RE: Spring Séance Meeting Notes (transcripts/audio attached)
May 17, 2012
At the regular monthly meeting of the Pike County Spiritualist Society, held at McKenna’s Watch&Gun Repair, April 17, 2012, the minutes of the previous meeting were read and approved with an addendum reminder to wipe down and salt the divining rods before returning. Included with these transcribed notes are the taped audio files of the Spring Séance. Once you have read and listened, please mail in your ballot to add or withhold these from the archive. Ladonna Briscoe, yours truly, did function as the medium for these aforementioned dead.
The Committee on Apparitions reported increased activity near the river at the #5 boat launch. On the motion of Mrs Ladonna Briscoe (scribe), appropriate measures will be taken by the Committee on Contact & Communication to invoke and document possession for the historical record. Should the committee find these spirits of a willing and conversational nature, contact will occur as part of the Early Summer Séance in June. On amendment from Mrs C. J. Anderson, Chair of the Anti-Dabbling & Hoax Committee, a motion was put forth to, “confirm that these dead are our own, not just haints and nonsense talkers.” Discussion ensued on past allegations that troublesome haints provoked public urination by three members of the Free Methodist Church, and a broken mirror in the home of Judge Marcona. Also mentioned, (as possibly relevant), was the feline exorcism conducted on Mr. John Shaw’s tabby cat, Clawsandra. Both the motion and amendment were passed. This conversation served as a reminder to the Committee on Animism & Cat Fever that reimbursement for their emergency room bills is forthcoming.
The Committee on Revenant Recruitment & New Membership voted to table the request for admittance by Allan Briar, alleged ancestor of the notorious Briar Family of Pike County. That vote will take place at the June Meeting after further investigation.
Attached for review are the Spring Séance transcripts. Any edits or comments will be considered at the June meeting.
On the motion of Mr. Denis Shaw the society adjourned at 9:37 pm.
Ladonna Briscoe, Scribe/Medium
Testimony of retired Madame Liberty Briscoe, death 1882
Transcribed via Spring Séance, April 15, 2012
Dirty men want a clean woman. But never care to return the favor. When I took over the Floating Lily, the brothel barge that run Beardstown to Peoria, I changed all that. My girls don’t need a pound a dirt on their sheets adding to the rest of the foul. Besides, I made a little extra off the bathe and shave, and if a girl wanted to scrub feet or backs, or help wring the filth out of a man, I let her keep the tips.
Working girls never shed a man’s skin. You can wash his scent from your sheets. Wash inside and out, but the next thing you know, you find a hair in your mouth, or a torn fingernail stuck to your thigh. The dirt and the stink of him caught up in your corners. Your insides weeping steady with the sludge he left inside you. You swallow it all. Like you swallowed him. And he don’t have to pay nothing extra for all you had to keep.
All you want is milled soap, a dress soaked in sun, and a bed no one ever laid in. You’d take even one of those for a day. But what you got is a miner’s desperate sweat, and horse shit smeared by a careless boot. The seeds men sew grow misery. All of it sunk into your pores. You been covered in someone else so long, you wouldn’t recognize your own scent. Dirty men want a clean woman, but a whore wants nothing, ’cept choice.
It weren’t always my way or nothing. The early years was just learning to breathe. What men will ask for when there’s nothing stopping them turns a girl cruel and clever. Cruelty has to be tempered or it shows in your face, and men pay for softness. Even if they want to slap the spring day right off of you, they still want you soft. Trust me, I survived a lot of years with nothing but talent for repeat business.
Landed in Beardstown, 1821. Weren’t but ten years old, and thought what gods there were had deserted me. Madame Charlena bought me in New Orleans from the Sisters of St. Monica Orphanage. The sisters never sold the white girls, but the mixed all had a price. Mine was $5. My mama left me cause my blue eyes was making her Mistress uncomfortable. Mama never said she was coming back, never said she loved me, just, “Wherever they send you, do good. Remember what I taught you. You free, and I done that if I ain’t done nothing else.”
She never said she was coming back, but the day Madame Charlena came for me, I fought the nuns until they boxed my ears to bleeding. I never stopped fighting, just learned to outsmart most fists. Weren’t no shortage of those in my life. So I practiced and I practiced.
