Some said, disapproving, that more accurately she was the Palmer’s Bride, the dolly created by lonely pilgrims en route to the flowering coast—holy men, so called, who after all were only mortal, carnal. Others swore she was a native custom, an idol created to be destroyed, a dummy of fronds and bark named and then submerged in a blue hole. Whatever the root—import or homegrown, Christian or pagan or likeliest of all the unremarkable marriage of both—the Palm Bride grew and waned every year. She was born on the last sliver of the November moon. She died, or occasionally lived, on the full moon closest to Christmas. She brought favor, or plague. She was ephemeral, the mark of her footfalls palpable, permanent.
Any man could seek her.
Annabel Randolph arrived at Villa Reina with little ceremony and even less warning.
She halted in a cloud of pale dust and looked through gates green with verdigris and tangled trumpet vine. The Huguenot cemetery lay south, and a fine grove of oranges northeast, and the crooked neck of the St. Sebastian due north, and in this triangle—a holy symbol, Miss Randolph thought—perched the Villa: a grand duchess of a house, cloistered as a nun among its pines. A red-tiled roof rose above trees in the distance. The gates were locked.
“Mrs. Cobb,” Miss Randolph repeated to the sullen-eyed man who had sauntered out of a path through the Spanish bayonets as though he had nothing better to do than stare and parrot simple requests.
He scratched at a forelock of whitish-blond hair. “Miss Butler is the lady of the house.”
“Nonetheless,” Miss Randolph said, secure in the superiority of her knowledge. “I would like to speak with Mrs. Cobb.”
The man disappeared, leaving Miss Randolph alone with the beaming sun. She wanted to remove her hat, perhaps loosen her collar, but refused to meet Jessamine Cobb in such a state. Extracting a fan from her carpet bag, she snapped it open and drove it through a hovering cloud of mosquitoes. Despite the late-November calendar date, both insect and floral life abounded. The flowering coast indeed, as though Florida was not pure swamp and wilds… as though even its most historic city had anything to compare to the cultivation and cosmopolitan niceties of New York. It was just like them, Miss Randolph thought, them being the addle-pated settlers who’d stumbled south and never had the sense to flee back past the Mason-Dixon Line upon encountering alligators and malaria, so very like them to have roused a spirit such as this—to have opened a gateway with such a resounding echo that it was audible all the way up to Seneca Falls.
She waited, waving her fan and slapping flies, unwinding a tendril of vine from where it wrapped around her shoulder. It retreated reluctantly, leaving behind a spattering of bright pollen on her sleeve.
The man returned, and the gates to Villa Reina opened.
The sitting room, at least, did not strike Miss Randolph as haunted. She perched on the settee and arranged her skirts and looked calmly at Mrs. Jessamine Cobb. There was another woman in the room as well, but Miss Randolph’s attention remained on Mrs. Cobb: her gown of cornflower blue, modest in style but well-made, and the turban which hid her hair; her broad, high forehead and fine black eyebrows; the slight shape of her beneath gown and petticoats all contributing to a luminous delicacy composed of burnished brown skin and sharp wrist bones and long, smiling lips.
“Mrs. Randolph,” Mrs. Cobb said, faintly questioning. “Welcome to St. Augustine.”
“Miss,” Miss Randolph said. “I have never married. The company of men is pleasant in some arenas of life, but ultimately unnecessary. St. Augustine seems a fine city.”
City was generous.
“We’ve many diversions,” Mrs. Cobb said. “Forgive my confusion. Not being much traveled, I’m unsure of some prior meeting, in time or locale.”
She spoke precisely, her voice a pleasant alto and accented with the Carolinas. Her former master, as Miss Randolph had heard it told, had originated in Charleston and moved down the coast after her husband’s death, freeing slaves as she went, until she landed at last in the nation’s oldest settlement. Either love or a wish to make reparations placed the Villa in Mrs. Cobb’s control after the woman’s death, though Miss Randolph knew appearances must be kept. Presumably that was why the man at the gate believed the second woman in this room, who was white, to be the house’s owner.
Miss Randolph doubted that a house such as this could truly have an owner. Though its trappings were still fine, the longer she sat in her chair, the more discomfited she became. The sun outside was too bright, the air within too close, the women too calm for a spiritual disturbance of this magnitude. She had seen the looted remnants of finer houses on her journey south, yet Villa Reina remained.
