I talked to my first corpse when I was six.
There was a tramp who died in the gutter outside Miss Morton’s Millenary, where my mother sent me to stitch the tiny baby’s breath flowers along each hat’s brim. Tiny fingers are good for that work, and my vision was sharp enough to see even in the dim candlelight once the winter days grew shorter.
The tramp liked to say good morning to every lady who passed, sweeping his floppy hat off with a bow and exposing a shiny bald pate. Stitches ran across it like railroad tracks, like someone had once opened his head up, poked around in his brain, and closed it up hoping no one would notice.
Except I noticed.
When the tramp died, everyone thought he was sleeping. Even I thought he was just napping in the gutter when he suddenly stood up, swept his floppy hat off his head and bowed to me.
“Good morning, young miss,” he said like he always did, but this time it sounded like it was coming from underwater — gurgling, distant. I curtsied like my mother taught me. Every person is a person, especially those down on their luck, she would say.
“Tell me, do you know which way to the railroad station?” The tramp asked. “I seem to have forgotten.”
I pointed in the direction, and he walked off. It was then that I knew something was wrong. First off, his limp was gone, and he glided tall as a tree through the crowd. Second, while I watched him walk away, I also saw that he was still lying in the gutter.
Miss Morton — really Mrs. Debonay Tristan Morton, for as many times as she had been married at that time — came outside and shrieked. She never liked the tramp because she said he scared away her customers. While in life he never seemed to deter anyone from entering her shop, in death he certainly was getting his revenge.
The Street Sweepers came to get his body, and Miss Morton sent me home. While I want to believe it was because she felt bad that I, a wee six-year-old, had encountered death on her doorstep, I have a hard time believing a woman who employees a child that young for pennies a day had any concern for my well-being and was more worried that I had somehow contracted fleas or lice while standing so close to the body. For good measure, I hugged her around the waist before darting down the street back to my mother.
When I told her what had happened, she didn’t seem surprised. In fact, she seemed rather pleased.
“I knew you’d have it, DeeDee, but I didn’t think it would come this soon,” she crowed.
“Have what, Ma?”
“Your grandma had it, too. It skips generations, see. I was always happy I didn’t have it — they scare me, see — but if you’ve got it…sweetest, we’re out of the soup! You’ll never have to go back to Miss Morton’s again! We’ll have cake for breakfast, and you’ll have a trunk full of pretty clothes!”
Something was definitely amiss, as my mother was never one to fantasize. If the average person in our town was down-to-Earth, she was a layer of gravel under the cobblestones.
She was right, though. I never went back to Miss Morton’s Millenary, and by the end of that year I not only had a trunk of new dresses, but we had a whole new house where she and I had separate rooms, and a kindly woman cooked and cleaned for us while my mother toured me around to the biggest houses and theaters in the city. My name was plastered on posters pasted to theater windows and city squares — not DeeDee Sous, but Deirdre St. Oleander, Child Necromancer and Medium.
Butlers opened doors for me with a bow and led me into ornate parlors centered around ornate caskets surrounded by ornate people with top hats and Spanish fans. Audiences stood on their feet and applauded just when they caught site of me walking onstage. And then everyone would grow silent, and I would have to approach it: The body. Marble-like skin sagging over loose muscle. Crepe-like eyelids draped over visionless pupils.
Most of them didn’t notice the packed house staring at them when their spirit sat up to talk to me. Usually they were too self-involved, telling me who they never got to say goodbye to, or who they wanted to curse now that they had seen the afterlife. There was an older gentleman with a gear permanently implanted over his left eye who sat up, looked straight at his colleague in a high-backed leather chair, and spat on him. Of course, the colleague neither saw nor felt any of this. And it wasn’t my job to tell him — instead, I had to whisper it to the hostess of the wake, who could barely contain her excitement as she giddily skipped away to tell her friend, who presumably told her husband, who presumably passed it on to his co-worker…
When I turned 12, my mother and I moved into an even bigger home. This house had four servants, and still it was just the two of us. Then she met Mr. Theobald Dorchester, a made-up name if I ever heard of one, who charmed her into bankruptcy before he took off on a fishing boat, never to be seen again.