These days, blown through and hollow as I am, I think about what I might have become. Circumstances being different. I think about Mama, moving graceful round a white man’s kitchen. Teaching me what I didn’t even know I was learning. Pinch of this. Salt that. Rag wrapped around her hand for scalding pans. Ran four boiling pots, a hot oven, and nine children like a general. Neither the children nor the food was allowed to burn, she said.
Madame Charlena promised the nuns to raise me right. But she never told the truth a day in her life. It was only good fortune, and my cooking that convinced Madame to keep me outta the trade until I was twelve. My grits and sweet potato pie won me two years of childhood. I still thank Mama for that. Seeing as they was her recipes.
Testimony of Miss Elsa Jean Briar, death 1872
Transcribed via Spring Séance, April 17, 2012
Men. Men. My brothers and Honorious too. Men always were the seat of my troubles. Well, I did let Honorius unravel my boot. That much is true. Charm him, my brothers said, distract him. So I did. But I never thought my brothers was planning to kill him so completely. Just beat him good.
Fact was, the feel of his rough Hungarian hand on my leg was thrilling. Honorious was a big boned man, could wrap his whole hand around my ankle. I liked the look of his earthy skin on my pale. His weren’t the first hands there, but if I let sufficient time pass between my go-rounds who’s to say it happened at all? Virginity is like a bell. You don’t ring a good bell once then throw it away. Not when it still chimes clear as the day it was made.
Honorious. His funny-sounding vowels in my ear. People said his mama was born in a gypsy camp. I always wanted to meet a real live gypsy. Thought he was about as close as I was gonna get. He was dark, “swarthy-skinned” as the ladies’ magazines described, like he was from one them countries where men ride elephants and eat with sticks. When you think of it that way, lovemaking is nearly a kind of travel. I was hoping after he took a few licks from my brothers that we might become traveling companions, if you take my meaning. Pain slows a man down in his pleasure, and do I enjoy a slow man. But that never happened.
My brothers shot him, then got up to some mischief with the rest of his body to keep the sheriff guessing. Terrible timing. Me so excited and him so dead. Imagine my dismay. There I was wearing a new bonnet blue as daybreak, and no one to notice. What was I to do anyways except ride onto the Free Methodist Social and see what they had. Bible men never quite scratched the itch to my satisfaction, but when a girl needs a knob and an alibi, she’s got to take what she can get. Love may hurt, but sin is painless. Least ways I never felt a thing.
Testimony of Eugene Honorious, disappeared, 1845
Transcribed via Spring Séance, April 17, 2012
The horse thief’s sister was a poor choice on my part. Nothing but a lure. When Miss Elsa Jean Briar asked me to walk with her to the Free Methodist Social, I never hesitated to comply. Never questioned her choice of route. And when she described the “ecstasy of spirit” that church gave her, when she said it with her right hand on her breast and her left loosening her collar, I followed her smile right into a pistol.
Dead and buried at Hog Island by her brothers, the same fellows I was recently asked to give evidence against by Mr. Shaw, the state’s prosecuting attorney. Let it be known, to the living and the dead, and the rest of us, I never told Mr. Shaw one red snitching word. At least, not a word everybody else didn’t already know about. Sure I made up a few things to satisfy. Sheriff loved nothing more than to think he was getting the truth. I repeated details I once read in a dime novel called Bandits of the West: check the almanac for a dark night, augur chicken innards for an auspicious sign, and cut up sack cloths to mute hoof prints. I’d read novels about these type of men, but not enough to recognize them, and you see what it cost me.
One thing’s for sure, and one thing’s not. I’m murdered by the very horse thieves that should have hung. And I’m not even Hungarian. Just a clotted palate that made me blur my words. Guess I sounded foreign to Miss Elsa and the others. When I left Philadelphia, I became a new man. Grew a new accent. Better a European than a cripple, I always thought. No woman takes a crippled tongue for a lover, but she will marry a European with the right convincing.