“If we have met,” Miss Randolph said, “it would be in that space which is outside time and locale.” She folded her hands in their black lacy mitts and watched Mrs. Cobb for signs of trouble. “I wonder how it is that you manage to fool those so nearby, yet your doings are known to us as far away as New York. You have a mighty voice, Mrs. Cobb.”
“I can’t think what you mean,” Mrs. Cobb said. The blue of her gown matched that of the embroidery on her chair, and that of the chair opposite the fireplace, upon which the other woman sat. Miss Randolph appreciated a flair for scene-setting. Mrs. Cobb continued, “A sense of discretion is necessary. You understand, Miss Randolph. We’re not all so blessed with an abundance of—movements.” She smiled, the expression’s politeness belied by dark, intense eyes. “Theosophy, suffrage, all these conventions you hold in New York and the capital. What is it like, such openness? How we might have caught your attention so far south, with our backwoods ways…”
A flash of steel, then, beneath the velvet.
The woman opposite Mrs. Cobb rearranged her skirts in a rustle of crinolines. She was dressed more richly, a gown of fashionable magenta doing her faded ginger hair and pale complexion no favors. She struck Miss Randolph as wind-worn, eroded by salt air, round and featureless as the sand dunes to the east. Still she said nothing.
“When a spirit as powerful as this is called down, the effects are felt throughout the movement,” Miss Randolph said. Go to them, one of her fellows had said urgently, after a session in which certain writings revealed the rough shape of the spirit’s terrain. “I wondered if I might be of some service.”
The white woman’s eyes caught Mrs. Cobb’s eloquently indeed. Miss Randolph sat up a little straighter on the settee. Was it possible the two were not aware?
“I don’t know that we can afford to reimburse your train ticket,” Mrs. Cobb said, laughing. “Our small press doesn’t bring much money, only a bit of notoriety. My companion—” Miss Randolph restrained her own laughter. “Miss Butler, of whom you’ve surely heard, is frugal, but the estate takes upkeep. Miss Randolph, forgive me, but I’m not sure this small matter was worth your trip.”
A polite way of wishing someone back from whence they’d come.
“The strength of this spirit is no small matter,” Miss Randolph returned. “Why, the evening of its arrival—”
“She has a name,” said Mrs. Cobb.
She. Miss Randolph considered. The spirit in question had struck her only with its strength—her, sweating in the night, and a few others of the Seneca Falls group woken similarly, shaken and drained. “It does not seem to me the type of spirit to retain personality,” she said. “Thought, feeling… I received no notion that it might be a guide, or an emissary.”
“Perhaps it’s only that you don’t know her,” Mrs. Cobb said. She raised a hand, her palm indicating the large window to the north, through which were visible a pine grove and a white, chalky path. “Would you like to meet her?”
Miss Randolph surveyed the pitiful brown bundle placed too carefully for its elements at the base of a knotty pine.
“The Palm Bride,” Mrs. Cobb said. Her voice did not carry within the thicket, and the air was cool among the trees, little sun piercing their canopy. “It’s unusual for her effects to be so pronounced.”
“What has this—” Miss Randolph flapped her fan at the fronds and bark beneath the pine. “This manikin, you say it’s something to do with the spirit? How so? Spirits are manifested through proper formation of séance, or perhaps, if they are not strong, through photographic plates or writings. I have never seen nor heard of such crude—”
“There are more things in Heaven and Earth,” Miss Butler said, and Miss Randolph did not consider this quotation an improvement on the woman’s earlier silence.
“A prop, then,” she said. “I’ve seen mediums who use such items. A doll belonging to the departed spirit, or a portrait. There must be some connection with the spirit for the item to conduct with efficacy. And this?” She waved her fan again. The heap of brush took no offense. “What possible connection could bark and palm fronds have to this spirit?”
“We aren’t concerned with the sympathy of magic, in this case.” Mrs. Cobb’s face remained serene. Neither she nor Miss Butler had touched the dead matter, and Miss Randolph decided that in this, at least, they knew best. “The Palm Bride is a case of—how would you phrase it, Mae?”
“Embodiment,” Miss Butler said. Her voice was low, a drone barely distinguishable in tempo from the mosquitoes whining near Miss Randolph’s ear, and carrying a hint of Boston, like the rind of a good cheese. Her expression was detached, neither calm as Mrs. Cobb’s nor avid as Miss Randolph knew her own must be. “It’s a vessel, no more. Any man might create a Palm Bride, but he can’t expect it to perform. It’s not a puppet. It’s made of dreams.”
