Rendered with a light touch, the fictional story of Phoebe Hicks is just as much about the place in which the action unfolds (nineteenth-century New England) as it is about its heroine, the inspired star of spiritualist séances. In the ingeniously composed miniatures that make up the book’s chapters (we present just a few of them below), Agnieszka Taborska consistently steers a middle course between rationality and the creation of a deception, between humour and erudition. Don’t miss the duel between Harry Houdini and our protagonist!
The theory that a piece of stale clam, which had found its way into a culinary delicacy known across New England, gave birth to Spiritualist photography is no exaggeration. Precisely this toxic morsel was the root of the madness possessing the hearts and minds of New England puritans for decades to come.
On 1st November 1847 Phoebe Hicks returned home earlier than usual. Barely over the threshold, she rushed into her bedroom and instead of climbing onto the high and, by today’s standards, rather short bed ran straight to the washstand. She leaned over and threw up—once, twice, unable to control herself even after the third time. She vomited all night, occasionally rinsing her perspiring face in water from the blue sprigged ewer. After only an hour, she had nothing left inside but brown bile, which she continued to bring up. Strands of black hair escaped from her tightly-wound bun—stiff, sticky, stinking—and clung to her cheeks like seaweed. She shivered all over—hands numb, head splitting from the violent convulsions. Her back ached, jammed like her knees in an awkward position.
The skin over her entire body acquired an unpleasant hypersensitivity, reacting to the slightest imagined breath of air. Her corset, unlaced by the last remnants of strength, became an instrument of torture boring into the secret recesses of her body desperate for sleep. Shoes, suddenly tight, cut into her toes, her dress drenched in whatever had missed the overflowing basin. Every new paroxysm brought the wretched Phoebe to the verge of faint. Many times in the night, the thought occurred she might not last until morning and would die in this non-aesthetic manner, the unexpected victim of clam fritters. The prospect of death, however, releasing her once and for all from any obligation to taste the fried fare, was not entirely unwelcome—so dreadful was her memory of the restaurant serving the harbour specialty, furnished with its round tables covered in their blue-check cloths.
Dusk reigned in the bedroom. Then darkness descended, until the sun rose again casting its cold rays onto the washstand. The dawning of the new day was a slow and painful spectacle.
Phoebe’s thoughts strayed throughout New England. They chose mid-summer, as if to spite the grey November twilight. Scurried along the widow’s walks of brown houses, where fishermen’s wives waited patiently for boats to return. Ran the length of white fences around the homes of judges and pastors. Marvelled at rococo gates at odds with spartan façades. Rested in porches cluttered with wicker furniture. Breathed deeply over the bay and clung to the red brick of harbour buildings. Frowned at news of an approaching storm. Lapsed into a reverie over Providence, its existence forever bound to the ocean. Crashed into heights that gave the town its shape like the seven hills of Rome. Flew over the snow-white belfries of Baptist churches. Landed on windswept beaches and burrowed for fun in the sand. Scrambled over sharp rocks by the sea-shore, mussel-covered and washed by foam. Stumbled over cobbles on the island of Nantucket. Lost themselves in mists clinging at daybreak to mysteriously-shaped objects. Hid among flowering shrubs guarding mansion gateways. Endured without complaint noontides baked by the sun, the dreaded three o’clock in the afternoon, early evenings heralding relief and nights of short respite alive with the call of cicadas. Sought the highest point where the State of Rhode Island stretched out before them. Swept through the mushroom woods of Vermont and lakes of New Hampshire—too small for so many fish. Peered into harbours at decks carpeted in shells. Passed over inns specializing in sea delicacies. Yet did not forsake the land which had given rise to the fatal clam fritters.
