my shoulders and back. My head hurt with a sharp ache at the back of my skull where my spine ended.

She pointed again to the woods, beckoning me to follow.

“I can’t,” I said. “I can’t, I can’t.” I started to move away, up the hill, fighting off panic.

A sharp wind rose and whipped at me, pulling at my hair and my coat. A shriek tore from the woods ahead. I stumbled. It was a fox, I told myself.

Julia fell to her knees, trembling violently. She stared up at me. She mouthed something that I could clearly read: Run.

I turned and ran for the house. I tripped on the stairs, dropping my lamp, crashing to my knees. The doorknob slipped my hands. It was locked.

I pounded on the door. There was no knocker, no bell pull that I could see. It was dark, the whole house loomed above me, mocking me. “Help!” I shouted against the rain. “Let me in!”

No one heard me over the rain and wind. Branches beat against each other ferociously.

The shrieking again, closer. It was not a fox.

I threw myself against the door. “Please! Someone! Anyone!”

The shriek rent the air, then subsided into a wet giggle. I forced myself to my feet and ran to the side of the house. A sliver of light glowed in one of the first-floor windows, barely perceptible through the drapes. I flung myself through the shrubs and slammed my knuckles hard against the glass. “Help! If you’re in there, let me in!”

A blast of chill air hit me again, so strong it knocked me back onto the wet grass and mud. I scrambled up, scraping my hands against the brick of the house. I screamed.

Something clicked above me. The curtain swept aside and someone leaned out, silhouetted against golden light. “Good God!”

It was George. I sobbed incoherently in relief and reached my arms up for her.

“Wait there, I’ll open the front door—”

“No! Pull me in. I can climb in with your help.”

She didn’t argue. I grasped her warm, strong hands and clambered through, bashing my knees on the window frame, to collapse on the floor of the library.

George shut and latched the window, then knelt beside me. “You’re a frightful mess. What happened? May I check your pulse?”

I nodded. I was dazed, unsure of what I’d just experienced. Not only the ghost sighting, but everything else. The shrieking. The sense of being chased. The terror that gripped me, without reason. What was real, and what was my overwrought imagination?

“You’re soaked,” George murmured as she reached for my hand. She gently pushed up my sleeve at my wrist. She inhaled sharply when she saw the scar there but she said nothing. She pressed her fingers against my skin, took out a pocket watch, and counted under her breath. Then she released me and rubbed my arms briskly. “We have to get you warm. Come and sit by the fire, I’ll build it up again.” She peeled off my wet coat and helped me to a chair.

“You’re here,” I said, incoherent and almost sobbing with relief. “You’re here, though it’s past curfew. I thought—I’d be trapped outside.”

“Mrs. Walton lets me stay up here as long as I’m quiet and don’t turn on the electric lights.” She busied herself with the coal and poker for a few minutes until she sat back on her heels and regarded me with concern. “What you need is some brandy, my girl. Luckily for you, I know where Mrs. Walton keeps it.”

I grabbed her hand. “Don’t leave me alone.”

She squeezed my fingers. “I’m not planning to. Here.” She pulled a silver flask from her pocket. “I’ve already helped myself. Never know when a spot of brandy might come in handy.”

The brandy burned my throat, but a moment later, tingling warmth suffused my neck and chest. I leaned back in the chair and only then was I aware of how much tension I held in my body. I was shaking all over with it.

“My bag,” I said stupidly. “With my books. I left it on the path. My lantern, too.”

“Don’t worry about that now.” George sat on the floor beside me. Her voice was low and kind, quite unlike her usual brusque tone. “What happened?”

Words wouldn’t come. I felt so foolish, now. What could I tell George? “I don’t know how to explain it,” I said at last. And to my embarrassment, I burst into tears.

George handed me a handkerchief and let me sob for a few moment in a companionable kind of way.

I drew in a ragged breath when my sobs subsided. “I don’t trust myself.”

“Well, trust me. I’m practically a doctor.” She grinned. “Go on, I promise to listen without judgement.”

I was too tired to do anything but tell the truth. If George thought I was lying, or mad, I was too tired to care. “I saw Julia Howard’s ghost again.”

George poured me another inch of brandy. “Go on.”

My tongue was thick in my mouth but I managed another sip.

She took the glass from me and tipped the liquid back with a quick flick of her wrist. “I sense I’m going to need some of this, too. Go on, Tommy. What else?”

“It wasn’t an accident, George. She didn’t take her own life. She was killed.”

George’s nostrils flared. “I knew it,” she said. “Bloody hell.”

 

Chapter Six

 

George took another sip. “You’d better tell me everything, Tommy.”

The unexpected nickname might have annoyed me, from anyone but George. I understood it was her way of inviting me into her friendship.

I tried to explain what happened. I have no idea if I was at all coherent. I didn’t trust my senses anymore, and I was afraid George would think I’d lost my mind, but I attempted to describe the unshakeable sensation of being watched, the appearance of the ghost, then the shrieking, the unnaturally cold blast that knocked me down. As I spoke, I became aware of the implication of what I’d experienced: there was something else besides the ghost of Julia, out there in the woods; something that frightened even Julia’s ghost.

George listened, staring into the fire, at times rubbing her hands together, but otherwise still. When I ran out of words I sank back into my chair.

“Thank you,” she said at last. She resettled herself on the floor, crossing her legs. She was wearing trousers, I realized, and in her shirtsleeves, with a waistcoat, she looked like a beautiful young gentleman.

She continued, “I suppose I owe you the full story—at least, as much I know. Julia Howard was our friend. She was more than that to Antoinette, as you probably guessed. The three of us started Norcross together and quickly became close.

“It was at the end of the summer term earlier this year. Was it only a month ago?” She rubbed her forehead. “Lord, it feels both far away and so close. It was very hot that day. Antoinette arranged a picnic luncheon for us at the edge of the woods behind the hall. Afterwards, Antoinette went to her tennis lesson, and I to the clinic where I was working a shift. We agreed to meet at six-thirty to walk to dinner together. Julia didn’t come.

“We waited for a half hour, then we thought perhaps she planned to meet us at the Commons. She never appeared. Antoinette knocked on my door that night after curfew to tell me Julia was not in her room. That’s the room you’re in now, by the way. We woke Mrs. Walton. She contacted the Dean. The police were called, we organized a search. Her parents—Oh God, her parents. They had to be cabled, as they were in London. She was found that evening, in the ravine.”

She wiped at her eyes. “Antoinette was devastated. She thought she’d done something, said something to drive Julia to it. The police called it an accident. She’d fallen and broken her neck, you see. Antoinette was sure Julia had gone there deliberately. It was daylight—she wouldn’t have fallen by accident. She was too cautious for that, too level-headed.”

She stood up and paced the room, running her hands through her copper hair. “That’s why I’d always wondered…if someone had…taken her there, pushed her in.” She looked at me fiercely. “I can’t think who would do such a thing. But we’ll find out, Tommy. We’ll get justice for Julia.”

George’s energy revived me. “Then you believe me.”

To my surprise, her eyes dropped to the floor for a moment before rising up to meet mine once more. “I should have come clean from the start. I…I thought I saw her ghost once, too.” She held my gaze steadily.

Something like a thrill passed over my skin. I shouldn’t have felt excitement, I know; we were speaking of a horrifying crime or, at best, a terrible accident, covered up by the perpetrator. Nevertheless I can’t deny that a shared spark, something electric and alive, passed between me and George in that moment.

“You did?”

George nodded. “About a week before you arrived. I dismissed it at the time—I thought I was hallucinating. I hadn’t been sleeping well. I should have told you the truth earlier.”

“I understand. Can you think who could have wanted to kill her?”

She hesitated, then shook her head. “I don’t know. I’ve no reason to suspect anyone at the school.”

“But—you feel something.”

She laughed bitterly. “Yes, I suppose it’s ‘women’s intuition’ or some nonsense, no doubt, but…well, some students guessed at Julia’s relationship with Antoinette and disapproved of it.”

“Surely not enough to kill one of them?”

She fixed me with a dire look. “There are some people in this country who believe that death is appropriate punishment for so-called deviants. So, who can say? But I don’t know if that was the reason.”

I knew George was right. Even then, at the age of nineteen, I had a glimmer of understanding about the cruelty that humans perpetrated on each other. “Why Julia, then, and not Antoinette?”

“Opportunity? Coincidence?”

“Who would disapprove so much that it would lead to murder?”

George paused, as if weighing her words. “Elizabeth Cabot.”

“Elizabeth, a murderer?” It seemed hard to credit. And yet… her single-mindedness was chilling.

George paced once more. “I know her from before, you know. Not well—but our social circles interconnected in Boston. Her family is, well, one of the Brahmin, and mine are very earnest social climbers.” She gave me a wry smile. “She’s always been cold to me, but that’s not the reason, not exactly. There’s something—I don’t know.”

“I can become closer to her,” I said slowly, thinking my way through the problem. “The Orbis Society is holding a meeting at the end of the month. Perhaps I can use that opportunity to find out more about her and her friends.”

“Be careful, would you? I don’t trust them.”

“Do we tell the Dean about our suspicions?”

I imagined George and me, sitting in front of the ever-cheerful Professor Hutchinson, telling him we’d seen a ghost of a murdered woman.

“Can you imagine what he’d say?” George pulled a face.

“I agree. We need more evidence first.” And even then, would he believe two nineteen-year-old women? “George, we have to ask Antoinette, too. I hate to distress her, but we need to see what she remembers about that day. She knew Julia best.”

“I know. You’re right, of course.” She sighed, rubbing the back of her neck. “It’s nearly midnight, Tommy. Long past time for you to be in bed.”

“Just me? What about you?”

She returned my smile. “Oh, I’m an incorrigible burner of the midnight oil. Come on.”

Together we went up the dark stairs. There was no light at all, but George had thought to bring her lamp. “Mrs. Walton’s very punctual with the curfew,” she whispered. The floorboards creaked as we moved over them. “Make sure you always take your lamp with you, if you need to leave your room after ten.”

“I won’t forget again,” I said. “I hate this house.”

“It’s perfectly hideous,” George agreed. “This is your room, right?”

The room was so dark, cold, depressing. It wasn’t my room. It had been Julia’s. I didn’t belong here. I clutched George’s arm like a frightened child. “Please,” I said, feeling foolish but unable to stop myself. “I can’t sleep here, this room…I don’t want to be alone.”

“You’ve had a shock,” George said, with sympathy. “I can stay with you until you fall asleep, if you like.”

I shuddered. “I won’t fall asleep for hours. There are noises…and I always have bad dreams.”

“And no wonder! Your room is absolutely freezing! Say, d’you want to stay in my room tonight? I’ve got a divan I can make up.”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I’ll be fine.” In spite of my dread of being alone, I felt guilty for asking this of her; this wasn’t her problem, but mine. And I knew myself enough to recognize it wasn’t just guilt that coursed through me. I was alone, in my room, with this magnificent woman with copper hair like flame, with a husky voice that reverberated through me. It was unwise, I told myself. I shouldn’t let this happen.

“Nonsense. This room isn’t going to make you feel any better, and you could use some comfort just now, I expect. I’ve got a fireplace in mine.” She firmly guided me to her floor.

Her room, larger than mine, had a handsome bay window and a fireplace, with a coal scuttle next to it. A small divan draped in a blanket was placed by it. The bed was hastily made, the coverlet askew, the pillows haphazardly tossed against the headboard, but it was a welcome sight to me. The chamber was suffused with a warm, welcoming scent I recognized as George—a blend of masculine and feminine scents, a faint layer of smoke over citrus, leather, and anise.

I found myself suddenly shy. “It’s such a comfortable room. Thank you for letting me stay here.”

“It’s no trouble at all. I’ll keep the lamp on, if that’s all right, to study by.”

“It won’t bother me.” Indeed, I wondered how I could sleep at all, with every fiber of my body aware that George was so close by.

“I’ve a nightgown somewhere you can borrow,” she said, rummaging in the wardrobe. “Here. I’ll just go wash up while you get dressed, and then stoke the fire. Take the bed—the sheets were changed yesterday so it’s clean enough, I expect. I’ll be on the divan.”

“I can’t displace you from your bed!”

She put a hand on my shoulder. “It’s all right, I tell you. I’ll be up late anyway.”

I undressed while she was out, and then got into her bed. As soon as my head touched the pillow, George’s scent enveloped me, along with a deep peace and contentment.

George returned, placed a few more coals on the fire, and checked on me, taking my pulse. “You’re giving me good practice for being a doctor.” She took my hand in both of hers. “Maybe someday you can tell me about that scar,” she said quietly. “But not tonight. Try to rest. And don’t worry about your books. We’ll find them tomorrow. Perhaps they may yet be saved. If not, you can borrow mine.”

“George, when did you start calling me Tommy?”

“I didn’t even realize. I do that. Give people unwanted nicknames. Tell me to stop if you like.”

“No, don’t stop. Thank you, George.”

I made myself comfortable in her bed. I was tired, and once prone, I was ready for sleep. I don’t recall having any dreams that night, for the first time since I’d arrived at Radcliffe Hall.

 

Chapter Seven

 

I woke to a grey morning, and George sleeping soundly, curled up on the divan. My dress and coat were flung over the bed post, muddy but dry. Slipping my shoes on, and pulling on my coat over George’s nightgown, I left the room as quietly as I could. I ran up to my own room without encountering anyone. I needed a wash and something to eat, but I felt a renewed sense of hope and energy. George believed me. We would solve this together. When I closed my eyes I could still evoke her scent, and it comforted me.

On my way down to breakfast I knocked at George’s door, but she must have still been asleep for she didn’t answer. On a whim, I went next door to Antoinette’s room. “It’s Tomoé,” I said. “Would you like to have breakfast with me?”

She opened the door in her dressing gown, her hair in a long plait. “I wasn’t planning to go down,” she said with a cool smile.

“I don’t mean to disturb you—” I felt quite stupid; I hadn’t planned what to say. “I encountered the ghost again last night. George thought I should tell you about it.” Had I overstepped? I hardly knew Antoinette; it should have been George who told her, shouldn’t it? It was too late now. Antoinette was frowning at me.

“Did you,” she said.

“I think George believes me now…or at least, she doesn’t disbelieve me entirely. I’m sorry, this must be so upsetting. We don’t have to speak if you’d rather not.”

She looked thoughtful. “I’ll come down, and we can talk.”

She emerged a quarter of an hour later, with her usual polish. “Mon Dieu, what a dreary day,” she said with a sigh as we walked down the hill. “No wonder George is still in bed.”

“Does she often miss breakfast?”

“Too often,” she said with a smile. “But Mrs. Walton allows her to beg some toast and tea as she rushes to class. You have Psychology soon, no?”

“Yes. And you?”

“Advanced Mathematics.”

“You’re also a musician.”

“I’m studying composition.” She smiled. “Mathematics and music work very well together, actually.”

“Do you ever play the piano in the parlor? I miss hearing music.”

“Mrs. Walton won’t like it,” she said, laughing. “She believes music belongs only in church. Last year, though, I played for the Halloween party.”

“Oh, the Dean mentioned that.”

“In spite of the fact that it’s hosted by the Orbis Society, it’s a great deal of fun. On All Hallow’s Eve we dress up as ghosts and witches and have a party with punch and dancing at Radcliffe Hall. It’s the one day of the year that the hall’s atmosphere adds charm to the festivities. Mrs. Walton gets someone in to prepare a delicious cold supper and for once the curfew is ignored. I wonder what the theme of the costumes will be this year?”

“What sort of costumes?” I was intrigued. Halloween had not been much celebrated, in my circles at least, when I’d lived in London.

“It depends—whatever you like, really. Last year the theme was the Underworld. I dressed as Orpheus and…Julia was Eurydice.” Her voice faltered, for just a moment, but she recovered quickly. “George made a very dashing Hades, as you can imagine.”

The idea of attending a costume party with George was too tempting.

“We shall reach the Commons soon, and won’t have the opportunity for a private conversation,” she said, taking a more serious tone. “You mentioned you had some questions, but first I have a question for you. You’ve also lost someone recently, haven’t you? Don’t be so surprised! You have that look about you; I recognized it.”

“Her name was Akiko. She died last summer.” It was strange saying this out loud, in English, for the very first time. “I was very fond of her.”

Antoinette took my arm. “I’m sorry. It is hard, isn’t it? The little things…that’s what I miss. Even the way she would annoy me. It’s indescribably painful to know that no one will ever annoy in that particular way, ever again.” She sighed. “I’m ready to talk. Ask your questions.”

She put on a brave face, but I could see it was a veneer, and that underneath the surface the pain was still fresh. “Can you think of anyone who would want to hurt Julia?”

She appeared to think about this as we walked for several steps. “Not to kill her,” she said at last. “At least, I don’t think so. Oh, if I’d only stopped for her ghost when I saw her that time!” She put a gloved hand to her mouth. “I wish I had; she might have told me.”

I wanted to gently steer her away from this line of thinking, as I didn’t think it could lead her any way healthy. “Do you know why George dislikes Elizabeth so much? She’s certain that she knows more about Julia’s death than she admits to.”

Her smile was crooked. “You don’t know this, but I am, to Elizabeth, an outsider, a persona non grata. My grandfather was a Black man. When Elizabeth found out—he is not unknown in France, he was a celebrated composer—she tried to get the school to expel me.”

“What!”

“The school charter, you know, explicitly excludes Negros and Jews.”

I felt sick. Why was I allowed to be here, then? If I’d known that about Norcross, I would not have applied, I would not have tried so hard to be admitted. I was a cheat, a traitor, like someone who selfishly exploited a loophole in the rules for their own gain. “That was very wrong of her.”

“Luckily, the review board ruled in my favor—because I am, I think, a European. Also my parents threatened to create a public fuss in the press, which the school wished to avoid.” Her smile turned fond. “I would have been lost these last few months without George.”

When we entered the dining room, the entire room fell silent for a moment, as many pairs of eyes turned to us in astonishment, or something else I couldn’t read. Then the moment was over and the chatter resumed.

I noticed Antoinette take a deep breath, but she maintained a sly smile on her face. We found seats at the end of the Radcliffe table. The other women seated there pretended not to notice. Even Frances looked away from me.

I leaned forward across the table. “They’re all cowards,” I said. “Shame on them for behaving this way.”

“Thank you.” Her smile was genuine. “Word got out last summer that I was—how did Elizabeth put it?—unhealthily attached to Julia Howard.”

A spasm of rage flared in my chest. “It’s none of their business. Don’t mind them.”

She gave me a grateful look, and we spoke of other things until the end of the meal.

We said goodbye on the lawn outside. The greyness of earlier was blowing away, and the autumn sun lit the trees and grass around us.

“I want to thank you.” She squeezed my arm. “I spent so many days in agony about Julia. I thought I’d failed her. And now you’ve given me a chance to make amends.”

“I’ll try to help her find peace,” I said. “It’s why I’m going to the Orbis Society meeting next week.”

She wasn’t listening; she had a distant look in her eye. “I can’t help but think that Elizabeth knows more than she admits. I can feel the truth of it.”

“I’ll do my best to find out. I promise.”

I didn’t want to alarm Antoinette, who was already in a fragile state, but I also hoped I could find more clues about the other entity that had chased me the other night. I suspected that would take more resolve to face than poor, sad Julia.

After my conversation with George, I saw Elizabeth with new eyes, and discovered so much to dislike it seemed strange to me that just a week ago I’d considered trying to become her friend. And yet she continued to be friendly to me, unaware of or indifferent to the change in my feelings. She even invited me to sit next to her in the psychology class. I couldn’t think of how to refuse.

“No one has warned you about Antoinette,” she said in a low voice as we waited for the professor to arrive. “She is not respectable, you know.”

Many answers sprang to mind to this, but I forced myself to simply say, “Thank you for the advice.”

“We must be vigilant,” she said. “Unsavory influences can infect every aspect of our lives, even in the academic institution, which is charged with the development of young minds.” While she spoke to me, her eyes were trained on Professor Gundrich, who had just entered the classroom.

I was saved from further conversation as the class started. “Today we will discuss the work of the Father of modern Psychiatry, Sigmund Freud,” the professor announced.

“You see what I mean,” she said, and I stared at her, mystified. “We must act swiftly to protect our values.” She calmly raised her hand.

Gundrich sighed. “Yes, Cabot?”

“May I ask why his work is on our curriculum?”

He frowned, puzzlement and irritation vying on his brow. “Because one cannot study Psychiatry without the work of Freud. Indeed, psychiatry as we know it exists because of his work. Now, if that clears up the question—”

“It is not for Anglo-Saxons to study the work of Jews,” Elizabeth said, very calmly. In my seat I cringed, wishing I had found any excuse to sit far away from her. I wanted to disappear. I should say something, shouldn’t I? But what?

“Miss Cabot,” Gundrich said, really irked now, and raising his voice, “science does not and should not discriminate among ideas, whether they are advanced by the Jew or the Black man or the German or even a woman. It is our duty as scholars to—”

“Professor.” The fact that she interrupted him was shocking to me, and I could see that he was taken aback as well. She said, in a clear voice that rang through the lecture hall, “Are you not, yourself, a Jew?”

The silence was choking, suffocating. It took me a moment to even understand what was happening, but Antoinette had explained it just a half-hour ago: The school charter excludes Negros and Jews. Of course this would include faculty as well.

“Miss Cabot, you will leave my class at once.”

“I will; for I will go straight to the Dean, Professor.” She stood up, supremely in control of herself. “I wish you no ill will,” she said with scathing condescension. “But your time here at Norcross must be at an end, and you should repent that you falsified your records upon applying to teach here.”

Professor Gundrich was as still as stone. “Out.”

To my shock, as one, all the other women in the room stood; and like dutiful soldiers they filed out after Elizabeth, leaving me and George and the male students. I was too stunned to move.

“Well,” said the professor. “Now without their censorious gaze we may proceed more freely.”

But the class was broken, confused. I am sure none of us could attend to what he was saying. I was in agony over what would happen to him. She had planned this spectacle, I was sure, for maximum impact. She had delighted in showing me, and the entire class, her ruthlessness, her power. It left me too distressed to be furious. It seemed as if she were saying to me, If I can do this to a professor, imagine what I can do to you, or to Antoinette. She had failed once with Antoinette; would she try another tactic? The same she’d used against Julia?

The rest of the lecture passed in a blur. Professor Gundrich ended it early, and we students slunk away like cowards as he put away his books and notes, alone at the podium.

 

Chapter Eight

 

In spite of everything, the next few days were among the happiest of my time at Norcross. All the dread of the last two weeks melted away, as ephemeral as a dusting of frost in late spring. I was as giddy as if I were seven years old again, when my aunt had given me a kitten, a beautiful tortoiseshell creature whom I named Tama. I was so happy I didn’t know how I would sleep or eat or do anything else but gaze and marvel at her little pink toes, her tiny yawn, the way she curled up against my foot to fall asleep. I felt the same sense of all-encompassing rapture, yet it was different. The absorption was there, but charged with an acute, almost agonizing sense of anticipation, for either pleasure or pain or perhaps both. It was as though I were holding my breath continuously, waiting for something to happen.

It was no use telling myself to contain my feelings, to have more reserve. I’d been starved for friendship for so long, and George was—well, she was so many things that I hardly knew how to describe her, even to my private self. She was bold, unfettered, confident. She knew herself and she was not ashamed. She did not apologize. She forged ahead, a true original, along a path of her own carving.

How could I not feel pulled to her?

I don’t recall what we talked about, when we spent hours together in the library, or in her room. The details are obscured by the tide of agitated happiness that overtook me. All I can remember is how George smiled, how she laughed, showing her teeth, and I noticed that she had one front tooth a little crooked that gave her an endearingly asymmetrical look. I can only remember that I realized for the first time, under the dusty electric chandeliers of the dining hall, that her eyes were deep blue, not black, like the night sky, like the depths of the ocean where sailors fear to go.

After dinner we’d sit in the library at Radcliffe Hall—she in her favorite chair, I opposite her—bent over our respective books in study until the clock tolled ten. Mrs. Walton came by with her stern reminder, we put on faces of perfect obedience, and then I’d go to my room to change into my night clothes and dressing gown. Once I was assured that the hall was quiet, and all the other women lay quiet in their rooms, I’d steal down the stairs in my slippered feet to George’s room.

Professor Gundrich went on leave, and his class was taken over by Professor Archer, a nervous young man who seemed barely older than we were. There was no more mention of Freud. We were assigned instead the entire text of a book by William James, The Principles of Psychology.

The next week passed quickly. The three of us—George, Antoinette, and I—bonded over our shared mission, although we were careful to never speak of it when not alone. We spent most evenings after supper in the library at Radcliffe Hall, studying together, clandestinely drinking tea and sharing sweets, or sometimes in George’s room after ten o’clock, chatting or just quietly reading together. It had become something of a routine of ours. George had been right about the bad dreams. They did not occur when I stayed in her room, although whether that was due to the absence of mold, or the presence of herself that kept away the strange phenomena, I couldn’t say.

I did my best to stay on good terms with Elizabeth and her friends, so I could observe them from an insider’s perspective. I hoped to both investigate the activities of the Orbis Society and watch for proof that they were involved in Julia’s death. I have to admit that, although I believed George, most of the time Elizabeth acted with a serious, almost conscientious sincerity that drew the praise of her peers. In this mode, she seemed a completely different person from the one who had dispatched Professor Gundrich with such cruel efficiency. She epitomized what the English would have called “well-bred.” Imagining that she could be party to murder was next to impossible—and yet, I believed it now. I had to find a way to prove it.

One evening, I caught up with her on the way to supper and told her I was looking forward to the Orbis Society meeting.

“I am glad to hear it,” she said. “I feared that you might have gotten the wrong idea about our activities if you’ve been speaking with Margaret and Antoinette.”

It took me a moment to grasp that by “Margaret” she meant George. “I assure you, I have very little idea beyond what Dean Hutchinson told me on my first day here. He implied it was merely a social club, but I know it’s more than that.”

Contempt flickered over her face before her countenance settled once again into lines of perfect propriety. “Most people misunderstand our goals. The founder of our society had a singular vision that is not always comprehensible to those lacking in vision themselves. You are correct, we are much more than a social club, although of course we also do organize such events to promote a sense of community among us.”

“I should like to attend the next meeting.”

A glint of eagerness flashed in her eye. “Please arrive at eight, if you are able; I should like a private conference with you before the others arrive.”

“About what, exactly?”

“I simply wish to be better acquainted with you.” Her smile was almost warm, almost friendly. “On Wednesday next, then. Ask Mrs. Walton to show to the private parlor.”

I couldn’t understand why she was being so friendly, so apparently welcoming, and at first I felt both relief and guilt, the shame of a survivor who escaped, punishment. Then I wondered whether she was planning something for me like what had happened to Julia.

 

The night before the Orbis Society meeting, as George and I got ready for bed—in spite of my repeated entreaties to let us switch places, she still insisted on taking the divan—she sat on the edge of the bed while I was plaiting my hair at her mirror. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Yes, of course,” I said. But I shivered.

“I don’t trust her.” She worried at her thumbnail. She wore a long nightshirt of silk and her hair, uncombed, stood spiky and alert.

“I don’t, either. I promise I’ll be careful.”

“Remember, you can leave any time. You can just walk out.”

I laughed, trying to muster some courage, and turned to face her. “I thought they were a pack of charlatans? And there’s no such thing as ghosts?”

Her deep blue eyes looked black in the lamplight. “Aren’t there?” She seemed to shake off her mood, and she smiled, a little crookedly. Suddenly she tilted forward and kissed me lightly, quickly, on the cheek. “Good luck.”

Flustered, I found I couldn’t meet her eyes. “Thank you.”

When I returned from my classes the day of the meeting, I looked for Mrs. Walton to ask about the private parlor. Although she lived at the hall, somewhere, she was rarely seen; I’d go days without running into her. I was more likely to see Ruby or Joanna or Ellen, the young women who came daily to clean and stock the coal, than to see Mrs. Walton herself.

I knocked at the door of the kitchen. “Mrs. Walton? Are you free? May I speak with you a moment?”

I thought I heard something within, and I pushed open the unlocked door. I was in a sort of butler’s pantry, a dark passage that led from the hall to the kitchen. “Mrs. Walton?” Thinking she might have an apartment behind the kitchen, I went through. The kitchen was surprisingly modern, gleamingly clean. A long worktable stood in the center, and ovens along one wall. Shining pots and pans lined up like dutiful soldiers on a shelf. The floor was beautifully tiled in blue and white, and in the afternoon light streaming from a bank of windows, the room was actually quite cheerful.

But there was a door to the side, ajar, revealing a slice of pure darkness. The door was not quite the height of a full person, even a short one like me. As I approached, a draft fluttered across my face, bearing a strange mixture of smells: damp and cellar-dust, charcoal and burnt matter. And also something else, something rotten, decayed, like an animal left to die in the walls. The darkness in the gleaming white and blue kitchen was like a wound, a crack in reality, that drew me to it.

I should have called out again for Mrs. Walton but my mouth was suddenly dry.

Then I heard the moaning. I couldn’t make sense of it first, as it seemed to come from nowhere and was so out of place in that modern, serene workroom. But it was coming from whatever was beyond the door: a low, drawn-out moan, almost musical in its resonance. I was rooted on the spot.

The moment passed. I was letting my imagination race out of control. It was a cellar door, and Mrs. Walton was down there, possibly moving something heavy, or hurt. I rushed to the door and pushed it wider. “Mrs. Walton!” I called. “Do you need help?”

Steps rang on stone and in a moment she emerged from the darkness, clutching her long skirt in her fists. “You are not to be here,” she said furiously. Her eyes flashed.

I stumbled backwards. Her anger was like a physical force, like standing too close to a fire. “I’m sorry. I thought you needed aid.”

“What are you doing here?” She advanced on me, her eyes never leaving mine. “Get out.”

“I wanted to ask you where the private parlor is.” I was moving as I spoke, backing up as she continued to advance. It would have been a comical sight, I’m sure, if I hadn’t felt so intimidated.

“The private parlor! Why do you need to go there?”

We now stood in the cool darkness of the pantry, surrounded by tins and jars and rows of glassware. She’d finally stopped and stood, framed in the light of the kitchen, defending her territory.

“Yes, for the Orbis Society meeting. Miss Cabot invited me.”

She laughed; it was a horrible sound, a wheezing, mocking laugh without mirth. I should have been angry but I was too shocked and too confused and, yes, too frightened, also, for no reason that I could discern, which made it worse. “You? In the Orbis Society?”

“I just need to know where the private parlor is.”

“Oh, yes, I will tell you.” Now she smiled, showing only her upper teeth; it was disconcerting. I had never seen her smile before. “I will show you, with pleasure. This way.”

When she brushed past me, I think she deliberately trod on my foot. I suppressed a yelp, as I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of knowing she had hurt me.

“Right this way, Miss.” Her tone was cloying, mocking. I was more confused now than anything else. What had I done? Was she not in her right mind? It occurred to me that Mrs. Walton was strong, and in this mood, she seemed cruel enough to have also had something to do with Julia’s death. Frigid dread crept over the skin of my arms.