“Superstition,” Miss Randolph said, and startled as a low-hanging pine branch brushed her back with light fingers. “A folk belief, no doubt. It’s miraculous men hold to such shaky reasoning, in this age.”
“Many men did not return from the war,” Mrs. Cobb said. “Many more did, and wished they hadn’t. They came home to women raped and land stolen, farms burned. They left on the assurance of freedom and returned to a new sort of bondage.” A hand, long and elegant, adjusted the base of her turban. “Men’s natures are the seeking sort.”
“Women,” Miss Butler supplied, as though Miss Randolph could not be given to assume what men might seek. “Often they believe the Bride brings them a wife.”
Miss Randolph considered the manifold follies of men, and all the things one might seek prior to building a wife out of kindling and underbrush. She didn’t like the Bride. Now that she had seen it, and dismissed it for litter and refuse, it seemed that a face flickered in its fronds—something slippery and vanishing, a rustle and a wink. The thin sunlight entering the pines illuminated the Bride, as though the hand of deity drew attention to it.
“If it is a man’s tradition, why is it here in your grove, Mrs. Cobb?”
A faint expression of disgust crossed Miss Butler’s face. “Why, neither of us built it, if that’s your insinuation. It’s meant for fun. A silly tradition for boys. No harm ever came of it that I heard.”
“She’s always been here.” Mrs. Cobb touched the pine’s trunk, and then pointed to a stump some feet away, her index finger drawing a line between the living tree and the dead. “She may be a spirit now, and a bit livelier than most, but there was a time in which she was a goddess.”
“You don’t know that,” Miss Butler said, her voice dipping lower in an aside Miss Randolph suspected she was not meant to hear.
“Her face seems one way to me, and another to Miss Butler,” Mrs. Cobb said, still smiling. “Both being transplants to this coast, neither of us can quite claim her. We differ somewhat in the particulars.”
“You may be as particular as you please,” Miss Randolph said, and she turned from the fronds beneath the pine. The sight of the heap—a Bride, and who would call it such?—was beginning to turn her stomach, which never traveled well to begin with. “My concern is in banishing it.”
“We don’t often use the dining room,” Mrs. Cobb said.
“Not for dining, at any rate,” Miss Butler added.
“One space is as good as another,” Miss Randolph said. She gazed at the room’s lavish bookshelves, its broad cherry-wood table and velveteen chair cushions. She supposed once upon a time it had hosted the finest of coastal society; now its opulence was muted, turned utilitarian and bookish. It was fortunate the room, and the rest of Villa Reina, had not fallen to pillaging or ruin as Confederate troops stumbled home and hordes of Miss Randolph’s own opportunistic countrymen poured south. Fortune, she thought, or something stronger. She said, “Before we make our preparations, may I compile some notes?”
“Our home is yours, Miss Randolph,” Mrs. Cobb said. “Mae, perhaps some tea?”
“Tea would be most welcome,” Miss Randolph said, settling her traveling satchel in her lap.
She had no desire to admit weakness, but the train trip from Rochester to Fernandina Beach had wearied her, and the carriage ride to St. Augustine had been more tiring still. It troubled her a bit, how pleasant the air felt here, and how quickly the lingering chill of Seneca Falls had been driven from her bones.
She decided no remarks were necessary on the arrangement of Miss Butler busying herself with the tea service, and Mrs. Cobb sitting at the table’s head with hands folded.
“Now.” Miss Randolph removed a small leather-bound book from her satchel and inhaled appreciatively as scents of orange and clove filled the air. “The spirit first rose on the night of November twenty-second, is that correct?”
“In its essentials.”
Miss Randolph’s pencil paused. “Is it correct or is it not? I value accuracy, for the sake of our record-keeping.”
“As you measure such things,” said Mrs. Cobb, “that’s correct.”
“Jessamine.” Miss Butler set the tea service down on the table with a loud clunk. “Miss Randolph. If you’ll excuse us. You’ve stumbled into a long-ranging discussion.” Her tone remained flat, but Miss Randolph detected a note of dismissal, the suggestion that she was not welcome in the aforementioned discussion. “November twenty-second marks the Bride’s birth, and no bones about it.”
“Birth,” Miss Randolph noted, pencil scratching busily. “A curious term. The more usual wording is manifestation, but…” She jotted a few notes, pondering. “So it has been loose for nearly a week, then. And you had no thought of banishing it?”
