An excerpt from Dark Divinations
by Jon O’Bergh
Alexandria, Virginia, 1872
I did not know how long I had been unconscious, but when I opened my eyes, I saw… Nothing. Surrounded by a blackness darker than the Virginia woods on a cloudy night, I could feel the closeness of the space around me and smell the stale air. It took me a few moments to realize I was lying in a coffin. I groped the sides of the box, then pressed against the lid only inches from my face.
At first, expecting the lid to swing open on its hinge, my gesture was rather calm. I felt more perplexed than panicked, maybe even a little bemused, as if being placed in a coffin while still alive were simply my wife’s idea of a practical joke.
Lately, Lavinia had ceased hiding her exasperation. The heavy sighs and impatience in her voice showed her contempt for my parlor tricks as a physical medium. I could imagine her pulling the prank to get back at me for barking orders at her or criticizing her performance as my accomplice.
When the lid failed to open, however, I became frantic. I pushed with all my might, then pounded on the lid. I tried shouting, but the box strangled all sound. Not only was I in a coffin, I was lying beneath six feet of earth.
Not only was I in a coffin, I was lying beneath six feet of earth.
I remembered having been ill—so ill that I had been plagued by black-outs.
“Yellow fever,” I overheard the doctor say to Lavinia in my feverish state. I knew what that meant. As if the war between the states seven years earlier had not been torment already, wave after wave of epidemics had arrived to bedevil the country—scarlet fever, smallpox, cholera, typhoid—practically wiping out entire families. Sometimes, they made mistakes. A coma was as good as dead. The papers carried reports of coffins dug up with scratch marks inside.
If you were well-off, as I was, you could arrange to be buried with an ingenious device. A “coffin bell” they called it—a cord affixed to the hand of the body and threaded through a tube leading up to the gravesite, where the cord attached to a small bell protected from the wind. If you revived after burial, you could move your hand to ring the bell and alert the cemetery watchman.
I’d had the foresight several months earlier to pay for a casket equipped with such a bell. You see, I had a special ability to foresee the future. Oh, nothing so obvious as being able to predict the winner of a horse race, or the hour of someone’s death. Rather, it was a feeling that came unbidden—and quite unpredictable, if you will pardon the irony. Just a feeling about something, as when the hairs stand up on the nape of one’s neck. So, when I was struck by a sudden fear and the urge to purchase a casket with a bell, I suspected something was going to happen to me, although I knew not what, or when. I only knew the bell could serve as my means of salvation.
I only knew the bell could serve as my means of salvation.
In tandem with these premonitions, I had a second, equally humble aptitude from a young age that had taken me years to hone. On occasion, I could make a fork move two inches across the table if I concentrated quite long and hard, its progress almost indiscernible unless measured against a ruler. But these innate talents proved difficult to control or channel—they were far too unreliable—and paying audiences expected something much more dramatic. If I were to earn a living from such abilities, I would need to spice things up, exaggerate them. So, I faked more elaborate demonstrations, earning my fortune by performing feats of telekinesis and clairvoyance in the manner of Daniel Dunglas Home, who had the ability to levitate objects and commune with the dead.
I met Lavinia during one such demonstration. I suspect she saw through my charade from the start. I would use a magnet to move small metallic objects.
“Reveal your presence, spirit, and move this coin across the table,” I would say, and with my knee, I would move the magnet beneath the table. The coin would follow. “Now, spirit, make this table move.” The table would tilt and rock. I learned to use my leg for this trick while my upper body remained absolutely still. I built pneumatic lifts in the legs of my chair that elevated me eight inches off the floor, which invariably drew gasps from the credulous customers seated around the table.
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