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Possession by Adrienne Celt

Adrienne Celt is the author of the novel The Daughters (W.W. Norton/Liveright 2015), recently shortlisted for the PEN Southwest book award. A writer and cartoonist living in Tucson, AZ, her work has appeared in Esquire, The Kenyon Review, Epoch, Prairie Schooner, The Rumpus, The Lit Hub, The Toast, the Tin House Open Bar, and many other places. Find her online at adriennecelt.com or visit her webcomic at loveamongthelampreys.com.

 

Millicent’s husband has gone insane. At least that’s certainly how Millicent feels, listening to Henry going on about his long lost love as he trails his hands in the air beside him as if to sweep a wisp of hair off somebody’s cheek. She’s trying to be strong, but tears leak out of her eyes and stream down her face cutting various paths: some direct to the chin, some sidetracked towards the ears. The words coming out of Henry’s mouth have stopped making sense to Millicent, and now all she’s clear about is what a mess she must look like. Mascara streaks. Blotches. They’ve only been married two years.

“So you’re leaving me?” she asks. It’s the first thing she’s managed to say in twenty-five minutes, ever since Henry sat her down across from him on the couch and put his hands over hers, then took them away. He tilts back now and sucks air in between his teeth.

“Of course not. Haven’t you been listening? I love you.”

“But?” Millicent swallows, tasting the salty acid produced by her tears and hiccuping phlegm. She can’t form a whole sentence, can’t quite get the saliva in her mouth clean. It’s sticky and solvent, so each time she opens her lips to speak it all turns to tack and her jaws clamp down. “She?”

“Oh Millie. You don’t understand. She’s excited you’re here too.” Henry looks thoughtful. “She’s been lonely.” 

He’s definitely crazy. Or maybe it’s Millicent? Her head, after all, is swimming. Logy. Maybe she’s upstairs having a nap after trekking off to some estate sale up-county, the slender heels she wears to make herself appear more demure when she’s bargaining kicked off beside the bed. She’ll wake up and find Henry at the kitchen table with some hot chocolate, which he’ll laugh into as she tells him her dream about his ghost wife coming to live with them.

Henry reaches across the table and takes her hand again, and it feels real. He brushes the smooth ridges of his fingernails against her knuckles, his palm upturned before her like a bowl. One which she is thinking about spitting up into. Or just spitting on. 

“Her name is Lorelei,” Henry says. One hand breaks free of Millicent and gestures beside Henry, indicating form. “She – I don’t know how else to say it. She’s a part of me that was missing, and she’s come back now.”

.  .  .

Here is what Henry told Millicent, information she has been playing over and over in her head. It was a Tuesday, and Lor, as Henry called her, was there in force. She could only be present a few days at a time and would wax and wane like the moon: metaphysics. Some mornings they might wake up and find her with them, asleep. Henry said that on the day she first arrived her own breathing—whatever that means, do ghosts need to breathe?—was enough to brush her closer and farther away. Wave-like. Tide-like.

.  .  .

They had been married just before the Civil War. Henry and Lorelei, that is. His name was Henry then too, and he’d been a Confederate soldier, a fact he mentioned now with a twinge of Northern chagrin. Lorelei was the daughter of a small-time Louisiana farmer and upon her marriage to Henry her father had given them a cabin on his land, which he’d built himself with his new son-in-law’s assistance. 

Henry was meant to take over the farm one day, but they all smelled the atmosphere of brewing war, its bitterness and vinegar. Sometimes when he was supposed to be mending a fence or digging a well, he and Lorelei snuck off to practice shooting in the woods. Tiny targets: orioles and grey tree squirrels. Wearing a tightly belted pair of Henry’s pants so she wouldn’t tear her skirts, Lorelei was a crack-shot. Henry wasn’t half so good.

A week before he was to leave and join his fighting company, the young couple lay in bed, hands traveling into beloved nooks and crevasses. Henry was shaking, trying to control the spasms of fear in his shoulders and lips. It wasn’t that he was afraid to die, he was just afraid to leave Lorelei alone. She wrapped her arms around him, pressed her mouth to his neck. They swore to stay together forever.