I was 14, then, and entering my gawky stage. I was no longer the cute child who could talk to the dead, and I was not yet a woman of any consequential properties, apart from my necromancy talent. Like the perpetual adolescent it is, the world had moved on from its obsession with the dead and taken up a new interest in the never-living as scientists built robots and steam-machines capable of traversing the universe. Who needs restless spirits when you can fly to the moon and back?
The bank took our house, so we moved into an old theater that used to host me every month. The stage manager had an apartment upstairs that he let us stay in while he worked nights at an underground tavern my mother said I was too young to know about. But 14-year-old girls are never too young to know something, and never too fearful to go looking for the truth, which is how I found The Borgnine Club.
I followed the stage manager, Fritz, there almost every Tuesday night because that was the night my mother cleaned The Inventor’s workshop. From behind dusty curtains I would watch the shows being performed, and the patrons who paid for admission. If there wasn’t a woman peeling off her bloomers on stage, there was a juggler or a comedian egging on the crowd. Waitresses drifted like smoke between the tables, dressed only in their corsets and garters. All clients were men, and each one of them was required to wear the same black top hat with a purple band around its middle. The waitresses would slip notes into the band from other patrons so that no one had to be seen fraternizing with each other, even though they all had secrets to share.
One night, as a bellydancer performed a sort of slapstick routine, there was a different hat that stood out from the sea of black stovepipes. It was a broad-brimmed lady’s hat, bright pink and edged with white baby’s breath. I watched the woman’s head bob in time to the piano player’s music and tip back as she laughed at the comedic performance, revealing an older, luminous visage. Her lips were painted black cherry, and her eyes crinkled as she guffawed. I was instantly mesmerized.
“That’s what this world is missing!” She crowed. “Enough of this masturbatory, self-important exploration — we want deprave dramatics! Give me a show magician or a fortune telling prodigy any day over these humdrum machines these men roll out to impress us. It’s all about the theater of it all!”
She had the attention of the whole club now. A few men coughed their indignation into linen handkerchiefs, but most of her fellow club members were enthralled.
“I once saw a little girl talk to my best friend’s sister three days after the poor woman died. Repeated stuff that even my best friend didn’t know, but I’ll tell you — that little darling was the real deal. Deborah something, I think her name was. Little spitfire, but she disappeared right after that. Probably grew up, or some nonsense like that.”
For the rest of the evening, my brain grew warm with the friction of thought grinding against hope. The woman’s party didn’t leave until 2 a.m., but I was awake and waiting outside the door.
“Ma’am,” I called after the pink hat in the crowd. She didn’t turn around, so I darted after her. “Ma’am, you mentioned me! You were friends with Mrs. Squire.”
At Mrs. Squire’s name, the pink hat turned, and I came face-to-face with the black cherry lips.
“Mrs. Squire?” The woman asked. “Well, yes, but how do you—”
“I’m Deirdre St. Oleander,” I said quickly, aware that her attention was worth more money than I had in my pockets, and I couldn’t afford to hold it for too long. “I was the little girl. I talked to Mrs. Squire’s sister, Adele.”
The woman’s face cracked open, almost as pink as her hat. She reeked of the hard liquor they sold in different shaped glasses inside the Borgnine Club.
“Why Miss St. Oleander,” she said. “Boys, this is the young necromancer I mentioned. You’re certainly growing into a lady. Not quite there yet, but soon, I imagine!”
My cheeks burned with the same embarrassment that came when my mother fretted over how we had little money and even less time before I’d need a proper corset and girdle for under my cotton shift dresses.
“Do you have any work for me?” I asked, my face now matching the woman’s hot pink hat. “Any dead people you want to talk to? Freshly dead, of course.”
The woman roared with the same laughter that echoed off the beams of the Borgnine.
“My sweet, not tonight, but give me a day and I’ll have ridden one of these gorgeous men to their death,” she said, squeezing the arm of the tall many next to her. “But if you were to put on a show, I would buy out the theater. I haven’t had as much schadenfreude as I had when you announced how Lydia Squire’s sister once made a pass at me during their parent’s Winter Ball. Ooh, how Lydia steamed — I didn’t hear from her again, and good riddance is all I can say about that.”