Her intent had not been to pass judgment. That was merely the timbre of her voice.
Miss Butler’s hand remained steady as she filled Miss Randolph’s cup. She made no comment. Mrs. Cobb sipped her tea. The china was fine, a white so lucid it was nearly transparent, the tea within dark and rich.
“We wished to find out who called her,” Mrs. Cobb said. “Before any attempts were made.”
It was sensible enough. Miss Randolph hoped such basic questions had been answered. “And did you?”
“His name is Wyn Bradley,” Mrs. Cobb said. “You met him. He keeps the grounds here, and completes jobs—the firewood, clearing brush, tending the horse.”
“A veteran,” Miss Butler said brusquely. “His gray coat had lost its dye by the time he came home, but all soldiers have a look about them.”
The man at the Villa’s gates had had a look, certainly, Miss Randolph reflected. Some shadow of starvation, though he was well-fed once more, and a residue of blood, though he looked to have washed recently. The spiritual stains of warfare were not so easily removed. It wore on her, the presence of the men returning to Seneca Falls: the hollows carved into familiar faces, the irrevocable changes violence wrought, the death that clung to them regardless of baths or new clothing.
So many more women now, crying for séances to reach forsaken sons, husbands, brothers.
“Miss Butler is a committed pacifist,” Mrs. Cobb said.
Miss Randolph gave a solemn nod. “As are many within the movement. Miss Butler, you might do well at the commune in Seneca Falls. Should you ever choose to return north.”
“I have no interest in communal living,” said Miss Butler. Her tone suggested that neither had she any interest in New York.
“We do well enough,” Mrs. Cobb said, with a small smile. “Our newspaper’s reach is limited, but there are a number of adherents in the area. We have an interest in publishing a book, perhaps. We found Mr. Davis’s new gospels most interesting. The movement grows as God wills.”
“We have strayed from the point,” Miss Randolph said. Though she bore an academic interest in how the Spiritualists of St. Augustine conducted their affairs, a haunting required immediate attention. There would be time later, perhaps, for the sharing of mundanities. “As I understand it, many men and boys must have made Palm Brides on this November waning. What proof have you that any of them called down this spirit? That it is certainly due to Mr. Bradley’s efforts?”
“We knew he was constructing one.” Mrs. Cobb sipped her tea, her eyes slipping from Miss Randolph’s face to a plate of shortbread. “He took our mare Stella to the pines a week past. Men often bring animals with them to the making of a Palm Bride—a horse, oxen, a dog. Their presence acts as a barrier between the man and any rousing power.”
“Better to put down a possessed dog,” Miss Butler said.
“Stella is quite well, God be praised,” Mrs. Cobb concluded. “As interested in her feed bucket as ever. I once saw an ox driven by spirits. It’s unsightly. A bloody affair.”
Miss Randolph noted the mare’s condition in her book. What a time the Seneca Falls group would have with this, this—glut of information, and little of it textbook or seemingly useful. She had never heard of animals used in such a fashion, only human mediums who performed what was required to communicate with the spirit.
“You have spoken to this Mr. Bradley, then?”
The two women’s eyes met. They had a way about them, Miss Randolph observed, were quite communicative in their silences. She supposed two such must be.
“We don’t want to spook him,” Miss Butler said. “He’s done nothing wrong, exactly. Certainly nothing the sheriff needs to know about.”
“There’s time yet,” Mrs. Cobb said. “Tradition has it that should a Bride be constructed successfully, she comes to life on the Christmas full moon.”
“There’s no time,” Miss Butler said. The corners of her firm mouth twitched, as though it pained her to disagree but would not keep her from soldiering on. “Jessamine, surely you see that it’s already quick, this spirit. We can’t wait until—”
Miss Randolph made a noise of disapproval. “Forgive my bluntness, but this is why spirits must be dealt with in proper conditions. Séances conducted by experienced practitioners stand much less of a chance of—”
“Proper conditions?” Mrs. Cobb said. Her hands remained loosely wrapped around her teacup, her mouth smiling. A brow lifted, inquisitive. “If you’ve heard of us, Miss Randolph, we have also heard of you. We’re aware of how some in New York conduct their spirits.”
But there was little use in Miss Butler’s attempt. “Word came to us in the early days,” Mrs. Cobb went on, “of a séance held outside Seneca Falls. Such a loosing of boundaries. Such carefree mediums and their lightly-held belief! Fourteen dead, was it? Ruled a mass suicide?” A sip of her tea, ruddy lips pursed on the cup’s white rim. “Your districts brim with mischief, Miss Randolph. Yet here you are, as though your own house is in order.”
