I wrote a short story based on an excerpt from my yet-to-be-published historical novel, Land of Lost Souls. Abe Rothschild has gone back to Cincinnati, thinking he’s gotten away with murder, but his victim, Bessie, shows up as an earthbound spirit. Enjoy!
When my husband finally stumbles into his room well after midnight, I’m waiting for him. He doesn’t undress, just gropes for the massive mahogany bedstead and quickly falls into a deep slumber.
Abe lives at the Burnet House, a grand brick and stone hotel covering an entire block at the southwest corner of Third and Vine in Cincinnati. Five stories high, it boasts marble floors and columns and well-appointed rooms. Only presidents and the wealthy stay there. And now also a murderer.
With each life-giving breath my husband draws I grow angrier.
It’s Mardi Gras season, my favorite time of year, but I’m not alive to enjoy it any more. As a much sought-after demi-mondaine, I attended the Queen Mab ball in New Orleans every year, watching in anticipation as the Order of Merrie Men and guests opened ranks and the queen and her maids of honor proceeded to a platform where her majesty held court from her throne. The orchestra played, and I was among the carefree dancing crowd. I was one of the ladies in dresses and veils trimmed with ivy, flowers, and glittering stars, a myriad of colors blending and blurring like a turning kaleidoscope as we moved across the dance floor.
I’d first learned of Queen Mab, the mischievous fairies’ midwife who sneaks into men’s dreams and makes them face their worst vices and transgressions, from my Da. At bedtime, as he tucked us into bed snug within our log cabin, he teased, “Dream sweet dreams, lest Queen Mab visit you.” He was referring to Shakespeare’s portrayal of the fairy in Romeo and Juliet, but we also knew the Celtic legends of Da and Mam’s homeland. Queen Mab was Queen of the Sidh’e, the magical and mystical fairies. Tiny as my pinkie finger, she was loving but fierce, protective but vengeful. I had never been afraid of Mab creeping into my dreams; I had my Da to protect me. Until he died when I was eight years old.
My protector gone and my mam cocooned in grief, I was vulnerable to the temptations of men. I grew desperate to leave prostitution and become a proper, respectable lady. Despite Abe’s bad temper and penchant for borrowing money from me for gambling and drinking, I succumbed to his proposals. But Abe wasn’t as interested in me as in my jewels, just as my madam had warned. He wasn’t about to let my life stand in the way of getting to my diamonds.
As I move toward my husband’s slumbering body, simmering anger sounds in me like a tea kettle’s sharp whistle. I pour my rage into my unwitting husband, tainting his dreams with my fantasies of revenge. I take Abe’s hand and lead him after Queen Mab, riding a tiny chariot, to a small clearing on the side of a hill in the woods where my body lies. My finery is torn and muddied. A grotesque bullet hole in my left temple mars my handsome features. As we stand watching, my disfigured corpse rises and transforms into a hag. The sound of the banshee shrieks on the wind. Abe tries to run, but I hold fast to his hand. As my wailing corpse lets out another blood-curdling plaint, Abe cries out in his sleep and bolts upright.
It’s nearly noon when Abe rouses himself out of bed. Groggy from his fitful sleep, he grabs the pitcher to fill the washbasin and splashes cold water on his face. As he stands and reaches for a towel he winces at a stabbing pain in his left temple. When it subsides, he looks at the small mirror above the basin and freezes. My face stares back at him alongside his own. He shakes his head, as if that might make me disappear, then touches the mirror. I let out a sardonic laugh. Abe whips around, but the room is empty. I am inside his head. My dreams become his nightmares, my thoughts his torture.
Abe walks over to the wardrobe where he combs through his shirts and trousers. I whisper murdererand he scans the room again. He dresses hurriedly, grabs his coat, and rushes out the door, then stops in the hallway and goes back inside. He picks up his gun, an Angel Swamp revolver he carries in case someone to whom he owes a gambling debt catches up with him. Well-armed, he heads downstairs to the dining room, where he mumbles his order. As he struggles to compose himself I say, you know what you did. Abe stiffens, his face blanches.
