A TROUPE OF CHINESE ACROBATS forms a human pyramid, fifteen strong at the base. They wear silver jumpsuits, appliqued with red satin stars. when the pyramid is complete, it's so high, the top man's head is obscured by the proscenium. Thus, when he kicks away and rises free, he at first appears to have grasped some hook in the ceiling. Only when he drifts out, coaxing his body past the proscenium with twitches of the buttocks, does he show himself to be floating with no wire. He proceeds thus over the audience, moving with some difficulty, like a worm tunneling through the air. Above the stalls, row G or thereabouts, he pauses, bobbing, and tips on a horizontal axis to hang upside down.
He tells us the Oriental secret of eternal life.
He says, In China, putting faith in God, the dead are raised by simple peasants; the price of this service is the same as that of a loaf of bread in Britain.
Gradually, beginning with his shaven pate, he makes himself invisible. For a long time, his red slippers kick, alone, skating and hopping along the plaster ornaments of the theater ceiling.
This is an essay about the possibility of, advantages to, stains left on the tiles and in the tub itself by, communicating with the dead.
I prefer to do mine with the lights off, in about a foot of hot unscented water. From time to time I crawl out and lie spread-eagled on the bath mat, face down, towel diaped over my buttocks. I can still, faintly, hear the traffic outside.
The dead will tell me insignificant details of my day to come. My train will be delayed; the boss will wear a sequined jacket; there will be a special on salmon at the restaurant which I am on no account to take, because the fish is off. It seems calculated to convince me of their reality without offering any actual aid. I ask them:
Where is my lover, where is my young man, my John? Where are my father and brother? Are you ghosts or only demons, and what use are you actually
They say it's beautiful where they are and they are at peace.
It's like some sales pitch; it makes me wild. No matter what I say, they give the same old tired travel brochure. Sometimes they pass on "messages" from John, but they will not let me see him. He too says it's beautiful, blah blah, and about the fish.
I cannot, not, understand how other mediums buy this crap.
A band of marauders stops the caravan at a rocky pass. Twirling his sword, the bandit king demands the party's souls, represented in gold, to be presented by dawn's light. That night by the campfire, the travelers confer, uneasily shrugging at the muskets trained on their backs from the surrounding blackness.
There is disagreement over whether a totem actually contains the spirit represented. Given as booty, is it lost, or will it nonetheless be claimed by heaven? The smith is abused for his interpretation of the souls of one middle-aged woman, repetitiously stricken, in the course of the journey, by "vapors," and a child whose blond curls belie her frightful temper. The first is rendered as a ragged, bent thin; identifiable in the brighter leaps of the fire as a crushed snake. The second he balks at and says he cannot make a speck, a tittle, nothing, for there is no original.
In the taut atmosphere, the party nearly comes to blows;
and through the night, the members hunt out every speck, every tittle of gold they may have hitherto stashed. Teeth come out, and heirloom bracelets; spoons inscribed with the crests of abolished Dukedoms; wedding bands, and medallions said to have a curative influence on gout and boils. Each piles his hoard separately, catching the smith's eye, hoping for a flatteringly copious soul totem.
As dawn breaks, blinding on every slope, puzzlingly appearing to come from 360 degrees and from the zenith and from the golden figures, tiny and standing deep in the loose dry dirt as if rooted;
the marauders have vanished, leaving not even hoofprints, not even a scent of camel, no dung nor human soil
and the human figurines are dazzling, too hot to regard or even gingerly approach, fingers extended, within ten feet.
and the smith has risen, flown, is seen flapping mid-sky like Mohammed, arms and legs spread star-fashion and blue. Called to, he makes no sign or sound but hangs as before, occasionally glittering. The travelers confer over whether to attempt tossing up a rope but reflect that this is pointless, their longest rope, never mind throw, not near sufficing.
They mill about for some time, no longer speaking; then some harness up and go, leaving a few moon-eyed sufferers keeping watch at the blaze of that gold. Some days later, some dehydration visions and convulsions later, they are felt by the smith to fly past in a chill shriek, zooming in a multiple upwards so absolute as to be notional
like a geometer's conceived line.
This is an essay about the possibility of, pluses and minuses and hidden snags to, remaining evidence in archaeological finds for, communication with the dead.
It can be taught; curiously enough. I have on occasion assembled classes, not, you understand, in the actual bathroom, but in my front room or in a basement let from the local School for Girls. Although I semi-hypnotize my pupils, give hints and suggest visualizations, the truth is, I suspect, that the active ingredient is the fee, which has been set at 120 pounds since I began. Shelling out money seems to have a reassuring effect. Having paid for the service, people are then willing to believe that they have been connected to the other world.