She stopped at a door and took a ring of keys from her pocket, jangling it at me as if enticing a child to play. “It is kept locked, to keep out nosy intruders.” She unlocked the room and pulled open the door. I could see nothing within, for she didn’t switch on the electric light. “There. This is the private parlor. I unlock the door at eight, and then lock it again at ten.” She looked at me. “Mind you do not miss curfew again.”

She knew I’d been trapped outside that night, and she’d done nothing! Had she expected me to die, pursued by the shrieking?

I tried not to let anything show on my face. I forced a smile to match hers and said slowly, “Thank you, Mrs. Walton. I’m sure my parents will be pleased to hear how well you take care of all the students here.”

She shut the door firmly and locked it again. “Do not enter the kitchen again,” she said. “We have rules for a reason.”

I watched her go. My heart beat fast and agitated for several minutes after.

 

Chapter Nine

 

As the clock in the entry struck eight, I returned to the private parlor. It must have been an inner room, for it had no windows. It was oddly shaped, in a hexagon, with a fireplace opposite the door where the fire glowed feebly. The floor was bare, and arranged around the room were twelve chairs. A small sideboard held a tea service.

Five women sat amongst the empty chairs. They had again that disconcerting look of sameness that I’d previously observed. They all glanced up, their eyes glinting in the dim light. They reminded me of a time, as a child, I’d come across a family of stoats one evening in the woods behind our home. I’d startled them while they were feeding on a rabbit. They all sat up and stared at me. I’d retreated quickly then; and I almost did now. “Good evening,” I said. “Am I late? I thought we were to have a private conference.”

Elizabeth gestured for me to come in. “A conference with the leaders of the Society, yes. Please, sit.”

I chose a chair close to the door, feeling awkward and uncertain, more like an interloper than a guest. Perhaps it had been a foolish idea to come here; what would Elizabeth tell me about Julia, anyway? Even if she knew something, she didn’t trust me.

Alice handed me a cup of tea. “Milk, sugar?”

“I take it plain, thank you.”

On my other side, Ethel presented me with a salver of baked goods. “The biscuits are delicious. Mrs. Walton makes them for us specially.”

They did look good, lightly toasted to a lovely caramel color, still warm, with a scent of hazelnut and browned butter. I sipped my tea. It was quite strong and bitter.

“You know us already but I think formal introductions are in order. I’m Elizabeth Cabot, the president of the Orbis Society.” One by one the others said their names: Mary Thorndyke, Alice Quincy, Ethel Lyman, Catherine Mason.

“I’m Tomoé Kikuchi,” I said. “Thank you for inviting me.”

They all sipped their tea and continued to look at me. The space was small and rather dim, and although the rest of the house was often chilled, it was too warm here. With the door shut, the chamber had an airless, stale quality.

“If you have questions about what we do, please ask.”

Why did you invite me? But that was tactless. Perhaps I was tired, but I felt very slow and stupid. “What is the goal of the Orbis Society?”

“Dedication to the advancement of our understanding of the unseen forces. To use this understanding to promote a healthy balance in the world. To support righteous, good women across the globe.”

I wondered who “righteous” women were. Did that category include George? Or me?

Alice added, “We also organize social events for the ladies here, to create a sense of camaraderie and companionship.”

“Nothing else?”

Elizabeth showed a flash of anger for the first time then, quickly suppressed. “What do you mean?”

I lacked the subtlety for this. I didn’t know how to extract information from these women, who wielded courtesy as both armor and arms. “I’m simply trying to understand,” I said. The close air and heat made me drowsy. The fire crackled weakly in the hearth. It was an inviting sound. I thought there was some other sound in the room, a barely audible susurration, like the rustling of stiff silk, but there was no breeze. The women’s gowns, perhaps? “You mentioned that you attempt to contact the spirits on the other side. Are you planning to do that tonight, right now?”

Elizabeth smiled, and her face blurred just a bit. “You’re feeling tired, aren’t you, Miss Kikuchi?”

“I am, a little,” I said. “It’s very warm in here.”

“Alice, give her a little more tea. That will restore you. Are you not sleeping well?”

“I wasn’t, but I am now.” My head ached a little. I wanted to raise my hand to rub at my browbone but my hand was too heavy. I was lethargic, lazy.

“I’m glad you are now. What’s changed?”

“I’m sleeping in George’s room.” The words were out before I could stop them. I had not meant to say that. Why had I said it? And yet I felt curiously detached.

Elizabeth showed no evidence of surprise. “Why are you really here, Miss Kikuchi?”

“To find out what happened to Julia Howard.” Again, I only noticed what I was saying as the words left my lips, as though I were outside of my own body, watching the scene proceed with no ability to control it—nor desire to.

“Poor Julia. Why don’t you tell us what you know about her? You’ve seen her ghost, haven’t you?”

What happened next is something I could not explain until many years later, after I spent much time reviewing the events of that evening. I will try to convey exactly what I recall feeling and thinking at the time.

I had decided not to answer her, but my mouth opened and I heard my voice say, “Yes. I’ve seen her ghost.”

“Where did you see her ghost?”

“By the woods, behind Radcliffe Hall. And twice on the path up the hill, at the edge of the forest.”

Alice said something I couldn’t catch. I thought I should get up and leave now, but I didn’t. It was like being trapped in a nightmare. I used to have a recurring dream that something was chasing me through the narrow streets of my old neighborhood in London. I tried to run from it but my limbs moved too slowly, and I couldn’t make them go faster. The thing would catch up to me—

Elizabeth’s voice was commanding, but gentle. “Did you speak to her ghost?”

“Yes.” Stop! I told myself. A distant part of me thought I should pray to Amida Buddha for strength. I couldn’t say the words out loud. I could only think them. I reached my right hand into my pocket and pressed the talisman between my thumb and index finger.

“What did she say?”

“Nothing. She didn’t speak.” Just stop there. “Or if she did, I couldn’t hear her voice.”

“But you learned something from her.”

“Yes.” No! “She was killed.”

Someone gasped. Elizabeth’s voice was steady, inexorably soft. “By whom?”

“I don’t know.”

“What is your interest in Julia Howard?”

Please, no. I had to fight this. “I want to help her spirit find justice, so she can be at peace.”

“Did Margaret or Antoinette put you to this?”

“No.” I bit my lip to keep from saying more. Focus on something else. I closed my eyes and thought of the shrine on the hill behind my house in Hakone, where my aunt had served in her youth as a shrine maiden. I’d gone there often in the spring, seeking its serenity. I visualized myself there. I clapped my hands at the entrance to the shrine, and bowed. I inhaled deeply, remembering the scent of the wild wood, the green brightness of the peach leaves, the bracing grass smell. I thought of George’s eyes, deep as the twilight sky. The way her whole face glowed when she smiled. The Buddha’s prayer floated into my head, blocking out everything else: Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.

I think she asked me another question, but I’d managed to block it out with the prayer. I shut my eyes and shook my head, not trusting myself to speak.

“When I tap this bell, you will forget about this, Miss Kikuchi.”

At the gentle chime of a bell, I nearly fell out of my chair from the sudden release of tension. “What happened?” I said. It wasn’t that I couldn’t remember what had happened, exactly, but in that moment, my mind couldn’t make sense of it. It seemed like a confusing dream, slipping through my fingers the more I tried to grasp it. It was only later that the memory came back to me, in vivid detail, like a dream that was once forgotten.

“You must be tired, Miss Kikuchi. Perhaps you were overcome with emotion. It’s difficult to speak of phenomena like encountering the supernatural.”

“More tea?” Alice said.

“No, thank you.” I didn’t know what else to do. Their continued politeness overwhelmed me. Perhaps I had imagined it. Perhaps I had bottled up all my feelings so much that under Elizabeth’s quietly insistent questioning, I was only too eager, subconsciously, to share my experiences to a sympathetic audience. It wasn’t until much later, of course, that I recalled Elizabeth’s interest in hypnosis and minds vulnerable to suggestion.

“Poor Julia,” Elizabeth said. “She was so very unhappy. A tragic figure, you know, caught between two worlds, never belonging to one or the other.”

Like me, I thought. “Which two worlds?”

“Oh, of course, you never met her. Her mother was Punjabi.” She shook her head sadly, as if she had spoken of a tragedy. “It was cruel of her father to take a woman outside of his race, and curse his child like that.”

“A betrayal of both his race and the mother’s,” said Catherine.

I felt nauseous. Was this a test of some sort? I wanted to leave, but I had to stay to see if they could actually contact the dead. “Jane Howard was not a member of the Orbis Society, I take it?”

“Certainly not,” Elizabeth said. “Apart from her genetic unsuitability, she was far too timid in character.”

“But you invited me to join without knowing anything about me or my family lineages.”

Elizabeth smiled. “We did not invite you to join the Society, Miss Kikuchi. Not yet. We invited you to this preliminary meeting only. We must determine whether you are a fit addition to the Society. Your race intrigues us. Japan’s victory over the Slavic peoples of Russia suggests that there is something of your race that is superior. Your increasing dominance over territories such as Formosa, Manchuria, and Korea suggest that you share some of the drive and ambition of the European and American powers.”

I was at a loss as to how to respond to this. I was caught between curiosity and repulsion. Clearly there was more to the Orbis Society than women who dabbled in Spiritualism. For Julia’s sake, I should stay and find out more. But for my own comfort, I wished I could quit the room. I wished I could run up to George’s room and hide there for the rest of the night.

Elizabeth continued, “We are also interested in you, Miss Kikuchi, because of your spiritual practices. Lighting incense, chanting—yes, Ethel heard you the other night—and we’d like to learn about occult practices and beliefs you’re familiar with. It may provide a valuable addition to our store of knowledge.”

“I am not a practitioner of the occult,” I said. “I know very little.”

“I believe that certain races are naturally closer to the spirit world than others. While the Anglo-Saxons are superior in many ways, in this way, I believe, we have lost the strength we once had. But your people are still very much in touch with the world beyond the veil.” She glanced up. “It is nearly half-past eight and once the other arrive, we will hold a demonstration. Miss Kikuchi, would you like to stay?”

No. I swallowed. I had to; why else had I come? I couldn’t stop now. “Yes, please.”

 

Chapter Ten

 

My fatigue persisted, but I resolved to stay alert. Six more women flowed into the room, breaking the tension with excited chatter. They were all Freshers I recognized from my introductory classes.

Elizabeth’s friends bustled to get ready. The tea things were collected and put away, the fire in the hearth smothered; four candles were placed in the middle of the room, and within the square they defined, a silver bowl of water. Ethel and Catherine powdered the floor around the candles with a dusting of white, which I presumed to be flour. It was very strange. Someone switched off the electric light so that the candles were the only illumination. An expectant hush fell over us.

“Welcome to an exploratory meeting of the Orbis Society,” said Elizabeth. “Let us invite the spirits to join us by linking hands.”

I had to fight to control my trembling. My hands were cold.

Elizabeth said, “Miss Kikuchi, is there anyone you’d like to call on? Someone you have lost, someone you’d like to speak with one more time?”

A spasm of fear shot through my chest. Did she know? Antoinette had guessed; had Elizabeth? I breathed deliberately through the tightness in my chest and met her eyes. If I’d been as bold as George, I would have demanded we speak to Julia Howard, but my courage failed. “No, there’s no one.”

“We shall extend an open invitation, then. Spirit,” she called, “if you are of benevolent disposition, come. We are ready for you. Come to our circle.”

I closed my eyes. Julia, I thought. Come and talk to me. Tell me who killed you.

Elizabeth’s voice was soothing. “Spirit, we await your message. Come from the beyond and join us.”

The situation had all the trappings of a ridiculous cliché, and if I hadn’t just experienced the strange interview in which I’d revealed more than I’d intended, I would have agreed with George that Elizabeth and her friends were charlatans.

We sat in silence. The candles flickered as if in a gust, but there was no draft. I became aware of a susurration again, a murmur, barely audible, that seemed to come from the walls around us, like the rustling of cloth or whispering.

“Welcome, Spirit,” Elizabeth said, still calm. “Let us know how you come, in peace or in pain. Rap once for peace, twice for pain.”

I reminded myself that table rapping or floor rapping, in this case, was a notorious hoax, easily done by someone in the room knocking a knee or foot against wood. Two deliberate knocks sounded in the room.

Near me, Alice suddenly groaned as if in terrible distress. I flinched away from her in shock. I was about to ask her what was ailing her but Elizabeth interrupted.

“Spirit, you are here,” she said.

Alice rolled her head from side to side. Her mouth opened and purged an inhuman rumbling from deep inside her chest. I stared at her face, normally sweet and round, a childish, simple face. It had developed deep shadows in the hollows of her cheeks and brow. Her skin stretched over her skull like a piece of tanned and weathered parchment. If she was playacting, she was an incredibly skilled actress.

Something shifted and flickered in the corner of my vision. The white powder at our feet shimmered…as if an unseen finger had written in it the word Yes. There were gasps, and someone released a short, hysterical giggle.

“What is your name, Spirit?” Elizabeth said. She seemed tranquil, her slight lean forwards the only hint that she felt any excitement.

We stared at the floor. The Yes was wiped away. Norcross.

“Mrs. Norcross!” said a young woman somewhere on my left.

“Welcome, Great-Grandmother Evelyn,” Elizabeth said.

Alice moaned. Her voice sounded like stone slowly ground down by metal. Her head swiveled to me and she stared at me with wide, dark eyes of an unsettling blankness, like those of a sleepwalker or someone in deep shock.

“Look!” someone whispered. In the powder appeared, Who are you?

Alice was staring at me. Suddenly her hands darted out across her neighbor’s torso and she seized my wrists. Her grip was iron cold.

“Do not be afraid, Miss Kikuchi,” Elizabeth said softly. “The Spirit means you no harm.”

It had to be a trick, I told myself. It was Alice, a far more accomplished actress than I’d given her credit for; but as much as I wanted to believe that, I couldn’t convince myself.

“I am Tomoé Kikuchi.” My voice was strained with fear.

Why have you come?

I pulled, but couldn’t break free from her grip. “Stop this.”

“Stay still, Miss Kikuchi,” Elizabeth said, with a hint of sharpness. “While the Medium is under the influence of the Spirit, it is not wise to startle her.”

Alice smiled like a wolf, showing teeth that were too small and sharp for a human, and then her mouth yawned open to laugh. The sound echoed through the close, warm room.

“You’re hurting me,” I said. My voice shook. I fought to keep the rising panic suppressed.

You will regret.

Alice threw back her head and shrieked. She slumped forward, chin to chest, and was quiet.

“What is this?” I said. Anger came surging to my defense, almost convincing me that all this was pretense. “Do you play this cruel trick on every prospective member of your so-called society?”

“Miss Kikuchi, calm yourself,” said Elizabeth. “It is no trick, and we are not done. Spirit, do you have more to convey?”

Alice swayed and blinked her eyes. Her face was, once again, round and soft, her eyes bright with excitement. “Did the spirit choose me, Elizabeth? I felt it!”

My breath burned in my chest as if I’d been running. Anger and fear made me reckless. “Spirit,” I said, “if you’re really there, tell me what happened to Julia Howard.”

Everyone looked at me. For once, Elizabeth’s friends looked very different from one another. Alice looked frightened, Ethel, shocked. Elizabeth’s gaze was focused, almost avid, as if daring me to taunt the spirit.

“If you are not some cheap parlor game,” I said again, as loudly as I could, “then reveal yourself and tell us what you know of Julia’s death.”

The candle flames shuddered although there was no draft that I could detect. Someone gave a little shriek, but everyone remained seated.

“I’m still waiting,” I said. Speaking aloud gave me courage. I was in control now, it was me drawing out the spirit, if there was one, and forcing it to tell the truth. My breath was hot and fast.

You have set one foot in death.

“What does that mean?”

The letters in the powder shimmered, then resolved once more: You will regret.

A bitter wind gusted through the room, scattering the powder and extinguishing the candles. We were in pitch black. Someone screamed, the sort of scream that one gives when one is not sure how frightened she should be. I gripped the edges of my hard chair tight, my heart pounding so violently it shook my body. I told myself it had to be a trick, it was all some trick concocted between the five of them, Elizabeth and her sycophantic friends…

A hot breath gusted against my cheek, and a voice whispered: You should not have come here.

I flinched away from it, flicking up my hands defensively; but there was nobody there, no one leaning close to me to try to frighten or trick me. My hands swept ineffectually through air.

The whisper again, as close as if a stranger’s lips were right at my ear. You are here to escape your own guilt.

Darkness closed around me. It was suffocating. I opened my mouth to speak but I could only manage a wheeze. I tried to stand but I was pinned to my chair, my limbs unresponsive.

You do not belong here. But since you are here, I will make use of you.

Something gripped my throat. I tried to gasp for breath but the grip crushed my larynx. Fingers dug into the sides of my neck, nails scoring my skin. I struggled to lift my arms to fend off the attack but they remained unresponsive as if I were in a dream, unable to control my own body.

You will serve me.

Hot air blew into my face, carrying the choking, fetid scent of decay, of rotten meat and blood. My consciousness faded to a pinpoint. I was on the verge of fainting, or of death, I didn’t know which.

From far away, I heard Elizabeth say calmly, “Ethel, turn on the light.”

“I can’t. The switch seems to be broken.”

“The light bulb is shattered!” The voices were receding. I was floating into darkness and silence.

“I have a lamp.” Light flared.

“Miss Kikuchi, are you well?”

The light hurt my eyes and for a moment I saw nothing but white. Elizabeth’s voice came again. “Miss Kikuchi?”

I came back to myself with a disorienting rush. My own hands were around my throat, my fingers rigid. The woman sitting next to me grabbed my wrist and pulled my hand away. I blinked, choking for breath, unable to understand what had happened.

“What happened, Miss Kikuchi?” Elizabeth said.

I struggled to make sense of my thoughts. My heart pounded a frantic beat. I lifted my hands, gingerly, to assure myself I could control them once more. “You didn’t hear the spirit threaten me?”

“We heard nothing. The light was out for only a moment.” Elizabeth looked at me with the faintest glimmer of unease.

I looked at the floor. The powder looked undisturbed. “You didn’t see the words in the floor? ‘You will regret’?”

“We saw patterns,” said one of the women, uncertainly. “I thought I read Mrs. Norcross’s name.”

“Yes,” said another.

I didn’t know what to believe. The other women’s faces only displayed concern and confusion. “I’m very tired,” I said. My throat was raw and tender and it was hard to speak. “I’ll go to bed.”

“Alice, help her back to her room,” Elizabeth said. “I hope you feel better soon, Miss Kikuchi.”

“No, I can manage.” I didn’t want to be obliged to any of them. “Good night.”

I pulled myself painfully up the stairs. My whole body ached and shivered as if I’d spent hours out in the cold. As I reached the first landing, I noticed a shadow above me, and I almost fell backwards before I realized it was Mrs. Walton.

She stood like a monolith, backlit against the feeble light in the hallway behind her. “How did you find the meeting?”

I was on the verge of tears, and I dredged for my courage, for my pride. I straightened and climbed the stairs on trembling knees until I stood level with her. I forced a smile that I’m sure did not fool her. “Very interesting.”

From this distance, I could clearly see the look of satisfaction, of something like triumph, in her face. “I’m surprised they invited you,” she said softly. “Someone like you who doesn’t belong here. You will never belong here. It won’t matter how much money your father has, or how well you ape our customs, or how many academic achievements you collect. You realize that, don’t you?”

Violent trembling seized me again, in spite of myself.

“In Miss Evelyn’s day, you would never have been admitted. You should leave before you get hurt.”

I wanted to lift my chin and ask calmly if that was a threat. But I could do nothing but stand there, shaking.

She pulled back and said in a normal tone of voice, “It’s almost curfew. Mind your step when the lights go out.” She walked down the stairs.

There was a malevolence in Radcliffe Hall. I was sure that it had killed Julia Howard, and it had tried to kill me, too.

 

Chapter Eleven

 

George waited for me in her room, more agitated than I’d seen her. “Good Lord, you look spent. Sit down.”

I relayed the events of the meeting as well as I could remember them. It was hard to explain what I’d experienced. When I tried to put it into words, it seemed outlandish.

George listened attentively. She tenderly examined my throat and winced. “You might have bruising tomorrow. I’m sorry. I ought to have done more to help you. I should have been there.”

“I don’t know what you could have done.”

“It sounds as though you were under some sort of hypnotic influence. Was that Elizabeth’s intent?” She ran a hand through her hair. “I’m at a loss. What do we do?”

I had no real answer for her, and I was too tired to think.

George said quietly, “You’ve had a ghastly experience. You should focus on feeling better for now, I think.”

“I’ll try.” A little of my shakiness returned, suspending me between laughter and weeping. “I feel so unsure of myself. I can’t explain what happened in that meeting, not really. Did we encounter a supernatural force? Was it a trick? I don’t trust my perceptions.”

It wasn’t until George was at my side, her arms around my shaking shoulders, that I realized I’d broken out into sobs.

“Oh, my dear,” she murmured, her mouth in my hair, her hands solid and warm on my arms. “You don’t have to decide what happened right now. You only need to rest.”

I was too tired to be embarrassed. I let myself lean against her and cried harder. She stroked my hair and then handed me a handkerchief.

“I’m sorry,” I gasped when I could catch breath.

She shook her head. “For what?”

“The spirit knew things about me,” I said. “Things no one else knows.”

Her arms stayed tight around me, holding me up, reassuring me with their strength. “Like what?”

How could I tell her? She would think I’d lost my senses. And yet…I desperately needed someone else to know. “I thought I heard someone whisper to me, in the dark.”

“What did they say?”

You don’t belong here. The same words Mrs. Walton had said. Was she also involved? “It said it knew I had come here…to escape.”

George squeezed my shoulders and then pulled back a little to face me. “I’ve studied so-called Mesmerism a little bit. This is a common trick, you know. The Medium says something vague, something that could apply broadly to many people. Lots of us want to escape something.”

“I kept trying to think how it could be a trick. But George, there was no one near enough to say that, I swear it.”

“I believe you. You didn’t try to strangle yourself, I’m certain. Something did this to you.”

I rested my back against the pillows, utterly drained. “You said one day you’d like to hear about this.” I pulled back the cuff on my sleeve to reveal the scar there, watching George’s face.

Her expression was gentle and slightly apprehensive. “Only when you’re ready, Tommy.”

“I want to tell you now.” It was so hard to say the words out loud. I’d never spoken them before. Their weight was like a stone in my chest, but I no longer wanted it. “I loved someone. A girl. Last year.” I forced the words out, broken as they were. “She died. She walked into the lake and drowned.”

“Oh, my dear.” George reached out both her hands and held mine, tightly.

This was the part that was the hardest to say; the part I had hidden from myself for so many months. “I could have stopped her. I should have—George, she’d sent me a letter. I was so angry with her I ignored it. I didn’t meet her that day and she…” I couldn’t continue.

George held my hands quietly for a long time. “It wasn’t your fault. You weren’t responsible.”

“I should have tried.” I felt like a child, red-faced with guilt and regret, seeking absolution from someone who had none to give. “I should have read her letter, and gone to meet her.”

“It could have been an accident.”

That’s what everyone pretended, at the time. The fact that I desperately wanted to believe that was proof, I thought, that it couldn’t be true.

George said, “Tell me about her.”

And I did. It was strange, talking about Akiko to someone who hadn’t known her at all. I was hesitant at first, wondering what I could say, if I even had the right to say anything about her at all after I’d failed her so miserably, but once the first words emerged, haltingly, it was as though I couldn’t stop. My memories of her came tumbling out, all out of order, spread like a patchwork quilt in front of George’s infinitely patient attention.

When I’d run out of energy and words, she got up and dipped a fresh handkerchief into the basin of water and handed it to me. “For your face, Tommy. Try to sleep. I’ll watch over you and I promise, nothing will happen to you.”

I obeyed her like a child, letting her tuck me into bed. She swiftly kissed my forehead and squeezed my hand tight. “I’ll be here.”

That night, thoughts of George crowded out my tangled fears about Julia Howard, Elizabeth Cabot, the Orbis Society, and all the rest.

George was gone when I woke, and the light was feeble outside, the sun veiled by white-grey cloud cover, giving no indication of what time of day it might be. I was still in my clothes, sticky and unwell. What day was it, what time? I had no idea. My head throbbed and my limbs ached as if with the oncoming of a fever. All of George’s warmth from last night had leached away. I burrowed into her pillows and her covers for a moment, seeking the comfort of her lingering scent and sense of presence, but it was gone. I was sour and unwashed.

I returned to my room, climbing the silent stairs slowly. The hall was empty. I thought I could almost hear the ticking of the clock in the entryway. It must be late and everyone was already in class, but I couldn’t bring myself to care. I drew a bath as hot as I could and tiredly lowered myself into the water. All my years living in London, I never got used to the way that British people bathed. I longed for the healing hot springs of Hakone, or my old cedar tub at the summer house, which was so fragrant.

However, the hot water did restore my energy. I checked the time—it was after eleven. I considered trekking down the hill for some dinner but the thought was overwhelming and besides, I had no appetite. Instead I crawled back to my room, into my own cold bed, and closed my eyes.

 

I dreamed.

I stood on the shore of Lake Ashi. It was a blazing summer day, with the late afternoon sun tracking low in the sky. There was someone else, sitting on the short embankment, barefoot and dipping her toes into the water. She wore a light summer yukata of bright white and pink, and carried a fan painted with a carp. I ran to her, desperate to reach her. But my feet stuck in the dirt path that was separated from the stone embankment by a patch of lush grass. Cicadas buzzed lazily all around us. I called her name. She didn’t hear me—or at least, if she did, she didn’t turn around. I called again, more loudly, but my throat was so hoarse I couldn’t produce more than a harsh whisper. Tears leaked from my eyes with the effort.

She hopped down into the water, which was only knee-deep where she was. The tiny waves lapped gently at her. She moved forward, toward the center of the lake, which stretched out before her brilliant and azure in the sun. I shouted at her to come back but my feet wouldn’t move, my voice wouldn’t carry. She didn’t look back. She kept moving into the water, and her figure got smaller and smaller, until all I could see of her was a small black dot of her head over the blue, and then that, too, disappeared, and the lake was as smooth and tranquil as before.

Suddenly I could move my body. I splashed frantically into the water. It was ice-cold. The bottom of the lake slid away from my feet, and water closed over my head, blotting out the summer sunshine. I couldn’t breathe. Bitter water stung my eyes, my throat, my lungs. I wanted to scream but I didn’t dare open my mouth. I had no breath left.

 

Chapter Twelve

 

I gasped awake, frantic, pulse battering, drenched in sweat and shivering. The light was still the same as before, grey and pale and uncertain. But the weak light was enough to trigger a headache that pierced my skull between my eyes.

I swung my legs out from the bed. I tried to stand. My legs were weak and after a few faltering steps towards the door, I felt so dizzy I would have fallen if I hadn’t grasped the footboard of the bed for support. I thought I would vomit from the onslaught of nausea. I sat on the bed again, head in my hands, trying to quell the vertigo. When I looked up once more I saw a paper, folded neatly, lying on the floor by the door, as if someone had slipped it under.

Tommy, I’ve got to go home for the weekend—my mother’s being tedious and insisting I come home right away. It’ll be a such a bore. Check on Nettie, would you? She’s not as strong as she pretends to be.

I’m planning to come home Sunday but I’m not sure what time yet. I’ll make it up to you, I promise. Take care of yourself. I mean it.

G.

The cool, slapdash tone of the note defeated me. I collapsed back into my unwelcome bed, shivering and desperate for comfort that wouldn’t come. I dozed in and out of a fitful sleep.

At some point I dragged myself out and managed to visit the lavatory. I washed my face and hands and drank some water. I was as thirsty as if I’d been out hiking all day, and my skin felt hot and damp while I shivered, unable to get warm. My nightclothes were soaked through with sweat. I needed a wash and a change but had no energy for either.

I met Frances in the hall on my way back. “Lord! You look peaked. I’ll tell Mrs. Walton to fetch the nurse.”

“No,” I croaked. I did not trust that Mrs. Walton, or the nurse, or anyone in authority at the school, could help me. “I just need to rest.”

Frances looked at my sweating face dubiously. “Are you sure?”

“Could you tell the Dean I have to miss my classes today?”

“You’ve already missed them.”

The disorientation hit me with force. “What time is it?”

“Just gone four in the afternoon. You know, I think you’ll feel much better if you let the nurse see you.”

Frances had helped me back to my room. I mustered up a weak smile. “Thank you. I’ll just rest for a little while longer.”

When she’d gone, I managed to light some incense and pray. Slowly, painfully, I changed my clothes. My joints ached and my skin was overly sensitive, prickling at even the soft cotton chemise I wore. My arms could hardly lift to tie the laces on my corset behind my back. At last I was presentable enough and I gingerly made my way downstairs.

When I dropped by Antoinette’s room, I found her in her dressing gown, looking pale and drawn. “I’ve got the most terrible headache. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Come in.”

“You have to protect your health, Antoinette.” I sat at her desk and leaned on the back of her chair. “You don’t look much better than how I feel.”

Her face crumpled suddenly, wiped bare of all composure. “Oh, Tommy. I’ve been having the worst dreams. They’re always about Julia. She’s standing at the edge of the ravine, and I try to stop her, but I never can, and she falls to her death and I—I’m just standing there, letting it happen. It’s my fault she’s dead.”

For a moment I was dumbstruck; had I not said almost those exact words to George? Then my instincts galvanized me. “No, it isn’t,” I said. “You couldn’t know what would happen. It’s like what happened to me at the Orbis Society meeting. Something similar happened to Julia, I’m sure of it.” I briefly told her about my experience.

“I believe you,” Antoinette said. “But I don’t understand why.”

Speaking to Antoinette had helped to clear my mind and, strangely, returned some of my energy. “My next question is, how do we banish it? There has to be a way to send it back out of our world, to wherever it came from.”

Antoinette was thoughtful. “Could it be the ghost of Mrs. Norcross? But how could it be here, at Radcliffe? And why would she want to hurt Julia?”

“I don’t know.” I thought back to something my aunt had told me. As a miko for a Shinto shrine, she had assisted at sacred cleansings and exorcisms. “Sometimes when the spirit has been in the mortal world too long, it becomes corrupted. A single emotion can be refined and amplified over the years until that’s all it knows.”

“That’s terrifying. I wish George were here.”

“So do I. She had to go home.”

“Home?”

“She’ll be back Sunday.” I had to cling to that. In that instant I decided I couldn’t leave Radcliffe Hall, not yet; not until I’d seen George one more time, until we’d laid Julia’s spirit to rest and somehow banished the malevolent presence.

“I have to say, it’s a bit odd, her rushing home suddenly like this.” Antoinette’s fingers played with the fringe on her silk shawl. “She doesn’t get along with her family, you know. She wouldn’t go unless something dreadful had happened.” She looked down at her hands, musing.