Miss Randolph found herself without rebuttal.
“The voice you heard some nights past was not mine,” Mrs. Cobb said, “nor Miss Butler’s. That was hers.”
On her word—perhaps, Miss Randolph marveled, at her command—the dining room’s windows snapped open. Night air whirled in, rustling heavy brocade curtains, and brought it with an icy scent, colder than the balmy Florida autumn. Clamminess & chill assoc. with the presence of spirits, she jotted hastily, and then looked at the largest window. They all stared, the three women, and saw the Villa’s courtyard: the half-broken Toledo tiles and the kitchen garden, the bench beneath a sheltering bay tree, the coquina walls overtaken by vines, and a figure moving among the Spanish bayonets.
Villa Reina was among the most haunted places Miss Randolph had experienced. She hadn’t quite grasped it, in her first assessment; she’d been distracted by the exotic Spanish-style glamor, the unusual plant life, the self-possessed women within. She’d attributed the courtyard’s quiet and the Villa’s watchful air to its history, rather than its present.
There had been more violent manifestations, she allowed; there had been the Jacobs house in Poughquag, and one of the Cortland sessions in which a medium drew down, quite on accident, the spirit of an early settler, bloodthirsty and raving. There had been the meeting at her grandfather’s home outside Seneca Falls, of which she occasionally still dreamt. But the house in St. Augustine was soaked in spirit—no doubt its property was too, if she ventured outside to make a full circuit around the grounds and groves—and quivering, nearly, poised on some precipice. Its faded grandeur carried ghosts in its bones. It inhabited the liminal slip between colonial past and shattered, war-bitten present. The locomotive winding through a thoroughly beaten South had given Miss Randolph more to chew on than she cared to swallow. At one point during the trip, she had drifted to sleep and woken abruptly, staring out the window, certain for the briefest of moments that she, too, had passed beyond… had been collecting departed spirits all along the way like pearls sewn into the train of a wedding gown… would arrive at the depot in Georgia to find herself at the world’s edge, nothing more awaiting.
A lamp toppled from the mantel and, after just missing Miss Randolph’s shoulder, shattered on the brick fronting the fireplace.
“Well!” she said. “A boisterous one.”
“She was known in her time for a trickster,” Mrs. Cobb said. “I’d thought to offer you a bed for the night—I’m sure you must be wearied—but… Mae, what do you think?”
Miss Butler did not turn from where she stood at the window. “The mare’s gotten loose.”
“There’s a light in the barn,” Miss Butler continued. “But she’s loose. Rampaging a bit.” Now she did turn, just enough to cast pale eyes at Miss Randolph. “A funny thing, that. Your arrival seems to have precipitated some increase in spiritual activity.”
“Mae,” Mrs. Cobb said, with a note of reproach. She rose from her preparations at the table, her array of herb bundles and Bible and chalk, and went to the window. Miss Randolph saw no reason to note how Mrs. Cobb’s hand slipped into Miss Butler’s, their fingers twining and then hidden between voluminous folds of skirt. “Heaven’s mercy! Has she a rider?”
“Not Wyn,” Miss Butler said. Her voice seemed to be dwindling with each utterance in a slight but unmistakable concession to fear. “Is that a woman?”
It was no woman, Miss Randolph saw when she reached the large northern window, nor even a feminine shape aboard the mare’s twisted back. She could not fault Miss Butler for inaccuracy: only rarely did two people perceive a spirit in the same manner. Even during the most standard of séances, when the dead person’s identity was known, its spirit appeared different to each set of eyes.
The spirit at Villa Reina struck Miss Randolph as ageless, sexless. She did not understand how Mrs. Cobb could see it as specifically female, even given the Palm Bride’s purpose and attributes. She saw nothing of a human form in the courtyard as the mare pranced and bucked, only a gathering darkness within the night, luminous and gravid in the same moment. It lay over the horse like a veil. It seemed to twine among her mane and tail, their blackness deepening and their hairs lifting, floating on the air. Her movements were stilted, precise and dainty, nothing Miss Randolph would have expected from a workhorse. Stiffness contorted her body, neck arched and hocks lifted high from the stones, in the manner of a horse drawn up tight under rein.
