It’s Pearl’s first time.
She sits in the cabinet as usual, behind its black damask curtain, but already she feels like someone else. Tonight she hasn’t got the floor-length veil over her face and there aren’t any ashes smeared on her skin. She isn’t playing a spirit guide now: she’s the Main Event.
She worries about how it will feel when the ghosts take possession of her. Myrtle used to screw up her face and roll her eyes – but that was all for show. Myrtle freely admits it.
‘I’m a Sensitive,’ she told Pearl. ‘I hear the voices. But that ain’t enough for ladies and gents. They want a thrill. Tables rocking. Materialisation.’
The spirits have since whispered to Myrtle that her real power lies in manipulating auras and controlling the universal force: Myrtle is a mesmerist.
It’s Pearl who possesses the Gift of Mediumship: she’s the Genuine Article.
She closes her eyes and inhales the familiar scent of lilies—waxy, like the black candles that stand beside them in the par- lour. It doesn’t calm her nerves.
Myrtle’s voice echoes in the hallway, tuned to the pitch of sympathy. A woman answers her. Pearl gleans what she can – she’s in the habit of professional eavesdropping – and gathers that there are two women coming in: Mrs Boyle and Mrs Parker. They’ve both lost a man.
Was he their husband and father? Son and brother? Either way, the bonds seem close. She hopes she can satisfy them. It would be dreadful to let the mourners down. But if she succeeds . . .
A man will possess her. Speak through her mouth, see through her eyes. What if he doesn’t go away again? He might occupy her for the rest of her life, use her like some sort of devilish puppet.
Pearl swallows her bile.
She shouldn’t fear the dead. She’s tasted death, as Myrtle’s fond of reminding her. ‘You did the dying part, before you were even born,’ she says. But Pearl doesn’t remember that, any more than she remembers the mother who lost her life bringing her into this world.
Footsteps sound in the parlour, followed by the movement of chair legs. Pearl ventures to open her eyes. Myrtle’s turned down the lamps. She doesn’t need to squint from the pain of their light any longer.
‘Mrs Boyle, Mrs Parker. I must ask you to take your seats and remain in perfect silence. She will come to us presently.’
It’s that breathy way of speaking that Myrtle has perfected.
She ought to have been on the stage. ‘But how—’
‘She’ll know. Leave the glove upon the table. If she requires anything further of you, she’ll ask.’
Upholstery squeaks as they sit down. A little shuffling, settling in. The candles will be lit by now, their fiery eyes reflected in the crystal ball.
Still, it’s not time to go out there yet.
Pearl takes a deep breath, longs to run from the cabinet and never come back. But she’s eleven now, no longer a child. She has to work for the family like everyone else. She clenches her hands into fists. Waits until the silence begins to crackle.
She rings the bell. It cuts through the hush like lightning. ‘Ladies!’ Myrtle announces, ‘The White Sylph arrives.’
Slowly, slowly, Pearl eases the curtain aside and steps out into the darkness.
There’s always that little shock, the intake of breath when the mourners see her. But today, respect mingles with their awe. She has the Power – they can see it flowing from her in waves. Beside her they’re desolate things: pinched and tear- stained, their clothes blending into the false night of the par- lour.
She takes her seat. No one can see how her knees tremble beneath the tablecloth.
‘Please, join hands.’ Pearl uses the gentle, fluting voice Myrtle made her practise. Already, she’s given up a part of her- self. She swallows some more, tries not to think of what will happen next.
Gingerly, the women stretch out their fingers and clasp hers.
‘We’ll begin with a hymn.’ Myrtle sighs softly, like a girl in love.
Myrtle insists upon this, says hymns help convince people they aren’t taking part in something sacrilegious. She opens her bow-shaped mouth and begins:
Behold, a Stranger at the door!
He gently knocks, has knocked before,
Mrs Boyle and Mrs Parker join her in a feeble contralto: Has waited long, is waiting still:
You treat no other friend so ill.
Pearl doesn’t take part but instead sits, staring into the crystal ball. She’s always thought it’s cruel to make mourners sing. If there’s one thing she understands about grief, it’s how it chokes: the fingers of death, squeezing the throats of the living.
At last, the hymn ends. The air grows taut. What now?
Remembering Myrtle’s instructions, Pearl releases the mourners’ hands and takes up the gentleman’s glove that’s been left for her upon the table. It’s made of kidskin; warm from the candlelight, slightly stained on the palm. Is that a rip, by the ring finger? Hard to see. Her vision is clouding, as if she’s gazing through fog.
She opens her mouth, exhales. A luminous ribbon flows out of it, drawing gasps. Her pulse goes wild. This has never happened before.
The ghosts are coming. Her arms are glowing, her breath is glowing. She’s being swallowed.
Myrtle says, ‘He’s here.’
Something whispers, soft in her ear. Then cool, feathery hands touch her: dozens of them stroking her hair, patting her arms. She wants to scream but there’s a buzzing sensation in her jaw, holding it shut.
A figure rises up from the mist. He’s trailing garments and has candle flames for eyes. Can Myrtle see him too? She doesn’t know; the others are invisible to her and she’s alone in the dark with this . . . thing.
The spirit parts his lips, revealing a great void.
Pearl can’t take any more. Her mind pulls the shutters down.
When she wakes up, the lamps are back on. Two black candlesticks stand before her on the table, smoking.
The younger mourner has her arm about the shoulders of the elder. Both are sobbing.
‘He remembered!’ the old lady cries. ‘H-he always remembered.’
Myrtle practically hums with delight. ‘Hmm. The message has significance for you?’
‘Yes! Today is the anniversary of our marriage.’ A fresh burst of grief.
Pearl feels bruised, hollow, as if the spirits have taken her up and dropped her from a great height. She folds her arms on the table, rests her head upon them.
What happened? What did she say?
‘But if that was Papa,’ the younger woman reasons, furrowing her brow, ‘if it truly was him . . . He would have told us, would he not? That is the reason we came here.’
Myrtle soothes them. ‘Ladies, please, speak softly. There’s no cause for quarrel. The language of the spirits is no more under our control than another mortal’s voice. Why, you might be in the same room as a person, but you can’t force them to talk to you. And if they do, you can’t compel them to tell the truth. The spirits keep their own secrets.’
‘Do not doubt, Harriet,’ the older lady chides her companion. ‘How can you question it? Look at the Sylph, how she glows!’
‘It’s the ectoplasm,’ Myrtle says wisely. ‘Spirit matter.’ ‘A miracle. Truly a miracle.’
Softly, the door shuts.
Coins chink. Pearl hears the farewells; hears Mrs Boyle and Mrs Parker speaking through the window when they gain Walcot Street.
‘She could have looked up the marriage,’ Mrs Parker insists from the pavement. ‘And the murder was in the papers.’
‘I know you do not believe, Harriet, but it gives me comfort. I felt him, I am sure I did. Please do not pooh-pooh it.’
‘All I am saying is that she could not solve the crime, could she? Is that not rather convenient? Papa would not omit to tell us who killed him. He would be calling out for justice.’
The footsteps peter out.
Only one word remains with Pearl. Murder.
Her mouth is dry. It feels sullied, unclean, like it’s been used without her consent.
From THE SHAPE OF DARKNESS by Laura Purcell, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Laura Purcell.