I hadn’t thought of that, and I felt a pang of irrational jealousy that Antoinette knew more about George than I did. “Let’s look for a ritual to banish whatever haunts Radcliffe,” I said, trying to focus on some action we could take to stave off the dread. “I think that will help Julia find peace, too.”

“What about Elizabeth? Do you think she knows what happened?”

“I can try to talk to her. Perhaps she’ll let something slip.” I was still nauseous, but I also wanted to get out of Radcliffe Hall, if only for a few hours. “I’ve missed breakfast and dinner already, and you look as though you could use a meal, too.”

She sighed. “With George gone, I suppose Mrs. Walton won’t let us smuggle food into the library for our supper. I’ll come with you to the Commons.”

It was strange, seeing Elizabeth and her friends again for the first time since the extraordinary events of the night before. It was hard to fathom that it was only a day ago that I’d sat in the private parlor with them while words formed in the white powder on the floor. A disorienting sense of the surreal descended over me as I ate with Antoinette, unable to taste anything, unable to focus. Elizabeth did not greet me, but she seemed the same as ever, politely distant. It made me doubt, once more, what had happened.

Antoinette was quiet, too, lost in her own thoughts, or simply without the energy for conversation, which was so unlike her that had I been more aware, I would have been worried. I should have known something was wrong. But I didn’t, until, while we were walking back up the hill, she collapsed in a dead faint.

Someone ran to the clinic to get the nurse; someone—I think it was Fran—knelt at my side as I tried to revive Antoinette. The nurse came running, along with a few volunteers with a stretcher, and they carried her off. I followed them, trying to understand what had happened, but the nurse wouldn’t answer me.

I wished, more than ever, for George.

The anteroom at the clinic was deserted except for me. I waited there for over an hour before someone came out to talk to me. Antoinette would be fine, I was told. She’d had a shock, and she was fatigued. She needed rest and hydration. She would spend the night in the clinic. A doctor would be called in the morning for a full examination. No, I could not see her; come back tomorrow.

It was now half past nine o’clock. I asked the nurse to let Antoinette know I’d return in the morning and hurried back to Radcliffe Hall.

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

Friday, Saturday, then Sunday, and George would return.

I busied myself all weekend studying books about Spiritualism, the occult, and cultish groups like the Golden Dawn, but my attention was distracted and I failed to absorb more than a cursory understanding of what I read. It was impossible to pretend to myself that I wasn’t looking forward to George’s return. Sunday was a dark, listless day that I spent in the library at Radcliffe Hall, checking the clock every quarter of an hour. Every time the front door opened, I’d look to see who it was.

The clock struck ten without George. Had she come back already, and I’d missed it?

Mrs. Walton came into the library. “Time for bed.” She was practically gloating.

“I’m going now, Mrs. Walton. Have you seen Miss Kelly? She was supposed to return tonight.”

She smiled with hideous false sympathy. “Miss Kelly telephoned the Dean to say she would be staying home for another few days.”

The dismay was instant, and piercing. “Did she say why?”

“She did not say, nor is it my business, or yours.” She regarded me with satisfaction. “It seems all your friends leave, one way or another, don’t they?”

“What do you mean by that?” I wished I could be short and sharp, indignant with her, but she only chortled. My retort was feeble, despairing, and she knew it.

“When Miss Evelyn was alive, none of this would have been allowed,” she said, watching me fixedly as I gathered my books.

“You knew her?”

“I worked for her.” Her tone was oddly triumphant. “I am proud to have known her.”

I had other questions I wanted to ask, and was gathering the courage to voice them, but she abruptly turned away and stalked down the hall without another word.

I had to force myself to get ready for bed. My limbs felt heavy, and I was seized with listlessness almost like pressure in my lungs, as if I were underwater, unable to do anything as tears leaked out onto my pillow.

I heard Akiko’s voice.

My eyes opened to deep darkness. Her voice lingered like an echo in the room. I sat up. I was on the floor, on my futon; I smelled the dry grassiness of the tatami mat, the astringent tang of incense. I was in my family’s summer house, in Hakone. I threw the covers off. It was a warm, sultry night without a hint of breeze. A delicious languor settled over me and I stretched, yawned, reveled in the embrace of the humidity and warmth. Akikochan, are you here?

A faint chime of laughter sounded—it had come from the courtyard. I got up and slid open the doors to the engawa. The night was perfumed with peach leaves pearled with dew, and the koi pond burbled gently. I walked along the length of the engawa. I want to see you.

I stepped onto the stone path that wound through the courtyard, not bothering to put on my zōri. The cool stone was pleasant. For the first time I noticed a crack of light coming from the sliding door opposite me, on the other side of the house. The house felt different than I remembered, bigger and more luxurious, but it also felt perfectly right.

Akiko was waiting for me. With a tremor of anticipation I stepped across the stones toward the light. The path wound through the courtyard, around the koi pond, past the grove of peach and plum trees, under the maple tree’s full canopy—the courtyard was much bigger than I’d thought. I marveled at the lushness of the plants I passed on the way.

The light flickered.

A strange nervousness gripped me now. She was growing impatient; she’d believe I wasn’t going to come; she’d conclude that I didn’t love her. I hastened my steps, pushing the crowding branches out of my way. Akiko, wait for me!

The stones under my feet gave way to rough gravel that pierced my feet; branches whipped against my face and tore my robe. The heat was unbearable, suffocating, miserable; sweat coated my skin. A pulsing roar filled my ears like the ocean, or the gale of a storm.

Akiko! Akiko! But my voice was lost, snatched away by the heat and the rumble around me. The earth vibrated and I stumbled.

Then the shrieking. My scalp tightened as if I’d been doused in ice water and panic constricted my chest so unexpectedly that I couldn’t breathe. Hot air blasted into my face. I struggled to get up from my hands and knees but I was too dizzy. The world swayed and shifted under me. I didn’t even have the breath to cry out. The heat got more intense until I thought I would scald myself.

 

I woke with a gasp, nearly blind with frantic near-hysteria, sweating and shivering. My surroundings made no sense. I was on my hands and knees on a stone slab, suffocated by smoke and heat and a tarry, harsh smell that burned my nose and throat and made my eyes stream. Coughing, I crawled in the direction I thought was away from the source of the heat, until I encountered a wall and, leaning on it, staggered to my feet. I groped wildly and found a handle, a door; pulled it and had a moment of despair before I tried pushing it. I stumbled into the darkness, seeking cooler air. My bare feet slapped damply on the cold stone floor. With my arms stretched in front of me, unable to see anything, gasping and sobbing, I ran on, desperate to escape from something I could not name.

My hands smashed against something solid; wood, not stone. I searched and found a door handle. I shoved against it; and again.

I stumbled on stairs. On my hands and knees, like a frightened animal, I scrabbled up the narrow stairs and spilled out into a larger chamber.

I lay on the cool tiled floor for a few delirious moments, unable to make sense of my surroundings. Faint silvery light shone from one side of the room—moonlight, I realized. It was night, and I was in the kitchen of Radcliffe Hall. I pushed myself up onto my hands and stared at the cellar door, creaking slightly on its hinge, ajar. I lunged forward and slammed it shut.

My body was weak and shaking, my lungs aching. The sweat that made my nightgown sticky was cooling now and I was cold. At the sink I washed my hands and my face. I must been in the boiler room, just now; I must have walked there in my sleep.

It wasn’t until I was back in my room, back in my bed, that a stray thought suggested: something had lured me there. Something wanted to hurt me.

No one knew why George was gone, and why she had extended her trip. I wished I had a way to write to her, or speak with her, or go visit her, but I had not been invited and anyway, it was presumptuous of me to assume, whatever friendship we may have had, that she’d told her family or that they would welcome me. I recovered from my illness, but I still had trouble sleeping, and I woke several times in the night to the knocking on the window, or pounding of my heart, or the creaking of something outside, or to a nightmare that resolved, often, in drowning. A few nights I thought I heard laughter coming from somewhere down the hall.

For her part, Antoinette contracted pneumonia and remained in the clinic, unable to receive visitors for risk of infection. I wrote her notes of encouragement that I handed to the nurse.

I was so lonely, so afraid—not only of the inexplicable dread that pervaded Radcliffe, but also that I was not in my right mind. I started at every sound and wondered if I were asleep or not. I saw shadows out of the corner of my eye, but when I turned to look, they were not there.

However, I did not see Julia’s ghost again, and I was relieved.

The Dean called me to his office near the end of the week. “Miss Kikuchi, I hear that you are struggling with your classes,” he said.

It had rained all day, and his office was discordantly bright, cozy, and cheerful, like a study in an English country cottage. He studied me with a sort of wary curiosity as if I were an exotic animal: would I be sick, or attack him, or simply not respond?

I’m struggling not with my courses, but with Radcliffe Hall, I wanted to say. I knew living there would be detrimental to my health, but you wouldn’t believe me. If I had not been so depleted, I would have put up a more spirited defense. Instead I sat mute.

He sighed as if I’d answered him and took off his spectacles, wiping them with his handkerchief. “I am trying to help you, Miss Kikuchi.”

How exactly are you trying to help me?

“Well?” He was irritated now. “What do you suppose we ought to do about this situation? Exams are approaching.”

“I’ll pass my exams.” My voice was rusty. “I’ll catch up.”

He had put his spectacles back on and the glass enlarged his eyes, giving him a sharp owlish look. “No special accommodations will be made for you, you understand; it would not be fair to the other students.”

I almost laughed out loud. Through gritted teeth, I said, “Of course it wouldn’t.”

I threw myself into my studies with a guilty sense of relief. The work was arduous and the instructors seemed determined to find fault with everything I wrote, but it gave me comfort to worry about something as mundane as doing well in my classes. I submerged myself in work, as if by it I could forget everything else that was happening. I was seized by a sort of stubborn pride: I would show the Dean, Mrs. Walton, everyone, that I was as fit as any other student of earning my place at Norcross.

Oddly enough, over the last week Elizabeth had been very cordial to me. I had initially been too distracted to notice, but I wondered now if she felt remorse, or at least some sympathy. Sometimes when I caught her eye, I thought she gave me a discreet smile.

Did she pity me? I was so wretchedly miserable that I would have welcomed her pity.

One morning after breakfast, I caught her as we walked down the hill to our first classes. “Miss Cabot, may I impose upon you for a favor?”

She stopped for me with her usual formal politeness. “What is it, Miss Kikuchi?”

“Could I borrow your notes from Archer’s lectures? I’m afraid I’ve missed a class and I find his discussion difficult to follow.”

“I’d heard you’d been ill. I’m sorry to hear that. Are you feeling better?”

“Yes.” I was beginning to regret asking her for help. Elizabeth was not a good person; she had prejudices and acted on them ruthlessly. She was dangerous. It was because of her that Professor Gundrich was not teaching for the rest of the term. But I was using her, the same way she had tried to use me in her séance, I reassured myself. I was not offering to be her friend. I would use her to pass my classes without being drawn into her poisoned circle.

“I am happy to help you,” she said smoothly. “Come to Quincy Library at four o’clock today. We’ll be studying there.”

“That’s very kind of you; thank you.” I was about to move off, preceding her down the hill, but she stopped me.

“There’s another matter, Miss Kikuchi. We’ll hold a special meeting of the Orbis Society on the thirty-first of October. Halloween night. I would be very glad if you could attend.”

I couldn’t think of a way to decline; I was uncomfortable and it must have shown it on my face, because Elizabeth said, “I’m sorry for what happened at our last meeting. I’m afraid you were frightened.”

I saw no point in lying. “Yes.” But I still need to find Julia’s killer. “But I’ll consider it.”

“I’m pleased to hear it. All are welcome, of course, to the party. At midnight, a group of us will convene for a ritual. Your presence would be most appreciated.” She passed me a printed card emblazoned with the details of the party.

“I’ll see you this afternoon, Miss Cabot.”

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

I am ashamed to say what a relief it was to meet with Elizabeth and her friends that afternoon. They were all so calm and steady, and among them I could cling to the fiction that nothing had happened; I was just another student, worried about nothing more than passing my exams. They were kind to me. Elizabeth not only offered me her notes, but invited me to study with them. Catherine helped me with my German, for she’d lived in Switzerland. Alice offered to read over my essay for English composition. It was easy, too easy, to forget the vindictive little smile that had danced over Elizabeth’s face when she’d questioned Professor Gundrich. All I can say in my defense that a lull came over me in their company. The sleepless nights had taken their toll on my mental and physical constitution. Nevertheless, I cannot think about that time without accepting all blame due to me.

That I forgot about George and Antoinette for those hours was bad enough; but that I had wanted to forget about them, that I deliberately put them from my mind, was worse.

 

After supper, I built up the fire in the library at Radcliffe Hall and settled in to read. For once, my mind refused to stay on my topic of study, which tonight was German. The letters of the textbook swam before my eyes.

I stood up to stretch and walk about the room to try to rouse myself from lethargy. I wandered to the far wall, opposite the fireplace, where there was a little-used sofa standing before the bookshelves. Idly I wondered where all these books had come from; were they donated by students who’d lived here? But no, they had to be from Mrs. Norcross’s collection, didn’t they? For she had lived here before she died.

I stood staring blankly at the shelves, when my eye became aware of what I was looking at.

On the Feminine Power of the Occult, by Evelyn Quincy Norcross, volumes one and two.

I settled into the armchair by the fire and opened the first book.

There is a war raging, a war without fire or blood, but a war all the same, the preface began. If this was a taste of Mrs. Norcross’s style, I should brace myself, I thought.

It is a war of civilizations. Those descended from the Aryan bloodlines, who have built the great monuments of science, mathematics, arts, literature, are under threat. And more in this vein. I skimmed, and came to this paragraph:

It is vital for the continued supremacy of Aryan people that we educate our women. It is in women—the strong, intellectually gifted Anglo-Saxon women—that the future of our race lies. Men have failed in their project to protect the purity of thought and achievement. The Ku Klux Klan, though founded on a sound philosophy of protecting Anglo-Saxon supremacy, was a moribund and ultimately ridiculous project. We cannot achieve our goal through the blunt instrument of coercion and violence that men prefer. Our best hope is in our women, to change the world through their feminine influence and their dominance of the all-important domestic sphere.

Women have always been more open to the true nature of the universe, which is spiritual. By harnessing our innate spiritual sensitivities and access, we may unlock powers heretofore undreamed of.

Was she seriously suggesting that the power of the occult could be harnessed to advance the cause of white supremacy? The Orbis Society was founded, I had no doubt, for this very reason. Did Elizabeth believe this, too?

A knock on the door startled me, causing me to drop the book. “It’s nearly ten,” said Mrs. Walton. “Time you were up in your room.”

“Yes, Mrs. Walton.” I gathered my things. I was torn between wanting to leave Norcross immediately—my schooling be damned, I wanted no part of this project—and wanting to stay until George returned, and until I could warn Antoinette. Did Dean Hutchinson know about this? But he must. That’s why it was in the school charter, that no colored people should be admitted to the student body. Antoinette had gotten in because the admissions committee hadn’t known about her grandfather; Julia had gotten in because she was not from one of the explicitly prohibited races—possibly Mrs. Norcross hadn’t anticipated that someone of Julia’s background would ever apply.

And I—why was I here? Was I an experiment? A mistake? An allowance, tolerated by Anglo-Saxons as different but not different enough to matter?

I couldn’t sleep that night, which was just as well; I stayed up late, reading Mrs. Norcross’s work by lamplight, hoping for some hint about what Elizabeth planned to do and why Julia had died. It was an extraordinary document. It laid out, in no uncertain terms, the bones of Mrs. Norcross’s philosophy and why she had founded the school. She believed that women—white women, that is—should be educated on the same terms as men, and that the university was the place for them to meet. Elite women of good families would meet men of their class and form partnerships (marriages, that is) and when their husbands went on to become senators and presidents and industry leaders, their wives would be there, behind them, whispering in their ears and guiding them toward the future that Mrs. Norcross envisioned and worked for.

A future that had no place for me, or Antoinette, or George, except as curiosities, or laborers.

I’d been so foolish, arrogant, even, to think I could start a new life here, at a school that was expressly created to maintain a structure of power which sought to subsume me and my friends.

George returned that afternoon. I happened to be coming out of English Composition into another gray, drizzly day when I saw a car and driver pull up through the front gate at the entrance to campus. George—slim and confident in a deep blue walking suit—stepped out. I had to physically stop myself from running to her, but I couldn’t hold back my smile as I hurried to meet her.

She grinned at me as I approached, a shaft of light through the gloomy rain, setting my heart alight. “Tommy! I had a devil of a time getting to the train station in Boston, or I would have been here much earlier. How are you?” She shook my hand.

I caught myself; I’d been about to throw my arms around her. “I’m doing well, all things considered. It’s been so lonely—I mean, it’s been difficult because—” I hardly knew how to explain. I helped her take her valise and hatbox out of the car while she wrestled with the umbrella. “I wish I’d been able to write to you! Antoinette is ill—she’s in the clinic—but she’s recovering, so don’t worry.” I realized I was speaking too quickly, all my eagerness spilling out of me. “You’ve been gone so long, I have so much to tell you.”

“Here, hold my umbrella, would you? D’you have time to walk with me to the Hall? Lord! I need a smoke. What happened to Nettie?”

Briefly, as accurately as I could, I described Nettie’s condition. I was about to launch into what I’d read in Mrs. Norcross’s volumes one and two but I realized I’d been speaking for a while, and I stopped myself. We were already halfway up the hill and I wanted to settle with her next to a cheerful fire in the library, and have tea, and talk in leisure and comfort.

“But how are you, George?” I said. “Is everything all right? I was worried—that is, Antoinette and I were both worried. She said you don’t get along with your family, and it’s not like you to miss work at the clinic.”

“Well, that’s true.” There was something held back in her face that I couldn’t quite read. “It was sadly unavoidable. My mother got it into her head that I should drop out of Norcross and get married.”

“What! Why now? Why not let you finish your studies?”

She grimaced. “Apparently my mother heard that I was getting ‘seduced’ by ‘unsavory Oriental Sapphic influences.’” She didn’t look at me.

My hands went cold. “George, I never meant—”

“Oh, hush, it’s not your fault, don’t worry. It took me over a week to set her straight, so to speak, but it’s done now.” She ran her hand through her hair. Only then did I notice telltale signs of stress, a slight purple-blue shadow in the hollow of her eyes, a faint crease between her eyebrows that I was sure was not there before.

“It was Elizabeth, wasn’t it?” I spoke in a low tone. We’d reached the Hall and George paused, her hand on the door handle.

“Does it matter?” We were quiet as we passed through the door. George paused in the entryway and glanced up the stairs. “Thanks for your help. I can manage from here.”

It was a dismissal. I tried to keep my smile on, to keep from feeling the sting. She didn’t mean it that way, she was tired, that was all. “See you in the library in a few minutes? And then we can walk to supper together?”

“I’m off my feet, Tommy. All I want to do is lie down.”

“George—” I took a step toward her, but she didn’t seem to notice.

She said, without quite looking at me, “Listen, I’ve been thinking. All this—it’s nonsense, you know.”

A stone formed deep in my chest. “What are you saying?”

“It’s pure hokum, isn’t it? Spirits, and all that. What nonsense!”

“George!” My tongue stuck in my mouth. My thoughts were disordered. I was full of emotions—I wanted to stop her from leaving, I wanted to reach her, I wanted to recapture the closeness we’d had before she’d left—but the right words eluded me. “George, is that really what you believe?”

“What else?”

“George, please.” I was aware that I was simply repeating her name, awkwardly, like a child who knows only a few words.

She was halfway up the stairs. She glanced at me with a tight, strange smile. “We’re still friends, Tommy, of course.”

She only shook her head and walked up the stairs. My lungs were tight and heavy as I watched her disappear into the gloom above.

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

I finally received a letter from my aunt. Her graceful, distinctive handwriting was a balm to me, but it reminded me of how much Japanese I’d forgotten. I had to puzzle out some of kanji which, although their shapes were familiar, did not readily convey their meaning. Her letter was quite long and covered many topics about Hakone and the household and people we’d been friends with. Near the end, she had written:

What you describe is alarming. In the absence of an exorcist, you should take steps to protect yourself from possession by the spirit. Light incense every night and perform the chants I taught you. I am enclosing this for protection, in case it can help you.

Within the folds of the letter was an ofuda, a strip of paper on which my aunt’s strong, elegant hand had written the name of the kami of the shrine she’d served in her youth. I placed it next to the incense bowl. The talisman was a manifestation of the kami in my room and, I hoped, would keep any other spirits at bay.

If exams had not been looming, I might have tried to speak with my friends and resolve simmering anxieties. I might have invited George out on a long walk and hashed it out. I might have sat down with Antoinette in her room, after she was released from the clinic, with cups of tea. But it was easier to simply concentrate on the work. The books demanded nothing from me but my time and attention; they demanded nothing of me that I could not give.

I did not dwell on Julia, the séance, Elizabeth, or Mrs. Norcross’s book. I wanted to forget it all. I was safe, I wanted to believe, with my aunt’s talisman. I decided to finish my midterm exams and then leave Norcross forever. I’d find another institution that would accept me. I started writing a second letter to my parents expressing my desire to leave, but it was difficult—my emotions were too raw, my pride still too bruised. It felt too much like surrender. I put it away to finish later.

And then, exams were over. It was anticlimactic, as if I’d been rushing with all my might towards something only to find an emptiness. After my last exam, I slept for a full day.

I dreamed again about Akiko. This time she pulled me into the water and I woke gasping and choking, as if I was drowning. The window had blown open and the curtains were damp with rain.

I’d forgotten about the Halloween party until Elizabeth reminded me on our way out of the psychology class. “The theme is Dreams of the Occult,” she said. “The interpretation of the theme is, of course, quite fluid.”

The memory of my dream about Akiko choked me for a moment, stealing my words. I’d been avoiding Elizabeth throughout our exams period. unprepared to meet her false smile, her sharp politeness. I said something civil and noncommittal, vowing internally to finish my letter to my parents tonight, and be gone before her party even came. Elizabeth and her plans could go hang for all I cared.

“Join us for the ceremony, at least,” she said.

I was startled, flattered, and repulsed, all at once; cautiously I said, “Thank you, but I’m not sure.”

“Attend anyway,” she said with her strange smile. “And see.”

One bright spot that week was Antoinette. Her spirits had slowly revived, and the closer the party drew, the more like her old self she seemed. She wanted the three of us to dress as characters from the Tarot. She chose the Empress—a fitting role for her, I thought, an elegant woman of luxurious abundance, self-assured and expecting the universe to provide her all the comforts and pleasures she desired. George would be the Magician, the accomplished master of the elements, resourceful and canny, skilled and powerful, but with an unknowable quality.

She handed me the pack of Tarot cards as we sat in the library, with the endless storm beating the windows and walls outside. “What will you choose?”

She was so hopeful, and so sweetly eager, that I couldn’t bear to disappoint her. She’d had such a hard time of it the last few weeks. If I could contribute to her happiness by attending the party, surely it was a small price to pay. I looked through the cards. The Eight of Swords drew my eye again and again: a woman blindfolded and bound, caged by eight swords that surrounded her. But I couldn’t choose that as my costume—it was too dark and too raw, too revealing. I was doing this for Antoinette, to comfort her, and I shouldn’t spoil it by choosing something so grim. “Do you have a suggestion?”

“You are the High Priestess, naturally,” Antoinette said. “You are the doyenne of dreams and what lies beyond the veil. The esoteric mysteries of the subconscious are yours to explore.”

Doyenne of dreams. “Do you think so?” I said.

“Nettie’s right,” George said, glancing up from a dense medical text she’d been studying. “The High Priestess is remote and pristine, which you convey, even if you don’t mean to. Besides, that shade of blue on her cloak would look good on you.”

Remote and pristine. That stung, although George meant it as a compliment. I studied the image before me. The veil, the massive headdress, the crescent moon at her feet. I was doubtful; but, too tired to think, too tired to contradict her, I said, “I’ll try my best to embody the High Priestess.”

Antoinette’s mood seemed to improve still more as she helped us design our costumes. She had an eye for cut and silhouette, and she was resourceful. She convinced some of the students in the fine arts classes to lend her materials, and she took charge of our labor. Under her guidance, by Friday we all three had costumes that, when we wore them by candlelight, were surprisingly effective.

The last day of October dawned misty and cold and pale, but at least the sun had made an appearance by the midmorning, tempting me outside. I pulled on my coat and set out. I would not go into the woods, I decided, but I walked down the hill and through the campus, trying to savor the damp air. I couldn’t savor the excursion. I’d always liked being out of doors, feeling dirt under my feet, breathing in the smell of bark and moss. But the trees around the campus had shed their leaves and their bare branches looked like grasping fingers. In spite of my wool coat and my scarf, the damp chilled my skin.

Unwilling to give up, I forced myself to complete a circuit around the edge of the campus. I walked down the drive to the gates, which I hadn’t seen since I’d arrived, a lifetime ago. The gates were shut. I wondered if they were always kept so. The taciturn man who’d driven me was at the gatehouse, smoking a pipe next to a small stove from which emanated a trickle of black coal-smoke.

“Hello,” I said.

He nodded a greeting. He was reading something, a folded pamphlet.

“If I needed to get to the train station, could I ask you to drive me?”

“You’d have to ask the Dean.”

For a moment I pictured it, being driven down the languid road in the slanting autumn sun, to the train station tucked away neatly in the hills, and back to bustling Boston, a city too busy for spirits and hauntings. It was strange how awkward I suddenly felt, under the porter’s unblinking gaze. He looked at me as though he knew something about me, although I couldn’t fathom what. I hastily bid him goodbye and headed back up the hill.

Did I want to leave?

I’d finished the letter to my parents but it remained on my desk, unsent; it had been slow and painful to form Japanese characters after so long without the practice. My handwriting was as messy as a child’s and I’d to labor to remember kanji that should have come easily to me. My hand had forgotten how to express Japanese, and I was sure if I tried to speak it now, words would come only haltingly to my tongue; strangely, some words still came readily to mind even as I struggled for vocabulary in my German class. In spite of my parentage, I was no longer fully Japanese; through my experiences I’d been altered, and I was trapped now between two worlds, two languages, two modes of being.

My letter to them was vague. I hadn’t known how to convey what was happening here, nor had I wanted to. My father was a practical man, a scientist—like George—and he would have scoffed at my incoherent descriptions of what I’d experienced. I also doubted he’d have much sympathy for my emotional state. He’d gone to university in Edinburgh knowing hardly any English except what the missionaries in Nagoya had taught him, and yet he’d persevered. He’d warned me again and again that I’d have to be prepared for a similar experience, and I could almost see his rueful head shake, his look of Didn’t I warn you this would happen? It galled me.

My mother, for her part, had wanted a comfortable life for me—a life like hers. Marriage to a wealthy man, children, a beautiful home. Education was not a necessary part of that plan and although she’d bent to my wishes, she would see my academic failure as vindication that she’d been right, and she would press me to find a good husband.

That was what had happened to Akiko. Her parents, less tolerant than mine, had insisted. They’d picked out someone for her, the son of a prominent saké brewer with a splendid house in Tokyo, a good family with connections.

And she had agreed; that was what I couldn’t understand. She had agreed. If she’d only told them no, if she’d asked for more time to think it over, another year of freedom, they would have let her have it, I knew they would. But she’d said yes to their plans for her, and that—for such an act of self-erasure, as I thought it was at the time, at the expense of me and our feelings for each other, was impossible to forgive.

Wrapped in these recollections I didn’t notice that George was approaching me until she was just a few feet away.

“Where are you off to, Tommy?”

My heart lifted to see her, as it always did, albeit with a pang at the gulf between us that I couldn’t explain. “Nowhere, really. Just a walk.”

“In this weather?” She made a face. “You’re of hardier stock than I. I’ve just finished a stint in the clinic and I’m in search of a cup of coffee. Care to join me?”

I fell into step beside her.

“Look, Tommy, I’m sorry. I’ve been so irritable lately, and it’s not your fault.”

“What is it, then?” We started walking together up the hill toward Radcliffe Hall. Wind buffeted the path and pulled at our coats.

“Just some family things. Nothing to do with you.” She seemed to shake off her mood and when she turned to me, her smile warmed me to my core. “I suppose I was just hoping that we’d put the grief and the tragedy behind us. Is that a foolish hope?”

“No.” On impulse, I took her hands and we stopped there, halfway up the hill, in the raucous wind. “It’s not at all. I hope so too. Any of us can find happiness again, George.”

She looked down at our linked, gloved hands, then at my face. “Tommy…”

I wanted to kiss her then, with a desire so sharp it hurt as much as the wind whipping against my cheeks. I wanted to taste her scent of smoke and wet wool and fine wood and brandy, I wanted to bury my nose in her shoulder, to wrap my fingers around her ribcage and feel for the bones under her skin.

And I think she wanted it too. She held my gaze for an attenuated moment. But she only gave my hands a brief, friendly squeeze, and turned away to walk slowly up the hill.

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

It was just past six when I, with my headdress awkwardly tucked under my arm, knocked on Antoinette’s door, seeking her help with my hair. My costume was simple: a pure white diaphanous robe, created by yards of voile from the art studio, and a blue shawl which Antoinette had lent me from her extensive collection. The complicated bits were the large headdress, which Antoinette had made out of papier-mâché, and the crescent moon, which was cut from cardboard covered in gilt paper, pinned to the hem of my robe.

Receiving no reply, I checked George’s room.

George was gingerly fastening the Magician’s snake-belt, a gorgeous prop pilfered from the theatre department, last used in a production of Antony and Cleopatra. She looked like a European pagan godling with her copper hair under a silver circlet, a blood-red shawl draped over her shoulders. “I’m nearly dressed,” she said, glancing up. “Say, don’t you look smashing!”

“I thought Antoinette might be here,” I said. “She’d offered to help me with my headdress.”

“She’s not in her room?” George grabbed a slim wooden cylinder, painted white, the Magician’s wand. She held it up in her right hand, and pointed at the floor with her left. “How do I look?”

“Words can’t describe it,” I said honestly. “You look like the model the artist had in mind, but failed to capture because paint can only do so much.”

She blushed—the first time I’d ever seen her do that—and muttered something obscured by her smile.

“I wonder if Antoinette went downstairs already?”

George put down the wand and stepped towards me. “Here, can I help you? How do you want it?”

I had left my hair loose down my back. George’s fingers trailed through it. She breathed in, sharply, just a small subtle intake of breath that anyone less attuned to physical expressions from her would have missed.

I did not miss it. Almost involuntarily, I closed my eyes and tilted my head, just enough so that the back of my head brushed against her knuckles, like a cat that seeks a human’s touch. She shifted her hands to cradle my head, her fingers tangling in my hair. “Your hair,” she murmured, her voice deep as velvet, with a slight rasp. “So silky. Smells of hyacinth.”

I wanted to say something but my mind had gone blank. All I could focus on was the delicious, excruciating anticipation of her body just a hand’s breadth from mine. Under her light robe I could almost feel the tenderness of her skin, the taut muscle and the softness; I could almost hear her heart beat—or was that mine? I opened my eyes to see her face, serene, chiseled, her lips cut and pure and statuesque. Her eyes were heavy-lidded mystery. Her breath was smoky sweet and I wanted to fill my lungs with it.