Miss Butler repeated the rosary under her breath and Miss Randolph thought, Boston Irish. Shame at her brief sally into judgment collapsed into fear as the mare outside the window danced near.
“You said,” Miss Randolph murmured, “that animals are brought to the Palm Bride ritual, to act as a barrier between loose spirits and men.”
“They are,” Mrs. Cobb said. Her voice did not waver, which Miss Randolph admired. “If it works, the animal is frenzied and violent. This… I don’t recognize it.”
The mare stepped close and reared, and Miss Randolph found her hand on the window, clutching the sill for support. She almost envied Mrs. Cobb and Miss Butler—that they could cling to one another—that, after this conspicuous mess was resolved, they would have one another to comfort and be comforted. She forced her mind to details, for the night would be need to be transcribed as exactly as possible: the horse’s alien movements, her eyes rolled white, her mane tangled and over-long, and blood trickling beneath the hair, streaked down her flanks like a Plains mount painted for war.
Yellow teeth gnashed when the mare’s mouth opened, and neither whicker nor neigh emerged, but only a faint echo of human laughter.
“This must be dealt with,” Miss Randolph said. “We waste time. Come.”
Turning from the window and its ghastly view, she made for her satchel, abandoned near her vacant chair. She longed to flee upstairs to some musty guest room, or perhaps retreat to the Villa’s kitchen, tuck small potatoes into the fire until they whistled inside their jackets and slice bread with extravagant butter. Instead she rebuked herself for weakness, for capitulating to distress and allowing the soft air in St. Augustine to go to work on her, slowing her blood and whispering of ease. She took up the chalk Mrs. Cobb had left and began marking the table’s burnished surface. The rote motions gave her peace, or at least stilled the tremor in her hands, built bulwarks against the sense of creeping wrong permeating the night. It was not just the sight of the mare that troubled her; it was the voice that had shattered her sleeping mind not five days past, and it was the landscape that slid from destruction into utter wreck and decay the further away from New York she went, and it was the scent on the coast road, blood ground into the very earth, yielding God knew what fruits, and it was the presence that had overtaken the horse, that wisp blacker than the surrounding night, that invisible hand on reins that did not exist.
The women settled themselves in their chairs once more. Miss Butler was quite gray. Miss Randolph took it upon herself to pour the last of the cold tea into her cup. Eyes downcast, Mrs. Cobb said, “Perhaps we’ve indeed left it too late. Perhaps we were too—”
“It is never too late until you’re dead,” Miss Randolph said briskly, and chuckled. “Even then, I’m sure the present company know such matters to be up for debate.”
The two women looked at her in one startled movement, and then at one another. Some color came back into Miss Butler’s cheeks. Miss Randolph held out her hands. “Shall we begin?
The dining room was suffused with a quality Miss Randolph knew well: a certain tightness to the air, a pressure within the sockets of her eyes and the joints of her limbs, as though hands gripped her throat. Nails dug into her palm, and she could not discern whether they belonged to her or to Miss Butler on her left.
“Wyndham Ezekiel Bradley,” Mrs. Cobb said. Her voice was quiet and measured, but Miss Randolph felt it to the nerves of her teeth. She knew that members of the movement in New York, perhaps as far away as Chicago or New Orleans, would feel it—would awake in the night and wonder. “Relinquish your hold on matter not of this world.”
A banishing, in its usual state, was nothing more than a reversal of the séance ceremony. But that was suitable only for dealing with the spirits of the dead. This spirit, so far as Mrs. Cobb indicated, had never been alive in the mortal sense. She commands the dead, Mrs. Cobb had said, she is not one of them.
Beyond the northern window, light moved in the courtyard. It was neither lamp nor torch but a ghost light, pale and preternaturally steady, a glimmering seed growing in the pines.
“Ada Nuit—” Mrs. Cobb continued, and Miss Butler gasped.
“Jessamine, no! To name her—you’d give her too much power.”
Miss Randolph would have voiced her agreement, had a voracious presence not invaded her mind and body. She had been prepared for such an occurrence, as mediums must be, but it was never pleasant. Power was many things, but never pleasant. Her own spirit soared up, and she watched her body go rigid in its seat. Her head tipped to one side and then the other, eyes rolling as though seeking their usual pilot, and her mouth gaped wide.
“I am not yours to command, but I come when called.”