At last Phoebe fell asleep. She collapsed on the bedspread without undoing her corset or pinching shoes. Lay in a pool of hair long released from bondage in the bun, but paying for its unexpected freedom with the stench of the basin’s contents. Brown fluid had dried on her right hand—icy cold as it clenched a corner of the sheet. Phoebe was dreaming: wandering down an ever narrower tunnel paved with slimy shells. When she reached the far end, or what she took for the time being to be the extent of her roaming, she stood before a green, pulsating door. She had barely opened it when she realized she’d let herself be caught in a trap. Then she was falling for hours, brushing against the undulating walls of the Earth’s aorta as it dragged her in deeper and deeper, as far as the loud beating heart. She knew if she was too late and didn’t protect the heart from the army of sea monsters, the Earth would die along with her and the people imprisoned in its veins.
But she did not die. The following day she felt better already and her gruesome adventure would have sunk no doubt into oblivion, were it not for the talbotype made by an inquisitive photographer who happened to peer, in the late afternoon, through the windows of the houses on Benefit Street. Several factors came together serendipitously. First, Phoebe Hicks was poisoned by a piece of clam not long after the process patented in 1841 reduced the exposure time to three minutes. Her utter stillness over the washstand sufficed to capture the historic moment.
Second, William Henry Fox Talbot’s invention, in contrast to the daguerreotype, enabled the multiple printing of photographic images. Phoebe’s fame was thus able to spread with a speed unimaginable a few years before.
Third, photographs developed according to this technique were characterized by fuzziness and gradual fading of the image caused by chemical decomposition. This fact also contributed to the consolidation of Phoebe’s legend. Simple minds were convinced that the spirits were bearing away with them into the Beyond a portrait of their earthly friend. The indistinct photograph in which, in the semi-transparent contents of the washbasin, someone happened to spot ectoplasm emerging from the mouth of the future medium opened for Phoebe the gateway to an unexpected career.
The Hypnotic Stare of the Bedouin
The second phase of Phoebe’s fame—since the first, following her poisoning by the clam fritter, was not marked by anything special—was the Egyptian period. During this time, the medium and her guests experienced events hard to put down to fascination with a far-away country they knew almost nothing about—except, perhaps, that its sandy wastes resembled the dunes at Cape Cod.
It began with a caravan making its way across a desert. This procession—hardly to be expected in the State of Rhode Island—interrupted the séance and took the mistress of the house as much by surprise as her guests. A moment later, a crescent moon blazed from the parlour ceiling. Grains of sand poured into the Spiritualists’ eyes. The whistle of the desert wind and muezzin’s cry drowned the crackling logs in the hearth. A camel walking past the pastor spat an inch above his head. A palm-tree in a pot transformed into a minaret, and the minaret into a pyramid. The leafless trees outside the window were replaced by the blue sheet of the Nile. The colours of the saddle-cloths on the camels’ humps stunned the inhabitants of the magic town of Providence, unaccustomed to such intense dyes. As they squinted in the glare, the mirage of a crocodile’s mummy flashed before their eyes. The stench of ammonia pervading the pyramid corridors rushed up their nostrils.
None of those present could later describe how long the Bedouin had tramped across the room. When the last camel had disappeared over the dunes, Phoebe bid her guests goodnight and turned them out into the April night. If, on the following day, Howard Williams had not found a handful of sand in his frock-coat pocket, everyone would have regarded the event as a collective hallucination. The caravan’s march past, however, proved to be only the prelude to an Egyptian invasion. On subsequent evenings Phoebe’s parlour was visited by mummies levitating a few inches above the floor. One of the sceptics tried to grab the lowest flying one, but all that remained in his hand was a scrap of mouldy bandage which instantly crumbled to dust.
A few weeks later the Spiritualists—less and less surprised now by exotic visits—were brought the spirit of Hatshepsut, a female Pharaoh dead in mysterious circumstances, as well as the sphinx who guarded her tomb. Hatshepsut remained silent, but the sphinx proved so talkative it exhausted the New England puritans more than the flitting mummies. No doubt, it was this weariness that drove the Egyptian ghosts away to the séances of other mediums. A lasting consequence of that period was the madness of Mrs. Howard Williams. For the remaining twenty-seven years of her life, she was followed day and night by the hypnotic stare of the Bedouin. Explanations that the caravan’s march-past took place on April 1, and so should not be taken too seriously, were of no avail.