“George,” I said. It came out a whisper. I dared to tip my body forward so that my breasts brushed her chest. I wasn’t wearing a corset tonight.

“Tommy.” Her hands tightened subtly in my hair, tugging gently at my scalp, sending an electric flutter down my spine. Her thumbs gently rested against either side of my skull, lightly caressing the hollows behind my ears.

The words reverberated inside me, it was all I could hear, like the sound of the ocean roaring in my ears. I want to kiss you. I want to kiss you. “I want to kiss you.” Had I actually said it out loud? I must have. I felt the words form in my throat and leave a faint echo in the small space of air between us.

“That’s exactly what I was going to say.” George bent forward and touched her lips to mine, lightly, too lightly, leaving me breathless. “Like that?” The faintest smile curved her lip, her eyebrow arched.

“No. Like this.” I dropped the headdress at my feet and reached for her, my hands on her upper arms, leaning fully into her, letting my mouth reach hers as if it belonged there. Her scent enveloped me, and she made a small aching sound in the base of her throat which thrummed through her lips and tongue and set my pulse on fire. My hands moved up her arms to her shoulders as her arms clasped my ribcage, as intimately and comfortably as an obi wrapping my torso. She hugged me to herself not tightly, not loosely, but exactly as perfectly as if she had been doing so all my life.

I opened my mouth a little wider, wanting to expand my exploration of her taste, her scent. Where our tongues and lips touched, they scorched, but not with pain—with a heat that could not be pain because it was so desired and so pure. Her hands braced the small of my back and I folded my body into hers, breasts against breasts, ribcage to ribcage, belly to belly, and the heat built inside me until I thought I would fracture into a thousand gilt pieces shimmering in the air.

Her arms loosened, and she pulled back from me. Her hands held my waist lightly and confidently. “If we continue any longer we’ll miss the party.”

“I don’t care about the party.” Feverish, hot and panting, shivering slightly with the intensity of want, I held onto her as if I were drowning.

She reached up to stroke her thumb across my lower lip. “You’re so lovely,” she said in her velvet voice. I suppressed a moan. “We have plenty of time.”

“Do you promise?” You won’t leave me, will you? You won’t walk into the middle of the lake and leave me bereft, mourning you? You won’t get married because your parents say you should? You won’t choose some other life over this one? How could I ask those questions? I had no right. George had kissed me, that was all; that was all, and that was everything.

For answer, she kissed me again, lazily, languorously, and let me go.

My head-dress had fallen and gotten crushed, but I didn’t care. I floated down the stairs, hand in hand with George, wrapped in delirious happiness. For the first time since I’d arrived, Radcliffe Hall did not exude a sinister air. Cheerful voices echoed in the foyer and brightly dressed guests greeted us with smiles.

“Where’s Nettie gone?” George said as we made our way to the dining room. The table had been pushed against the windows and on it was laid out a magnificent buffet of both cold and hot dishes, grilled oysters, salmon with lemon, roast beef cut into thin slices, eggs in aspic, vibrant salads, a tureen of what looked like vichyssoise, and at one end of the table, a vast array of cakes, candies, wafers dipped in chocolate, macarons, and other sweet delights. In the center of the table sat a cut glass punch bowl holding a quantity of glowing pink liquid which guests ladled into pretty little glass cups. Everyone here was in costume: a pretty Pierrot with blond curls peeking out from under her cap chatted in the corner with a witch in a conical black hat. A young man dressed in a toga and a laurel wreath poured punch for a Cleopatra in a dazzling necklace of gold and lapis lazuli. A trio of fairies with lovely wings of translucent silver and gold paper arranged themselves decorously around the fireplace.

“That punch will be too sweet,” George said in an undertone, glancing at the table of treats. “I’ve brought my own.” She patted her hip. “I made myself a pouch to wear under this thing. Lord! I’m hot now.”

We passed on into the next chamber, where a gramophone played a lively tune. There were several men here—not as many in attendance as women, but more than I’d associated with in a long time—who chatted with each other, and a few who danced with the women. All the furniture had been moved against the walls and the rugs rolled up to create room for dancing. The music made me tap my foot. The dance looked fairly simple to learn and I wondered if George would want to dance with me.

“D’you see Antoinette anywhere?” George looked around the room.

“Check the library?” We moved through into the parlor with the piano, where a dozen young people in masks were playing cards at the table, while a woman dressed as Red Riding Hood and a man wearing an obviously fake moustache and a long red velvet cape sat at the piano singing together. There were many other odd costumes I couldn’t identify. I’d slipped into a different world. Gone was the dour, oppressive, suffocating gloom I’d come to associate with Radcliffe Hall, replaced by revelry unbound. A fluttering happiness built inside me. George was right; the idea of an evil spirit haunting Radcliffe was nonsense.

I looked at George, who was scanning the room. “Would you dance with me?”

She smiled. “With pleasure. Let’s just check the library first.”

“Miss Kikuchi, I’m so glad you’ve come.” Someone glided to us, speaking in Elizabeth’s voice but looking nothing like her. Elizabeth’s severe and sober elegance, well-tailored and carefully constructed, had been replaced by chaotic layers of scarlet and purple silk. The robes were slightly diaphanous and bared her pale, fleshy arms. Her hair was a mass cascading down her shoulders, nearly to her waist. It was more shocking, somehow, to see this unbound and unfettered hair than if I’d seen her naked. On her head she wore a dull gold crown affixed with three candles which were unlit. Most remarkable of all was her makeup, which was theatrical and garish: dark oily soot rimmed her eyes, and her face was powdered to ghostly white. Deep crimson stained her lips.

She looked like a parody of a priestess, and yet I could not find any humor in it. There was something lividly grotesque, deliberately off-putting about her appearance, and uneasiness crawled over my skin.

“Thank you for inviting me,” I said, because I couldn’t think of what else I might offer. George was silent next to me.

“I hope you’re enjoying yourself? At midnight we shall begin the ritual.”

A frisson of anxiety touched the back of my neck. “I remember. What is the ritual like?”

But Elizabeth wasn’t listening. She was watching George. “Margaret, did you see that William is here?”

George’s face had gone to stone.

I followed her gaze to where a young man stood, of middling height, with fair hair and no costume that I could discern. He waved and eagerly approached.

“Who is William?” I said. A warning beat inside me, but I couldn’t understand it. What was the problem? Something was wrong. I didn’t know. I didn’t want to know.

Elizabeth said, “Miss Kikuchi, may I present William Warren Delano? Margaret’s fiancé.”

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

“How d’you do?” He was a perfectly pleasant young man, with a friendly smile in an inoffensively handsome face which I wanted to slap as hard as I could. How dare he be here, how dare he lay any sort of claim on George? Go away, I wanted to scream at him. Leave us alone.

The moment passed. Too late I realized he had extended his hand. I reached to shake it just as he withdrew it, with an awkward laugh, and bobbed his head instead. Then he leaned across me and kissed George on the cheek. “You look smashing, Mags. Absolutely smashing.”

Smashing. What I wanted to do to his silly, handsome face. But also, it was an echo of George’s cadence, her diction. When he tilted his head, I saw the shadow of George. A lock of hair tumbled over his left brow, just like it did on George.

Mags? What a vile nickname. A horrible, diminishing nickname. And yet…

The insouciant attitude, the slang, the proclivity for nicknames. She’d lifted those mannerisms from him. Her fiancé. She had a fiancé. I wanted to take her by the shoulders and demand why she’d never told me. At the same time I wanted to run far away from this stuffy parlor and Radcliffe Hall. I should have left already. I should have begged the porter to take me to the train station, I should have called my parents and had them arrange a train ticket for me. I should have already sent them my letter. Why hadn’t I? I should have listened to my instincts from the very beginning and left, the day after I’d arrived.

“Can I get you anything, Mags?” William said. “Anything for you, Miss K?”

George had still not said anything. Why hadn’t she said anything? She stood as if struck by Medusa’s gaze. I wanted to scream at her. I was trembling. No one seemed to notice.

“I’ll fetch some punch,” William said affably.

“I’m so glad you invited him, Margaret,” Elizabeth said. “It’s lovely to see him again.”

She had invited him? George said flatly, “Yes.”

“You didn’t tell me,” I choked out at last. I didn’t care that Elizabeth was still there, watching us from under her oily eyelids. “I didn’t know you were engaged to be married.”

George finally looked at me. Around us, the crowd chattered and fractured into slivers of color and light and sound. “Tommy,” she said. “I didn’t know he’d be here.”

“But you wanted him to be,” I said in a falsely bright tone that appalled me. It didn’t sound like my voice. “You invited him.”

Elizabeth said, “Miss Kikuchi, may I introduce you to another acquaintance of mine?”

“Congratulations, Margaret,” I said, as viciously as I could manage, and turned away. The room was a blur. I stumbled forward, following Elizabeth, propelled by bitter, howling fury that built inside me like a fire. I was an utter fool. I should have known. Of course a woman of George’s position in society would be engaged to some eligible smiling rich idiot.

But why hadn’t she told me? I would have understood. We could have saved each other all this unnecessary angst and pain, which felt so childish, really, so juvenile. It was just like what had happened with Akiko. She’d promised me she’d refuse any marriage her parents had arranged, but in the end she didn’t. She couldn’t go against her parents. And in the face of my fury and disappointment, she’d—

I was too hot. I couldn’t breathe. There were too many people, and they kept coming, flooding the foyer, the library. Their voices were too loud, their eyes too bright. I needed to escape from their gaze.

“Miss Kikuchi?”

“I forgot something,” I mumbled. I couldn’t bear the crowd. “Excuse me.” I fled from Elizabeth, groping my way to the stairs, but bodies sat and stood on the steps, blocking the way.

“Tommy?” From behind me somewhere, George called out. Or perhaps I imagined it. I fought my way through the crush to the front door, jerked it open, and lurched outside.

The frost in the air hit me like a resounding slap. I welcomed it. I skidded down the steps, still too wracked with emotion to be in control of my limbs. The mist was thick and heavy and alive with silence that swallowed screams. It was better than being inside the stuffy hall, even as I shivered. I had nothing on but the thin robe of my costume over my chemise, and Antoinette’s cashmere shawl which was more for elegance than warmth.

I should go back in, I thought. I was being childish.

And then I saw her, a pale shadow in the mist, swathed what appeared to be a shroud, her dark hair loose and trailing down her back. She was walking away from the hall, gliding across the frosted grass towards the woods behind Radcliffe. Julia. Guilt pierced me—we’d forgotten about her, because we wanted to; we’d decided to put her from our minds. And here she was, still suffering.

But what could I do? I was about to turn away, but I noticed something—her footsteps. I could hear them. She was not dressed in her usual summer gown, but in a loose robe, not unlike my own. Her hair—

It wasn’t Julia at all. “Antoinette?” The mist quelled my voice. “Antoinette!” I hurried after her. She was wearing only her Empress costume, and she would catch cold. “Where are you going? Come back!”

I caught up to her because she moved slowly, dreamily. When I reached her side, she tilted her head slightly as if she knew I were there but she didn’t turn.

“What are you doing? Come back to the party, Antoinette, please. It’s too cold.”

She ignored me and walked on. I touched her arm. “Antoinette?” Her eyes were wide and dreamy, unseeing. Like the eyes of Julia’s ghost. Dread gripped me. “Antoinette!” I said. “We have go inside, right now.” I took her hand and tried to pull her, but she jerked away and continued her slow trancelike mark, an inexorable as death.

I wavered, uncertain of what to do. I was not strong enough to carry her to the hall, and I didn’t want to hurt her. I wasn’t sure she wouldn’t hurt me. I needed help.

I ran back to the hall, tripping over my robe in my haste. “George—where is George?” I fought my way through the crowd, my voice going hoarse. “George! George!”

“Tommy! Dear God, what’s—”

“Antoinette,” I said. “Something’s wrong.”

“Where?”

Together we ran across the damp grass, into the thick mist. Neither of us had had time to get a lamp. We were shrouded in utter darkness. There was no moon, no starlight—only the faint glimmer of the lights from the windows of the hall behind us, quickly obscured by the mist.

George held my hand firmly. “D’you think she’s gone to the ravine?”

“Yes.” I was out of breath, not from running, but from fear. My feet in the dainty silk slippers were soaked. I clung to George’s hand.

“Antoinette!” Our voices were drowned in the damp and fog. She could not hear us. And even if she did—

“I think she’s under a spell,” I said. “Like I was at the séance, perhaps. She’s being compelled to do this.”

“Damn this fog, I can’t see a bloody thing. Nettie!”

We stumbled through the trees as branches caught our robes and skin. I hardly knew where we were going but I couldn’t stop. I knew what was going to happen if we failed.

“There she is! Nettie!” George bounded ahead. “Nettie, stop!”

I hurried after her, plunging into the mist. “Where are you?” I couldn’t see. George’s voice seemed to come from too far away.

Then the shriek rent the night. It froze my blood and bones. In a wild panic, I screamed for George but my voice died almost before it left my body, consumed in the mist and darkness. The shriek sounded again, reverberating all around me. Impossible to tell which direction it came from.

I couldn’t move, panicked and unable to think even where to go. I no longer knew which way lay the Hall, or where George had gone. But the third time the shriek hit me, it seemed to come from behind, and I lunched forward, hands out groping for the air. Branches whipped against my face and bare arms. I had no breath to shout with. All reason had left me. I could only stumble on, trying to stay ahead of the horror of that shrieking inhuman voice.

I fell into a mass of damp, dead leaves and mud. I stepped on my robe as I scrambled to my feet and fell again, this time scratching my hand badly on a thorny bush. I could hardly see anything, I was so overwrought, but something flickered in front of me. The skirt of a gown. A dim glow of lamplight. “George!”

It was not George. She held up a lantern that splashed a dim glow on her pale dress. Her eyes were wide and frightened. She mouthed words at me.

Julia.

“Help me, Julia!” I got to my feet but I was shaking so badly I couldn’t walk. My thighs were so weak I had to lean against a tree. “Where’s George?”

The ghost gestured for me to follow. She hurried on ahead—was it foolish to trust a ghost? But she’d never hurt me any time I’d seen her. I didn’t know what else to do.

She disappeared just as the heavy fog lifted to reveal George and Antoinette in the darkness, beyond the trees, where the ravine dropped off. George had seized Antoinette by the shoulders. “What are you doing?”

Antoinette reared her head up and struck at George, hitting her full in the face, sending her staggering back. They were perilously close to the edge of the ravine. “Stop!” I shouted.

I reached them just in time to snatch Antoinette’s gown as she stepped closer to the edge. “Antoinette, listen!” She pushed me away with surprising strength, but I managed to cling on.

George had recovered and seized Antoinette’s arm, hauling her back. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

The shriek echoed behind us. George froze. “What the devil is that?”

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

The shriek ripped through the mist.

“We have to get her out of here, quickly,” I said.

Antoinette struggled, lashing out at me with her hands. George managed to grab her wrist before she could strike. My feet slid on the loose rocks and mud, closer to the edge.

“She’s in a trance,” I said through gritted teeth, trying to hold Antoinette and keep her from lunging into the ravine. “Like I was, at the séance.”

“How do we help her?”

“Hold her tight, George. Antoinette! Listen. Remember how much you loved Julia.”

Was it my imagination, or did her struggling ease?

“Tell me a memory of her. What was she like?”

Her vague, wide eyes found mine. Her mouth opened. “Jules,” she said. Her voice was hoarse, as if she’d been screaming. “I have to find Jules.”

“Do you remember the first time you saw her?”

Antoinette stilled now, to my relief. “She was walking across the lawn,” she said. “In a blue suit, and a hat with white roses on it. She leaned forward as if walking into the wind.”

“What else?”

“I followed her that day,” she said. Her voice was hoarse. “I didn’t tell anyone, but I knew she’d gone into the woods because I’d seen her, and I followed after her. I should have stopped her!”

I held my breath. “What happened, Antoinette, when you followed her? Did you catch up to her?”

“I called out to her. She ignored me. We’d had a fight earlier, you see. It seems so stupid now. But we’d had a fight, and although I called out to her, she kept walking, and in a fit of pique I just walked away. Oh, God!” Her hand flew to her mouth as a sob welled from her chest. “I should have—I could have stopped her—”

“No, Antoinette. You couldn’t have known. She was under a spell, like you are now.”

“I had a feeling…it was so odd…I should have trusted my intuition…” Her speech was broken by sobs.

I put my arms around her. “It’s not your fault.”

“Tommy,” George whispered. “Look.”

I followed the direction of her glace. To my right, just a few steps away, stood the ghost. Her head inclined towards us.

“Antoinette,” I said gently. “Do you see Julia now?”

Tears streamed down her face as she nodded. “I see her. Oh, Jules. Can you ever forgive me?”

Cautiously, I released Antoinette and nodded at George to do the same. Antoinette took a step towards Julia, away from the ravine.

Julia’s ghostly hand reached out to stroke the living woman’s shoulder, and then her hair. She bent her neck as if to drop a phantom kiss on Antoinette’s cheek. The sobs that Antoinette had been struggling to contain released and she wept with ferocity, healthy catharsis at last. Julia’s ghost stayed by her side, offering mute support.

“She’s fading,” George whispered.

She was right. Julia’s spirit grew fainter and fainter, dissolving into the mist around us, until it was entirely gone and Antoinette was alone, crying. “She forgave me,” she said through the sobs that wracked her body. “She loves me.”

“Of course she does.” George put her arm around her, and I came around her other side. Holding her gently in between us, we walked back to the hall.

The mist was not as thick anymore, and soon we could make out the lights of the windows, and then the dark looming shape brooding over the lawn. George looked haggard; Antoinette looked half-asleep. We were not in any shape to attend a party.

“Let’s go straight upstairs,” George said. She led us decisively up the stairs, gently pushing past party guests. As we ascended I saw the handsome young man, whose name I’d already forgotten, George’s fiancé, staring open-mouthed up at us.

The three of us washed up as well as we could. I was too tired to even consider going back downstairs. We helped Antoinette into bed and George offered her some brandy, which she declined.

George checked her pulse and touched her forehead. “You do seem all right.” She took a swig of her brandy. She was still in her Magician’s robe, but she had thrown on her dressing gown over it. She looked tired, with fine lines around her eyes, and her nose red from the damp and cold. She was beautiful. My heart ached.

“Can you tell us what happened?” I said, trying not to look at George. “Do you remember going outside?”

Antoinette shook her head. “I’ve been trying to recall—I have such a terrible headache. The last thing I can remember with any degree of certainty, before you found me at the ravine, was getting dressed in my room.”

“You were in your room,” I said. “Then what? Close your eyes and try to picture it. You finished dressing?”

“Yes. And…oh, I was about to leave to check if George needed any help. And…” She frowned with the effort. “And someone knocked on the door. I thought it was you, Tommy, coming to get help with your hair.”

“But it wasn’t me.”

“No.” She frowned, concentrating. “I think it was Elizabeth.”

“What did she want?” George’s voice was dangerously soft.

“I remember now! She looked extraordinary,” Antoinette said, with a little laugh. “So very odd. As if she were trying to impersonate an Oriental priestess from some amalgam of cultures she’d read about.”

“I know what you mean,” I said, trying to encourage her. “And then what happened?”

Just then there was a knock on the door. George got up to answer it. It was Rose. “George, there’s a young man asking for you downstairs.”

“Damn! Tell him I’ll be there soon.”

“He’s very anxious.” She peered over George’s shoulder. “Is everything all right?”

“Yes. Antoinette just needs a little rest, that’s all. Go away.”

“Aren’t you coming back to the party?”

“Maybe we will and maybe we won’t! Tell William I’ll be there in a few minutes.” She shut the door with a guilty glance at me. “Sorry about that. Go on, Nettie. Tell us what you remember. Elizabeth was there, looking ridiculous. And then?”

“And then…she said she wanted to mend the rift between us. I didn’t believe her for a moment, of course. She offered me a glass of punch. I was rather distracted. I wanted to get to you, George, and check if Tommy needed my help.”

“Did you drink it?” I said gently, trying not to let my fear color my words.

“I don’t…yes, I think I did. It was so sweet.” She made a face. “Too sweet really. Degueulasse.”

“What happened next?” George said.

Antoinette opened her eyes. “I can’t remember any more. It’s as if I fell asleep then. Oh my God. Did she put something in the punch?”

“I don’t know. What was she trying to do? She can’t hypnotize you, can she?” George looked at me as she said it.

I said, “At the séance, I thought it was the spirit working independently. I thought Elizabeth didn’t have anything to do with it. But the tea they served me then…did Elizabeth give me something that would help the spirit take control of me?”

“But to what purpose? Why be so malicious?” George paced the room. The circlet binding her brow had fallen off somewhere, and her copper curls stood up. “For all that I mistrust Elizabeth, and fully believe her capable of evil, she’s not irrational. I just can’t understand what she was trying to do.”

“I do,” I said. “I think she’s trying to enact a ritual that Mrs. Norcross planned, but didn’t execute, decades ago. It’s all in her book.”

“Where?”

“The library.”

Antoinette yawned. “I’m so tired. Do you mind if I lie down?”

“How thoughtless of me, Nettie. Of course, you must rest. Have a little brandy—there, good girl.” George tucked the covers around her.

“Would you like us to stay with you?” I said. After an experience like that, I wouldn’t want to be left alone.

But Antoinette smiled, apparently at ease. “That’s kind of you, but I’d like to just sleep now. Julia seemed at peace, didn’t she? She doesn’t blame me for what happened?”

“No, she doesn’t.” I squeezed her hand.

“We’ll check in on you later,” George said, and gently shut the door.

“Well, you mustn’t keep William waiting,” I said.

“Tommy, wait.”

“I’m going up to my room,” I said, even though the thought of my room almost made me gag with misery. Dark, lonely, uncomfortable, damp—my room at Radcliffe was the opposite of what I wanted right now. I longed for the silk duvet of my home in Hakone, the scent of cedar and incense. At this time of year the maple in the courtyard would be brilliant, fiery scarlet, a beacon of joy set against the cool, serene stillness. Although one couldn’t see the lake from our house, one could feel it in the air, an expansive scent of infinite blue, the tang of wet rock and the verdant scent of the greenery that surrounded the waters. My cat would be curled against my spine as I lay on my side, with the fusuma slightly open despite the chill so I could look out into the courtyard. I was alone, but in sweet solitude, knowing that my parents and my obachan were just a few meters away.

Pride stiffened my spine and made me turn away.

George caught up to me. “I didn’t know he’d be here. This is Elizabeth’s doing.”

“Did Elizabeth force you to invite him? Or to get engaged? How curious that she would have that kind of power over you.”

“If you’d just let me explain!”

“Why would you think you owe me an explanation? Of course you have a fiancé. I should have known that. I’m the one who should apologize to you, for my assumptions.”

Even in the dim electric light, I could clearly see distress etched in her features. “It’s not like that. I had no choice. When I went home that time, Elizabeth had done her worst, spreading such vile lies about me—”

“About my ‘Sapphic influence’? Yes, of course, it was all vile lies.” The pain was almost too much to bear. “You couldn’t possibly care for me.

“My parents threatened to pull me out of Norcross. I would have had to halt my medical studies, and I couldn’t do that. William is—well, he’s not a bad person, honestly. We grew up together.”

We’d reached the top of the stairs on the third floor. I stopped and looked down at her, a few steps below me. “So you’ll marry him,” I said. “I understand.”

“You know what the situation is.” She sounded absolutely miserable, but there was too much pain to make room for pity in my heart. “It’s that, or be confined at home, or in a sanitarium, away from ‘dangerous influences.’ I’ve wanted to be a doctor my entire life. Not many colleges will train women. Norcross is one of the few that my parents approved of, and only because Cabot is here. I can’t leave.”

“I already said I understand. I don’t know what else you want from me.”

“I want you not to be so naive!” She ran a hand through her hair. “What else do you think women like us can do? What kind of life can we have?”

“I know what I don’t want. I don’t want to live a lie.”

“Don’t be so melodramatic.”

In that instant, we were plunged into darkness.

 

Chapter Nineteen

 

Neither of us moved for a moment. Excited voices crested downstairs with a tone of not fear, exactly, but heightened anticipation, tinged with nerves.

“Is Mrs. Walton playing a trick on us?” George’s voice in the dark, wry and reassuring. Instinctively I reached out, caught her hand, and felt her squeeze back gently. “Stay here. I’ll go check.”

Wait! I wanted to say. Once again, pride stopped me; I berated myself for a fool as her footsteps padded down the corridor.

Behind me, a flash of pale light. I whirled, heart hammering. It was Antoinette, holding her lamp. “What’s happened? Isn’t curfew waived tonight?”

“I thought so. Perhaps the electricity’s gone out.”

Going back to my room was unthinkable now, nor did Antoinette seem inclined to be left alone. She drew nearer, holding her dressing gown tight at her throat. “The party sounds as though it’s still going.”

We descended the stairs together. Vague shapes gathered in the foyer, a few with candles and lamps. The initial shock of the lights going out had subsided into jocular excitement: I suppose that’s a sign for me to leave and the spirits claim the party’s over and other snatches of conversation wafted up to us.

Elizabeth, still in her outlandish costume, stood a few stairs above the crowd gathered in the foyer, holding aloft a lamp that cast an otherworldly glow on her features, rendering them unfamiliar. “It is an hour to midnight, the witching hour,” she said, in a voice like a lecturer’s in a hall. “Those who wish to leave may do so. Those who would witness the mysteries of the spirit realm should gather in the private parlor.”

“What is she doing?” Antoinette said in a low tone.

“We have to stop her,” I said. “I’m not sure her plan will work, but it could do great harm.”

Many guests were collecting their belongings in a politely chaotic scramble by the door. Thank you for a lovely party, it was ripping good fun, good night, good night!

Several remained, a few dozen young women and a handful of young men at Elizabeth’s feet, acolytes around a priestess. She raised her light and said, “Let us proceed into the private parlor.”

“What do we do?” Antoinette said.

What would George do? She’d turn it into a joke, an acidic barb to deflate Elizabeth’s power.

“Do you see George?” I scanned faces. A sharply physical memory of our kiss shuddered through me: her scent, the feel of her mouth, her body pressed against my own. Her lips warm and tenderly insistent.

In desperation, I said, as loudly as I could, “Please stop, Elizabeth.”

She swung around to face me. Her eyes glittered. “I’m glad you’re here. The ritual would not be the same without you.”

“It’s too dangerous,” I said. “Playing with the occult, talking to spirits—it’s nonsense.”

She smiled. “Is it dangerous, or is it nonsense?” She turned back to the crowd. “Shall we see which?”

The crowd approved, eager for a spectacle. They’d been drinking the sweet punch, I realized with horror; the punch that had dulled Antoinette’s ability to resist suggestion.

“We have to find George and leave,” I said to Antoinette. The dread was growing in my chest. “We have to get out of Radcliffe Hall.”

“Look!” Antoinette said. “I thought I saw—is George going in with them?”

Had she been entranced? We followed the assembly, squeezing ourselves into the cramped space of the private parlor. Elizabeth gestured with her free hand. “Form a circle. The circle—the Orb—remains unbroken. It is within the circle that we enact the Mysteries. It is within the circle that we do the Work. Ethel, the candles.”

Ethel, who, like the other core members of the Orbis Society, was draped in a richly decorated loose robe with a wreath on her head, placed four candles on the floor in the center and lit them.

“Alice, the salt.”

Alice looked nothing like herself. Her normally rosy cheeks were sunken and chalky. She had a silver bowl in her hand. With the other, she sprinkled salt in a circle about five feet wide around the candles. Her lips moved voicelessly.

“It is critical that no one break the circle,” Elizabeth said. “Please douse your lights.”

Antoinette and I edged around the outside of the room and turned down our lamps. In spite of my apprehension, I was curious. Antoinette grabbed my arm with stiff fingers.

The other lamps and candles had gone dark one by one, so that the only light came from the four candles on the floor. The crowd gathered round became formless shadows. From our vantage point, we could hardly see Elizabeth, but we could certainly hear her. Her voice oddly seemed to fill the room, although she was not speaking especially loudly. “Now, we shall summon a spirit. Please stay silent while I invoke a visitor from beyond.”

Someone tittered, quickly hushed by another. Everyone else was quiet. Once again I marveled at the ability of this unassuming woman to command a room. She had a gift, one I reluctantly admired, that of a preacher or an actor in a music-hall.

She said, “I call thee, Spirit! Are you there?”

Silence. The entire room held its breath.

“Spirit! I call thee!” she said more loudly. “I invoke thee! Speak to us!”

The room shuddered. I am here.

My body vibrated with the sound of that ominous voice, sweeping through us like the roar of a waterfall grinding down a mountain, rippling through the crowd. A few people gasped.

“We bid you welcome, Spirit,” Elizabeth said. I could not laugh at her anymore. Her ridiculous getup was now, in the dim and waiting silence, fully inhabited by the woman in all her intensity. Her lightless eyes mesmerized and frightened me.

“What is your name, Spirit?” Elizabeth said.

You know me. Do not pretend you do not.

“Are you Evelyn Norcross?”

More gasps.

Speak. Why have you called me?

“Stop it, Elizabeth!” It was George. She held up a lantern at the door. Her fiancé was behind her, looking perplexed. “This is ridiculous.”

A palpable release of tension spread through the crowd, with chuckles and gleeful whispers. “How did she manage this trick?” someone asked.

Before anyone could leave, a bitterly cold gust of wind whirled around the room, provoking startled screams, and smashing George’s lantern to the floor, plunging us into darkness again. The door slammed shut.

“The door,” George said. She thumped. “The door is gone.”

“What do you mean, gone? Out of the way!” An officious male voice. Scuffles. “Is this some sort of joke?”

Panic rose in the room as people pressed toward the space in the wall where the door used to be. Rigid with terror, I couldn’t move. We were trapped.

Silence.

The voice seemed to come from inside the walls, from the floor. The command was instantly obeyed. I couldn’t see George. Beside me, Antoinette held my hand and murmured something, a prayer, perhaps.

“Be calm.” Elizabeth’s voice. “The spirit will not harm us.”

“Cabot, you idiot.” That was George. “What d’you think you’re doing?”

“Elizabeth, please!” I said, finding my courage at last. “Let us out!”

She ignored us. “Spirit,” she said, “speak, and we will listen.”

You fools.

Once again that voice reverberated through us. I shivered and held tightly to Antoinette’s hand.

Blind to your own corruption, the voice said. How you’ve betrayed the legacy of your race. You should be ashamed.

A frightened cry: “What does it mean?”

Someone else said, “This isn’t funny, Elizabeth!”

Among you walk half-breeds and degenerates. You suffer them—you invite them into your sacred halls of learning.

Antoinette and I glanced at each other. “We have to get out,” I whispered to her. She nodded, trembling. Holding her hand tightly, I slid along the wall towards the exit, pushing past the others gently, to avoid causing a ruckus. I did not want Elizabeth to notice us trying to slip away.