“I had an uncle who holed up in the woods. He was a spiritualist. You know, he believed in ectoplasm and ghosts and all that. Life after death. Everyone avoided him, but Lor and I, we went to visit him a few days before I had to go. We only had a little time together after our wedding, you know. We loved each other so much.” 

Henry’s eyes welled up with tears as he spoke. 

“We told—well, Lor told. She said to Uncle Gideon that we needed something to keep us connected, so we could find each other even if we’d been apart for a long time. Gideon always scared me. He had these dark eyes. They looked black. But he promised to help us, so I wasn’t going to say a word against him.”

At this point in the story, Millicent put her palms against her cheeks to make sure her head stayed in place. It felt in danger of floating away. She looked at Henry, his large hands and narrow cleft chin. Where did all this history come from? His heartbeat was visible in his neck. A new heart, Millicent thought. Made from the cells of his specific mother and his specific father twenty-nine years ago. She got an A in high school biology. 

 “Gideon looked in our ears and then made us lie down and put feathers over our eyes and these weird heavy stones on our chests. He started mumbling and humming. I could just see through one of the feathers, and it looked like he was having some sort of a fit. He said I was going to die in the war and that Lor would kill herself to be with me. It was spooky. Lying there next to a living breathing woman and having our deaths predicted. Really spooky.”

According to this witchy uncle, lovers who die apart can’t normally find each other in the afterlife; the physical distance is compounded by spiritual distance. Your time and place of death mark you. But he knew a way to bring them back together, by tethering Lorelei’s spirit to Henry’s while they were still alive.

“It didn’t exactly work out though,” Henry said. “The mail was crap then, and she didn’t hear about my company being attacked until months after it happened. So she killed herself alright. Made good on that part of the bargain. But by the time Lor got free of her body, I was already reincarnated as somebody else, and every time she tried to follow me she got the timing a little wrong. That’s how it’s been till now. She just got tired of waiting for us to be free at the same time and decided to come and find me just as she was.” 

.  .  .

Millicent feels sick to her stomach all the time. She worried briefly that she was pregnant, because wouldn’t that just be the last thing she needed right now? But then her period arrived right on time, and she decided the nausea resulted from knowing her husband had come unhinged.

The thing that really bothers Millicent about Lorelei is not the idea of Henry being unfaithful, exactly. It’s that he doesn’t mind an interloper in their household who can come and go as she pleases, adding memories, moving ideas around in their minds like groceries on the shelf. This woman who Henry says took him to a sorcerer in his past life, the innocent childhood of his soul. He’s welcomed her, made space in their bed beside himself. When Henry disrobes in Millicent’s presence, she tries to see if something else will come off with the clothes. A layer. A scrim. Maybe whatever has hijacked Henry will peel away as effortlessly as it arrived. 

She is afraid to tell anyone what is happening. Her sister never liked Henry to begin with because she has a problem with distant men. Henry is an EMT, which makes most people ooh and ahh with appreciation; some even thank him for his service, confusing his for a military position. But Millicent’s sister refuses to look past the long strange hours he works, the nights away from home. Her mother would shrink from taking any part in the situation; her next-door neighbor lost his mind when he went on antidepressants and hung himself in the basement of his house. Now Millicent’s mother fears madness, and also its attendant medicine. Makes them worse than better, she says. Millicent worries this is true.

Even her friends from school promise no help. Various men have floated through each of their lives, some very right and some very wrong. But none provides a comparison for Millicent’s situation. It isn’t like being hit, or having him run out with all the money. Millicent has seen women with those problems, has always pitied them. But at least she knew what to say when the going got dire: pack up, leave him. He’s dangerous. He’s bad.

This is a whole different kettle of fish. Henry is ebullient lately. He beams each morning when he wakes up. Even when he has a long overnight shift full of calamity, he remains serene, confident that things are happening just as they should. He’s been much sweeter to Millicent since he told her about Lorelei, tweaking the soft part of her ear between his teeth and making her coffee, even though he hates caffeine. 

It is Monday. Henry says he can feel Lorelei coming, soon she’ll arrive again. His eyes are glowing. But what does that mean? Arrive from where?

.  .  .

The house is silent as Millicent walks through it. Still. 