By the time his meal arrives, Abe’s appetite has vanished. He eats only a few bites. The waiter offers a pastry, but Abe declines and says, “Do you see that man following me?” The waiter responds with a puzzled look. Abe scoops a handful of hickory nuts from a bowl and shoves them into his coat pocket as he leaves the restaurant.
My husband heads north on Vine, the center of the city’s debauchery. He stops at one bar after another, thinking he can escape my wrath among the crowds. But he’s wrong. I siphon his energy as my spirit courses through his body. I make his skin crawl, his head itch, his hands tremble. He nervously chomps on the hickory nuts. He asks everyone he meets the same question: “Do you see that man following me?” I’m puzzled, but gleeful. I’m accomplishing my mission.
Late afternoon, brimming with whiskey, Abe crosses the bridge over the Miami Canal into Over-the-Rhine. Beer, laughter, and singing flow without ceasing in the German neighborhood. Over-the-Rhine is a place where you set aside your cares. The Germans call it gemutlichkeit. But Abe can’t leave his cares behind. Wherever he goes I will be there. Like Queen Mab, I’m determined to make him see the errors of his ways.
Abe heads west on Twelfth Street two blocks to Elm, and then north toward the site where a grand music hall is under construction. Once home to a potter’s field, an orphan asylum, and a hospital for indigents, workers have stumbled onto human remains. They’ve stirred the spirit world with their careless feet and their disrespectful mouths squirting tobacco juice among the decaying bones. A policeman is stationed ‘round the clock to prevent medical students from stealing skeletons and to keep the crowds watching the disinterring of the dead at bay. The souls of the young orphans and indigents are displeased at their burial ground being so carelessly stomped upon.
These spirits see my attachment to Abe. Feeling my rage, they swarm around him. His pace slows, he feels chilled and pulls his coat tighter. When Abe enters a popular beer garden, the other spirits, sensing the vigor of the place, disperse among the patrons. Abe avoids looking at mirrors, but occasionally he catches a glimpse of my reflection and quickly jerks his head away. I keep whispering inside his mind, reminding him of his horrible deed.
Near midnight Abe stumbles back down Vine to Jake Aug’s Clubhouse, a small tavern a few blocks from the Burnet House. He doesn’t want to go home. He rightly fears another disturbing night of deplorable creatures roaming his mind, a night of hearing my voice, of my presence in the shadows.
Abe sits at the bar with his friend Dan McCarty, known to everyone as The Turk due to his braveness. I consider Dan an unruly bully, like all of Abe’s associates.
“How’s Bessie?” Dan asks.
Abe throws his head back and laughs, more nervous than jovial. He slugs a gulp of whiskey. “Bessie’s doing just fine.”
My rage grows at his flippant dismissal. He’s stolen everything — my jewels, my beauty, my very life. Yet he shows no remorse.
“Where is she?”
“New Orleans, and probably having a grand time with the Mardi Gras season,” Abe mumbles.
After a moment Abe says to Dan, “Do you see that man following me?”
Dan glances around the room. “What man? I don’t see anyone.”
“He’s following me,” Abe says.
“Who’s following you?”
“I don’t know, but someone is.” Abe’s hand shakes as he sets his glass down. Dan slaps his back and says, “Don’t worry about it.”
When someone else remarks that Abe looks like he’s seen a spook, Abe’s face turns ashen. I realize why Abe says a man is following him: he doesn’t want to admit he’s frightened of me.
Around two-thirty in the morning, Abe bids farewell to his friends. He hunkers down on the pavement outside the bar, a dark, brooding figure against a backdrop of bright lights and jollity. He covers his face with his hands and moans. The moans turn to cries.
“What have I done? What I have done?” he wails repeatedly.
You know what you did, you coward. I spit seething words into his ear like one of Queen Mab’s curses. Abe reaches into his coat, pulls out his revolver. I swirl closer, a tightly coiled snake ready to strike. Softly I whisper on the wind, “Murderer.”
Abe swings the gun up to his temple. “I’m a murderer,” he cries.