When the dead speak, who hears them and what do they say? The Traveler’s Story.

More chapters from Other Voices, Other Towns

A VG Serial: Others Voices, Other Towns

Chapter 20

The Scene: There is an unusual feeling of tranquility in the unusual town of Cassadaga, located on the side of the road between Orlando and Daytona Beach. The houses with high-pitched roofs and the buildings – simple and austere – all seem to be from another time and another place.

The Sights: The business signs, attached or swinging, advertise mediums and psychics and spiritual counseling within the thirty-five acre camp of Cassadaga, where spiritualists call home. Cassadaga itself has no police department, no doctor, no hospital, no school, no fire department, and not really enough water to put out a fire if there was one. When there is any trouble, if there is any trouble, the county sheriff drops by, but he’s hardly ever needed unless some outsider comes to harass the meek who talk to the dead.

The Setting: George Colby was led to the land of the seven hills in 1875 when bad health ran him out of New York. He journeyed by train and by boat to the blue springs of Florida and found shelter with a few other stranded travelers inside an old palmetto shed. Seneca appeared without warning in the dull glow of a kerosene lantern and told George Colby that one day Spiritualism would be recognized as a religion and that one day Spiritualists would have their own community within the land of the seven hills. Colby had been a medium since the age of twelve and wasn’t particularly surprised to see Seneca. It almost scared the rest of the travelers to death. Seneca had been dead for years. Nonetheless, they all followed the old Indian in a mule wagon to Jenk’s Place and reverently established the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association. It was a lonely, out-of-the-way place that allowed them to hide away, find peace, and have their daily conversations with those who have already made their journey beyond the grave and to the other side of life.

The Story: The troubled, the worried, the grieving, the tormented, the frightened, the lonely, the confused, and the haunted can always find their way to Cassadaga’s humble doorstep. Sometimes they come under assumed names just so no one beyond the boundaries of the quiet little town will ever know they’ve sought the advice of a psychic or perhaps let a perfect stranger carry on a personal conversation with a loved one adrift somewhere out there in the spirit world, if a spirit world does exist, and it must exist, or they wouldn’t all be coming to Cassadaga in the first place. That’s the belief, and usually the prayer, and sometimes the last hope they have.

Lillian Weigle in the autumn of 1982 moves slowly through the austere lobby of the hotel she manages. At the moment, she is waiting for the doubters, the unbelievers, the skeptics to arrive. They always do. But these are not merely those needing a job or wanting to change jobs, in love or searching to find love, hoping to find help with their children or looking for lost children. These have rock-solid, high-academic, professorial credentials from the University of Florida. These are determined to prove that Lillian Weigle is a fraud. She smiles. So many have tried before. She glances at the clock on the wall. They should be arriving any minute now. She is not worried and has no reason to be concerned. Those with degrees, diplomas, and tenures have no idea what lies beyond the grave. Lillian Weigle knows. She’s seen it. She’s been there. And, frankly, sometimes she gets a little anxious to go back.

It has been twenty-one years since Lillian Weigle died. She was in a dentist’s chair, strangling, and suddenly she saw a tunnel, then a great light, and it led her to the peaceful crest of a mountain. Across the meadow nestled a small cabin, and she saw her grandmother and grandfather slowly step off the front porch and walk toward her. She had not seen either of them for a long time, not since the lids had been closed on their caskets and the last prayer spoken over their graves.

“Go back now,” said the grandmother.

“I don’t want o go back.”

“Not now.”

“When?”

“Later.”

The jolt of some physician pounding on her heart snatched Lillian Weigle back into the world of the living, decidedly against her will.

She hears the slam of car doors on the tree-lined street outside of the hotel and knows that the doubters, the skeptics, the unbelievers are walking toward the porch. She straightens her graying hair and waits for the door to open.

The professor, the researcher, the investigator walk quickly into the lobby. One nods. One smiles. One is carrying a briefcase. Separately and collectively, they are all business. For too long, they have listened to wild and probably outlandish rumors about the psychics and mediums and spiritualists of Cassadaga, that curious array of men and women who tell Wall Street brokers which stock to choose, give Saturday afternoon gamblers the right football games to bet, and confirm to real estate developers which land has potential and which parcel will leave them in ruin. The men don’t believe anything they have heard. Not for a minute. No one talks to the dead. Well, maybe they do, but the dead never talk back. Life may only have a few certainties. That is one of them..

The pleasantries are over in a word or two. The professor, the researcher, the sad-faced investigator have work to do. They appear awkward and uncomfortable. The world of academics has trained them to deal in reality and hard truths. They all believe that all of Cassadaga is fraudulent. Still, they wonder if the small, gray-haired, grandmotherly lady standing before them can read their minds. Their nerves are jangled and on edge. They have come pompously to make a fool of Lillian Weigle. She smiles again. It scares them to death.

Lillian Weigle is led into a small alcove, and the door is shut behind her. It locks. The noise sends an ominous echo rattling down an empty hallway outside. She is asked to sit in a straight-backed chair that has been moved into the middle of the room.

The professor looks at the researcher. They step back.

The investigator is in charge. He is the man who has been chosen to test the raw, hidden powers of psychometrics held within the deep recesses of Lillian Weigle’s mind.

She is blindfolded.

The curtains are drawn tight.

A drape of black velvet is hung over the window.

The lights are turned out.

The day has turned to night.

No light, not even faintly, spills into the room, and Lillian Weigle is left in the darkness of her own thoughts.

The investigator takes a piece of jagged metal from his briefcase and gently places it in Lillian Weigle’s hand. It is not quite like anything she has ever felt before.

Silence.

There is the distant ticking of a clock.

Nothing else.

“I hear screams,” she says at last. Her voice is soft and distant. “I hear groans. Some soft. Some louder. All in agony.  It’s like someone dying, like everybody dying.”

She pauses.

“And there’s smoke everywhere,” she continues. “thick layers of smoke. I feel it sharp and pungent in my nose. It burns my throat. My eyes are beginning to water. I’m having trouble taking a breath. The smoke is so thick and so close and so suffocating.”

Silence.

The professor, the researcher, the investigator shuffle their feet. It is the only noise in the room. I know they are looking at each other even though I cannot see them. Only they know what Lillian Weigle is holding in the darkness before them.

But only she smells the smoke.

Only she hears the sound of the dying.

Only she has ventured beyond the grave.

“What is it?” I ask the investigator.

“A piece of grapeshot,” he says.

“Where did you get it?”

“Petersburg,” he says. “On a Civil War battleground. Thousands died in the fighting. It was one of the deadliest battles of the war.”

He paused.

Silence.

“How did she know?” he asked.

Nobody saw her, but I’m sure that Lillian Weigle was smiling as all traces of doubt and skepticism found a crack beneath the door and left the room. The rustle of degrees and credentials weren’t nearly as loud as they had been before.

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