At 5:00 this morning Millicent woke up and took a walk to the local coffee shop, which opens early for commuting workers, men and women on the go. Millicent often spends time in the coffee shop working on her computer, setting up Internet auctions for the antiques she scours from flea markets and their brethren countywide. This was her first time in the shop at such an early hour. It was much the same as usual, except no music was playing, and no one looked familiar. The smell of the place, too, was colder somehow. Frost-ridden. She didn’t sleep almost at all last night and is so tired she feels abstract.

Creeping down the hall, Millicent stops in the kitchen and pours out the rest of her coffee in the sink, the cold dregs at the bottom of her paper to-go cup. She tiptoes into the bathroom and brushes her teeth because Henry hates coffee breath. He always wrinkles his nose when he smells it, doesn’t even try to hold back his distaste. Normally this drives Millicent into a cold fury. But today she brushes her teeth twice, even running the minted bristles over the roof of her mouth and the back of her tongue, which always makes her gag. When she finishes rinsing she tests her breath by huffing into her hand, but she can’t smell anything at all, not even toothpaste. It’s difficult to say whether this is a good sign.

At 6:00, Millicent unbuttons her jeans and tugs them off, leaning against a chair for balance. She unhooks her bra and pulls it out from under her shirt, one sleeve at a time. For a moment she looks at the bed, to see if it appears different from when she got up. Then she lifts the covers just slightly and slides back in, fitting herself smoothly against Henry’s sleeping form. The front of her cool thighs fit against the back of his, which radiate heat. The hooks of their knees stack together like cups.

Henry struggles towards the surface of his consciousness, but doesn’t emerge. Through his lips he blows a few tiny bubbles. Millicent kisses the back of her husband’s head where the hair is shaved short. It is her special gesture to him, one he would recognize. Close to his skin, she breathes in the sweaty potato smell of him issuing from under the blankets, the mustiness he acquires during the course of each night. He talks about Lorelei as if he remembers her, as if he’s been thinking of her and their house in the bayou the whole time Millicent has known him. But according to him, the memories were all latent, kept in some dark cellar of his mind until Lorelei came back and blew the dust off them. Some cellar of his soul.

Lying on her side, Millicent reaches one hand around Henry’s bare leg and runs her palm down to his knee, over the rough clutter of hair. The muscles underneath his skin move, although his leg remains still. Millicent rubs her hand slowly up and down his thigh; she’s always enjoyed exploring him in his sleep. He works so many nights, and she often comes home from a live auction or antique store to find him sacked out on the couch, some part of his body in an impossible position and an open beer beside him, depleting its carbonation into the air. She’s made love to him while he’s sleeping, and he doesn’t remember.

As she touches him now, light is peeking under the blinds on Henry’s side of the bed. He sighs and reaches out an arm over his pillow, slightly arching his back.

“Lor,” he breathes.

.  .  .

“Why would you do this to me?” Millicent asks over breakfast. She was up so early that she had time to make waffles and have them ready on the table when Henry’s alarm went off at 7:15. She’s sitting cross-legged in her chair with a paring knife, slicing strawberries over her plate. Henry, like usual, is just eating his waffles with butter and syrup. 

He doesn’t appear to be listening.

“When we were younger, before we were married, you know, we used to tap syrup straight out of the trees in the winter.”

“Did we?” Millicent asks, one eyebrow raised.

“Me and Lor. You know we lived nearby each other our whole lives, till the war. And she could never quite get it right, placing the crank on the tree trunk and screwing it in straight and then sticking in the spile.”

“Like uncorking a wine bottle?”

“Right.” Henry smiles. “I always had to tap the trees for her, and it made her so mad. Such a little-miss-perfect. Sometimes she’d wait until we had a whole bucketful and just stick her hand in and get it covered with syrup. When we were kids she’d chase me around and try to rub her hand on my face, but when we got older, she’d just dip one finger in the bucket. One time she let me lick it off.” He takes a thoughtful bit of waffle. “I bet that’s why I like syrup so much. And I never even knew.”

Henry is quiet for a moment, and the only sound in the room is the wet crush of the knife against the strawberries, the soft plunk of slices onto Millicent’s plate.

“That’s bullshit,” she says.

“What?” Henry looks confused.

“You can’t open wine bottles. Not to save your life. I always have to do it.” 