You have allowed this pollution. It must be cleansed.

More murmurs: “What’s going on?” “Where’s it coming from?” “This is some joke.”

SILENCE.

I froze. The voice had not spoken loudly, at all; but it resounded in my head, vibrating my skull. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t squeeze Antoinette’s hand. Panic fluttered in my chest.

No one spoke. The room was deathly, unnaturally still. I could not even hear anyone breathing.

Elizabeth’s voice spoke softly into the deadly quiet. I could not see her, but I could hear in her voice the triumph, the sick pleasure: “What must we do?”

Only blood purifies blood.

I closed my eyes. Was Antoinette meant to be the blood sacrifice tonight that would enact the plan? And now that she was still alive, what would Elizabeth do?

The voice came inside my head again: You don’t deserve to live.

This time I knew, with cold certainty, that the voice was speaking to me alone, that no one else could hear the sibilant, intimate whisper, moistly close, like someone pressing their mouth against my ear, against both ears, a parody of lover’s words murmured on the pillow.

You killed your friend because she would not be your lover.

That’s not what happened, I wanted to say, but my voice was trapped. Doubt assailed me. I couldn’t remember. I’d wanted her, I’d been jealous, it was true, and I was ashamed of my jealousy. But what else? There was nothing beyond me and the voice. Elizabeth, George, Antoinette, the parlor, the guests…they all melted away.

You loved her; but your love was corrupt, and it corrupted you. Now your soul is tainted. You should have died along with her.

The voice was so certain, so steady; it was reassuring.

You walked with her to the edge of the lake.

Had I? My head hurt terribly. The azure summer water shimmered below me, and Akiko stood in her yukata printed with peonies. I couldn’t see her face, as she was turned away. Her shoulders trembled. Was she crying?

You were angry with her.

That was true. I was hurt. I loved her, and she said she loved me; but she in the very next breath she said she was going away to be married. I was furious. I called her a coward.

You pushed her into the water.

No! No, I would never have done that. Would I? My heart beat wildly. I was shivering so much my entire body shook. Why was I shivering?

I forced my eyes open. I stared into a void. No, not the void…somewhere inside Radcliffe Hall.

I smelled damp, and cold stone, and old wood, mold, mildew. Where was I? I became aware that I was walking.

Footfalls behind me. I tried to stop, and managed to slow my step so that someone caught up. It was George. I wanted to reach for her hand but my arm stayed locked against my side. Someone was behind us—I couldn’t turn to see but in a moment her scent reached me: a subtle, expensive scent. Antoinette.

“Where are we going?” I managed to say. It was like trying to speak underwater.

We weren’t alone. I was aware of other bodies moving with us, other lungs drawing breath of the same cold, stale air.

“Stop,” George said. Her voice was graveled, croaking from her throat with great effort. “Try to stop.”

But as I did so, hands pushed me forward. I managed to turn my head a fraction—straining against the rigid control over my body—and saw a glimpse of a stranger’s face, a young man I’d never seen before, his face utterly blank and set.

“What are you doing?” I said. “Let me go.” His hands were on my shoulder and arm, forcing me forward.

“The cellar,” Antoinette said from behind us. Her voice was high with panic. “We’re being taken to the cellar.”

Hands pushed us, not violently, but steadily, inexorably. The smell of mildew and mold was stronger here, and it was as bitterly cold as the heart of a forest.

“Stop this, Elizabeth!” George shouted. She managed to free herself a little, and one arm swung out at someone I couldn’t see. I heard a scuffle, a sharp yelp of pain, and George slumped forward.

“George!” I wrenched myself from the man who held me and slid my arm under George’s shoulder.

“How do we get out of here?” she grated. Her breathing was labored.

“Where are you taking us?” Antoinette said in a clear, loud voice—an imperious voice, a voice that had cowed many impertinent men and women. For a moment the crowd that held us captive seemed to falter, and then it renewed its labors and shoved us into a room in the cellar.

 

Chapter Twenty

 

Someone—Ethel and Alice, perhaps—carried candles that faintly illuminated a room smaller than the private parlor upstairs. There was a rug in the center of the room—no, not a rug, I realized; symbols had been painted on the floor. Hands pushed us onto the markings and blank faces surrounded us.

I’d been here before. That night, when I came to my senses on the kitchen floor.

Elizabeth stepped forward from the circle, holding a candle. She began to speak in a language I didn’t recognize, but the tone of her voice made my skin prickle with fear.

George tried to break through the circle of people that surrounded us, surging forward with a burst of strength, but many hands pushed her back. There was no violence, no anger in any of the faces that watched us, utterly dispassionately. No triumph, either, except perhaps in Elizabeth, who continued to repeat a phrase, over and over.

George dropped to one knee. Antoinette and I knelt beside her. “What’s happened?” Antoinette said.

“I feel faint,” she said. “Weak.”

I stood and turned on Elizabeth. The spirit’s control over my body had faded, it seemed; perhaps it only had energy to control the three of us for a short time—or perhaps it was occupied by controlling the others in the room. The chant continued; the crowd picked it up now, although it made no sense that they knew the words. Their voices blended in eerie, discordant harmony.

The wind that had guttered through the parlor whipped around us now. I reached down and took George’s hand in one, Antoinette’s in the other.

“You don’t want to do this, Cabot,” George said. Elizabeth’s eyes were closed, the oily black make-up turning her eyelids into skull-like hollows. She no longer looked human.

“Try to break through,” George said. “Now!”

We rushed forward together. George swung and landed a punch squarely in the jaw of a young man, who staggered back. On my side, I shoved as hard as I could at a young woman dressed like a rococo princess, and she stumbled just enough to create an opening for us. Antoinette let out a scream of rage. We were almost free.

Laughter filled the chamber. It was so loud it hurt. The circle around us closed once more. A stench hit us, so overpowering that it was like a physical blow, the smell of a decay that had festered for years.

I was on my hands and knees. The stone under my palms flared hot, as if someone had lit a stove. The laughter continued, ringing through the space, boring into my head. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t move. In my delirium I thought the stones in the floor shifted.

They did shift. An earthquake—but no; this was different. Not a trembling, but a deliberate, slow, inexorable moving, the stones sliding in a pattern. Someone screamed next to me—Antoinette. I scrambled back, away, anywhere; I forgot about everything but self-preservation.

The floor yawned beneath me and I lost my footing. The stone pavers had shifted to reveal a black pit, endless, and the stench emanating from it choking me and making my eyes stream with tears.

It was a grave. A massive tomb, deeper than I could see, over ten feet across.

We were the sacrifice to the spirit, the mechanism that would unlock the power to control others that Elizabeth wanted for her and her society.

My fingers found purchase on the cracks between the stones, but my legs dangled over the pit. I fought against the compulsion to let go.

A lantern fell and smashed in the pit. I pulled. My arms burned, my fingers raw. Something sucked at me, drawing me into the black pit, a whirlpool of air, and I fought against it.

First one leg, then the other. I was on the very edge. George was near, and sliding fast. My eyes met hers. I stretched out a hand for her. “Take my hand!” My words were lost in the maelstrom. She slid further away. Her hands scrabbled at the stones.

George!

Someone had me, my arm and shoulder,warm and strong. Antoinette. “Grab her!” she said.

I lunged for George, caught her by the sleeve of her silk dressing gown. It was too slippery, I’d lose her—but then her hand clasped mine. I heaved. She managed to pull herself up on her elbows.

Just in time. A flare of hot air blasted from the pit, knocking us back. Now, as we watched in horror, something emerged from the darkness. A skeletal limb. A skull, with shreds of flesh still clinging to it.

My head pounded. The thing started to laugh again. The chanting around us grew louder, stronger, more insistent. Elizabeth twitched, her arms upraised, her eyes rolled back. She looked possessed. The crowd mimicked her movements, swaying on their feet, their limbs rocked by spasms.

Antoinette screamed again. Or maybe I did. The figure reached for us. Cold bone closed around my ankle. I couldn’t move.

We had to break the ritual. How? We couldn’t do anything against the supernatural—we didn’t have the skill.

But a spirit could.

“Julia!” I screamed. “Julia, we invite you. Help us!”

Antoinette understood immediately. “If you ever loved me, Julia, help us now! Please!”

The skeletal hand dragged me down. The heat was intense. The darkness wasn’t dark anymore—it flickered, as if flames licked inside, as if the darkness were a live, hungry thing, ready to feed.

“Akiko!” I gasped. “I loved you, Akiko. I’m sorry I failed you.”

My ankle was free. I didn’t know what had happened, didn’t try to work it out. I pushed forward, crashing into the people that had formed a ring around us.

“No!” Elizabeth pointed at me. She shrieked something in that strange language, but she stumbled. Someone—something? Had shoved her forward.

She slipped. The stones were still tilted, slick with heat and offal. Elizabeth Cabot tumbled, and fell without a sound into the blackness of the pit.

“Run!” George pushed, punched a passage for us through the crowd, which was still twitching, still chanting, chaotic now that their leader was gone. A shriek came from behind us—the same shriek that had pursued me through the woods.

We were out, but the hall was so dark we had no idea which way to go.

Hands grabbed at my robe and I slapped them away. “This way!” I said, not knowing anything but that we had to run. We moved together down the hall, as quickly as we could while feeling our way forward. The cellar was not just a simple basement but a complex of rooms, apparently—doors led off to the side, and the hall ended in a T.

There was no time to think. Footsteps rang behind us. “Left!” I gasped. After the initial burst of energy that freed us, the spirit was renewing its attempt to control us. I was fighting against my own limbs, forcing them to move. I’d been here before, I reminded myself; there was a way out, a way into the kitchen. It was still searingly, unreasonably hot, as if we were in the boiler room. The smell of decay mingled with the tang of coal.

Coughing, eyes streaming, I found a door and shoved against it. I scraped my shin on a stair. “Up!” We climbed, choking, slipping on the stone, and at the top I rammed the door open with all my strength.

We spilled out onto cool tiles, gasping for air.

“What have you done?” Mrs. Walton stood over us, lamp in hand. “What have you done?” Her voice rose to a screech.

Then I noticed the poker in her hand. Her knuckles were white. Her eyes, staring, glinting in the lamplight.

George jumped to her feet and kicked the poker out of her hand. It clattered to the floor. Mrs. Walton screamed and swung her lantern at George.

“No!” I grabbed her arm before the lamp could make contact. She hissed at me and wrenched her arm away. I saw with a shock that tears streaked her face.

“What have you done, you dirty mongrels? Where is Miss Evelyn? Where’s my Evie?”

“This way,” George said, staggering on through the pantry. I followed, half-blinded by the stinging in my eyes, still coughing. I couldn’t seem to get enough air in my lungs.

“Everyone out!” George was shouting. There were a few lingering party guests clustered around lamps. “Fire! Everyone out!”

Fire? But of course, that was that smell. Smoke. People screamed around us, but they were normal screams of fear, human screams.

We followed them out into the night, onto the lawn in front of the hall. We fell to the grass.

“Are you all right?” I said when I could choke out the words. I touched George’s face. “Are you hurt?”

She shook her head. Her trembling hand stroked mine, warm and tender.

Antoinette pulled herself up onto her elbows. “Julia saved us,” she said softly. “I know it was her. She shielded us from that horror. She pushed Elizabeth into—” she stopped. I understood why. It was too strange, too horrifying to say out loud.

We pulled ourselves a little ways, to something resembling safety. Some of the crowd in the cellar, I noticed, had made it out: the boy that George had punched, the girls in their rococo dresses. I did not see Mrs. Walton, or Elizabeth.

Alice emerged, stumbling and crying, her shoulders heaving.

A muted explosion sounded from somewhere deep inside the hall. Others were coming up the hill: Dean Hutchinson, his dressing gown flapping behind him; the porter; Ruby, one of the maids; several of the faculty who lived on the campus. They babbled around us. A few ventured in to try to rescue whom they could.

The lower floor glowed with flickering flames. Windows smashed. Heat and fire blazed against the night sky. The flames, once released, crawled swiftly up the walls. The smell was excruciating: decades of secrets, of evil congealed into thick black smoke that stung my eyes and choked my throat.

I wondered, vaguely in my depleted state, what would happen now.

As if she could read my thoughts, George sat up. She pulled me to her and kissed me on the cheek. I flung my arms around her and kissed her back, on the lips.

By firelight her hair was golden flame, gorgeous, burnished as a torch.

 

Chapter Twenty-One

 

They said, afterwards, that it was a tragic accident. The boiler had exploded. Unrelated was the discovery of a sinkhole under the cellar which would have made Radcliffe Hall unfit to live in, eventually.

Norcross was besieged by angry parents; although the Cabots had cause to be as angry as any of them, for Elizabeth’s body was never found, they were also the target of fury, since it was one of their own who founded the school, and who had built Radcliffe Hall.

Mrs. Walton’s body was also missing.

George’s parents came to whisk her home. Antoinette went to stay with her older sister, in Newport. My parents arrived a day after George left. I don’t know what my father told the school board, but they took me to their home on a quiet tree-lined street in upper Manhattan, near the park.

“Don’t worry,” my father told me. “Take the rest of the term off, and we’ll find you another university. Somewhere less remote, closer to us.”

Indeed, some of the Norcross parents exerted their influence, and got other schools—Harvard, Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Amherst—to offer places to students who’d experienced the horrors at Radcliffe.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted. Going back to academics seemed like a decision for another person. I slept, and was thankful for no dreams. I rested. I read. I saw no one.

We were halfway into December when my mother came up to my room with news that I had a visitor. Someone from Norcross. I knew, of course, who it had to be. I was a mess—I’d been in bed, resting, although it was midmorning already. My hair was in disarray. But I wasted no time. I dressed quickly and hurried downstairs.

She stood in the foyer, resplendent in a tailored suit of deep green velvet. Her hair had grown out a little, and it was pinned back under a masculine hat adorned with a glossy black feather. Her face was a trifle thin, but she looked beautiful to me. Vivid, and alive.

“It’s good to see you,” she said, a little awkwardly. She shook my hand. She’d taken off her gloves, and her palm was warm. “I hope it’s all right, my dropping in here like this—”

“—I was hoping you would come, I wanted to write but—”

“—my family’s in New York for Christmas—”

We both laughed. I said, “Sit with me in the drawing room. I’ll ring for tea. Tell me how you are.”

“Antoinette sends her love,” she said. “Newport’s been good for her, I gather. She walks every day, plays music on her sister’s piano, and has taken up painting.”

“I should get her address from you, so I can write to her,” I said. “I’d like to invite her here.”

“Yes, the three of us could meet this winter.”

The tea arrived—a Japanese style service that my mother had, no doubt, overseen. We waited until the maid left the room, and then we were quiet for a few moments.

George wrapped her elegant fingers around her cup. “I should have told you,” she said quietly. “About William.”

“It’s none of my business,” I said quickly.

Her shoulders sagged. “My family has expectations of me. When I went home that time, they made their thoughts very clear. My mother in particular…she would have stopped paying my tuition if I didn’t.”

Something twisted inside me. I looked down at my hands. “I understand.”

“He’s a childhood friend,” George said. “I thought it wouldn’t be so bad. We get along.”

“You’ll actually marry him?”

“That’s what I’ve come to tell you. I’ve broken off the engagement.”

My heart pulsed. “You have?”

“We have to learn to live in a world not of our own making. But that doesn’t mean we have to live a lie.”

“What about your studies?”

She shrugged. “I’ll find a way. My parents and I are still fighting about it, but I think they’ll come round. And if they don’t…well, I’ve spent several months working in a clinic, surely someone will hire me to wash bandages or something.” She grinned, her mouth pulling lopsided. “Anyway, I wanted to tell you that.”

I understood now what was meant when writers expressed “bursting of happiness.” My skin couldn’t contain the radiance of joy. I felt I would vibrate with it.

“Come back and see me again,” I said in a rush. “We’ll go for a walk in the park. Or perhaps a concert? Do you like music? Perhaps you’d like to come to supper? Or we can just sit in the drawing room.”

George swept to her feet and came to sit next to me. She took my hand in both of hers and kissed it. “Yes, Tommy. Yes, let’s do all those things. And more.”

 

(Editors’ Note: Miyuki Jane Pinckard is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

Palingenesia

the tracks are tumbling in a paunch. a boy left,

a quarter devoured in a raw valley. a fading dream

done to dust. the mystery charted in susurrations. he looked

and we are many here. red trickle trickle stream. i’m losing

how to keep this objective. & from the birds, the gasp.

from the flames, the tree. his hunger ate him into

a boneyard, & then a spirit that flames the embers

of hell in the hollow bones of firebirds. wake me

from this undelight. this archive of mares. the black

power is the wet gunpowder stretching into skin.

the hare ambushing the hunter through the viscera

dims. marvelling. this floaty act of splintering.

now, the dreams outnumbered him in voids,

living in the voids of dreams, viz. emptiness

is pregnant. the baby is the boy. the baby is

the butter spread of heaven unwelcomed

in these shards. these things photobombing

the unrigidity of the roots. things unpronounceable

without tautening like the forest fronds of Oba Koso

knotted in the holy fluid of nostalgia & exodus.

 

(Editors’ Note: “Palingenesia” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 48B).

Too Dystopian for Whom? A Continental Nigerian Writer’s Perspective

It is a common conception that people come to fiction, especially the speculative, to escape reality. And that is indeed one of the purposes it can serve. Another is that conversely to escaping, people come to fiction to encounter or experience reality. A paradox? After all, we already live in reality, one that is ubiquitous. We have it all around us, painfully so sometimes. Hence the need for an escape. But you see, reality has different facets, different windows, like eyes, that reveal different vistas.

This is why the consumption of fiction and SF/F based on other cultures and by people of other demographics is a necessity. Doing so helps us diversify our understanding and encounter all these different realities that lie beyond our immediate purview. What we are often steeped in is our own immediate reality, which is, while occasionally painful, also painfully limited.

It has often been surmised, most especially around discussions of war, climate change, natural disasters, and more recently the outbreak of COVID-19, in articles like this in Wired and on The Apeiron Blog we are living in a dystopia. This realization has weaned many of the need for apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and dystopian fiction, and has them preferring instead to immerse themselves in lighter, more upbeat and positive work. This is of course valid, as we all must do what we feel right. But beyond personal preferences of individuals for lighter, “happier” works in this period of gloom, there is a wider and more general assertion that dystopias, apocalypses, grimdark, dark fantasy, and the like are now unnecessary because we live in and have it all around us. A Publishers Weekly piece talks about dystopian fiction losing its lustre due to the pandemic and spells doom for the subgenre of doom. But is this really so? In a viral tweet, the account tweets its disagreement, which I quite agree with, saying that “Dystopian fiction is when you take things that happen in real life to marginalized populations and apply them to people with privilege.” The dystopian reality is not new and has been with us for a while. Its fictionalizing continues till date despite those debates regarding its relevance or necessity.

My Otherwise and Nommo award-winning novella, Ife-Iyoku, Tale of Imadeyunuagbon, also a finalist in the Nebula and Sturgeon award, is a dystopian tale. Prior to its publication, I submitted its draft to a beta reader for assessment, because I feared it was too dark and the reactions and experiences of some of the characters were extreme to an unreasonable and unbelievable degree. My beta reader confirmed my fears. There was no gainsaying that part of my intended market and audience in the West where I intended to publish it would find it so. But—he said—the story was deficient in yet another dimension: certain events and happenings in our society mirrored the ones in the book almost exactly. And the reactions and conclusions, climaxes of those in the real world, and our immediate environs were far worse than I painted in my work of fiction. My softer depiction of reality would be less believable to a certain audience base of readers, editors, and publishers than what life here threw at us, with no care at all for their willingness to believe or disbelieve it. It was too “strong,” and at the same time, not strong “enough.” The paradoxical difference lying in the gap between our realities.

Nigeria, where I live, became the poverty capital of the world in 2018 and maintained it for the next three years, having more poor people than India, the former poverty capital, with more than five times Nigeria’s population. We were surpassing them in sheer numbers, not just percentages. A population of 200m managing to have more poor people than one of over a billion with the closest poverty numbers in sight, illustrates just how steep and staggering those numbers are.

It is also number one in open defecation, with the fourth lowest life expectancy on earth, lower even than war-torn countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Palestine that has had conflict on and off for nearly seventy years. All this is understandable in a continent plagued by centuries of slavery—colonialism and continuing neo-colonialism, that has had its resources, both human and material, plundered. So this is not to be unreasonably critical of Nigeria’s woes. It is also plagued by a plethora of issues that follow these levels of poverty; lack of power, access, security, healthcare, and more.

In 2017 alone, there were about a hundred and fifty attacks mounted by Boko Haram. Ninety of them were armed assaults, and fifty-nine suicide attacks. If you divided the number of attacks by the three hundred and sixty-five days of the year, it would mean there were attacks one in every two days or so. Little more than two days, less than three. The residents of that region, and it was one concentrated region in Northern Nigeria, had to deal with deadly, fatal attacks every other day. No time to recover, to heal, to mourn their losses. That’s almost as many work days as an average civil servant in a white collar job somewhere sane had. Especially if you threw in leave time and public holidays. Meanwhile, these people had no leave periods, no holidays. If anything, the terrorists struck almost unfailingly on holidays. The one advantage holidays then offered was one could count on an attack and move to protect themselves or plan for it on those days. It’s almost mind boggling that this is possible. At one hundred and fifty attacks, one every two days, one wonders the level of organization the terrorists dedicated to killing innocent people. No respite for them as well, time to recover, rest, plan, the logistics of it. Every. Other. Day.

I casually consider the sheer resources and willpower it would take to pull off something like this, in case I wanted to create a force of evil that dedicated, in my fiction works. Then I abandoned the thought for being a touch too much. But real people were this much relentless in committing evil as any villain or Dark Lord ever was. They displayed a thoroughness in inflicting pain and damage that would be unbelievable from almost any force but a zombie army, if written in fiction. The zombie army being believable for their mindlessness. Yet these were living, breathing human beings who planned and affected this consistently, for a whole year. Too dystopian? Perhaps. But you’d have a hard time convincing the people it happened to. But then again, you might not, there being a chance they want to disbelieve it just as much as you do. They may indeed blur some of the details. But the trauma of it will be etched in each of them, burned & branded into their brains, seared into their souls even as their bodies crumble, passing pain on to their progeny through DNA. And that’s the lucky ones, the survivors who live to tell this deeply tragic, dastardly, and “too dystopian” tale.

Recently, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending 50 years of federal abortion rights and paving the way for the rolling back of LGBTQIA+ rights, which conservative politicians have hinted is coming. This led to widespread panic and outrage by people who value life, bodily autonomy, and freedom both in U.S. and round the world.

After Roe v. Wade was overturned, many parallels were drawn between the society of today and the one in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Meanwhile those events are akin to those that have happened to Black and Indigenous women in the past, and people of colour. Forced sterilizations, abuse, and violation of bodily rights are currently happening to people in ICE custody, till date. Margaret Atwood herself admitted that when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale “nothing went into it that had not happened in real life somewhere at some time.” Yet people want to, and hold the view, that these are new or recent events.

In Nigeria, abortions have always been illegal and as deadly as the onslaught of Boko Haram mentioned earlier has been, more people die from unsafe abortions in a year than from direct Boko Haram attacks in nearly a decade. Being gay is also criminalized meanwhile, with a death penalty, carried out by stoning in Northern Nigeria and a fourteen-year jail term in Southern Nigeria.

Some other dystopic facts about Nigeria, it has the largest number of out-of-school children on earth, blasphemy is a crime with the capital punishment to be carried out by stoning, in Northern Nigeria. Suicide is, or rather its attempt, is also a crime. Since if you succeed, you are beyond the arm of the law. Long as it claims to be, it’s thankfully not that long. This is ironic though when taken with everything else. You see, you cannot live. But you must not deny the government the pleasure of killing you. The dystopia is here, has always been. It’s just not evenly distributed.

I have found generally, on further and sometimes casual reflection, that the experiences I and people I have known living in Nigeria and on the continent have had are worse than the experiences of protagonists and characters in some dystopias and dark fantasy stories I have read. Our daily lived experiences are sometimes harsher than the sufferings of characters deliberately crafted to be tortured and wrung through great suffering.

In essence, some people experience a reality that is beyond the wildest imaginings of some other people. This is why when people from certain regions that have been dubbed Third World or developing, marginalized people, write dystopias, even non-dystopias, any kind of reflection of their reality which is flavoured with a certain harshness, it’s considered too unpalatable, unbelievable, too dystopian, especially at the moment, by the global publishing machinery which is largely Western. The question we should be asking though is too dystopian for whom?

You see, our reality was far starker than the dystopia I wrote, which was already too stark a reality for many in a different clime. So when we say fiction helps us escape reality, which reality are we trying to escape? Our own, or knowledge of the lived reality of billions of people from a different place and time? An escape that blinds us as to the true nature of the world and limits or curtails our understanding of it? Fiction can indeed help us to escape reality; dystopias, the dark parts of reality. But they can also be windows to other worlds. Lived, past, and present realities of others.

There is of course reality fatigue, and one may need to step away from it all for the sake of their mental health. And that is an entirely valid reaction. But claiming that all fictional dystopias are redundant because we NOW live in one is a dangerously high level of presumption and an inaccurate assertion. Because we have always lived in one, there has always been a dystopia somewhere in this world that we were only unaware of. And going by the logic of dystopian storytelling being redundant because we are in one, dystopian storytelling should have been redundant since forever, due to the presence of an existing, dystopic reality at some place and time or the other. But the timeline and positioning of Western privilege does not determine the actual position of the world and what is relevant or irrelevant. To assume that is mere Eurocentric hubris.

Beyond Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, my Otherwise & Nommo award-winning, Nebula, BSFA, and Sturgeon nominated novella Ife-Iyoku, Tale of Imadeyunuagbon examined gender issues women have lived with and continue to face till date. Tlotlo Tsamaase, a Nommo award-winning, Lambda nominated, queer Motswana writer, uses work you can term dark or dystopian to interrogate and come to terms with issues which queer, African, and disabled people can relate with in her works such as “Dreamports,” “Eclipse of Our Sins,” “Behind Our Irises,” “District to Cervix,” and “Peeling Time,” forthcoming in the Africa Risen anthology.

Tananarive Due, a doyen of Black horror, talks about how Black horror is often a critique of race relations. She often talks about the state of being in alternate realities that speak to a Black American experience. She also cites Jordan Peele, Steven Barnes with whom she has worked in shows like Horror Noire in Shudder and AMC, and others, producing works that give Black people a space to examine, confront, and come to terms with the horrors they live with daily.

O2 Arena, my Nebula award-winning, Hugo, BSFA & BFA shortlisted climate fiction novelette, interrogates climate crises in the event of neo- and post-colonialism, through the lens of disabled characters dealing with rampant sexism, homophobia, and a vicious fight for the very air in their lungs. While it may be heavy to consume, it is a true representation of Lagos where it is set and a story which even some cancer survivors have found representative of their experiences. Sheree Renée Thomas, a Memphis writer, editor, and pioneer in Black speculative literature, also puts out work, like her collection Nine Bar Blues, and stories in it like “The Parts That Make Us Monsters” and “Ancestries” reprinted in the Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction anthology, that though dark, interrogate Blackness on levels that help readers see themselves and their worlds, their realities in her work.

I have a short story out in the May/June 2022 issue of Asimov’s and reprinted in Galaxy’s Edge titled “Destiny Delayed.” In it, a man trades the destiny of his daughter to a firm that offers loans to the destitute, taking the destinies of their young, promising daughters as collateral. They repurpose the destinies for huge profits when the debts inevitably default, and the daughters do indeed become collateral damage. The story was inspired by similar practices in Southern Nigeria that has parents clearing or paying off debts by giving away their young daughters, in child and underage marriages in Northern Nigeria. It’s also a metaphor for the general exploitation and control of birthing bodies that is the order of the day.

What do all these dark, horror or dystopian works have in common? They are beautiful works of literature that serve a very practical purpose even in times like these. And it would be remiss and misguided to dismiss them, and indeed a good number of the most iconic works of literature, to portray them as unfit for consumption because of the “times we now live in” .

Part of the argument against reading dystopias in a time of dystopia is that when they too mirror the reality we live in, it can create an emotional overload, a sort of squared experience of the societal breakdowns they examine. But if this were so, that dystopian fiction creates double the effect then they would also cease to have a strong effect, like a meal eaten too often or a game played constantly will lose its power to delight. Dystopian stories would quickly become redundant. They would become too familiar, too cliché, and lose their power to hurt us. But no matter how often it’s created or consumed, dystopian fiction never really loses its power, because its consumption does not just have one effect or purpose. Dystopian stories are not monolithic in effect. While they can horrify, they can also provide catharsis, warnings, and myriad other useful reactions that continue to benefit the consumer and society at large, in any time at all.

We will always need dystopian storytelling. I believe that dystopias in fiction present an alternate, truer view of reality than our actual reality. This is why some stories cause so much outrage and generate such long and intense discussions, when even the things they examine happen daily without causing such a stir or reaction. Take the movie Acrimony, for example. It, in my opinion, could be seen as Horror, with Taraji P. Henson’s character’s understandable but scary decline into insanity, stalking, and deadly assault after a life of mind-bending trauma many Black women must endure at the hands of Black men and a white society. It is no news that the patriarchy allows men to build their careers off the backs of women and those women, sacrificial wives, sometimes rebound in tragic ways from the force of their broken backs recoiling. So what was different between the story and the reality we live in daily but hardly raise an eyebrow to?

I think that these stories are bereft of the bias lived reality has when they are populated with characters we know, as life so often is. We are unreliable judges in reality’s cases and so subconsciously recuse ourselves because of a likelihood of bias and fail to pass appropriate and often any judgement. Conversely, true justice is blind, so it’s easier to recognize, for example, abuse in a random character in a story than in say, a parent or partner we love.

There is this airbrush effect the mind applies to our lived reality, self-protective perhaps, in a bid to preserve our mental health and sanity. This is why the movie Don’t Look Up caused such a stir even amongst people that brush aside climate fiction dangers and disasters that happen daily. It’s like we lose that natural airbrush effect in fiction, making it a tad more accurate and reliable an examination of reality. We don’t think it’s real, and our defences are consequently not up. So the full force of the told reality hits us with an impact the lived one often does not. Doesn’t this then make it even more imperative to write dystopias? Especially now? To harness and exploit the window of opportunity they create in allowing us to showcase realities in the most powerful and honest ways, even beyond what lived reality can?

A lot of people cry more from witnessing fictional suffering than from the one in their lived reality. And I believe that this is one of the purposes of trigger warnings, an attempt to reinstall some of those defences we lose when we come to a non-lived reality. After all, there are no trigger warnings to events happening in real time. Though, I believe our minds do dull the force of the blow.

