Published: Nov 23, 2020 5:00:00 PM



Lorna’s self-awareness and honesty inspired a thought. She did not use the word, annihilate, accidentally. She sat before me, intact, but confessed without pause she had planned to unmake her entirety of being.

And rebuild. To bring yourself to nothing, and rebuild. She never verbally stated she meant to harm herself or mentioned suicide by name. Metaphysically speaking, ontologically speaking, she would cease being one thing and become a different sort of energy. For a woman in her field of study, this was a pointed choice.

“It was after a series of sessions with Gustave, the results of which he recited back to Dirk, that I became aware of Kendrick’s presence,” Lorna said. “In the same way that I sensed blood in the room when I spoke with Gustave, a scent gone unspoken, it became apparent Kendrick was haunting Gustave himself. Invisible at first to me, of course. I soon realized it was often Kendrick’s voice, his words, coming from Gustave’s mouth, perhaps by accident, or perhaps as an homage to his colleague. In most academic fields, men will mimic the most confident or flamboyant when they themselves lack sufficient soul to go forth unshielded. They might, in time, gather enough points of influence—to study under enough teachers with a diversity of viewpoints—that a courageous individual might form. Others find it warm beneath the dragon’s wing and become zealots.

“Gustave was a zealot. I discovered the exact degree of this devotion to Kendrick Loomis when Gustave obtained a telegraph machine in his house. Communication wires stretched as far as San Francisco by then, it was 1869, after all, and St. Louis was a center of culture. Gustave used it to receive requests from patients and was capable in its use, happy for the chance to sit at the thing and tap out responses. This was how Kendrick communicated with him. The machine had rested in the room all along, situated on his desk, just over his left shoulder from where I sat. I never gave a spare thought. I had too much more to consider, but in the back of his mind, I wonder if Gustave was imagining what might happen if the machine began signaling as we spoke? As though Kendrick were somehow observing from afar. Or as though he were in the room with us.

“Ghosts are real. This much, I know. They reach across time. The nudge and guide the behaviors of the living—people they never met in life. Ghosts haunt us all, be they spirits of our own making, or borrowed from another—”

“When did you meet Professor Loomis?” I interrupted. I didn’t even realize I had lifted my finger, partly in mimicking a student’s raised hand, parly in a small gesture to steer Lorna’s story toward an impulsive question I couldn’t help but ask.

Lorna sucked back a breath of damaged patience. I regretted everything about it but was again compelled beyond my control and appended the question with, “Personally? Face-to-face?”

“I am taking great strides to recall as much detail as possible from events more than twenty years ago,” Lorna stated. “That’s likely longer than you’ve walked this Earth, from the look of you. Your mind is fresh and uncluttered by filth and pain. Leaks of poison, heartbreak, and regret coloring memories long-untouched. Not only am I addressing these things for the first time in God-only-knows, I am doing so for you, a stranger. Hardly more than a burglar-child. If you would like me to skip ahead, I am afraid I cannot do that because I must remember these things in order. One event, one thought, one memory leads to the next. To understand what happened, you require the circumstances of the memory. Out of order, it would be gibberish. As a child, I appreciate your eagerness, but I also demand you recognize you are out of your depth when it comes to reckoning how forty years of life leads a woman to a conversation concerning metaphysics with a shoeless boy that’s broken into her office.

“Now, as I was saying. Kendrick’s presence loomed large within Gustave. I learned this gradually. It began in one of my visits to the hallway after a session. Gustave was speaking with Dirk, relaying his analysis of my demeanor. And as they were talking, they were interrupted. Gustave’s telegraph machine began receiving. And instantly, the two of them fell silent. Dumbstruck. It is the same presence one feels, breath drawn tight, when attempting to overhear a conversation through a wall. The body strains. We flex our senses and take every effort to comprehend. And the telegraph machine drummed on for some time. To my ears, it was clatter, at least at the moment. Yet, its power was immediate.

“I was no longer bored. The machine disarmed Dirk and Gustave. They were novices in the eyes of the presence at the opposite end of the telegraph.

“So they were now nothing more than novices to me. I had to study the telegraph machine and understand it, all without giving away this moment to the men. I was now inside a secret. I was two people—the spiritless, melancholy woman in search of relief, trained from girlhood to be a good wife, and I was also this new person. She was not fully formed, not yet. But she was not propelled by schooling, or manners, or devotion to a husband. She had no past burdens, only a mission—to thrive.

“I needed unbiased assistance. I was not afforded much freedom away from Dirk. I had to make the most of it. I was not fortunate in my quest to discover a solution to this telegraph mystery. There were not many telegraph offices within a distance I could reach and return from in a manageable time that wouldn’t result in Dirk’s questioning. Most were managed by men that did not see the truth in my desire to learn the signaling process. I offered to buy a manual for study. To them, the idea was silliness for two reasons—the machines’ operation was too difficult for my comprehension, and why could they not simply craft and send the message on my behalf. I tried three offices with equally-disappointing results.

