The Zealot’s Bones (extract)
Hull, 1849: a city in the grip of a cholera outbreak that sees its poorest citizens cut down by the cartload.
Posted on March 22, 2018 in Extract
Don’t smile, Lily. Don’t let it out. Don’t look at yourself in the glass.
One glimpse of your reflection and you’ll piss your drawers . . .
‘I can feel them. They draw near.’
The ladies shuffle in their chairs. They cast excited glances at one another and tuck their elbows tight against their corsets. Shiver, in the cold and the dark. Grow thinner, older, more cadaverous in the flickering candlelight.
Lily lets her eyes roll back in her head and coughs, like a cat bringing up fur. Her hands hang limp by her side, and the light of the solitary flame illuminates only half of her young, pale face. She gags. Swallows. Feels her gorge rise and hopes that the light is catching in her tears.
Time for the show, ladies . . . She barks. Her mouth snaps open. The spider she had secreted beneath her tongue suddenly scuttles, multi-legged and primal, across the pale flesh of her neck, escaping the dark, wet cave beneath her tongue where it has squatted since before the ladies entered the room. The tendons in her neck stretch and she hears a popping in her jaw. She seems to go into spasm, face pointed at the high ceiling and hands forming into fists.
Lily opens an eye, carefully, and takes in the view before her. She can see well in the dark: she has spent the past couple of years growing accustomed to rooms like these, a brief visitor to stately homes and lavish castles, indulging bored and well-fed women in their fantasies as she pioneers a new religion that thrills the rich and allows girls like her to make a living somewhere other than on her back. She is used to cold like this. Better used to the chill of this snowy January night than any of her audience. She likes her ladies to suffer a little, to watch as their breath gathers, like summoned ghosts. Likes to watch them shudder and then grow red across their chests as she thrills them to their marrow, and robs them blind.
More money than sense.
Bored beyond reason.
Gullible old fools.
It’s a cold house, this. The breeze feels like a whistle from dead lips. Lily has long since stopped believing in the superstitious nonsense that feeds and clothes her but she had experienced a sensation of eerie disquiet as she passed through the double doors and into the darkened hallway. She had expected servants, gaslight and bustle. But the door had been opened by an ogre, in near total silence. He’d said his name was Wynn. He’d looked like he was chiselled from rock, as if pagans should have danced naked around him as he stood, obelisk-like, beneath a solstice sun.
Lily recalls her mentor’s words. Recalls the man who told her she could make better money in the parlours of the high-born than on the stage.
Don’t feel sorry for them. They’ve got more than you, Lily. Even in their grief, they’re winning . . .
She opens the other eye, sees the blackness rush in like a tide. At the head of the long, rectangular table, the lady of the house is a blob of spilled ink. She is dressed from head to toe in black and only lifts her veil to sip from the glass of clear liquid that the big man had brought her as she slithered, boneless and broken, into her seat. The big man had held her arm as if she were about to float away, but Lily had seen small chance of that. She’s as plump as a pregnant horse. Lily had to force herself not to burst out laughing when the thought occurred to her.
She’s watching, Lily. Eager. Ripe for the plucking . . .
Lily retches. Makes a strangled, angry noise, as though she has a boot on her throat. And then the spirit comes.
Around the table, the half-dozen ladies recoil. The highceilinged room is already cold, and the snow from their dainty shoes is melting all over the hard wooden floor. But their skin still rises as goose-fl esh when the thing emerges from Lily’s mouth.
‘Grace . . .’
The lady of the house sobs the word. She lifts her veil and flicks her head to the big man, who leans, uncomfortable and sullen, by the grand fireplace.
You poor credulous fool . . .
It took Lily a long time to learn this act. To swallow the muslin in a way that allowed her to breathe, and talk, and make the right sounds as she entered her trance. It took her an age to learn which muscles to employ to bring it back up. To make it dance in the half-light. How to writhe and buck and connect it to the gossamer twine she had hung from the rough ceiling beam during her preparations an hour before.
‘Grace, is that you?’
Her ladyship is sitting forward now. Her face is like dough, shapeless and malleable in the gathering dark.
Lily wishes she could give the poor cow some real answers, that she could tell her that her dead daughter really is happy and well in the spirit world. She wishes she were more than an actress who has learned to puke up cloth. Instead, she twitches the twine bound to her wrist, and revels in the whispers and gasps that meet the movement of the muslin.
Lily marvels at herself. She fancies, for a moment, that she is looking at herself through their eyes. They see a spirit, a translucent pale shape, spinning and twirling in the air above the slumped girl. They hear a low moaning and feel the chill that sweeps down the chimney and scatters the ashes in the cold hearth.
‘My baby. Please, tell me you are happy. Tell me you forgive me . . .’
Lily feels the familiar unease. A moment’s guilt. She presses her toe against the coin in her shoe, feeling its weight: the certainty of food, of shelter, of handsome things and comfort. She gags, again, as she prepares to start the speech she has given a hundred times . . .
‘Do not cry for me, dear mother,’ she whispers, in a guttural, rasping voice. ‘I am in a better place. A perfect place. There is no pain. There is no suffering. I do not hold you to account for what . . .’
Lily barely notices the twine snapping overhead. There is a fraction of a second in which she wonders if she attached it to too rough a beam, and then the cloth has fallen upon her face. She starts. Jumps in her chair. Curses in a voice that is less reedy and ethereal than the one she has used during the performance. She’s broken the spell. Betrayed herself.
Lily seethes. Fucking cheap twine. Going to cost her. They won’t pay up now. She’ll be lucky if the big man in the beard doesn’t wring her neck. It’ll cost her a slap or two more when she gets back to her lodgings and tells her employer that she dropped the bleeding ectoplasm in the middle of the damn séance . . .
She kicks out and connects with the table, knocking the candle onto its side. The lady of the house gives a shriek and lunges forward, glass in hand.
Cloth, flame and liquor meet in Lily’s lap. For an instant, she fancies that she can save the evening. She can blow out the candle, stuff the cloth up her skirts and fall to the floor in the swoon that signals the end of her performance. But the fire catches. The noise that accompanies it sounds to the assembled ladies like somebody blowing across the top of a glass bottle. It is almost a whistle, the sound of air being transformed and reshaped. And then it is lost in Lily’s screams.
At the head of the table, the lady digs grooves into the wood with her fingernails. She sees her daughter’s spirit wrap itself in flame and twist, angry and purposeful, around the shrieking girl who has brought her forth from the afterlife. She cries out as she watches the spiritualist burn.
Smoke rises from the girl, coiling upwards as the spirit had done just moments before. The lady of the house follows the smoke with her eyes. She does not see the other ladies scream and
push back from the table. Does not see the drinks spill or the fresh fuel upon the fire. Does not see the big man run forward and throw a coat around the spitting, hissing shape of the woman in white as she cooks and smoulders in her chair.
Her ladyship stares through wet eyes and black lace, seeing the smoke take shape. She sees a face she recognises and a glimpse of
Hell . . .
A man. Naked. Sweat-streaked and wide-eyed. Harlots. Teeth like gutter-rats. Long hair matted with sweat and spilled drink.
She sees fornication. Perversion. Sees the man. Some skinny, mewling girl. Sees Grace, beating against the windows, trapped and fearful. Sees the smoke swarm and dance and curl above the wails below.
She falls forward, face landing in candle-wax, sticky and warm against her cheek, losing consciousness as she stares at the ceiling and watches, before the vision dies, the spirit of her dead daughter dwindle and perish, sucked into the midst of the ethereal forms that laugh and moan in the dark.