Millicent picks up her plate and grabs the box of powdered sugar, then goes into the bedroom and slams the door.

.  .  .

She expects him to come get her, but he doesn’t. As the weeks go by, this becomes their routine: when Lorelei is around, Millicent self-styles a quarantine. She’ll leave the bedroom to go to the post office or drive around looking for garage sales, but she keeps her distance from Henry. She doesn’t like the way he gets talkative, anticipating. She doesn’t like the fact that she still hasn’t told anyone about Henry’s fantasy and that he hasn’t either so far as she can tell. 

It’s not that she doesn’t trust him, but what is she trusting him to? With? From the bedroom Millicent can hear certain murmurings, on days when Henry is home from work and gets that dreamy look in his eyes. She’s decided she doesn’t believe in Lorelei, but then what are those sounds? That happy laughter and chatter? Once, when she fell asleep on the bed with a novel open in her hand, she awoke to a tender brushing of her cheek, fingers tracing up and down her arm, making lace of her nerves, beautiful, intoxicating.

When she opened her eyes there was no one there, but the bedroom door was open a crack. Thinking that Henry had broken their habitual fast of contact, she went into the living room, her face rosy with sleep and smiling. He looked up at her from the couch.

“I wondered where you two had gotten to,” he said.

Millicent ran a hand over her eye.

“What?”

“Lor was afraid you were getting lonely, so she went to find you. But you were both gone awhile, and I thought maybe you went somewhere to talk.”

Millicent looked at her husband, then away out the window. She felt a creeping over her shoulder, and out of the corner of her eye saw Henry curl his fingers in the open air, as if catching a small hand. The pressure of his grip was gentle but persistent. Whatever it was he was holding, it didn’t look like he intended to let go.

.  .  .

War calls for more than defense. It calls for attack. Millicent learns this in books about Ulysses S. Grant and Winfield Scott. She spends time in the library when she should be at the grocery store, flips through chapters about small offensive strikes when she ought to be doing their taxes or filling out order completion forms for her flea market finds. 

She’s always kept history books around the house, mostly for research on authenticating and appraising her purchases, building a sense for the aesthetics of past eras. But sometimes she gets caught up in a story and picks out books that aren’t exactly on point: biographies set in ancient China, tactical histories of the Civil War. Before all this, before Lorelei, Millicent found Henry reading a book she’d checked out from the library about the Siege of Centerville in 1863. Now she thinks the library owes her.

Her research is disheartening though. War stories all seem to be about violence. Ghost stories are all about setting traps. The only book on spiritualism carried by the local branch is full of pictures of tall bony women with severe black hair, and these disturb Millicent so much that she shuts the book hard and gets a dirty look from a nearby patron shuffling through old magazines. 

She goes to an estate sale two towns away that was advertised in the newspaper, which she subscribes to for the classifieds. Older folks mostly don’t sell on the Internet, and it’s their possessions that Millicent looks for: the blue lead china patterns covered with dust in a cabinet because a widow’s arthritis is too bad to do chores; the old pistols and ice cream cranks kept in the garage out of nostalgia or distrust of the future.

It’s unusual for Millicent to bother with weapons. They’re not quite her market, and you need permission to sell them on the Internet, assurance that they’re in workable condition and that they aren’t going to some fifteen-year-old in Alabama who’s got a grudge against the world. Or against himself. But this old man, rest his soul, had kept a collection of blades, the rarest remaining specimen of which is the bowie knife of a U.S. Naval officer from 1860. There is an eagle etching on the riband, parallel to the blade, which confirms it as Civil War era. There are also two pieces of ivory in the grip, off which the afternoon light shimmers and warbles. It belonged to a seaman, not a foot soldier, but Millicent wants it.

“Ten dollars,” says the widow.

“It’s worth more than that.” Millicent likes to make a profit, but she isn’t a cheat. “Much more, actually.” She thinks of the gritty photos in her library books, the serious-eyed men marching away from everything they loved with uniforms that grew tattered but swords they polished carefully, to last. “A lot more.”