Materialization from the Azure Plasma
The spirit of Harry Houdini inaugurated the third phase of Phoebe’s fame. He joined the séance by materializing out of an azure-coloured cloud hovering over the table, which some took for plasma. He remained with the company throughout sixteen long evenings—sometimes looming out of the plasma, sometimes stepping from behind a heavy curtain concealed in the gloom, sometimes emerging from under the plush drape spread over the table. Before the start of the final séance with his participation, he sat at Phoebe’s right hand, awaiting the guests like any legitimate citizen of this world. It could be argued of course he was merely the medium’s assistant dressed as a magician, sitting shoulder to shoulder with the others, emboldened by their gullibility. Yet how to interpret his materializations from the azure cloud? Explain the appearance of the ghost of someone born a quarter-century later? And what possible interest could the medium have had in fighting a duel of magic tricks with Houdini, which would comprise her in the eyes of Spiritualists?
Phoebe contra Houdini
Nothing anticipated Phoebe’s duel with Harry Houdini. The magician’s spirit started it suddenly during his sixteenth séance and then, two hours later, abandoned the bemused participants. Garbled tales of the duel circulated across New England for many years to come. It’s not true the spirit jangled his chains. Nor was the medium irritated by the situation while he maintained a cold indifference. The only account anywhere close to the truth concerned the vying of the sides: every time Phoebe caused a thing or person to materialize, Houdini made it disappear. The list of objects she conjured from the abyss is not long: a rusty teapot, a bouquet of dried yellow flowers and a Turkish carpet, which on closer examination would probably have proved a lousy fake. Figures momentarily summoned from the Other World included Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great and Alexander Pushkin, thereby confirming rumours about American mediums’ weakness for Russian culture. Anyway, Harry Houdini did not allow any phantom who would testify to Phoebe’s genius to remain among the living for more than a minute. Even in his ghostly form, the greatest unmasker of fraudulent mediums did not miss an opportunity to belittle Phoebe’s merits.
The Oil Lamp
The duel between the famous medium and the spirit of the Illusionist of all Time ended just as abruptly as it began. None of the assembly witnessed the phantom’s final disappearance since it happened in total darkness. Phoebe maintained afterwards it was the earlier march past of the Bedouin that caused Egyptian night to descend on the parlour. Whatever the reason, for the first and last time in Phoebe’s mediumistic career, something very rare in nineteenth-century houses familiar with the functioning of oil lamps occurred: for whatever reason, the lamp globe burst. No one had adjusted the flame. No one had even approached the elegant glass globe, etched in a rosebud design tastefully harmonizing with the colour of the drapes. The blast was accompanied by a bang out of all proportion to the scale of the damage. The guests had scarcely torn their eyes from the phantom sitting in acrobatic pose and looked towards the lamp, when a draught emanating from nobody knew where made itself felt in the room, transforming in a split second into an icy breath. It extinguished the flame, putting an end to the tension. In the last flash of light, the master of underwater escapes was seen doubled up in pain; then he vanished through the window. For a moment, his silhouette remained visible in the fog. Soon utter darkness fell. Only eighty years later did readers of accounts of Phoebe’s séances understand the meaning of the spirit’s gesture: it was a premonition of Houdini’s tragic end from a blow to the stomach. For a long time, admirers of the “Man of Steel” could not believe in such an unexpected death. Phoebe had no difficulty in predicting it.