I get a remarkable number, furthermore, calling back to complain that the ability faded after no more and no less than three days, suggesting that the rate is forty pounds per day line rental, with no variation made for use.
I have had nightmares in which the spirits come to collect these monies from me, demanding them in gold doubloons which I have, oddly enough, stashed in the follow beneath my bathtubthough in the dream I strenuously deny it. John is there, semiconscious and bloodied as I saw him last, held by the arms by two burly ghosts who warn he will never speak to me until the debt is paid.
When I take a bath now I often imagine these gold doubloons beneath me, stirring restlessly as if animate. If I am drowsy or preoccupied, I even idly worry about possible damage to them from leaked detergent.
I think now I am going to my bathroom when I die.
"But why muddy?" said John. He was on all fours, scrubbing muddy footprints from our bedroom carpet. Still in his boxers; four A.M. I'd said it was better to catch fresh, not to wait until they were dry come morning. Because you end up whittling at them with a bread knife; it's clay really I guess.
Whatever earth they have in the graveyard.
I may have said that then, I don't remember.
John was saying, "So this supposedly runs in your family?"
"Yes, we hear banshees and things. We're just basically haunted. One of my uncles was even pursued by the devil on horseback." I began to giggle, I felt lightheaded and foolishly pleased.
"The devil? Or your uncle? On horseback."
"Oh, the devil. Though I guess my uncle must have been as well or the devil would have caught him, surely."
"The devil would have caught him, anyway. Being the devil."
"No, according to my uncle, the devil just went white hot all of a sudden and shrieked up into the air."
John began to laugh too, so much he stopped and sat down like a dog with both hands on the floor like paws and we were laughing until it reached some critical point and I had to pull the lamp chain. So the room sprang into light. And the footprints are still there, but we're not laughing. It's as if we weren't really laughing, it only seemed as if we were laughing in the dark. And it seems to me, suddenly, that John will die in a tragic accident on the M25, in which he will be thrown from his motorbike at an angle which is somehow very clear to my mind, and there is an associated color, maybe of flames, but I don't know about these visions, and I can't change it anyhow, and if the date and time, rather than that stupid trajectory, had come to me, it might have been worth thinking about, but I put it from my mind.
John says, "This is ridiculous. Could we put down kitchen roll or something, for tomorrow night?"
"Well," I say, suddenly venomous, insulted, "It's only my dead father you know. Don't take it so much to heart."
Three stop in the air and one lingers below, fretful. All four tremble as if exhausted, as if they are lights whose source is nearly depleted. One of the airborne makes what would be a sound and they all dis appear and re-become a short film about the life of Edward Pencil, inventor of the pencil, who died tragically by falling into his mother's womb which opened before him in his living room carpet, as if casually, as if opening up just on the way to some routine task, and although Pencil saw through this stratagem, he was aware that he was required to be fooled, to take the bait and lean out too far over the gaping hole, saying "Mother? Is that you?" and even then to gasp in feigned surprise as the tentacle flew up from that maw, snap-wrapped around his neck ten times and whipped him down. I am watching the colorized version.
A voice cries behind the screen, "It's not true! It's not true!" but, whether this is the voice of the calumniated Pencil or of some rival, more legitimate inventor is unclear.
Suddenly an audience is present, whose eyes illuminate the auditorium, brilliant as headlights. The audience members seem unaware of this, and eat popcorn methodically, fidget and gape like other, unlighting, audiences.
I realize that soon the high, piercing noise in my gut will rise in volume; that this must draw the attention of the lighting crowd. One by one they'll turn and train their beams on me until the con-centrated light will heat to explosiveness my small heart. It will spray its doubloons, spill its wealth . . . I must preserve these at all costs, all I have in the way of ransom . . . I rise and, trailing ribbons and weeds, trailing my poppies and rowan branches, run from the theater. At the exit I trip and the wind takes me. I scream as it lifts me in intelligent hands, bearing me, delivering me up to the tunnel and the ascent.
John, come back to me, bring me word from my brother, come in ordinary clothes, be visible, be all sensible and available to my wet grasp, come wash the blood from your temples in my bath and make me bring the mirror to shave your coffin bears. We can live off our bathtub doubloons in the middle sky.
Do not send your go-betweens to me any longer, John, don't poison me with your fellows, don't you know I can already see through my shins, in a strong light? Yet I believe, I will risk I am heavy enough still, ballast enough, if you just hold on to me, hold on to me, why did you not hold on to me.
Your foul ascent will founder; there will be no remounting of that rainy heaven; you and I can linger in between, in eternal practice, always forgetting what happens to you after you die.
Sandra Newman's Medium can be found in Conjunctions:33, Crossing Over, published Fall of 1999.