“This knife was in my family when my husband met me,” says the widow, picking it up lightly and brandishing it into the sun. The blade is tarnished, but there is no visible rust. “He was a collector, I knew that. Didn’t know he had a girl pregnant two hours away. Girl raised the baby, got money from somewhere. Didn’t know about that.” Her hair is white and pulled back into a ponytail, and her clothing is stern and serious. Matronly. “My husband really loved this knife, but I don’t care for it. We never had any children to be bothered about. Ten dollars.”

.  .  .

For a couple of weeks, the knife sits in Millicent’s closet of antiques and packing materials. It lives with tape, flattened cardboard boxes, flimsy plastic packets of address slips. All the etcetera involved in her world of faceless commerce. Every few days she takes it out and opens the box she acquired with the knife: old carved pine, a find in itself, really. The blade rests on crushed blue velvet—it somehow seems over-crushed, as if weighed down also by time.

She doesn’t like thinking about the knife alone in there, though. It’s worth so much more than the rest of her offerings: most of them are cast iron bits and baubles, artichoke-shaped bookends, faceted glass doorknobs. The whole closet could be wiped out by thieves or burned to ashes in a fire and it would not be a wrench. Millicent and Henry live mostly on Henry’s salary, and she enjoys her work largely for the salvage, the hunt. Millicent fingers the knife and smoothes the velvet in the case. She puts it next to a couple of paperback books in the drawer of her nightstand. 

.  .  .

One Thursday Lorelei is nowhere, and Henry’s brother comes over for dinner. They grill steaks in the backyard, poking at the meat with a two-pronged utensil, turning them over as fat drips onto the coals.

When Henry is in the bathroom, Millicent asks Rog:

“What was the name of that girl Henry dated in high school? Lor something?”

Roger squints at her.

“You mean Cora? He only dated one girl in school. You know Henry. He’s that kind of guy.”

Roger is thin-limbed and has long graceful hands. They twitch slightly as he changes his grip on the barbeque tong, his fingers rumbling as if running over notes on an instrument. Henry is thicker, not much, but some. He’s graceful only in the manner of a football player learning ballet to make his gait more flexible: pliés so he can squat during a huddle, rond du jambes to allow for nimbler field goal kicks.

Millicent takes a step towards Roger and bends slightly over the grill so that her arm grazes his. She feels a brief radiance between them in the water mirage of heat glowing off the coals. But Rog steps back, smiling.

“’Scuse me,” he says. And at that moment, Henry walks back out into the yard, smiling and holding three bottles of beer in the air. His smile is familiar, one of absolute bliss in time and place. He smiled it the first time she let him call her Millie, and does so often when they’re out on walks and she points out birds against the dim background of city trees. Whenever he smiles like this she knows they are alone in the universe, and now it erases her desire to tell him two can play at this game

“Oh, excuse me,” Millicent says to Rog, sweeping her fingers over her arm where it touched his. She runs to Henry in three bounds and throws herself around his middle, unsteadying him.

.  .  .

There have been dead people in Henry’s life before, but only the tangible kind. He has described to Millicent the broken bodies that find their way into his ambulance: split skin and muscle, the tiny tunnel of a bullet’s entry wound. Tooth chips scattering on the rubber floor. He has recounted last words over sandwiches when they meet up for lunch, in response to her stories about getting stuck in traffic. 

He wants to help people, give them what they need, make things easy. But he is rarely able to. That’s not his job. Henry was hired to be merely a conduit between disaster and redemption. It breaks him down sometimes, Millicent knows.

Lately when Millicent lies down at night her pillow doesn’t feel cool. After Lorelei drifts away into her eventual low tides, Millicent notices that the clothing in her closet feels fingered, the sleeves smudged around and the hangers askew. 

.  .  .

Millicent decides she must take action. She wants to shock Henry out of his strange ideas, and to do so she must get him to believe she’s accepted them. That’s strategy: the small help the library books have contributed. Millicent allows Henry to sleep in their bed again on nights when Lorelei is present, or imminent. Until now she’s refused him when he was with Lor. She said the words with a sneer, grabbing boxes of crackers from the pantry, cheese from the refrigerator. She brought her computer into the bedroom and conducted business supine, in a state of undress. She pulled headphones over her ears so she couldn’t hear the soft shuffle of Henry’s voice on the other side of the door.