A clatter sounded, the dining room’s door flung open. The man stood there: Wyn Bradley, flushed and fever-eyed, large hands knotted around a bundle of palm fronds and bark which Miss Randolph recognized as the remnants of his ritual. He looked from Miss Butler to Mrs. Cobb, and finally at Miss Randolph, with no hint of recognition.
“Wyn,” Mrs. Cobb said, gently. “This error must be undone.” She did not loose Miss Randolph’s hand but lifted it, with seeming difficulty. “You in your ignorance have—”
“Ignorance?” Wyn barked, and advanced toward the table. Miss Randolph observed Miss Butler shrinking, her hand quivering and bloodless. Mrs. Cobb’s deep brown skin had lost a touch of its luster. She wondered at the fear of the two women, and at own her puzzlement; naturally an unexpected and powerful spirit was to be feared, but this man? He was tall, but bore the marks of privation on his body. He was angry, but the wisdom and spiritual strength of the movement’s adherents prevailed beyond that. His face twisted, gleaming-red, as he bent down to Mrs. Cobb. “It’s you who are ignorant. You witches, holed up here like queens—you play at power and you have none of it. You believe you can take her away?”
“I come when called,” the voice that was not Miss Randolph’s repeated. “I am not yours to command.”
A light broke over Wyn’s face, white and will-o-the-wisp, a flicker of the presence outside the window now bursting through the courtyard. The mare paced in its midst, pawing at the stones. “My bride,” he said reverently, his eyes moving to Miss Randolph’s frozen face. “You’ve come.”
“Ada Nuit,” Mrs. Cobb said, and stood from her chair. She did not release Miss Randolph’s or Miss Butler’s hands, though the latter looked near to fainting. “Chaperone of souls, you will depart this body and this house.”
“I am not yours to command.”
“She belongs to me!” Wyn cried. “Don’t think to—”
“Ada Nuit,” Mrs. Cobb continued, inexorable. “Mistress of deception, you bear your name well. You will depart this body and this house.”
She lifted her arms and Miss Butler stood too, the pair of them dragging at Miss Randolph’s hands as her body began to thrash. Wyn crouched beside her, openly weeping. He lifted the Palm Bride toward her like an offering. “You won’t leave me! I prayed, I called, oh how I prayed and you—”
“I come when called.”
“Ada Nuit,” Mrs. Cobb said, and Miss Randolph’s floating spirit marveled that her voice rang against the bookshelves and sideboard, without the slightest alteration in pitch. “Night queen, wanderer, light of hand. You will depart this body and this house, and go away on your corpse roads. You will flee this body and this house, never again to set foot inside Villa Reina.”
“I am not yours to command,” the spirit within Miss Randolph roared, and her body burst up from the chair.
Miss Butler was flung backward and Mrs. Cobb staggered on her feet, and Wyn—Wyn, Miss Randolph observed with distant disgust, threw his arms around her shoulders. That such a presence could have been roused at his behest—that a spirit so powerful would respond, even sidelong, to weakness and greedy spite—
The palm dolly dropped from his grasp, bark fibers scattering across the table.
“She belongs to me,” he said again, peering into Miss Randolph’s face with large, wet eyes. “She must stay with me. I called and here she is, and none of you have a damn thing to do with it.”
Laughter echoed in the dining room, shades of the same light, mocking voice that had emanated from the mare’s mouth. Miss Randolph watched her body push Wyn aside as though he weighed no more than an infant. He dropped to one knee, palms upturned and imploring. “I come when called,” the spirit told him, loving and final. “I am not yours to command.”
“You are mine!” He clutched at her skirt, and Miss Randolph noted how creased it was, travel-worn and dusty. “Don’t leave me again, leave me to the mercy of these witches, this Yankee bitch—”
“Ada Nuit.” Mrs. Cobb’s voice returned with its full force and deepened to a thrum, a pulse that traveled on the air like lightning into a metal rod. She raised a hand to the rim of her turban, which had begun to unravel, and it came loose, revealing black braids woven crown-like around her skull. “Lonesome walker, you will depart this body and this house. You will carry your retinue elsewhere, for your souls are not welcome here.”
“My souls have always been here,” Miss Randolph’s guest replied, and the woman herself felt her spirit reel in response. If she lingered too long outside her body, it became possible—even likely—that she would join that retinue, go traipsing through the godforsaken marshes and lych ways of Florida, ever bound to this spirit’s will. Ada Nuit, she thought, and allowed herself a shiver at the name. “My souls were among the first people of this shore, and among the conquering hordes, and among those who called themselves holy. You cannot set your foot down, Jessamine Parvenu, but that you tread upon the shadow you would banish.”