The question then should be: do we really want to escape? Is getting fiction sanitized for Western sensibilities the solution? The realities we live in are harsh. But are we even steeped in them enough? Won’t escaping be like plugging into a false reality like The Matrix? Shouldn’t we immerse ourselves in the multiple realities of others rather than hide from them? Be more Sense8 than Matrix? The problems of the world are myriad so will it not then take myriad perspectives and knowledge from all the realities they stem from to solve them?

As with all questions, there are multiple answers, like there are multiple realities. May we continue to examine them in a manner that makes our experiences and humanity the best it can be, for us and those around us.

To Hunger, As with Perfect Faith

Content note: sexual violence, abuse, ableism

 

Every morning I clear the virgins from the stairway.

It is common that one or two offerings don’t make it through the cold of the mountain eve or fall asleep in death midway through the journey up to our distant frigid peak. Their relatives or escorts leave them regardless, dead or alive, girl or corpse. Every morning I wake to beautiful frosted bodies, elegant hillocks of alabaster curled shell-tight into themselves. Some shiver the last of the heat from their bodies, others lie still as headstones. They’re beautiful huddled in the snow but more lovely lifeless, winter-sculpted art, failed sacrifices. I must find my satisfactions somewhere, you see.

Sweat needles through my robes as I lift their snow-glazed bodies onto the woven stretcher. My mangled body makes its usual protests as I drag the dead cliffside. The glacial peak I reside does not make for easy grave digging and so the virgins are dropped off our holy peak, down through the clouds to feed the lower beasts.

Every morning is the same.

From chattering teeth and lips blue as larimar, the ones that survive ask for their boons: victory in war, a year of peace, a rich yield, a son, riches, protection. Never for themselves, of course. It is for their families, their empresses or dukes, their homelands. I don’t answer these requests; my role is to make them ready. I paint their brows in warm ram’s blood to baptize them, watch it run down their eyelids, catch like garnet dew in their lashes. They plead and shiver and catch my red hands in theirs.

“Grant me Her blessing,” they beg. “I am pure of body and heart.”

They echo the same ritual words that have been spoken for generations, a key to the doors of the abbey. A key that I cannot deny though I find them weak-willed and stupid. I have no power here. I am only a nameless novitiate and in a day, so they too will be.

Behind me, Sister Veradh steps softly down the stairs, her long fingers sudden on my shoulder like a curious spider. Her touch always makes my stomach clench and cool but I ignore it. I raise the bowl of blood above my head and tell the postulants the same thing I was told upon arrival, the sacred words that will be their passage to warmth and a portent of their impending deaths:

“Pray your purity abides. The Goddess will answer you in Her own time.”

This holy place has pulped me of time.

I arrived at the abbey a foreigner and a war orphan, my leg bent into hideous angles, my body tainted by the cravings of hungry soldiers. My nomad family was captured by the Chosen of the Goddess and executed and I was taken as left on the abbey steps as a sacrifice. It was in the cold I learned how there was power in stillness; that was what conquering was, a refusal to move, a claiming, the incessant marking. That was how my people died, powerless and in motion, their shadows passing over the grateful land. That day I was laid half-frozen on the steps with the dawn’s offered virgins but no request left my mouth as I did not know the words. In the end, it wouldn’t have mattered if I knew them or not: I was impure, an unacceptable postulant.

But Sister Veradh took me in despite my spiritual state, found use for me as a cook and cleaner, a tender of the hoary geese and the snowy sheep. The other sisters—horrified at my foreign presence—would beat me when Veradh was occupied, tie my hair to the posts of my bed and drip candle wax on my stomach. It was only when I turned fourteen seasons that I grew strong enough to defend myself. I even braved a confession to Veradh but in her eyes, their rage was just; after all, I was not a Chosen of the Goddess. My people worshipped wolves and thunder and ancient ashen firs. At least, I am told, for there are few, if any, of us left. Anything the virgins did to me was the correct punishment for my inherited spiritual estrangement.

I remain that same crippled child in Sister Veradh’s eyes but my body makes my maturity a truth undeniable. My foal-blonde has darkened to brown and my daily work has roped my arms and legs in muscle. Still, it is true my leg refuses to release the ache of its ancient breaking and my brown skin is scarred gray from chafing shackles, an arrow, the nick of knives. I limp when I should stride, grimace when I should smile. I’ve learned all of my captor’s customs but my performance still lacks. I am nothing like the sisters here with their youthful purity, clean and unblemished skin. When I bathe, I stare into the used water and imagine how the Goddess sees me: damaged, dirtied, the rotting dark around unsullied stars.

Sister Veradh was given to the Goddess as a young woman after being raised in isolation; the ideal postulant. Sometimes it feels as if she has lived here as long as the stonework has existed. No lines carve the years from her face, no yellowness flecks her teeth. But her hair is white as deep winter. The Goddess has swallowed age from her skin as easy as holy tea down a penitent’s throat.

As a youth, I thought the Goddess to be an anchorite. A holy recluse, old and mythologized. Even as a child, I had heard tales and fables of deceivers and false prophets. Why was this Goddess true while all others were false? Despite my mistrust, I never spoke my doubts. After all, what did I know? I was not one of Veradh’s people, I had not studied Her scripture, made pilgrimages to Her altars.

Despite my ignorance, Veradh took time to teach me and turned the ash of my faith into a fire proper. She showed me where the Goddess rested deep beneath the abbey, a cavern waxy with rows of flickering candles, tallow greasing the air. The cave stone was as amber as guttered flame. She placed my hand on the sealed entrance, a stele carved in glyphs I could not read. I could feel Her warmth through the smooth rock, hear the rattle of Her breath like a thousand sucking lungs. The candlelight leaned in with each inhalation, away with her scraping breath. Even my own heart felt the pull of Her.

“Do you see?” Veradh asked, the white tips of her hair curling towards the stele like coaxing talons.

I pulled my hands away, clutched at my chest where my lungs seemed unable to draw in air.

“Yes.” She smiled, placed a chilled hand on my back. “Now you see.”

The sisters are given to the Goddess at the change of the seasons. Two equinoxes, two solstices; four willing sisters washed and sung over and delivered down into the monastery’s depths. It is said in Her scripture that She takes the sisters to serve Her in the Court of Endless Light and to witness Her glory is enough to sate any woman’s soul for eternity. Many remained fearful even as they vanished behind the stele but others were exultant, striding into the Goddess’s secret room with a candle in hand, a smile on their lips.

“Where do they really go?” I asked once, curiosity finally blossoming from my awe, my faith strong enough to produce questions. I knew the scripture often contained metaphor, deeper allusions that I had yet to learn. And Sister Veradh trusted any queries I might have would only fortify my love for the Goddess, no matter the answer.

“To fulfill the blessings they ask.”

“Doesn’t the Goddess fulfill them Herself? What need has She of the sisters?”

“The Goddess needs nothing but that is how they pay for their boons. A sister must work in harmony with their prayer. The Goddess is not simply an instrument for their fulfillment. There is a wage for Her miracles.”

I have never asked for a blessing from Her. I cannot.

The sisters given to the Goddess are all virgins, untouched and healthy, weaned on a diet of sweet milk and red meats. Veradh had said my body was too impure for the Goddess to bless. And now it is too old to survive the price she demands of those who receive Her works. I was raised on fox blood and sweet thistle and many men had touched me before I even knew there was something to touch.

So I serve the Goddess in other ways. I scrape the stairs of ice. Tend the animals, stoke the dorm fires and oversee the sisters’ health, physical and religious. When they transgress, as is the nature of those reared in abundance, it is up to me to flog the virgins back into spiritual harmony. When I was a child, I had tried to befriend the virgins, for they were always young, a commonality we once shared. But they spoke in a dialect that, even to this day, I find difficult to parse. Royal tongues, the dialect of the rich and learned. There were no friendships to be found among people who found the simplicity of my language offensive and so I remained alone with Veradh.

But even alone I had my small contentments. My favorite task has always been cleaning Her chamber. Every fortnight, I scrape away as much of the old tallow I can before lighting new candles for the night. Occasionally there are mice I must empty from our traps or blood smears to mop up from a house cat’s catch. When I finish, I am allowed to meditate alone in Her chamber until dawn. I place my hand on the stele and listen to Her breathe in and out, the tug of it on the hairs of my arms, the hem of my dress. When I put my cheek against the stone, it is warm as an old coal. If I touch it long enough, it heats and sweats like skin.

Night after night, I cleanse this holy place. Night after night, my curiosity grows. When I try to slip secretly into Her chamber to watch the virgins present themselves Veradh always finds me and ushers me out. When I try to sneak after Veradh to witness her long and private mediations before the Goddess, she locks me out of the chamber. So I sit at the sealed entrance and meditate on Her:

Did the sisters pass through the stone into Her most private place?

Did they cast their eyes across Her form, savor the power of her presence?

Did She touch them before She offered them Her miracles?

Season in and season out, I contemplate Her and watch the sisters vanish clutch by clutch, clean and shining like polished opal. And in their absences my envy sits and churns, a mass of roiling want, hungry as ghosts.

My desire to see Her grows every waking moment.

I read Her scripture, the tomes of priests and prophets and prior abbesses. She is a being of justice and passion, power and will, blessing those whose supplications are pure of heart, whose bodies are undefined by the ravages on worldly sin. She has broken kings over Her littlest finger, razed cities and their crops with a single blink. It is said She spoke a single word to a past emperor and wiped his entire lineage from history.

But none of the accounts speak of Her image. The sound of Her. How She warms the entirety of Her chamber with a simple breath.

Sister Veradh spends the most time in the Goddess’s chamber in deep meditation. Often times she does not emerge for many nights and even when I knock on the entry down to the cavern, it remains locked and silent.

I know she is communing with Her.

Does Veradh get to behold Her, as well?

Breathe in the breath She exhales?

Touch Her?

One evening I decide I must see for myself. See Her. Sister Veradh has been in her chamber for hours now and I pick the lock open, creep barefoot down the worn stone stairs deep into the abbey’s cavernous underbelly. I hug the dark recesses of the cavern, hide behind flowstone where the candle flames cannot catch my shadow.

Sister Veradh is kneeling, forehead pressed to the stone, a chant on her tongue in a language I do not know. The Goddess’s breath pulls in and out, steady as a heartbeat. Hours pass in the same manner. My bad leg aches from crouching, my eyes dry from my vigil.

Her breath stops.

Veradh freezes, the chant halting in her mouth. She stagers upright and slowly slides the stele asides, unsealing the entrance. My heart writhes and thrashes with covetous anger: who is she to behold Her? To enter Her domain?

When she enters, I crawl forward in the darkness, keeping myself hidden behind the high stones and fences of stalactites. Closer now, I see within: a round room with an unseeable ceiling, raw black walls and black floor, shiny as polished obsidian but uneven as if She had licked the chamber into shape Herself. A thin column of pale light drops into the room’s center from above, the source of which I cannot see. The sound of Her breath rushes out of the chamber, loud as a high tide over a rocky shore. A smell follows the exhalation, sugared offal, cloying and heady enough to make my stomach clench. Veradh walks inside a candleholder in hand, and I crawl closer, eyes straining in the dimness. The weak flame rims her in red and soon finds more edges to bleed.

The virgins hang like split fruit.

Four stand in various states of decay, some fresher than others. They stand in a circle facing outwards, arms linked loosely. Their hair is tightly braided together into a single weaving, combing into a single rope-like plait that looks to be strung up above. The plait holds their bodies erect while rigor mortis keeps them in their sacred pose. Dry blood scales their legs. The contents of their abdomens, precisely opened, have been removed. A crescent of holes mars their shoulders; a resolute bite. Veradh stands before the altar of virgins, whispering once more.

Making a request? Asking forgiveness? What did one say face to face with divinity?

From the dark, She evaporates into being.

Red as rape, an avalanche of viscera and weeping humors and infernal vapor. I choke on a simmering breath, miasma filling my lungs. She reaches out to Veradh with a limb more arachnid than human, more talons than fingers. It is wrapped in skeins of wet red thread, tendons and muscle-like fibers. It bends without pattern as if boneless, too many articulations in its flexing fingers, the runged moist ribs of Her body. There is no mouth, no movement that suggests breath, but it begins to emit the sound of biting from inside itself. A wet tearing, muffled and everywhere. The Goddess emerges from all directions and none and in the shadowed walls, a constellation of white points glow and blink in the dark, near and far like fireflies. Her eyes, Her gaze.

Bile wells up in my throat but I crawl to the edge of the entrance. The narrow pillar of moonlight slides down from an opening high above, douses Veradh as she steps into the lunar glow. She peels her robes away, drops them to the ground. Veradh is bare and the Goddess looses a ream of guttural sound. The Goddess serpentines low near Veradh’s legs, Her face passing into light.

Or where a face should have been. At the end of the snaking neck there is only an impression. A red face like a woman’s and then, with a great grisly ripple, it’s swallowed by another countenance, a bestial one with countless teeth, then a masculine visage, an elderly one, a child’s and again a woman’s. All red, all woven out of venose ribbons. Like a rose forever blooming and losing, revealing and concealing, each face swallowing the next.

Finally, Her face settles into abstraction, a glossy cage of needled fangs and then a feminine mien, coiling filaments of blood in place of hair flowing in a false breeze. The Goddess rubs the seam of Her mouth up against Veradh’s knee, her inner thigh and then bites into the meat of her. Veradh’s head tips back, fingers flexing at her sides. The Goddess sips delicately from the tapped vein, nursing the wound until Veradh makes a sound of perfect wounding. But I know she is not in pain. Or if she is, it is the pain I want.

I don’t sleep. I touch myself until I feel inside out. I dream of Her, the liquid flow of Her face, the puncturing teeth so tender on Veradh’s tawny skin. Does She drink only virgin blood? Or will a heathen’s taste just as sweet? Will she kill me for the transgression of existence? Or the transgressions made against me? I dip my fingers into the grave of my want, bite my forearm like Her teeth in my skin, not my own.

Another night. I find them together once more.

Veradh straddles the Goddess’s imitation lap, the spidered spread of Her red legs wide beneath the Sister’s. Teeth as long as forearm pierce through the slope of her shoulder like a line of well-placed arrows. Every pant pushes out the latticed bones of Veradh’s chest, an agonized keening thrust from her lungs as the Goddess roots Her fingers between Veradh’s legs. When She withdraws them, they gleam, numinous, holy and Veradh’s cries out, ecstatic like the saints of old.

When I search Veradh’s face many mornings later after she’s emerged from Her chamber, I can see new vigor in her body and the smug self-assurance of someone divinely touched. The confidence of a glutton with her next meal promised. I flog the virgins harder than I ever have before, leave their rumps beaded with blood.

I want Her.

I want Her more than Veradh ever could. She was born into blessings, raised in Her embrace. She did not know the agony of being so removed from Her love. Born an infidel. Alienated from Her blessings by a pack of mongrel soldiers’ hunger. During evening meal, I ask her again though I know the answer already. I want her denial like a flint wants stone.

“Sister, please tell me again why I cannot ask for her blessing? Why am I not worthy to see her as the other sisters are?”

“Dear child, you know you have been sullied by the world through no fault of your own.” Veradh strokes my cheek with her thumb, smooth as river stone. “Why make me say it? I do not wish to hurt you.”

“I serve obediently. I am faithful. Is my flesh such an impediment?”

Veradh’s eyes harden on me. I see it then: avarice.

“It is not for you, child,” she says softly, a tender veneer over the possessiveness in her face. “Don’t diminish your faith with desire. Remember your place.”

I dose Veradh’s evening tea with white valerian. Wait until her body goes still on her bed, the rise and fall of her chest barely perceptible. When she’s deep in a dreamless sleep, I steal down to the Goddess’s chamber and move the stele aside. My body is a belfry for my pulse, heart a bell tolling under my skin as I step into the moon-bathed den.

The scent of rich rot shocks my senses, blinds me for a breath. The bodies have withered down to smeared palettes of black and green, skeletons clinging with gray skin but melted free of their offal. In the bony bowl of their abdomens, a nest of limbs coil and squirm. They are intestinal in length, sprouting from the gristle like carrion lilies.

One of the arms rises alabaster, upright like a straining sapling and crowned in an elegant hand. I do not know if it means to gesture but I feel a coaxing. I touch it, fingertip to fingertip and find it warm. Our fingers interlock, it’s movement so slow I wonder if it is proceeding cautiously for my benefit. So as not to frighten me.

“You’ve been watching us,” She says from the dark.

I try to move away but the hand holds mine tighter, firmer, until it feels like my knuckles may rupture through my skin from the strength of it.

“Goddess?” I choke and Her voice rasps out a laugh. Pained, spurned, I continue, “Please. I seek only to offer myself.”

“Oh?”

“Like…like Sister Veradh does. Even though it goes against the scriptures.”

“Not at all, daughter.” Her voices come from behind and before me and the air shrinks in, turns creamy. “What we do is prayer.” Hands, hands with too many fingers, dense as a tangle of millipedes. “This is how one may receive my divinity.” She finds my throat, slides a long limb between my thighs. “This is what it’s like to be near to the celestial.”

“What—” my voice ruptures as She glides wetly across my breasts, “—are you truly? What you do to the sisters but not to Veradh…it means you are not what they teach.”

“Aren’t you perceptive.” There is amusement in Her voice, a tremble in Her snaking touch. “True, I am something else but for you, I might as well be a goddess.”

Her face, a face of faces, peel forth from the shadows ahead of me. She occupies all space and none and my eye slips from the edge of shadows to what might be Her body.

“Goddesses need nothing. Want nothing,” I rasp. “But you…you want.”

“And what if I want?”

“Then I…I want to give.”

“Ah yes, such generosity.” Claws like needles slip into the seam between my legs. “You want to pray with me as Veradh did.” That mock lilt in Her voice stirs seething heat in my belly. “To be anointed by my teeth.” My pulse moves outside my skin as Her shifting face drifts closer with the weightless ease of smoke. “Crying out psalms on my tongue.” Her mouths on me are blazing, velveteen. Everywhere, everywhere, ready to be an open wound.

But even licked, kissed, the hint of fangs on my skin, I do not miss the disgust in Her voice. “Why do you stay here of all places? With her.”

Silence dethrones the hissing hum of myriad throats. “I do not stay. I am kept.” Something like hands close over my shoulders, the texture of them like cat’s tongue, and turn me towards the entry. “The glyphs on that cursed rock keeps me. Your sister Veradh oversees my stay.”

Kept. Kept. “Then you’re not the Goddess,” I stammer, a chilled sweat breaking anew down my back. “You’re a demon…”

“Nothing of the sort. Just a thing old and starved.” A stray hand unfurls from the darkness, squeezes my throat with a learned delicacy. “To renew myself, I need them, your pretty girls. Demons have no sense for order or ritual. Those require patience. A virtue I have in excess.”

“You need them?”

Need them and not me? The denial I have been dreaming of is coming true. My skin frosts over.

“Veradh lets me have them when I weaken.” She drags a hand through the mounds of dead, catches hold of the pale new growth. She pulls the arm up and a boneless body unfurls; arms, legs, the full expanse of a well-fed torso. She picks them all up and puppets them into place, floating each segment into a facsimile of a human form. “And then I make myself new for a time. I make myself perfect.”

Her face thaws into the light from the black, every face and no face, many mouths, fanged and toothless, curved in a smile. “Veradh thinks something of you. More than those blank-faced girls with altar-bruised knees. She tried to save you.” Her breath skates across my mouth, “And still you came to me, didn’t you?”

“Yes. I want—”

“I know what you want.” Fingers slink silken on my lips then on my tongue, sliding past the blunt edges of my teeth. Her laughter is falling crystals, starlight ringing through the den. “You want your god.”

I kill Veradh before she wakes with the blade I use to butcher our rams.

I startle myself with how easy it is to make someone so still. Memories of war once rimed by my purposeful denial flood back to me. The angry swarm of arrows pinning my family to the ground, our horses bristling with fletching. The dark blades that cut my cousins’ throats, their warm shale skin parting to reveal spatters of red quartz like a geode opened.

I can understand now why wars begin. The simpler path is to turn everyone into nothing and take your place in the void.  The harder path is what Veradh does here; sow the void in the heart and mind, weave scripture around wrists and eyes so every move, every vision, is hers.

But I know scripture, too.

There are hours more until daybreak so I bring Veradh’s body down to Her for a meal, then burn the evidence of my Sister’s slaughter. The sheets go up like moth wings, white and yellow and gray. When the fire dies and the gore-soaked bedding is ash, I rouse the sleeping sisters for breakfast and parcel out their portions of gruel and bread, a sliver of sour apple. They murmur amongst themselves after the morning goes by and Veradh makes no appearance; they know it is not time for one of her long, sequestered meditations.

So I tell them the end of the truth: Veradh has gone to be with the Goddess and left me as their caretaker. Urgent whispers fill the dining hall and some even stand to challenge me, the crisp flourish of affluence making music of their insults. But I do not need their high tongue to teach them, I only need to echo what they already revere, regurgitate the sacrosanct back into their minds, mother bird to hatchling.

“The Goddess has deemed it her time. A blessing has been granted.” I keep myself still as I speak, hands folded, back straight; an echo of Veradh’s poise. “If you wish to question Her will, by all means. But do not forget that doubt can blemish one forever.”

I set them to praying, to cleaning, to tending the animals and reading her Word. The only way I know time is passing, that the day is shuffling into night, is my need for Her grinding its teeth against every thought.

As soon as the sun sets, I lock the sisters back into their rooms with their supper. I hurry to Her chamber, shed my robes halfway down the stone stairs because there is no one to stop me now. She’s mine.

My pulse percusses in my ears and my skin stings like a burning shroud. She is already there waiting for me in the center of Her den, the corpses gone. She is clad in Her new unbody, skin fresh as milk, bright as erasure. In the seams between limbs, the claret of her infernal flesh seeps and slinks like famished worms.

In the shadow She unravels, sloughs into all places at once. Her mouth on mine is petal-soft, fingers slicking a passage between my legs. The first bite turns my eyes heavenward, the first drink blacking out all vision.

Goddess or demon, I will worship Her alone.

When she is sated, I am near dead.

I am no sister, I am a goblet emptied by Her many mouths. My body is wet with blood, flesh lacerated with rings of punctures where her new teeth have found purchase. My body hisses and steams where she has bitten me, holes melting closed. My scars turn to vapor and the lifelong ache in my bones subsides for the first time. A gift for a gift, flesh for flesh.

“She trapped you here,” I murmur, drawing my hands down the line of Her arm, across Her palm. Her false body is so pale I imagine cutting it would yield nothing but air.

“She fed me,” She says noncommittal, looking down at me between the fullness of her breasts with a freshly cultivated face, a mask mulched from virgin visages. It shifts as soon as it arrives, a new appearance smoking through the last. “And what will you do? Trap me, too?”

The moonlight is almost gone, my vision of Her almost absent. I trace the pulseless skin, the counterfeit heat possessing me still.

“Keep you. Feed you. Let you go.”

The black skeins of false hair rise and writhe like ink drops in water. “Just like your dear sister Veradh then.”

“No. But I need you before you go.” I run my tongue along my lips, taste the indents of bitten flesh. “I need you to destroy them. You’re the poison waiting in their wells. You’re the plague they’ve already caught.” I pet the softness of her stomach but it blooms away like a veil on the wind, divulging the demonic unshape beneath. “You’re a blasphemy in their throats. I only need to skin away the Goddess to show them. And when your Chosen see, they will break by their own hand and the hands of their enemies.”

A chuckle leaks from her jaws. “How can you be so sure?”

“Because their weapon is mine now,” I say, skimming my hands into fibers of faux muscle. “And I have seen its true form.”

Her face congeals in a jackaled smile. “And is that all you need from me, little sister?”

Desire compounds itself into an intoxicant, heady as leopard’s bane and foal’s foot. “I…want to be like you. Make me like you,” I say, the words tumble out of their own volition and I bury my face into Her writhing neck.

“Like me?”

“You can be anything,” I say. “You can be nothing.”

Scarlet fissures from white, the raw truth of her peeling out to cup my jaw.

“To be like me is to be alone.” Her claws prick my cheek then slide deeper, lifting the veil of my skin easily like it’s always been ready to pare from the muscle. Her face flows off to the side, a tapestry in a noiseless breeze. “To starve perpetually.”

“Then I’ll be alone with you,” I say, gripping her moist wrist and forcing her hand higher past my temple, into my scalp, my face loosening with every inch she transgresses. “I’ll starve at your side.”

Her mouths slits into a smile before she latches onto my throat with a myriad of teeth, leering from the dark with an army of eyes. My skin cascades away from me in one fluid agony, sheeting free from muscle and bone.

It is euphoric. A great lancing of the boil of my soul, the festering ichor of my life pouring out of me, away, away, away—

Every morning I clear the virgins from the stairway.

The dead I toss cliffside for my family’s gods to eat. The dying I dump into boiling baths, rub them raw until the blue fades from their skin and blood beads through their pores. They stutter out ritual words and recite their requests as I paint their brows in ram’s blood.

“Grant me Her blessing,” they beg. “I am pure of body and heart.”

I smile, serene, and don’t bother to correct them.

I don’t tell them the story of their purity is only a tool to keep Her fed, a lure studded in diamonds. The Goddess will always be the perfect bait to the slavering crowned and wretched rich. To them, She is their divine right to conquer, forged in gold and silver. She is easy victory bought in spare virgins and memorized hymns.

But anyone could exchange their flesh for blessings, defiled or no, just as I had. They only had to be pure enough to walk into the dark, to distill their fear into want as I did. And now I would show the gilded gluttons that they gave their daughters, not to goddesses, but to devils. That the foundation of their rule was demon-built and demon-bought. I would lance the boil of their pride and spill out the godless truth of their atrocities, one by one by one.

Beneath my feet, I feel Her stirring at their presence, the invisible touch of Her hands on my nape, beneath the ladder of my ribs. Our souls churn and coil, ready to fly free of old flesh and embrace new. To crawl into the appetite of the other.

“Sister?” the sacrifices ask, trembling under my gaze.

And in my holiest voice, I tell them: “We will answer you in Our own time.”

Mirrors

We step through mirrors and take you

away. Don’t be afraid, it’s just business.

Your soul or an eye, a lifetime or a night.

 

You’ll be washed of your old fragrances:

the midnight trysts and false promises,

the cash payments and casual heartbreaks.

 

The room where we’ll take you

has a mirror. Peer into it and see—

how we wear your skin and button up

 

your uniform, drag your baton across walls

graffitied with names the city wants

to remember, names you’ll surely recognize.

 

We’ll crack your luxury timepieces,

turn back the minute hand and undo

your mistakes: the perfumed gifts

 

and silent footsteps, the tinted windows

and red streaked across your windshield

like claws.

 

Ask your mother if she misses you.

Did we mention we visit her, too?

 

We’ll phone her like you never do, fix her

TV so she can watch her true crime documentaries.

A TV screen is just another mirror.

 

Pretty soon, she’ll see you onscreen,

choked by shadows, cut up by the moon.

 

Don’t be afraid—it’s just business.

Nothing can harm you after us:

no hotline tips or suspicious neighbours,

 

no chewed-through duct tape or alleyway

escapes. No harsh chemicals to get the stains out,

no stolen IDs, snipped and thrown away.

 

It’ll just be us,

you, and the mirrors,

and we’re happy

 

you’ll stay.

 

(Editors’ Note: “Mirrors” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 47B.)

 

 

 

She Is Sword, and She Is Sorcery: Womanhood in The Witcher and The Wheel of Time

The Fantasy genre has long been stereotyped as one dominated by men—a genre of farm boy heroes and barbarian king power fantasies. And however false this impression is when it comes to the vast landscapes of the written word, filmic adaptations remain broadly focused on what can be loosely termed “boy stories” such as Legend of the Seeker (2008-10 based on Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth) and The Shannara Chronicles (2016-18 based on Terry Brooks’s series of the same name).

Yet at the same time, both series adaptations of The Witcher and The Wheel of Time have very much zeroed in on womanhood as one of their core themes. It isn’t that women are alien to their source texts, but through the careful arrangement of scenes, foregrounding of back story, shifting points of view, and pruning of plots, both adaptations have teased out and made more prominent previously more obfuscated threads. Female characters have been brought to the forefront of the narrative and been given space to make the story their own on a structural and thematic level.

This is arguably unsurprising given the substantial female fanbase of HBO’s Game of Thrones and the very common criticism of its ostensibly medieval approach to gender1. HBO’s Game of Thrones has concluded, after all, and who would take the iron throne as the next wildly popular Fantasy adaptation remains deeply unclear. I’d argue the sheer prominence of sexual violence in Game of Thrones and the cultural discourse surrounding it has made this a default lens to understand any challenger. I still remember tweets in the wake of The Witcher’s season one drop praising how it manages to serve up a gritty fantasy world without actual gratuitous depicted rape.

And there have been challengers aplenty, of course, including the sprawling historical dramas based on actual medieval queens from the BBC. Which is all to say, it isn’t just that The Witcher or The Wheel of Time is interested in gender so much as women and their experiences specifically. Made within a few years of each other and in the wake of that once ubiquitous Game of Thrones, the two series make for a fascinating comparison as they each take wildly divergent approaches in defining womanhood within their worlds.

The Witcher’s titular Geralt is a monstrous hunter in the world of men, an outcast only tolerated because of his abilities to kill other monsters. The opening episode plucks Geralt’s plot from one of the more ancillary short stories, a dark retelling of Snow White where she is marked for death because of the circumstances of her birth. Some combination of that fateful comet, rapist huntsmen, and superstitious sorcerers has refashioned the princess Renfri into a monster.

There is a distinct fleshiness to the way womanhood is depicted and defined in The Witcher. The braided storylines intentionally juxtapose temporally disconnected events to create meaning. Sex and violence, fear and hope, birth and massacre are all intercut. Geralt and Triss’s gory fight with the cursed princess of a Striga to remake her as human is woven together with the rebirth of Yennifer as conventionally beautiful through violent, womb-destroying magical surgery. It invites you to see those connections between the different visceral manifestations of monstrousness: Geralt is a monster who kills monsters, but he also cares for them; Renfri, Yennifer, and the Striga are all regarded as monstrous in some way because of the circumstances of their birth. The question asked by Renfri in the first episode of what makes a monster and what makes a princess threads its way through the seasons. Princesses, queens, and sorceresses are all in their own way types of monsters.

That very womb-centric biological womanhood echoes through each of the episodes as motifs of monstrous births, bloodlines, and wombs recur. Strength is won through violence inflicted or endured. There is a visceral brutality to it all.

In the episode “Of Banquets, Bastards and Burials,” Yennifer talks to a dead infant, a princess whose life she failed to save. Echoing her previous unsuccessful suicide attempt, she reasons that perhaps the princess has cheated life and fate by dying, refusing to become just a “vessel.” Yennifer realises the truth of what Queen Kalis had previously told her in the episode, that she’s just a womb, “a fleshy contraption for squeezing out heirs.”

But for all her disgust at the idea of being an empty vessel, Yennifer fully accepts this as truth. Her ambitions have brought her nothing but emptiness and from there, she decides that birthing a child would cure her of her loneliness. As a parent, she reasons, she would become the most important person in the world to a baby and that would finally be enough.