The most curious event in the Spiritualist practice of Phoebe Hicks was the manifestation of the Nose. It materialized towards the close of the sixty-sixth séance when the guests, wearied by a lack of response from the Beyond, were about to disband and go home. Moments before the clock struck ten-thirty semi-transparent plasma began to emerge from Phoebe’s mouth, arousing consternation among first-time participants. The birth of the plasma lasted a good half hour, since wreathes of cotton-wool-like material were still emanating from the medium’s mouth when eleven chimed. When it looked as though the table and ring of hands were about to disappear beneath it, the plasma broke away from Phoebe and slid off the tabletop with an unpleasant squelch. Once on the floor, it seemed to go on growing, though this was an illusion since it was merely seeking a place to fully materialize.
The parlour was spacious enough for the peregrinations of the obviously disturbed plasma to last until eleven-thirty. Absorbed by the spectacle, the Spiritualists paid no attention to the passing of time. Only Phoebe’s cat arched its back, snorted and retreated under a chair. Having chosen at last the oval carpet by the fireplace, the plasma stopped, coughed and began to assume the contours of a Nose—a huge upturned honker with a brown wart at its tip. Suspense rose among the witnesses and Phoebe’s astonishment intensified as she struggled to observe the metamorphosis, exhausted by sitting for so long with her mouth open. The transformation was accompanied by sucking sounds—like when you stick your finger in a jar of jam. When the Nose was almost fully formed, the remaining traces of plasma tried to hide under the carpet but it called them to heel by clearing its throat. Midnight struck. The Nose rebuked the stupefied guests with a cutting stare. By now it had reached the height of the heftiest participant in the sixty-sixth séance.
Interpreters of Phoebe’s mediumistic history later claimed the visitation of the Nose proved her ability to govern not only the world of apparitions, but also of literature. For indeed: barely had the Nose assumed its full proportions, when a briefcase appeared under the arm sprung from its left lobe, as did a pair of horn-rimmed eye-glasses above the wart as well as decorations covering most of the pale surface of its skin. Fortunately, the séance participants did not arouse its interest and the unpleasant visit quickly drew to a close. It managed to jot down a few denunciations in the notebook it had taken from the briefcase, swept another devastating glance over the company, pushed the maid aside with a gesture suffering no resistance; strode vigorously through to the hall, opened the front door and disappeared into the night. No one had enough presence of mind to spring to their feet, rush to the window and watch it move off past the quaint colonial houses of Benefit Street.
Translated from the Polish by Ursula Phillips
Agnieszka Taborska has published seventeen books in Poland; some have been translated into English, French, German, Spanish, Japanese and Korean. Her titles include a collection of essays Conspirators of Imagination: Surrealism; Topor’s Alphabet; American Crumbs; short stories: The Whale, or Objective Chance and Not as in Paradise (selected for “Best European Fiction 2017” to be published by Dalkey); literary mystifications: The Dreaming Life of Leonora de la Cruz (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 2007) and The Unfinished Life of Phoebe Hicks. Her books have received awards in Germany. The Black Imp and Other Sprites won the award for The Best Polish Children’s Book of 2014. Agnieszka Taborska has translated novels by Spalding Gray, Roland Topor, Giselle Prassinos and Philippe Soupault.
Ursula Phillips is a writer on Polish literary history and a translator of literary and scholarly works. She is an Honorary Research Associate of UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. A major aim has been to introduce works by Polish female authors of the 19th to 21st centuries to a non-Polish readership, both academic and general. Translations include Maria Wirtemberska’s Malvina, or The Heart’s Intuition (1816), Narcyza Żmichowska’s The Heathen (1846) and Zofia Nałkowska’s Choucas (1927), which received the Found in Translation Award 2015. Her translation of Nałkowska’s Boundary (1935) appeared in 2016. As well as a further novel by Nałkowska, she is currently translating émigré writer Barbara Toporska. Parts of her translations of contemporary author Agnieszka Taborska have appeared in online journals, including Asymptote. Recent scholarly translations include historian Jaroslaw Czubaty’s The Duchy of Warsaw: A Napoleonic Outpost in Central Europe (2016).
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