The ghost light in the dining room wavered as another glow bloomed. Mrs. Cobb’s face shone, sweat beading on her forehead. She brought the ends of the strip of blue fabric together, knotting them swiftly into a complicated knot. Miss Randolph watched her head jerk, eyes bulging, and wished herself safely cocooned within her own skeleton, in control of its faculties. Why, after all, had the spirit chosen her to inhabit? Why not Mrs. Cobb, surely more familiar and more suited to a presence of this land, or Miss Butler, more pliant? She struggled for a grip on the material world, an anchor to keep her in the earthly sphere, and found only shifting sand beneath her spirit’s feet.
“Hence,” Mrs. Cobb commanded. Her hands on the turban throbbed in Miss Randolph’s faint vision, gnarl-knuckled and straining. “Back, Ada Nuit, out and away. There is no place for you here.”
Miss Randolph would not have credited it to Miss Butler—but the pale woman moved to where Wyn’s manikin lay on the table. She snatched it and dashed with it toward the fireplace. It was the work of a moment before Wyn caught her up, his arms enclosing her shoulders and waist, for naught. The Palm Bride landed in the midst of burning logs and caught, for what was it after all, Miss Randolph reflected, but a bundle of kindling? What was any woman but coarse matter fit only for fueling another’s flame?
A shriek rose, and Miss Randolph expected to see it issuing from her own mouth, for surely Ada Nuit felt the destruction of her idol. Instead she sank back into her body as the invading spirit diminished, blood throbbing in her limbs when sensation returned. Miss Butler thrashed free, crashing onto hands and knees before the fireplace. It was Wyn screaming, she noted only when Mrs. Cobb caught her arm: Wyn, howling fit for a demon’s choir as flame engulfed him.
Gobbets of fire dripped from the ends of his fair hair, caught at his shirtsleeves and ate their way through his trousers, and he screamed. His voice remained in the dining room long after Miss Randolph believed it should have fled, a shade of its strength and pain, like a fingerprint on clean glass.
“I didn’t…” Miss Butler said, her voice hoarse with smoke. “I didn’t know what would—I didn’t think that—”
Lines carved down from Mrs. Cobb’s nose, her mouth tired and sad. “What more was there to be done, beloved?”
“What did she call you?” Miss Randolph said. If they were not going to be courteous and ask after her condition—well. It was an occupational hazard. She had not arrived to St. Augustine believing this would be a pleasure trip, though the vaunted hospitality of Southerners left something to be desired. “Par—what was it?”
“An insult,” Mrs. Cobb said, “and a weak one.” She surveyed the corpse on her dining room floor. “I can’t recall a time when women were not left to clean up a mess.”
When Annabel Randolph departed Villa Reina it was full sun, the air a parting kiss on her cheek. Despite the pleasant temperature she thought she would not miss the flowering coast—its solitary wise women, its gray shades, its offensive amount of winter flora—and greeted the thought of several days’ train trip with pleasure. There was a proper way to do things; there was a proper round of seasons, evidenced by her own New York, currently in the grip of ice and snow; there was a set of principles to be applied to the work of spirits, and look what happened when those were ignored. She patted her notebook where its thick cover bulged the satchel’s pocket, reassuring herself of the facts.
Ada Nuit, if the spirit truly deserved a name of such grandeur, was banished. Whatever unwelcome grip she’d had, briefly, upon Miss Randolph’s self left naught but a faint headache, chased away by bed and strong coffee. She was herself once more, back straight and skirt brushed clean, correct in manner and thought, firm against Florida’s vagaries of sunshine and long-ranging spirits. By the time she reached Seneca Falls, Ada Nuit’s presence would diminish entirely, into the realms of academia and theory, to be discussed in measured tones. She carried back knowledge, the fruits of effort and the growth of wisdom, and Villa Reina—
Villa Reina retained only the ghosts of its own past.
She paused outside the gates, recalling her first glimpse of the manor through iron and vine. There had been a man allowing her entrance, and now his remains lay in the Huguenot cemetery. Now the courtyard was calm and leaf-swept, sun glinting on glass panes in the distance, behind which, she thought, Mrs. Cobb and Miss Butler were going about the business of the movement in their own ways. Now nothing moved within the gates but a faint whisper of shadow sliding dark through the Spanish bayonets.