This motif of empty vessels and wombs returns in the next episode as Yennifer seeks to harness the power of the djinn to make herself fertile again. She inscribes on her lower torso an amphora—the djinn was imprisoned within one—but at the same time, the shape of it is undeniably the same as a womb and we are shown again the image of her fleshy rebirth and her own womb, freshly torn from her body, skewered over a fire.

These connections of flesh and blood and womb are what Queen Calanthe invokes as justification for denying the Law of Surprise, declaring that she would “bow to no law made by men who never bore a child.” She may refuse to be a vessel whose contents can be bargained away by men, but destiny has intervened. Her daughter has fallen in love with the very man who fate says she belongs to and Calanthe is forced to bless this marriage.

These motifs all return again in The Witcher’s second season as the elf Francesca Findabair is introduced and her greatest desire, as revealed to a darkly reimagined Baba Yaga, is to bear an elf of “pure blood” to rebuild their race. She spends much of the season nursing her fateful pregnancy. When this all ends in tragedy and massacre, she pins her hopes on Cirilla of Cintra, a princess whose recurring importance again lies in her birth and blood.

Though hereditary monarchy is the norm of the setting in The Witcher and it has no shortage of incidental kings, women seem uniquely defined by—burdened with—bloodlines in the series. Cirilla is descended from the Lioness of Cintra and that blood-claim to the throne is her defining plot. Yennifer is herself part elf, apparently the source of her natural aptitude for magic. Fringilla is the niece of a powerful member of the Brotherhood of Sorcerers, and of course, Francesca dedicates herself to birthing a pure elven messiah.

In stark contrast to this deeply bioessentialist thesis of women being lonely, empty wombs, The Wheel of Time focuses on women as social beings and their constructed roles in a world of men. Rather than empty vessels or creatures driven by passion and biology, The Wheel of Time’s women form the backbone of its society. Instead, it is the male characters who struggle with isolation and longing for parenthood.

The Wheel of Time establishes womanhood as a core thread in its tapestry opening in its first episode on a triptych of scenes about the role of women in its fantastical world. Moiraine’s lays out in voiceover how arrogant men broke the world at the beginning of time. Her recollection of a mythic past echoes that of Galadriel’s much parodied and iconic opening narration in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, but instead of casting herself as an immortal spectator, it is now the job of Moiraine and her sisters to fix that broken world. This is her quest. She dons a striking blue dress almost architectural in its structure; the scene evokes a ritual girding for battle, though it is evidently not one fought steel against steel.

This scene is followed by the red-clad Liandrin astride a horse hunting a man for his use of magic. As she captures him, she stays that his touch pollutes what should remain wholly in the purview of women.

And finally, we have Egwene coming of age and being inducted by Nynaeve into Two Rivers’ circle of women. Her hair is braided, the strands are themselves a symbol of that solidarity the women promise her: that to be a woman is to be always alone and never alone, that she would always have her sisters. She is cast into the river where she must learn to trust the waters. The flow of the river mirrors how the flow of magic is visualised. It is a defining moment for her and a motif the series returns to repeatedly.

Opening on these three scenes, the adaptation shifts the perspective and focus of the series onto the women from the novel’s Rand-centric first book. The infamously sprawling Wheel of Time pentadecalogy was never wholly Rand’s story, but the adaptation leans into this, trusting that the streaming audience no longer needs a humble, unassuming farm boy as their introduction into the world. Instead, it is Egwene’s coming of age and ambitions that form the throughline in the Two Rivers scenes. When they leave, Egwene is no longer just tagging along with the three fate-touched young men that Moiraine has decided too important to let wander about unattended; along with Nynaeve, she is named as one of the potential Ta’veren. Moiraine herself is no longer an unapproachable, infallible enigma out of a “gleeman’s tale,” instead her narration invites us to see this as her own quest. We are privy to her machinations and her vulnerabilities. Her backstory romance with Siuan, the current Amyrlin Seat, is also brought to the fore.

Women are made here through their connections forged with other women. They are defined socially through those bonds rather than biologically through their plumbing or their capacity for childbirth. They take upon themselves the grand task of fixing the messes left by men, but the plots concern not wombs or bloodlines but the social fabric of the world: the grand tapestry woven upon the wheel of time itself—a foundational myth anchored in the opening sequence of the series.

The Wheel of Time’s mythic framework inverts Christianity’s original sin and places instead the act of hubris that breaks the world upon the shoulders of men. It is the reason why men cannot do magic without eventually falling to madness and why the Aes Sedai are entirely composed of women. This is a gender essentialism rooted in a mythic ancient history rather than biology. Wombs, bloodlines, and childbirth play little role in this conception of a sacred feminine. Neither series actively carves out space for trans women to exist, but it is far easier to imagine one in this socio-mythic paradigm than in the fleshy womb-centric world of The Witcher. Magic is spoken of in sacred, quasi-religious terms and we are told repeatedly that women of this world have many different words for what Nynaeve calls “listening to the wind.”

The novels offer further intriguing details of this alternate paradigm of gender, where men are often dismissed as prone to gossip and we have both the Lion Throne of Andor and the Amyrlin Seat as powerful political positions held by women. It is by no means a matriarchal setting, something the adaptation emphasises with Liandrin telling Nynaeve that though women hold the One Power, men still control much of the world and that they are rarely kind to “little girls who show a spark of being greater than they are.” The Children of the Light are also made more formidable than their literary counterparts, having upon them necklaces made of rings from the Aes Sedai they have managed to burn at the stake. In the books, the witch hunters are primarily a threat only to peasant women without magic who are marginalised within their own communities rather than the formidable Aes Sedai themselves.

With that sacral edge to their magic, the Aes Sedai occupy a role not unlike that of medieval bishops, advising the powerful whilst owing their allegiance only to the Amyrlin Seat. That careful balance of advice and influence plays out as Moiraine passes through Fal Dara, where its ruler is deeply wary of her, despite his sister having studied with the Aes Sedai. The Witcher also casts its mages in that role of advisor at court, with the Brotherhood of Sorcerers bickering over power and positions. But Yennifer scorns this apparent duty to advise monarchs, declaring the task as nothing more than babysitting rapists and murderers.

Despite these deep philosophical divergences to their approach to writing women, both The Witcher and The Wheel of Time feature formidable warriors who are also mothers. The plot corners them and forces them to fight and bleed and sacrifice, leaving their children behind. Both Calanthe and Tigraine are clear reactions to—and inversions, even—of the virginal shield maiden trope, whose martial prowess comes from a denial of sexuality.

Queen Calanthe in particular exemplifies those contrasts, as a tyrant queen of great appetites and ruthless ambition. She leads armies, births children, and sees no contradiction in the idea that she should be able to effortlessly do both. The shape of her armour avoids all the terrible “boob plate” clichés, but still strangely takes pains to make her silhouette seem smaller than the men who fight alongside her, putting her in spaulders instead of large, wide pauldrons. Much like Calanthe, Tigraine Mantear dies in a last stand against those who would hurt her child. She only appears in one scene, but it is made memorable by the fact that she enters labour as in the snow whilst facing off against her opponents. It is a breathtaking fight, capturing a sense of breathless desperation as Tigraine pushes her body to the limit.

Whilst childbirth and sexuality are no longer framed as opposed to the physicality of combat, both series do make storylines of their female characters choosing between magic and children. Yennifer trades her womb for beauty and power. She returns to her old school full of regret and bitterness, telling students that “The ability to create life, real life, they [the Brotherhood of Sorcerers] take that from you.” Egwene begins the series choosing between becoming the village wisdom under the tutelage of Nynaeve and becoming a wife and mother. Unlike in The Witcher, the choice is not framed as biological. It is not a literal pulsing womb that she needs to sacrifice and her discontentment with the idea of a simple settled family life is ultimately a social one. She loves Rand but wants more than the role of wife and mother.

The promise of sisterhood as symbolised through braided hair returns at the end of the season as Nynaeve and Egwene save each other during the final fight at Fal Dara, the city that has never fallen. Nynaeve utters again the lines, “To be a woman is to be always alone and never alone. Feel your braid and know that we all stood before you.” Their friendship is far closer here than it is in the novels, both reenforcing the adaptation’s themes of a socially defined womanhood and laying the foundations for a dramatic reversal when their paths diverge and disagreement ferments between them2.

But where Nynaeve and Egwene end the season closer than ever before, the young men of the Two Rivers have utterly isolated themselves. They started their journey teasing each other over drinks and by the end, they are each utterly alone. Rand survives the Eye of the World but asks Moiraine to tell everyone he has ever loved that he is dead. Perrin Aybara struggles with his own capacity for violence, that regardless of his intentions, each time he picks up a weapon, someone he loves gets hurt. Matrim Cauthon is desperate not to repeat the mistakes of his irresponsible parents, but the call of the dice is too strong and his own cowardice too great. He finally abandons his friends.

None of this is to say that The Wheel of Time paints a portrait of women as wholly virtuous or that their support of each other is uncomplicated or unconditional. There are machinations aplenty within the ranks of the Aes Sedai and Moiraine herself has many enemies. The price Moiraine pays for the great work of steering fate itself is not one paid in flesh and blood but a social one. She has her lover Siuan exile her as cover for her task and later, she is cut off from her bond with her faithful warder, Lan. Again, there is a similarity of plot to The Witcher, in that both she and Yennifer are cut off from their magic, but instead of desiring again that raw power, it is the loss of that connection to another human that she mourns.

This all begs the question of why if the producers were so interested in exploring themes of womanhood, they didn’t just adapt something that didn’t need this teasing out and rearrangement. Why is there seemingly a desire to craft stories about women out of stories that were just less interested in their lot to begin with? Why not work with clay that is more suited to that purpose?

Both series are products of the “streaming wars”, where the various platforms try to expand their userbases by creating content that target specific audiences that would sign up for that series alone—a strategy clearly evident in Netflix’s nostalgia-focused shopping sprees, as well as their high-profile resuscitation of tv series with large, loyal fanbases. Perhaps there is ultimately a reluctance to move too far away from that popular preconception of the Fantasy genre’s superficial masculinity. That we are circling again the tired truism in children’s entertainment that girls will engage in media about boys but not vice versa.

We can probably do better.

 

1 It is, of course, worth noting that Game of Thrones’ claim to “historical accuracy” is a hardly uncontested. I highly recommend The Public Medievalist on the subject: Game of Thrones Archives—The Public Medievalist.

2 Assuming, of course, the plot of the books remains more or less intact.

In Defense of the To Be Read Pile

The best improvement we made to our house was the addition of built-in wooden floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Not only do they make me feel like I’m sitting in my own miniature library, but it’s a library overflowing with books and authors I (mostly) love.

Sure, we could have put that money toward a new roof or fixing the driveway or renovating the old bathroom, but then I wouldn’t have such an awesome background for Zoom meetings. I purr every time someone compliments me on the rows of books spread out behind me. Those bright, broad bookshelves are like a peacock’s tail, and my ego swells whenever I get the chance to show them off.

And then someone asks the dreaded question: “Have you read them all?”

I imagine in this infinite universe there are people who have read all their books. I’m not one of them. But I can honestly answer that I’ve read most of the books on those shelves.

The reason I can say that is because the bulk of my To Be Read pile is on a completely different set of bookshelves in the bedroom.

And stacked on the bedside table.

And scattered around my kid’s room, since I keep meaning to read some of their MG and YA stuff.

And queued up on the various e-book apps on my phone…

Perhaps a better question to ask would be, “Am I ever going to read them all?”

That’s a hard no. There are simply too many books and too few years in the human lifespan. To make matters worse, authors keep writing more books I want to read. It’s like they’re deliberately feeding the addiction. And like a sucker, I keep going back for another hit, buying more and more books from these cruel enablers.

This leads to a dangerous question: When do I cross the line from avid reader to hoarder?

I have a house full of books. I’ve admitted I’ll never read them all, yet I keep buying more. How is that in any way sane or rational?

At least I’m not alone in my irrational obsession. It’s been more than a century since Japan coined the word “tsundoku,” a punny term for letting books pile up unread. English has “bibliomania,” first used in 1809 in a poem by John Ferriar to describe a similar “book disease” and popularized in 19th century writings about obsessive book collectors.

Happily, neither of those terms appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, the standard for diagnosing mental disorders. The DSM-V does, however, include an entry for Hoarding Disorder. The diagnostic criteria include:

 

“…possessions that congest and clutter active living areas and substantially compromises their intended use.”

“…clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”

 

In other words, simply owning more books than you can ever hope to read doesn’t mean you need a referral to a book shrink. As long as your books aren’t destroying your relationships and rendering your home unlivable, you’re probably not a hoarder.

Which is a huge relief to me. I’ve got enough to manage with my diabetes and my depression. I don’t think I could handle another disorder right now.

But what about all those unread books? Is it time to Marie Kondo those suckers? (In her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo suggests, that books you bought but haven’t read, and books you started but never finished, should be discarded. “[I]f you haven’t read it by now, the book’s purpose was to teach you that you didn’t need it.”)

This approach might work for some people, and that’s great. I’m not here for Kondo-bashing. But I disagree with the implication that a book’s sole value and purpose is to be read.

For one thing, books are cool!1 A full bookshelf is a gorgeous thing. Remember those compliments I keep getting on Zoom for my book-heavy background? Nobody on the other end of those calls can actually read the titles behind me. Nor do they wait to admire them until they know how many I’ve read. They’re simply appreciating the beauty of those colorful spines arranged on their wooden shelves.

There are people who buy and show books purely for decoration, with no intention of ever reading them. There’s nothing wrong with that. Books are awesome, and far more tasteful than certain other decorating choices.

Occasionally, folks online come across someone who (gasp) physically cuts up books to make them fit more neatly on their display shelves. Oh, the howling and outrage that erupt. It’s like they discovered Mr. Rogers was a serial killer.

I may get pushback for this, but a physical book is not an inherently sacred object. Millions of books are pulped each year. Personally, I’d rather see books recycled as art and decoration than trashed or sent to the landfill.2

But I suspect most of us reading this piece love books not just for their looks, but for what’s inside. For these people—myself included—having more books than we can read isn’t a problem. It’s a necessity! Because books aren’t one-size-fits-all. They aren’t even one-size-fits-one.

I’ve spent the past few years working through grief and the mess COVID has made of the world. For a while, I simply didn’t have the brainpower to enjoy novel-length work. I found myself turning to other parts of my shelves, like old Peanuts collections and graphic novels and anthologies of short, humorous nonfiction. As I slowly got my groove back, I transitioned into reading some of those middle grade books, which tended to be shorter and often more fun—exactly what I needed.

Having more books means more options, which means you’re more likely to find the right book at the right time.

These days, I think my brain is mostly working again3, but that means I can appreciate a broader menu, not that I’m going to want the exact same thing every day. Tonight I might feel like diving into the poetic genius of Ursula K. Le Guin’s essays in Dancing at the Edge of the World. Then I might reread something fun and fast-paced, like Greg van Eekhout’s Voyage of the Dogs. From there, maybe I’m in the space to appreciate the intensity of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death.

The point is, if you want a varied and balanced diet, you’ve got to keep the pantry well stocked.

And then we have the political power of book collecting. Consider that attempts to ban books in the United States hit a 20-year-high in 2021, according to the ALA.4 Most of the targeted books were by and/or about LGBTQIA+ people and people of color.

It’s not always active, explicit censorship, either. A 2020 study of diversity in publishing found that most of the industry is set up to cater to white, middle-class readers, and “minority ethnic [and] working-class audiences are undervalued.” This inequity affects acquisition, promotion, and sales.5

Buying books is great.6 Buying books and supporting marginalized authors and pushing back against inequity and flipping off the school boards and politicians who want to ban books? That’s exponentially greater, even if you don’t get around to reading every single one.

Though I recommend you prioritize those books. As Levar Burton said, “Read the books they don’t want you to—that’s where the good stuff is!”

Read them and share them with friends! All those books you’ve gathered give you a sliver of librarian power. One of the most rewarding feelings is putting a new book into a friend’s hand and knowing it’s going to blow their mind, or even change their life.

Reading is an amazing and transformative act. It’s true we may never read all the books we’ve collected over the years, but we’ll read some of them. And we’ll never read the books we don’t collect (or borrow).

But books are beautiful, powerful, sexy things whether you read them or not. So let go of the guilt over buying yet another stack of books from your local bookstore, and give yourself permission to simply enjoy them.

 

1 For certain values of cool.

2 Unless we’re talking about old autographed first editions or something like that. Then we’re gonna have words.

3 My children might disagree.

4 https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/04/books/banned-books-libraries.html

5 https://www.spreadtheword.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Rethinking_diversity_in-publishing_WEB.pdf

6 So is requesting and checking out books from your local library, for that matter!

 

If You Find Yourself Speaking to God, Address God with the Informal You

Content Note: Racial Slurs and Racist Violence

 

That first video of the flying man goes viral on social media and gets featured on the news. No jet pack. No hang glider. Just him, unaided, soaring over the cable-stayed bridge that leads into the city. The video looks like it was shot on a cellphone from a distance. It’s shaky, zoomed in, and not always in focus. He is slaloming back and forth, doing barrel rolls, and turning flips like an aerial martial artist practicing his forms. Except aerial martial arts isn’t a thing.

The video has to be part of a guerrilla marketing campaign for some upcoming movie. If so, they’re taking their time coming clean about it. Instead of an actual movie trailer, there’s a new cellphone video every few days or so.

The flying man is a Tom of Finland drawing rendered exquisitely in flesh and blood, but cranked up another notch or seven. Either his costume is giving him a lot of help or the body is flat out motion captured and computer generated with a breathtaking but heightened realism. He is shrink-wrapped in a black, short-sleeve compression-fit shirt, dark gray jeans that stretch across the thighs but need to be belted around the waist, and a pair of black, tactical boots. His muscles bulge, popping off his frame. His wide shoulders, big chest, and thick back taper to a trim waist. Broad sweeping thighs balance off his oversized torso. The effect is a body that’s both exaggerated and aesthetically perfect.

He looks like he can snap the cables with a flick of his fingers. Instead, he weaves in and out of them with grace.

I’m sitting on a weight bench, resting before my next set. The gym has TVs mounted just below the ceiling. The latest Tom of Finland Guy video is playing on all of them. I don’t notice anyone trying to get my attention until she taps me on the shoulder. We’re both 5AM regulars. She is the one with the white ponytail.

“Can you please help me?” White Ponytail points to the other end of the weight room. “There’s an EZ curl bar that I need help moving.”

I walk over with her and, sure enough, there is a fixed-weight EZ curl bar resting on a stand. Someone couldn’t be bothered re-racking the bar when they were done. The rack where the other fixed-weight EZ curl bars are resting is literally two steps away.

White Ponytail picks up an EZ curl bar from the rack. She eyes me expectantly. I grip the bar on the stand, take a deep breath, then heft it up with everything I’ve got.

The bar shoots up over my head. I stumble backwards and almost fall on my ass. The bar is way lighter than I’d expected. Of course, fixed-weight EZ curl bars are marked with their weight. I could have just looked.

“Wow, you really lifted that weight.” She smirks as she sets her bar on the stand.

I don’t even mumble a response. The handful of people in the gym are all, I’m sure, staring at me. I set the bar in its proper place on the rack and flee to my bench before I melt into a puddle of embarrassment.

On the way back, it sinks in that no one noticed. Well, except maybe Sweatshirt Guy. The color of the day is forest green. One sweatshirt or another is always failing to hide his muscles. His sweatshirts all bulge and contort in ways they never do over a typical body. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

Why anyone ever asks me for help when he’s right there is beyond me. Maybe no one else sees it. They see what they expect to see, some generically big guy in a sweatshirt and sweatpants. He grins when my gaze meets his. I may have inadvertently attracted the attention of a god.

The cellphone video pans across the front lawn from two movers standing to an upright piano sitting on a furniture dolly and, finally, to a crane. In fast forward, the movers wrap blankets around the piano. The video slows down to real time when they put the piano in a harness, sliding its straps beneath the dolly. They hook the harness to the crane.

Two more movers are inside the house, standing just inside an open window on the third floor. The two sets of movers give each other thumbs’ ups.

The crane’s cable snaps taut. The piano lurches. One of the movers on the lawn shouts something, waving his hands over his head. The crane flings the piano into the air. A plume of smoke rises from the crane. The piano arcs into the sky, tumbling end over end.

A black streak blurs across the sky. It resolves into Tom of Finland Guy. He catches the piano and presses it over his head. It’s rock steady, perfectly balanced between his hands. He lands and gently sets the piano on the grass.

The movers stare at him, frozen and silent. Tom of Finland Guy, on the other hand, is the epitome of nonchalance. He’s not much taller than the movers, but way more substantial. He seems to tower over them.

“Where would you like the piano?” Tom of Finland Guy’s voice is gruff, faux deep.

Neither mover speaks. One of them manages to point at the open third floor window.

Tom of Finland Guy nods. He unhooks the harness from the crane, tilts the piano forward, then smoothly presses it overhead. The piano has weight and heft. It’s not like when actors play a scene with a Styrofoam cup and you can tell there’s nothing in the cup. He doesn’t seem to notice the weight, though.

He flies it up the three floors. When he slides the piano through the window, it takes the movers several seconds before they remember they have a job to do. They wheel the piano into place. He hovers in front of the window, not letting go of the piano until they have it safely in hand.

Tom of Finland Guy waves to both sets of movers. The camera pans up to catch him zooming away, shrinking in the vast expanse of sky.

“Tell me you got all that on your cellphone,” one of the movers says.

The usual suspects are slouched in folding chairs that ring the waiting room, their sheet music, resumés, and headshots clutched in their hands. We all go up for the same shows. In this case, it’s a critically acclaimed regional theater’s production of 42nd Street. My sixteen bars, as always, is from “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” from The New Moon. Silly lyrics, but I get to show off my hard fought for, conservatory-trained high C.

I say hi to Linda at the desk. This isn’t my first audition here. She takes my headshot and resumé. I fill out the paperwork then wait for my slot.

Brian gestures me over. We’ve both played Ito in multiple productions of Mame, and have been cast as the brothers in Thoroughly Modern Millie and the “converts” in Anything Goes. All of this would be fine, I guess, if we both got also cast in non-Asian roles and looked even vaguely related. He’s impossibly tall and thin. Next to him, I look squat. You would think no one could possibly confuse the two of us. And yet.

“What’s up?” I take a seat next to him.

“What sort of technical wizardry did it take to make that look like it was done in one take?” Brian points to his phone. “You didn’t actually shoulder press an upright piano, did you? That would be a lot, even for you.”

It takes me a moment before I realize what he’s talking about. He thinks I’m Tom of Finland Guy.

“Oh, no, that’s not me.”

“Really?” He shows me the phone’s screen. “You can’t make out the face, but, otherwise, he could be you.”

“You think I look like that?”

All of the videos look like home videos. None of them have a good shot of his face. There’s no mistaking that body for anyone else’s though.

“With help from the costume? Sure.” He looks at me like I’m nuts for even asking. “I’ve seen you at dance calls.”

“I wish I’d booked the gig.” I slouch in my chair. “But I didn’t even know about the audition.”

Linda calls for Brian. I wish him luck, but not in those words, of course. We are a superstitious lot and that would be tempting fate. For the same reason, you do not say “Break a leg!” to a dancer. Yes, this is not a dance call. He’s still a dancer. Instead, you say:

“Merde!”

The next video to go viral is a montage. Every piece looks like a cellphone video shot by a bystander from a safe distance. Maybe that’s what they actually are. Tom of Finland Guy breaks up fights. Tom of Finland Guy extracts small backpacks and other bags from muggers and returns them to their owners. Tom of Finland Guy literally rescues a cat from a tree.

He always fights as though his only hope is to win on points. That doesn’t matter so much. One time, someone lands a lucky punch and breaks his hand on Tom of Finland Guy’s body. The guy’s face is flushed. He winces and howls in pain. Everyone backs away from him then runs away. The punch itself doesn’t even register on Tom of Finland Guy. He just stares at his midsection.

Watching these Tom of Finland Guy videos in the rest between sets is the latest version of a bad habit that I should break. They’re not just showing the videos on the news. Reporters interview the people in the videos and bystanders. Maybe there actually is someone flying around the city picking up heavy things and letting low-level criminals break themselves against him. Or this is an alternate reality game or a guerrilla campaign for a movie that’s about to turn into a public-relations fiasco. Either way, these videos are my latest excuse for resting too long between sets.

“Excuse me.” The light baritone voice comes right behind the bench I’m sitting on.

It’s Sweatshirt Guy. The color of the day is a deep blue. Our paths have never really crossed. He’s always been the big, if unusually shaped, guy in the distance.

Up close, I’m sure he’s not just a competitive bodybuilder but one in peak contest shape. He must have a show coming up. Or maybe he’s just won one.

No one gets this lean and this dehydrated just for fun. It’s certainly not for their health. Up close, his “death face” is obvious. The severe dehydration and dangerously low levels of body fat makes his face gaunt. His features are all flat planes and hard angles, as though they’ve been chipped out of stone. It adds an edge to his smile and I’m convinced I must have done something profane and am about to be struck down by the local gym god.

“Hi.” Sweatshirt Guy gestures towards a bench press rack. “May I please ask you for a spot?”

In theory, this is when I answer him. In practice, I may have forgotten how to speak. Up close, I can’t not make out the details of his body, implied by how his sweatshirt warps around him. When a god reveals himself to you, stunned is not an unreasonable reaction. Yes, he is not literally the best bodybuilder on the planet. Probably not. In the moment, it’s astonishing how little that matters. Between competitions, when he’s carrying a healthy amount of fat and properly hydrated, he must be glorious.

He purses his lips, looks awkward for a moment, then repeats himself, this time in Mandarin. Just as he sounds like an American newsreader in English, he sounds like a Taiwanese newsreader in Mandarin. Maybe it’s tinged with American. Then again, so is my Mandarin. There was a diaspora from Taiwan. A bunch of their children and their children’s children, me included and undoubtedly him, have been pressed into impromptu translation duty for them.

His words include an apology, a please, and the formal you. The construction is in such a formal register that it snaps me out of my mental fugue.

“Oh, that’s way too polite. Sorry, I understood you the first time.” I stand up. Despite how he looms, he’s maybe an inch taller than me. “Sure.”

His bar has enough weight on it that I’m pointedly not calculating how much. I’m just reminding myself that in the extremely unlikely event he hits failure, he’s maybe ten pounds shy of the force he needs to exert. The most I have to do is supply those ten pounds.

Sweatshirt guy lies down on the bench. He notes the expression on my face and smiles again. It’s both slightly embarrassed and the warmest, kindest smile that a death face can manage.

His form is strict and beautiful. Every rep is slow, steady, and covers a full range of motion. Just like you’re supposed to, on the concentric phase, he explicitly squeezes the muscle being worked. His sweatshirt swells and ebbs as the bar rises and falls. It isn’t until rep fourteen or whatever that he starts to struggle. I’m paying so much attention to the artistry that I’ve lost count. The bar slows to a stop on the way up but his arms lock out the instant I place my hands between him and the bar. Lifting is as much a mind game as anything else. It’s amazing how much stronger you become when it looks like someone is helping you. When he quits a few reps later, there is no struggle. The bar is gently settled, not plopped, onto the rack.

He does three sets. I do my remaining sets of dumbbell bench presses during his rests. He spots me in turn. His calm, patient gaze weighs me down more than the dumbbells.

We make quick work of unloading the bar and re-racking the plates. He nods approvingly at me when we’re done.

“Good lifting with you.” He claps me gently on my shoulder. “See you tomorrow, buddy.”

With that, he walks away. My gaze follows him out of the gym.

He does three sets and he’s done. Maybe when a bodybuilder is in contest shape, he takes it easy. Some definition of easy, that is, that involves lifting more weight than anyone else here is using by some margin.

As for me, I haven’t done dumbbell presses this satisfying in a while. Today, I was either lifting or spotting. He wasn’t going to let me rest too long between sets. I have definitely attracted the attention of a god.

The shooting gets covered on the news. An autistic man is sitting in a parking lot. His therapist is crouched next to him. The cellphone taking the video is too far away to capture what he’s saying. Two policemen are pointing their guns at them and shouting orders. Their words overlap and it’s impossible to tell what they’re saying. The therapist lies down puts his hand in the air. They start shooting anyway. He’s an African American man. Those policemen never cared where he put his hands.

Tom of Finland Guy lands, putting himself between the two men and the police. Their bullets shatter harmlessly against his chest. The police stop shooting. For the moment, the only sound is the whisper of the therapist to the autistic man. The policemen look shocked at the bullet fragments on the ground. Tom of Finland Guy’s expression is somewhere between amazed and disbelieving.

He crouches down. As he talks to the therapist, the police bark an order and start shooting again. Tom of Finland Guy pays no attention to them, letting their bullets break against his back. Carefully, he gathers up both men and he flies them away.

Reporters interview the therapist. No one thinks the videos are some sort of guerrilla marketing campaign anymore. Social media and the news instantly dub the flying, bulletproof man The Great Wall. Because calling him that is not racist at all.

I lift four days a week. Sweatshirt Guy always asks me to spot him and I do. Then he spots me and eyes me critically when I finish a set. He always looks like he’s going to comment but then doesn’t.

Leg day with him is a bit scary, at least for me. A lot of plates have been piled on that bar. He’s squatting in a power rack. It’ll catch the bar if he goes too low. I stand behind him, my arms in place under his, ready to wrap around his chest, to help him back up. He never needs the help.

It’s been a week and we’re back to chest again. The color of the day is a dark blue. After his last set of bench presses, he holds up his hand before I can start unloading the bar.

“Why don’t you give it a try?” Sweatshirt Guy pats the bar before he sits up on the bench. “You realize those 90-pound dumbbells are too light for you, right?”

That is a sentence that has never been said seriously before in the history of the English language. I fold my arms across my chest. Finally, a chance to eye him critically back.

“This is at least my one rep max,” I gesture at the bar.

Honestly, I’m guessing. The lovely thing about dumbbell bench presses is that you can do them by yourself. You don’t absolutely have to have a spotter. So I never do barbell bench presses.

“You’ll be fine.” Sweatshirt Guy removes a slim 5-pound plate off each side of the bar. He looks satisfied, as though those missing ten pounds will make all the difference. “We’ll try for ten reps.”

Sweatshirt Guy slides the 5-pound plates onto a weight tree. One dumbbell in each hand, he walks the 90-pound dumbbells back to their rack in long, smooth strides. Whether or not they are too light for me, they’re clearly too light for him.

“Sure.” I lie down on the bench.

Whether he intends it or not, a suggestion from anyone built like him carries an implied promise. Sure, it’s one that takes years if not decades of relentless grind to fulfill. I’ve been lifting since high school, though. I’ve already signed up for that. Refusing a god is hard.

He has the crooning voice of a ‘40s band singer. His gentle, quiet words between each rep buoy me. Somewhere between “Come on, you can do it,” “It’s all you,” and “Don’t worry. I’m right here and I’ve got you.” I crank out six reps before I rack the bar.