But now she welcomes him in, says she’s thought it over and they really should all be together.

“I don’t want to miss out on some part of you because I’m stubborn. I want to share everything, you know?”

Henry radiates joy. He smiles even in his sleep, which is deep, and kisses her fingertips to thank her for understanding. When they’re tucked into bed with the lights off, Henry chuckles.

“What is it?”

“I was just thinking of the two of you,” he says. “Side by side like sisters.”

When Henry falls asleep, Millicent lays with her eyes open wide, staring at the ceiling. The house is quiet, and she strains her ears for every sound: the creaking pipes, the groan of wind, each flicker of movement from Henry’s reclined form. She is rarely able to sleep through the night anymore, and beneath the subdued clatter of household noises, she starts to hear an underlayer. Softer breathing. Long, shifting hair. A guttural, contented, feminine sigh.

Henry rolls out of bed.

“Where are you going?” she asks.

“Pee,” he responds. Not really awake. He scratches the back of his thigh as he walks and then scampers slightly, as though pinched. “Hee hee,” Henry says, in his sleep.

Millicent reaches her arms over to Henry’s side of the bed and feels the warm cavity he’s worn into the mattress. Slowly, she slides her hands back towards herself, testing each chill inch of the sheets, each depression. There is a warm patch just in the middle. It could have been made by Henry, or her. If she rolled just a little, she’d be inside it. Millicent leaves her hand on this patch of warmth and then reaches her other hand into the drawer. She pulls out the knife, popping open the pine case with her thumb and almost cutting herself against the blade. It rests against her chest, terribly cool.

In the bathroom, Henry has finished up—she can tell by the way he puts the seat back down, flushes because he knows she hates the smell if he doesn’t. Then he washes his hands. Wait, Millicent thinks. Then: Now.

“Henry,” Millicent calls out. 

“Hmmm?” He stretches the mmm out, dredging awake. Leans on the doorjamb and smacks his jaw open and shut against the marshmallow stickiness of sleep. “Millie?”

Her own voice is harsher. “Turn on the light.” 

He flicks the switch obediently and blinks at her.

“Are you all right, Millie?”

The incandescence leaves Millicent exposed, her skin washed out against the white of her nightgown. But this is what she has to do. She has to save Henry. Snap him like a rubber band so he flicks back into the shape she remembers him occupying. Dependable Henry, on whom she can rely. Henry with his stethoscope and cocoa, breathing her in like the only available air. 

She grips the space in the middle of the bed and pulls it up, as though she were a bully on the playground seizing the shirt of an unsuspecting child. She wraps her arm around an invisible neck and suppresses an urge to hysterical laughter. In her other hand, Millicent holds up the knife. Yesterday she polished the steel blade so you could see subtle, watery mottling in the metal, and it looks now like something she pulled out of a fairy tale. Enchanted and avenging. 

“Henry,” Millicent says. Her voice even now. 

“Millie. What are you doing?” Henry looks pained and grasps his own chest. Millicent thinks about how some of her friends, if they walked in right now, might think this was a game. Something to keep the magic alive

“Do you see her Henry?” Millicent strokes the air beneath her thumb. The skin of a cheek, or the soft spot behind an ear. 

“Please stop,” he whimpers. “Please.”

“I can’t stop. You have to see.” One way or the other. “She has to go.” Millicent draws the blade towards herself, below her arm. Thinks about steel sliding smooth between ribs. This was a knife that protected a soldier. This was a knife that took lives. Saved lives. 

Henry is watching with an agonized expression, and slowly the bulk of him slides to the floor, his back supported against the wall. 

“Lor,” he says. “Millie.” He takes his head in his hands and shakes it back and forth. “Lor. Millie.” 

Millicent bites her lip. Henry’s skin is flushing up the back of his neck, right into the hair where she likes to bury her nose. He’s crying now, crushing his eyes into his palms. His whole body compressed into a gnomic ball. Millicent lets her hand drop onto the sheets. She sets down the knife on the bedside table, where it makes a clatter and then lies still. It will be worth a lot of money, she wants to tell Henry. They can sell it and then go on vacation. Or buy a truck. Or get a dog. 

But Henry keeps crying and does not look up. Some fever has broken in him. Or something else.