The men around her chortled.
“Next Saturday,” I blurted. “The Old Mill Theater. Eight o’clock.”
“Noted,” she said, impressed. “Thank you, Miss St. Oleander. I look forward to a spectacle,”
The week passed like a blur, and so did the show, but with a giant pink splotch in the middle of the muddled memory. The woman surely had filled the theater with her friends, and she made sure to sit front and center as I talked to a baker we had borrowed from the morgue (he asked that his recipe for hot crossed buns be shared only with his middle son, and no one else); an inventor who had, just that day, blown himself up trying to get to Mars (he wanted to know where his legs had gone); and, could it be? Miss Morton herself, bloated with booze and clucking about this year’s dismal styles for ladies’ headwear. I relayed her ten-minute rant about fascinators to the audience, expanding just a little on the horrors of taxidermy birds perching atop any woman’s head.
After the show, the woman came backstage to thank me personally for a much-needed evening.
“It was spectacular,” she said. “Just a little advice — add some more theatrics next time. You have a gift: Now give it a little sparkle.”
Luckily, I was the kind of teenager who loved sparkle. A few late nights at the Borgnine Club sponsored by the woman in the pink hat, and we had enough money to buy me a proper corset and underthings, plus a scandalously short dress that made my mother cross herself before sitting down to count the night’s takings. By the time I was 15, we had moved out of the stage manager’s apartment and taken up residency next door. It was a modest home, but it was ours.
When I was 16, my mother started coughing up blood and coal dust. It was all those years cleaning for The Inventor, I knew. Medicine was expensive and not guaranteed to work, but I kept adding more theatrics to my shows. When the dead bodies had nothing interesting to say — they wondered the time, or asked for directions to the tavern — I would embellish just enough so the audience was eating out of my one hand and filling the other with paper bills.
I was 17 when a man dressed in a brown leather coat lied flat on the slab before me. His face was half gone, scraped away by the road as a steam-powered carriage dragged him half a mile before the driver noticed. When his spirit sat up, it did nothing but scream.
Once in a while we got screamers. At 8, I ran off the stage with my hands over my ears because of the wailing banshee the coroners had dropped off for our show. But this man’s yells were nothing like I had heard before. They sounded like they were coming up from his toes and amplifying through the gaping hole in the side of his face.
“Sorry, folks,” I tried to say over the screams. “He’s a little hard to understand. Had a bit much to drink, I’m afraid, and it appears he’s woken up from the dead still drunk! The man just made a pass at me.” I clutched my chest and looked at the screaming soul, feigning scandal.
Most of the audience laughed, but not the man at the table in the front row. He glowered at me, and it felt like the bones in my corset had suddenly twisted even tighter.
“Sir, you have to say it slower and quieter,” I said to the man in the brown coat. He turned to look at me and continued screaming, his facial wounds now inches from my face. My throat closed to keep from vomiting.
“He’s not drunk,” said a voice. It was the man in the front row. “He’s a Brother.”
I should have known from his brown coat and coarse black boots, and how he had been riding in the back of a steam-powered carriage, instead of up with the driver. This man wasn’t some drunk who got tangled up and dragged a half mile. He was a Brother of the Order — a devout follower who abstained from sex, alcohol, modern mechanics, and, most importantly, speech.
It all felt like a cruel joke, and I was punchline. A hush fell over the audience, and the woman in the pink hat looked at me like I had betrayed her.
“Miss Deirdre,” she said, standing soberly. “I do believe you’ve been caught in a lie.”
“And it makes one wonder,” she said even louder, “how many times before you’ve caught us in your lies.”
The audience was on its feet now, either knocking back the last of their drink or throwing their empty glasses at the foot of the stage. The man in the front row stood up, shook his head, and walked out as silent as the Brother.
That was the last time I saw the woman in the pink hat. I performed only once more at the Borgnine Club before they canceled my other appearances, and soon word got around town that I was a fraud, just because I gave the people what they wanted: Not the dead talking, but the dead singing.
I’m not a fraud. I can talk to the dead.
I’m talking to you right now, aren’t I?