“Nope, you can do at least three more.” His voice hits that seam between reassuring and demanding. “Don’t worry. I’ve got you.”

On the press of that third rep, I battle the bar to a standstill. It’s shaking but not actually moving. For a moment, I know my strength will give out I’m going to be that asshole who traps himself because his eyes are bigger than his muscles. Sweatshirt Guy’s hands reach for the bar and my arms reflexively straighten and lock out. That might have been under my own power. I can’t tell. Either way, he grabs the bar and guides it back on the rack.

I sit up. My pecs burn. They’re sore and they strain against my T-shirt. My heart pounds and I’m trying to slow my breath. It feels wonderful. I’ve missed this.

“One rep max?” His tone is tinged with sarcasm, but his smile is as warm as his face allows. “What do you do next? Flyes?”

He does the flappy seal thing a few times, his arms out to the side then straight in front of him. On anyone else, the gesture would look silly. On him, his pecs visibly push against the sweatshirt and it is a literal, if unintentional, flex.

“Yeah, cable flyes.” I manage to croak out the words with only the slightest of pauses.

“Good. I was going to do some anyway. You’re welcome to join me.”

He heads off to the cable machine, leaving it up to me to follow. I can stop this right now. Not even a god can gang someone into being his lifting partner. But he keeps me on track. My workouts haven’t felt this good in years. Not only have I attracted the attention of a god, but he seems to have adopted me.

Some Guy, pale but flushed, attacks a Chinese grandma on the street for no good reason. The video starts with him shouting “—don’t belong here, Asian” and beating her. It takes a second or five for everything to come into focus and into frame. Her face is bruised. Blood dribbles from her nose.

Scattered strangers are starting to gather. They shout at him to leave her alone.

She starts hitting him back, shouting insults in Mandarin. Her fists pound against his face, shoulders, whatever she can reach. Some Guy cowers, hiding his face behind his forearms.

Tom of  Finland Guy lands. He steps up to Some Guy and taps him away. Some Guy stumbles back a few steps before he falls on his back. Grandma lurches after him, but Tom of Finland Guy gently guides her away.

He asks her how she is, whether she needs to go to the hospital, in the most respectful Mandarin. Tom of Finland Guy is obviously some Chinese grandma’s good grandson, if not this grandma’s. She, of course, insists that she is perfectly fine, does not need any help, and can take care of herself. The bruises and bleeding are still obvious on her face.

Two policemen arrive. One immediately crouches down next to Some Guy, checks for a concussion, then radios for an ambulance. Meanwhile, the other one levels his gun at Tom of Finland Guy. One of the scattered strangers explains what’s actually happening to the police. It doesn’t matter. The policeman shouts for Tom of Finland Guy to step away from the grandma then starts shooting.

Tom of Finland Guy says something to the grandma, who nods. He cradles her in his arms and lifts into the sky. The policeman continues to shoot. Bullets chase Tom of Finland Guy but they don’t reach him. Who knows where they fall.

Sweatshirt Guy and I finish our back and bi workout with some ab work. The gym has a separate workout room with mats for this sort of thing. No one uses it this time of day.

I was teetering on the edge before. Sweat drenches my T-shirt. The rest between sets is just enough for my breathing to steady. After the ab workout, I’m collapsed on a mat, which is where I live now. Sweatshirt Guy, naturally, hasn’t even broken into a sweat. He stands over me, looking vaguely alarmed.

This is basically how all our workouts end. It catches him off-guard every time, as though a body adapts in the span of minutes or hours rather than months or years. As though he hasn’t been nudging up the intensity by increments too small to measure from one workout to the next.

I, of course, have been complicit in this. There’s a quiet joy in the slow, steady, repetitive pushing or pulling a weight. Nothing else exists while I’m lifting. Nothing else feels like the stretching and contracting of muscle. A rep, when it’s done well, feels good.

There’s also a contentment, a quiet satisfaction in being spent. A dull, pleasant ache burns through my muscles. I can’t help but be relaxed and, honestly, this will be the most focused I will be until my next workout. I spend my life trying to stretch out this feeling until I can create it again.

I used to think working out with me was just his warm up and he came back later in the day for his real workout. It’s not so far-fetched. At any point in the day, a professional bodybuilder is doing only ever one of three things: eating, resting, or lifting.

After a couple months, however, I now think he’s Tom of Finland Guy. It’s not just the facial similarity. He also still has the death face. His proportions are still highly exaggerated. I can make out his muscles through the sweatshirt as well now as when he first asked me for a spot. An actual bodybuilder would have either softened his body back to a sustainable shape by now or be dead.

He’s both genuinely friendly and scary as fuck. I’ve been hoping to see him transform into someone not so physically austere and forbidding. That transformation is clearly never going to happen.

“I need a favor.” Sweatshirt Guy sits down, cross-legged, next to me.

I sit up. This had to happen sooner or later. A god has blessed me with his favor and the moment of reckoning has arrived. It’s time for him to exact his price.

“Sure. What would you need?”

“New apartment. Big couch. Needs support on both ends to move. You’re the strongest guy I know.”

Honestly, I don’t know what I expected, but this isn’t it. He can stand the couch on end and carry it by himself. No one else can, though. That, I suppose, is the problem.

“Absolutely, I can help you move.” It even sounds like I believe he needs the help. I’m a working actor, after all.

“Saturday morning?”

“OK.”

“Pick you up with the moving trunk?” He looks dubious.

“Sure.”

If I get to know where he lives, he might as well know where I live. I give him my address.

“Thanks.” He starts to offer his hand but ends up lightly patting my back. “Carl.”

“Steve.”

My hand misses when I pat his back. His slide out of the way looks unintentional, a coincidental turn as he leaves. It isn’t until he’s gone that I realize an invulnerable man who is keeping it a secret probably doesn’t want to shake hands or be clapped on the back while in disguise. It would give him away.

Tom of Finland Guy only has cameos in his next viral video. At the end of the day, it isn’t even about him.

The video is snippets of one news report after another, peppered with cellphone video or surveillance cameras video, a summary of the past few months. A white man pushed a Vietnamese American woman onto the subway tracks, killing her. Someone else followed a Chinese American woman back to her apartment and stabbed her to death. Yet another man barged into a massage parlor and killed the Korean American women working there. A shrine in Chinatown to the murdered women was trashed. A Japanese American actor was beaten and bruised on his way to a performance. A Korean American man slashed twice in the face just because. A man with curly blond hair and a backpack went on a two-hour spree assaulting one Asian woman after another. The reports go on and on.

Tom of Finland Guy is seen fleetingly in one or two snippets. Mostly, it is one grim newsreader after another.

The cuts between reports get faster and faster. The images become unrecognizable flashes of light. Audio from reports collide and overlap. They pile on top of each other in an increasing cacophony until all anyone can make out is noise.

A translucent image of Tom of Finland Guy emerges from the chaos. Text in a lurid red covers him word by word: “Where is he?” This is followed by: “Why does he let this happen?”

Somewhere lost in all this is the notion that maybe the real problem is the racists. They can simply choose not to murder people or beat them until they are purple with bruises. It’s not that no one is saying this on social media. It’s just buried in the noise.

In the end, what will defeat me is not the big couch. Both on the way down to the truck and on the way back up again to the new apartment, Carl places himself at the bottom of the stairs. It’s not that I can’t feel the weight. The thing has to weigh at least five hundred pounds. It’s that I’m unconvinced I’m doing any of the heavy lifting.

What will defeat me is the sheer number of large boxes of books. The man does not live in an apartment. He lives in a library with a bed, bathroom, and kitchen and is moving to a different library with a bed, bathroom, and kitchen.

The other boxes are all light enough. They go into the new apartment in stacks. We both move the boxes of books one at a time. Me, because I’m only human. Him, because he’s committing to the bit where he’s merely a consistent ten to twenty pounds stronger than me.

I realize I’m being stupid. There’s a still warm sausage and onion pizza sitting on a counter in his new apartment’s kitchen. Carl seems perfectly content to have me eat pizza while I watch him move his library into his new apartment. Even though I know he can leave me in the dust whenever he wants, I can’t help but try to keep up. It’s taking longer because I’m helping.

The boxes are all meticulously labeled. At least I get to find out something about him during the slog. The conversation we had on the drive from my apartment to his old apartment was very tight-lipped. He allowed that he competed in weightlifting and cheer through to the end of his undergrad degree. He forgets to be laconic, though, when I mention his books.

He read Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs because he wanted to, not for a class. It’s not the only piece of heavy reading he did for pleasure. Jean Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place inspires a cautious discussion where I hold my own about propaganda and media presentations determining the viewer’s experience. A reference to Stephen Banfield’s Sondheim’s Broadway Musicals turns him on like a spigot.

The boxes feel lighter while we’re chatting. As I keep reminding myself, lifting is as much a mind game as a matter of strength. From “I Remember That,” we drift to “I Remember It Well,” the one Alan Jay Lerner wrote with Kurt Weill, not Frederick Loewe. From there, he brings up The Firebrand of Florence. I can’t believe he’s even heard of the operetta until he sings the hangman’s opening quatrain. He’s even in the right key.

In the moment, what I want is to grab him by the shoulders and kiss him full on the lips. We don’t have that sort of relationship, though. Maybe it’s better that we don’t. He’s probably more interested in sex than I am. Most people are. Instead of kissing him, I stumble over a box out the way out of his new apartment.

I latch the rear door of the moving trunk. We’re all done, which is good because I don’t think I’m physically capable of lifting a penny at the moment. I’ve already told Carl not to expect me at the gym on Monday.

Carl is still upstairs locking up. I’m waiting for him to drive me home when a detective and a beat cop come up to me. The detective flashes his badge. Their unmarked car is parked behind them, blocking the apartment complex’s driving lane.

“Carl Tsai.” The detective shows me his phone. There’s a screen shot of Carl as Tom of Finland Guy. “Do you know why we’re here?”

He thinks I’m Carl. As if there is only one Asian on the planet. There’s a spree of violence against Asian Americans and Carl is who they decide to investigate. I decide not to disabuse them.

“No, why are you here?”

“We have reason to believe you’re The Great Wall.” He swipes his screen. A video I’ve never seen before starts playing. Carl’s face is clearly visible. “Where were you yesterday around 3PM?”

“I’m not discussing my day with you.”

“Look, a cop died.” He flips the phone so I can’t see the rest of the video. “Maybe it was an accident. What were you doing yesterday afternoon?”

I don’t believe for an instant that Carl killed a cop, even by accident. That’s the sort of thing that makes the news instantly and not at all Carl’s modus operandi. He is careful to a fault. The detective’s lying to provoke some sort of reaction.

“You are detaining me, or am I free to go?”

“I’m detaining you.”

The other cop approaches me with handcuffs. I don’t think they’ve thought this through. Anyone who they can restrain with handcuffs is clearly not who they’re looking for.

“Let him go. You’re looking for me and he’s clearly not me.” Carl floats above us in his Tom of Finland Guy outfit. His voice is a gravelly bass-baritone again. “And that cop tried to shoot me and killed his partner instead. You know that.”

Both cops draw their guns on him. They and I realize at the same time that I’m a much easier target. They pivot and aim their guns at me. Nice guys, both of them. Maybe it’s because I’m so tired, but I have no reaction. My heart doesn’t even pound.

“Look, Great Wall, just come with us.” The detective’s gaze is aimed at me, but, obviously, he’s talking to Carl floating behind him. “No one needs to get hurt.”

This is the first time I’ve seen Carl as Tom of Finland Guy right in front of me. In person, it’s impossible to miss the fullness and roundedness of each and every muscle. They are all beautifully separated from each other and popping off his frame. The overall shape is so aesthetically pleasing and perfectly proportioned, it’s hard to imagine any sculptor doing better. A sweatshirt does hide him somewhat, it turns out. He is a masterpiece of art or a wonder of the world. If this sight is my last before I die, I could have picked worse.

Carl stares at me, then he stares at the cops. I imagine death rays or whatever shooting from his eyes. The cops sway and yawn. Their aim wavers and they holster their guns. Their heads bobble, seemingly too heavy for their necks. They blink and, finally, shut their eyes before they crumple to the ground. Their chests slowly rise and fall. Their faces are calm and placid.

I, on the other hand, seem to have caught my second wind. These two events, I suspect, are not unconnected. My back and legs aren’t sore anymore. I’m no longer overheated and sweating. My body is telling me that it’s ready to move another apartment and it can’t possibly be right.

Carl looks stunned. He levels a critical gaze at me.

“I’m sorry. That worked a little too well.” He’s keeping up the rough and tumble Tom of Finland Guy voice. “You were more tired than I expected.”

He gathers up the cops. I don’t get a chance to ask whether he needs help before he has strapped them into their car. He lifts the car by the front bumper and speeds off, pulling the car behind him, as if he were a human-shaped high-speed tow truck. Supporting a car only by a single point probably isn’t good for it.

Carl comes out of the apartment building. The color of the day is still tan. He spots me by the moving truck. Nothing in his expression admits to what just happened. He is his usual crisp self, not that I expected any different.

“Ready to go?” His voice is back to its light, crooning baritone.

“Sure.”

The conversation on the drive home is tight. Carl doesn’t want to out himself to me. I’m not going out him to himself. He doesn’t want to admit to me or isn’t ready to admit to me what is pretty clear that I already know. I can’t do anything about it besides wait. What he can do about it is stop lifting with me. That would break me.

The hate is more pointed in some of the other videos. It’s also more pathetic.

They wrap him in the red flag with five stars, insisting this is a sighting in his new costume. The CGI is awful. The flag is a red splotch that covers his body but it doesn’t move the way he moves. It purports to be both skintight and fail to ripple as his muscles tense and relax. The stars hover next to his body.

In actual footage, people shout at him, their pale faces flush with rage. In a few cases, they are literally shaking their fist at the sky. They’re not very creative. It’s generally some version of “Go back where you came from!” They never say just exactly where that is. Sometimes, it’s variations on “You don’t belong here.” Only dirtier.

Some people say these things to his face. A few of them try to break their bones against his body and he gently guides their fists away. He doesn’t look angry or hurt. Mostly, he just looks tired.

Unlike Carl, I do not have a couch. Even after Saturday, I don’t need one to sprawl on. Instead of sore, I feel fine, just a little guilty for skipping my workout. It’s unsettling for my body to recover this quickly. Those two policemen are undoubtedly still sore as hell. I try to feel bad about this but I can’t.

Hollow ottomans that double as book storage are scattered around a coffee table. Books are stacked underneath. The requisite electronic keyboard rests on a stand in the corner next to the folding chair. Books are stacked on the floor there, too. The sheet music for “Suddenly Salad,” the song I still have to learn for the elementary school assembly gig I booked, sits on the music stand attached to the keyboard.

I sight read the sheet music, accompanying myself on the keyboard. The tune is a pastiche of a much better song. The lyrics are about as good as they can be considering I am a giant head of romaine telling a bunch of grade school kids that “romaine’s their friend.” I can’t but think that “We’re in a Salad” from Christopher Durang’s A History of the American Film is right there smirking at this.

“We’re in a Salad” is, of course, a loving pastiche of “We’re in the Money.” Going from “We’re in a Salad” to 42nd Street, where I booked a gig in the ensemble, would be more fitting. I’m one of the four boys flanking Billy Lawlor at the start of “Dames” and, even better, I’m understudying Billy. In theory, there is a potential All About Steve situation here. In practice, no, of course not.

Either way, I’m singing “Suddenly, salad is plated beside you” when there is a knock at the door. Dignity, what is paramount in this profession is dignity.

I open the door. It’s Carl, the man who can hear a mouse scratch the dirt on the other side of the world and we both pretend he didn’t just hear “Suddenly Salad.” The color of the day is dark gray. For the first time since we’ve met, he has a bearing that doesn’t seem like either a military “at ease” or a bodybuilder “relaxed” pose.

“Are we OK?” Carl has that dubious look on his face again.

“Yes?” I stare back at him, puzzled. “Are we fighting?”

I invite him in and close the door behind him. His gaze sweeps the room.

“You need a couch.” He is dead serious, or maybe it’s just hard for that face to hold many other expressions. “Sorry, that’s not why I’m here. You weren’t at the gym. Are we OK?”

“I told you I was skipping today.” I gesture at an ottoman and sit down on its neighbor. “You own a lot of books.”

“But your body isn’t s— Oh, this is stupid. I hated being closeted and hiding this is no better.” In a blur, he becomes Tom of Finland Guy. “How long have you known?”

His sweatshirt and sweatpants lie in a pile next to him. His voice is still much more the crooning light baritone of Sweatshirt Guy than the gruff bass-baritone of Tom of Finland Guy.

I pick up his sweatpants. They’re tearaway. A row of snaps lines each leg. They’re disguised to look like a seam. The illusion of typical sweatpants is convincing enough, I guess, if you don’t look too closely.

“You know, I have friends who can design quick change sweatpants that hide the tearaway better.” I can’t resist redoing the snaps before I set the sweatpants down. “Otherwise, regular tearaways would be less suspicious.”

“You figured me out from my sweatpants?” He looks incredulous. “So, from the moment I asked you to spot me?”

We’ve both clearly had plenty of prior experience being closeted and outing ourselves. I know. He knows I know. I know he knows I know. And, now, in a thrilling anti-climax, we finally both know that we both know. I swear a big chunk of the experience of being closeted is the bookkeeping.

“It took about a couple months. You can win any bodybuilding contest you want, but any bodybuilder would be dead if they tried to stay in the shape you’re in for that long.” I’m trying my level best to stay casual but it’s like talking to a god who has revealed himself in his full glory right now. “I haven’t told anyone.”

“I didn’t think you did.” He puts his sweatshirt and sweatpants back on. “I mean, you didn’t even tell me.”

“I assumed you knew.”

A smile spreads across his death face. It’s not so intimidating now that I understand it for what it is. Once again, what I want is to throw my arms around him and plant my lips on his. I mean, he thought my stupid joke was funny or at least he’s humoring the attempt.

“I’m sorry.” He pushes an ottoman next to mine then sits on it. “I didn’t mean to get you or anyone else involved.”

“You didn’t. All you did was ask me to spot you.” I stifle my hand before it can pat his thigh to reassure him. “Actually, why do you lift? You can’t be getting anything out of it.”

“I get asked about my workout routine. A lot. You know how it is.” He gestures pointedly at my arms and chest. “I don’t want to lie and the only way I don’t attract attention in the gym is if I use lots of weight and some big, buff guy is spotting me. And there you are, being sweet and kind to everyone who interrupts your workout.”

“That’s a lot time spent to avoid a little white lie.”

He rolls his eyes at me. His face then shifts in a way that’s hard to read. He could just be annoyed but I’m guessing wistful.

“The last time I felt even a little tired was maybe a year ago. I haven’t been able to get wrecked like you get on a really good workout in years.” He purses his lips. “I’m trying to remember what it’s like vicariously. Otherwise, I might forget what it’s like to be human.”

We both get something out of it. That, weirdly, makes me feel better about working out with him.

“Years? The videos only started show up a month or so ago.”

“It takes time to teach yourself how to fly. I started getting too strong, too fast during my post-doc.” He chuckles. “Maybe I was bitten by a radioactive bodybuilder.”

“Are you into getting bitten?” I smirk. “Because nothing’s penetrating your skin.”

The instant those words leave my mouth, I want to stuff them back in. There’s committing to the bit and there’s wandering into places I don’t belong. I sputter. The panic and guilt must be obvious on my face because he holds a hand to shut me up. His gaze is oddly soft.

“Yes. No. I mean, yes, I’m well-nigh invulnerable by now. No, I’m not really into anything sexual, which is handy, I guess. All I’ve ever wanted is a hug or a kiss every once in a while. But even that still gives me away.”

His brow furrows for a moment. His jaw drops. He perks up, stands, and points a finger at me. I half-expect to disintegrate or something. No idea whether that’s even a thing he can do. As far as I can tell, though, he’s just pointing at me.

“What are you doing, Carl?”

“You’re not off-limits anymore. I can finally ask you out on a date.” He notices he’s stabbing his index finger at me and drops his hand. “I’ve always wanted to show someone this. Watch.”

He walks up an imaginary set of stairs. It’s mime from someone who can hover in midair. The thing is, it’s really good. He’s spent a lot of time on this. The man whose body can do anything he trains it to do has spent his time on mime he never expected to show anyone. This either makes me love him more or hate his guts for how easy he’s making it look. Both, actually.

His weight shifts convincingly from foot to foot. Each step is exactly the same size as the next. How he moves creates the illusion of smooth, hard, level surfaces beneath his feet. The effect is so ordinary, anyone watching a video of this would think he’s just climbing a transparent staircase.

Carl flips into a handstand and his hands walk back down the steps. His body is perfectly taut to the pointed toes. There’s a slight teeter from one side to the other as he shifts his weight from one hand to the other. His sweatshirt wrinkles and swells as he tenses and relaxes each muscle. The slight teeter is actually harder to do intentionally than by accident. Most people trying this on a real staircase would just fall over. But people who blow your minds when they walk down stairs on their hands look just like this. Only he’s doing it without the stairs.

Once on the ground, he pushes off and flips to a stand. The landing is impossibly soft and silent. His toes touch the floor and his knees bend to take the momentum as his heel rolls onto the floor. None of my furniture shifts, much less clatter. He takes a slight bow, one arm bent in front of his waist, the other behind. I give him a standing ovation.

As I applaud, what he said—what he’s trying to distract me from—replays in my head. The delayed reaction hits me and I sit back down.

“Wait. Are you asking me out?” I take a deep breath and hope for the best. “Because my nights are basically free for the next couple of weeks, until tech for 42nd Street starts.”

He looks at me and he wears his reactions like costumes, switching from one to the next before he finally settles on one. Tom of Finland Guy meets my gaze with an impervious confidence. He only really has just the one choice. The crooning Sweatshirt Guy from the gym has a dubious expression on his face, wondering if he’s just broken our relationship. Carl, however, just looks vulnerable. A bullet can’t penetrate his chest but a question, apparently, can.

“It’s been so long.” His brow is furrowed. “Yes.”

“Are you free Saturday night?”

“I can be.” His words are slow and cautious. “Yes, I am.”

“Great, it’s a date.” I stand and open my arms for a hug. “We can figure out what we’re doing later. It’s not like we don’t see each other four days a week.”

He wraps his arms around me. I wrap mine around him. His grasp is pointedly delicate, trying too hard to cocoon the soap bubble that is me. Hugging him is like hugging a warm, intricately wrought bronze statue wrapped in a thin sheath of cotton. His body has no give. My fingers feel the separation between muscle fibers despite themselves.

“See you at the gym tomorrow. I should get going.” He claps my back one last time before he lets go. “Leave you to rehearse your song about salad. Remember, you can be silly, but, whatever they’re paying you, don’t be radicchio.”

The pun hangs in the air. It sounds so earnest and his face refuses to admit the joke. His expression screams its sincerity. I suppose it is also that.

He sees himself out. I just stand there, taking in what he made of “Suddenly Salad.” At least we’re on the same wavelength.

The crowd at City Hall Plaza is peaceful. All the videos agree. It doesn’t matter whether it’s from cellphones in the crowd, from news cameras on the helicopters overhead, or from the cameras on the cops in riot gear sprinkled around the perimeter. The crowd, people of every gender and ethnicity, fill the space backstopped by a sparse row of trees and the street. People are just waving signs and chanting, protesting violence against Asian Americans, particularly women. Even with the cops goading them, the protesters are peaceful.

A truck screeches down the street. It plows into the plaza. Screams and shouts of “Truck!” fill the air. The crowd breaks up, rushing towards the brick paths out of the plaza.

The police take the chaos as their excuse to make a move. Reinforcements arrive. Military-grade drones fly in and place concrete jersey barriers on the brick paths.

Tom of Finland Guy lands in front of the truck as it races towards the crowd. He picks it up by the front bumper. Slowly, he rises into the air, lifting the bumper as he goes.

The driver rolls down his window. As the car goes vertical, he’s shouting racial slurs and threatening to sue if Tom of Finland Guy so much as scratches his truck.

The truck slowly flips over. The man screams. Tom of Finland Guy, still holding on to the front bumper, lowers it, bit by bit, until the truck is upside down on the ground. The man, wisely, stays in the truck.

A team of four cops run toward the truck. They look a little giddy and punch drunk. One of them huffs and puffs harder than the others. There’s a big gun mounted on his shoulder. Without a word, he shoots.

A hum fills the air. A thin, bright beam whizzes past Tom of Finland Guy. It vaporizes a tree on its way across the street.

Tom of Finland Guy shifts to block the beam. It burns a tiny hole in his shirt, but doesn’t do anything to him. He strolls towards the team. The shooter twists a dial on gun. The beam grows brighter and louder. It doesn’t matter. Tom of Finland Guy just keeps walking towards them until he and the gunman are face to face. With a flick of his finger and a smile, he disables the gun.

The rest of the team fiddles with their remote controls. The drones swarm over Tom of Finland Guy. Each of them shoots a cable that lassos him. The cables cinch around his arms and chest. His muscles tense and strain but the cables don’t budge.

They push the stick forward on their remotes, directing the drones up. The drones buzz and whir, dragging up Tom of Finland Guy with them. The cables snap taut. His body shakes in mid-air as he holds the tug-of-war to a stalemate.

The cops lean forward so hard on their remote controls that one of them almost falls over. The whirring grows louder and higher pitched. Tom of Finland Guy doesn’t so much vibrate as blur in place, still writhing against the cables around his chest and arms.

The stalemate lasts for what seems like minutes. The crowd cheers him on. The cops, grins wide on their faces, high five each other. They taunt him, shouting that maybe he’s not so strong after all.

Tom of Finland Guy lands. If that takes any effort, it doesn’t show. He drags the drones down with him. Their whirring squeaks into the ultrasonic before they spark and smoke. Their propellers stop and they tumble towards the ground. He wasn’t struggling to stay in place. They were struggling to move him. He was just overloading them waiting for them to burn out.

He darts back up as the drones fall. The cables snap taut again. The drones dangle below him. He sets them on the ground before he lands again. The cables surrounding him break with a shrug. That struggle was a fake out, too.

The smiles are long gone from the cops’ faces. They bolt, the one with the gun on his shoulder slightly behind everyone else.

The rest of the police, however, are already arresting protestors, taking them away to be processed. Tom of Finland Guy surveys the scene, glaring at the police. Of the cops keeping the protestors penned in, a couple of the cops yawn, a few are unsteady on their feet, but none are so tired that they can’t stay awake.

Tom of Finland Guy flies into the crowd and airlifts anyone who wants to leave, one by one. He can’t stop them from arresting protestors. They can’t stop him from freeing them.

The color of the day is violet. Lifting with Carl is both exactly like and nothing like lifting with Sweatshirt Guy. In the weight room, he’s still that crooning light baritone. He’s still whispering encouragement in my ear with each rep.

Now, though, he’s not so much of a sentient tax form when I rest between sets. He cracks the occasional joke. His sentences use as many as two more words than absolutely necessary. We feel each other out about what to do on our date. My rest breaks fly by and, before I realize it, he’s reminding me “Here and now.” Sometimes, it’s with a warm tap on the shoulder.

We don’t talk about the rally. Even at 5AM, there are too many people around. Neither of us are too rusty with the bookkeeping of being closeted.

In the separate workout room, his demeanor shifts. He’s not as mannered when no one else is around. It’s the most relaxed I’ve seen him. His voice, still smooth, drops a few semitones. His body is not always carefully positioned just so. Ironically, he presents like just a big lug in a sweatshirt when he’s not trying to.

He’s chatty, compared to Sweatshirt Guy. The short breaks in our ab workout are not deathly silent. He’s using maybe four more words than absolutely necessary. It’s mostly a one-way conversation because I’m busy dying. The ab exercises look very simple and easy when he does them.

He limits himself to only oblique references to the rally. Once, he makes a cryptic comment about wanting to save everyone. I manage one right back in between gasps. Unjust systems require systemic change. No one is powerful enough to do it by themself, not even him.

When we’re done, I’m splayed on the mat, trying desperately to keep air in my lungs. He looks at me with this expression of intense want and need on his face. It can’t be for me. We haven’t even gone on our date yet. It’s this weekend. The look on his face doesn’t make sense until I remember what he’s getting out of our workouts.

“You can remove the fatigue from my body, right?”

The desire on his face becomes worry. He crouches next to me.

“I thought you enjoyed feeling wrecked. We can ease off a bit next time.”

“No, no, I do. If our workouts ever get to be too much, believe me, I’ll let you know.” I push myself up to a sit. “I mean, instead of giving my fatigue to someone else, can you give it to yourself?”

“I don’t know.” His brow furrows. “I’ve never tried.”

“Do you want to try?”

He takes a beat. His gaze defocuses through me to some distant place deep beneath the floor. For all I know, that may be literal or maybe he’s just not paying attention to where his gaze wanders. His expression is pensive until it isn’t and his gaze snaps back to me.

“Sure.”

He stares at me and I get my second wind. It’s an odd sensation, recovering instantly like this. My breath goes from rough to smooth before I realize. Endorphins are an electric current coursing through me. My body does not want to stay still. This time, however, he’s left me the residue of my fatigue. My body doesn’t insist that I absolutely have to go back and hit the weights again right away.

As for Carl, his brow wrinkles for a moment. I thought he might deflate a bit, but he is very much his bulging, if austere, self.

“Interesting.” He nods slowly. “Are you ok?”

“Yeah, considering the workout I had, I feel great.” I’m upright. I don’t remember standing. “Probably a little too great. Do you feel tired at all?”

“No.” He frowns. “Well, maybe for an instant.”

“I’m sorry.”

I go to squeeze his shoulder and he lets me. The sweatshirt compresses, but, of course, his shoulder doesn’t.

“No, it’s good. It’s enough to remind me what it was like.”

He claps my back. It looks casual and affectionate but feels careful and simulated. An actual casual clap from him and I’d keel over onto the mat.

“The offer’s still open if you’d like to try again someday.”

“Mess with your body chemistry? You shouldn’t make offers like that so lightly.” His tone is serious and I remember again that I’m talking to a god. “But I’ll think about it.”

We walk out of the workout room. As he passes through this door, he is subtly stiffer, his posture more formal.

Someone comes up to us. He has brown, curly hair and about a head shorter than either of us. His T-shirt isn’t oversized. It just looks like it is. His gaze sweeps past Carl and locks onto me.

“Hi, can you help me?” He points off towards the weight machines. “The knob that adjusts the position of the leg pad for the leg curl machine is jammed.”

Once again, someone looks at the two of us and decides that I’m the one for the job. Behold the difference between his sweatshirt and my T-shirt, I suppose.

“Sure.”

Carl and I wave our goodbyes to each other. He heads off toward the exit. I head off toward leg curl machine. People need to learn that they don’t need to crank the adjustment knob. You’re just making trouble for no good reason.

 

(Editors’ Note: “If You Find Yourself Speaking to God, Address God with the Informal You” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 47B.)

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