History was no more truthful about me than I was to the sheriff. But the sister, Miss Elsa Jean, the slow unlacing of her boot, the lavender promise of her hair, made what was to follow almost worth it. Almost. Had I known my last breath waited on the other side of her tiny boot, I would've asked for more than ankle.
Testimony of Jericho Simpson, Pike County Hangman, deceased 1868
Transcribed via Spring Séance, April 17, 2012
The hard work of hanging is in the math. Rope length to weight. Weight to distance of the fall. Too light and they suffer, too heavy and the head comes off. Then there’s the panic that sets in when the hood goes on. So a heavy man’s hanging ain’t about weight alone. Dying men tend to fight. What have they to lose?
Killing a man right is harder than you think. But it was work that needed done. No one disagreed about that. In the last years before I died, damned if someone wasn’t here every bit and again asking me how it got done. What was it like? That’s the question that hinders me. Like? Hanging ain’t no simile. It ain’t “like” nothing. Slow death by strangulation if the neck don’t break straight away, and it often don’t. Everything, from shit to soul, wants out of the body fast as it can travel. If you don’t get the height and the weight right, a man don’t die. Then it’s cruelty, not punishment. My job wasn’t to torture. But once he swings, you got to let it play out. Figuring needs done on the front end.
Even grave-boxed and curled up like claw, I wonder how a man who sent so many to their death managed to live so long. All I do now is wander the riverbank watching for the Ferryman. When he don’t show, I lay back down in my body and I try to feel something. And I think. Think and replay the regrets.
Caught a kid from Kansas stealing three horses in Monroe Township. So far from home and weren’t but nineteen years old. Said he came through Beardstown on a cattle drive and stayed. He’d tell ya anything. I wasn’t for ending him, but it’s the law. He was a thoughtful boy, said, “Do prayers look like the top of our heads or the bottom of our feet?”
Hell if I knew. I said, “Just pray. Words rise with sincerity.”
He appeared comforted.
I only ever hung one of the Briar brothers, though all of them was as thieving as the next. Judge Moreland made a quick judgment on Evan Briar, and I finished the job. Judge said Evan was caught dead to rights on killing Eugene Honorius, though Briar never admitted it. And they never found the body. My way of thinking was there weren’t nearly enough evidence to base a verdict. But I don’t make those decisions.
Briar cursed me as he went down. Looked me in the eye and said, “Enjoy your days, they gonna come hard and stay long.”
Never forgot that. You can’t imagine the madness in a man as you put a noose on his neck. Even the cruelest men break. Briar never whimpered. Never even flinched.
The first time you hang a bad man, you don’t feel good. I was surprised by that. You think to yourself, it needed to be done. Public safety. Public order. After a couple years, after ten men just like him, then ten more, you realize the world is producing bad men at a higher rate than you can finish them. You know men like you are outnumbered by men like them. Always will be. You question what good you’re doing, if any. But deeper, inside your chest like a red hot coal you swallowed, there’s a doubt inside you. And it smolders. You try not to feel it, but it burns. Until one night, waking in a sweat, the question is asking itself: How is the hangman not just a murderer of murderers? Am I only a different view of the same problem?
After that, I woke most mornings in a sweat. Woke before dawn to the creak of wood and rope, like the sun against the horizon was the grind of rope on flesh. Thinking how most the men I hung only wanted time. They didn’t ask for months or days, just a few more hours. What was it to me? The difference between one more hour or two? I never gave it. Told them it wasn’t mine to give.
That’s my punishment.
Evan Briar’s curse counted up those selfish hours I held back. Now here on the riverbank, I’m suffering out the time I refused to give.
Amy Sayre Baptista’s writing has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Ninth Letter, The Butter, Alaska Quarterly Review, and other journals. She is a SAFTA fellow (2015), a CantoMundo fellow (2013), and a scholarship recipient to the Disquiet Literary Festival in Lisbon, Portugal (2011). She performs with Kale Soup for the Soul, a Portuguese-American artists’ collective, and Poetry While You Wait. She is a co-founder of Plates&Poetry, a community arts program focused on food and writing. She has an MFA in Fiction from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and teaches Humanities at Western Governors University. She lives in Chicago.