“At last, one older man receiving a telegram showed me a kindness and recommended a nearby shop I had never heard of. I found my way as I quickly as I could, it was not too far. Inside this office, I discovered a teenage girl named Alexis working the wire, likely even younger than you as you sit there, Keziah. She was spirited and charming, and she could dictate, listen, send, and hold a conversation with me all at once without perspiring.

“I was honest with her, my mission clear and certain. I told Alexis I wished to receive telegraphs at the office of my husband’s friend. Could she teach me? Her answer was instantly yes, and I became fast friends with the girl.

“I returned to Alexis’ office, usually in the late afternoons of days when I was not attending sessions with Gustave. The messages from his telegraph continued, audible through the wall when I was excused from the room. And always, it struck Gustave’s conversations with Dirk dead. When meeting with Alexis, I told Dirk the half-lie that I was practicing weaving. I say this was half true because Alexis was an accomplished weaver, as well. She was a quarter-Sioux native cast-off, who by some grace could convince cityfolk in St. Louis she was white without any persuasion to speak of. I suggested that was amazing good fortune, only to realize it was a far more complex burden for the girl than I at first believed. Why would she not want to be white, and enjoy the luxuries afforded to the race?

“Why should she want to be white? That was her question. The practice of weaving was not intrinsically flowing in her blood any more than operating the telegraph machine was. Both skills were self-taught—the weaving was simply a coincidental overlap with my pre-judged notion regarding the Sioux people.

“Alexis trained me. To confession, she was not the most proficient teacher at first. She was indelicate in her language and only through perseverance did we reach a point where method was derived from madness. I initially did not pay her, assuming it was a favor of camaraderie between women. When the initial results in these off-handed lessons flagged, I offered her money for the work, which was taking time away from the job at the office. When I found this focused her and generated a seriousness in her lessons, I began paying my friend more. What better to spend money on? It was money liberated from Dirk’s coffers, ill-gotten after the war. Alexis’ creativity in lessons flowered. She took to my challenge and my skills in receiving and sending the telegraph messages increased each passing week.

“When at last I could do as Alexis did—or nearly so, with extreme focus—I could operate the machine with one hand and transcribe an incoming message with the other.

“The day had arrived. I had carried on feigning my ongoing ennui with Gustave, while within, I had never felt happier. The sadness felt an entirely separate person from who I had become. But I was skilled in the act. After a brief and stagnant session in Gustave’s parlor, I was excused. I passed Dirk in the doorway as I did. I took my place in the chair beside the door, and after a moment and a satisfied smile, I set my ear against the wall to listen.

“They were not discussing me. They were discussing him. They used Kendrick’s name like a priest offers up God as the alpha and omega of each sentence. That by Kendrick’s covenant with man, we might never suffer another flood. Glory be to him. I heard them use words that would one day be very recognizable—ontology, electrochemistry, cosmology. Again, they handled the terminology sophomorically. They injected the words as a student does to add frosting to ignorance. I’d tell you more about what they were saying, but they were not in fact saying too terribly much. It was like eavesdropping on a clucking bird in a cage, preening, trilling, and repeating overheard words.

“Then the telegraph interrupted. It was Thursday. I wagered my stunted session prior to their conversation had permitted more time for back-slapping and nonsense, but now here was the telegraph, quite predictable and punctual, ready to overshadow these boys at play.

“I produced a fold of paper and pen from my sleeve. I smoothed it against the wall and pressed my ear close, preparing to transcribe. My hand worked on its own. The signals were calm and easy to recognize.

“Now and then, I glanced over to the sheet, prohibiting my brain from interpreting the transcripted signal as I went. I had to commit to marking it all down without errors. I would check the exact meaning later, in private.

“I heard footsteps. I smuggled my contraband into my clothes. Dirk exited the room and as we adjourned, I glanced back to notice Gustave transcribing the last of the message, and I caught the final signal, a mess of letters until I defined them clearly in my mind—the sea comes to Shackleburg.”

“The sea comes to Shackleburg?” I repeated.

Lorna nodded. “As clear as anything in my life, I recall those words.”

“What about the rest of the message?”

“I kept it hidden until the following day,” Lorna said. “It was a struggle sleeping that night, but I had trained myself in patience. The next day was Friday and I brought it to Alexis’ office. I wanted it to be a celebration of so many things. I could barely contain my smile when I entered and I realized I had no reason to. I showed the fold of paper to Alexis and she closed the office for the rest of the afternoon.

“Together, we sat with the message, and it began—orders from Kendrick Loomis.”

-- Alex Crumb
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