But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
The first time he saw the ghost, Bram Stoker was hiding behind the safety curtain that hung neatly out of sight by the wooden proscenium, and which he himself had insisted be installed, at some expense, only a fortnight earlier—conscious, as any Acting Manager had to be, of the ever-present possibility of fire. Such catastrophic events swept across the London theatre world with distressing frequency, owing in most cases to the presence of filmy costume material left hanging near candles, the use of cheap, highly combustible greasepaint, and the current popularity for ever greater and more elaborate pyrotechnics than had been witnessed the season before. He himself had seen—only last month, at the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane—an entire parade of African slaves smeared head to foot in blacking, every mother’s son of them sporting lit torches as they cavorted beneath a slew of drapery meant to suggest palm trees. He had been nearly unable to remain in his box that night, eyes flicking over and again to the Drury’s exit while his brain pictured the sudden brightness that would no doubt appear as the paperboard sets began to catch. Next would come the shock of the players, some of them still delivering their lines; the well-dressed audience, uncertain at first whether this blazing spectacle, too, was only the latest in stage craft . . . then the stampede would begin . . .
In the end, he had managed to maintain his seat for the Drury show, but had accompanied his wife Florence into the damp evening afterward with a decided sense of having escaped a calamity whose outline they had already witnessed in full—with the exception, merely, of when it would unfold. And he had turned his steps, the next morning, toward the Lyceum with a renewed determination to leave nothing to chance.
Bram Stoker at thirty-one was a physical, redheaded presence on the London scene, broad in the chest, with a slow, sonorous voice, the precise opposite of what early life would have predicted. The childhood paralysis, never explained, lasted for years. So too did the great hunger that ravaged the island of his birth: before it was finished, over one million corpses littered the muddy fields, with an equal number emigrated to anywhere that would have them: to Boston, to Brisbane, to far-off Argentina. In New York, the Irish formed the bulk of the new poor, trading one species of suffering for another. Bram still remembered the brittle autumn when families first started appearing outside his sickroom window, shadow people that had fled the worst parts of the country on foot. In streams they gathered around the docking wall, foul rags begging food, begging passage on the ships.
Where are they going? he had askedMrs. Kirwan, the Catholic domestic who cared for him during that time. She herself lived through the worst part of the blight in Eaksey, where along with two of her sisters she had survived by creeping onto a landlord’s estate after dark, using a gentleman’s razor to cut the haunches of cattle and sucking the hot, vitamin-rich blood, a truth she will never tell. All those people?
Whitechapel, most like.
An who can stay here, with the devil himself up and walking about?
Bram felt deep distress over the starving crowd and their suffering faces. The walkways of Clontarf were cobbled with stones that had been pulled from the fields to allow planting, and in the evenings the emigrants wandered them up and down. Some begged food, or blankets; some merely drifted, like leaves. The twilight road was haunted by their numbers.
Aren’t they afraid?
Hunger, child, Mrs. Kirwan had grimaced, closing up the blind. Hunger will make you do anything.
Most painful to him from that time of horrors, though, had been the total loss of his father’s affection; the goodnight kiss had never returned. But infirmity, once lifted from his shoulder, had been banished forever. One afternoon—had he been seven? eight?—he could abruptly feel three toes on his left foot. By season’s end, the paralysis had leached back out of his flesh as inexplicably as it appeared, and a young man took his first, wobbling steps on yellowed soles. In his teenage years he developed an athletic streak, as if in repudiation of all weakness. His limbs grew thick, his body massy. He began sporting a copious crimson beard. At Trinity, he took medals in hurdles, vaulting, long-distance walking, swim-meets, returning from the rugby field with blanched shins and heroically bleeding nostrils. Yet it was as if he had been rendered permanently invisible by the disease. Try as he might, the old man never stopped regarding him as something already dead.
It was only a year ago now (was it so little? yes, barely more than a year) that the second great miracle had occurred in Bram’s life, a miracle that, like the recovery of his ability to stand, had altered his prospects with the swiftness of a summer storm. Twelve months ago, he had been living in Ireland still, working as a civil servant at Dublin Castle, both his personal and professional life for the next three decades as predictable as the setting on a table. Tonight, instead, he found himself here, at the noble Lyceum Theatre—found himself at the opening performance of Hamlet—found himself (was it even possible?) Acting Manager to the most powerful Shakespearean in a generation.
From his position behind the baize curtain, Bram could see the actor waiting, as the saying went, in the wings, head tilted low as if at prayer, so that his swept-back hair shone in silvery tints above the absolute blackness of his cloak. The man had his long librarian’s arms draped behind himself, fingers interlaced, listening to each line that preceded his own appearance onstage with the intensity of a chemist trying a metal for imperfections. It had been made quite clear in rehearsals that nothing would be permitted, this evening, short of excellence.
What, hath this thing appear’d again tonight?
I have seen . . . nothing!
Cautiously Bram eased himself another half-foot into the narrow gap between fire curtain and house, struck by the notion that he had seen something odd. It was an uncomfortable feeling. The demand that no element be amiss during Hamlet applied just as sharply to him as to any of the crew, and likely even more so, as he was an outsider both to the island and the profession, and it was in every sense incumbent upon him to prove himself.
Only a few yards away, their hush audible in the manner of full theatres, sat a capacity crowd of well-dressed Londoners. His searching eye could just make out the ground floor orchestra, the first dozen rows illuminated by stage lamps, with here and there a playgoer’s visage thrown into a garish relief. Above the ground, a wedge of the dress circle, likewise filled, and a small section of the mural that ran from the back wall to the head of the western stair. The Lyceum was old and of grand construction, yet hardly what purists might call a “concise” structure. There were little peculiarities in the way this theatre had been built, quirks that a casual eye would overlook, but that lent it a feeling of never quite being at right angles. Stairways came to abrupt conclusions, before the foot expected them; sounds could be heard emanating from unusual directions, or no direction at all. One of three major windows—Bram had discovered on examining the immense structure that had, almost overnight, become his responsibility—was a good eleven inches lower than its companions, a defect he had covered with a banner.
Owing to one of these awkwardnesses, at the top of the western staircase, between two rows of audience members but concealed from them, was formed a little containment called the “Nook of the Stair”: simple wasted space, like an abortive hallway, too stunted to serve any purpose. He remembered having fretted over it in the first weeks after arrival, finally deciding that it would not be possible (due to an unexpected curve in one side of the plastered wall, but not the other) to hang even a candelabra in the Nook. And it was in that confoundingly disordered space, not visible from any position but his own, that his eye stopped. For a moment, he was quite certain someone was standing there.
The figure was just past the point where deep shadows fell. It appeared to be a female, slight of build, and vaguely outlined in something white. Even from a distance, this person gave off a peculiar feeling of stillness, as if she had kept watch in this unwitnessed spot for a century already, and could do so for another, but at the same time there was an equally strong sense of activity—the motionless species one sometimes perceived in persons intently engaged in addressing some vexing, inward problem. The arms, shrouded to the wrists in that same white material, hung loosely at her sides. Bram could see an oval face, with its gleam of forehead surrounded by dark, unruly hair, and underneath it, catching lamplight, two eyes that were—he realized with a jump—looking in his direction. Then there was nothing.
It was only later, after the relief and celebrations of opening night were concluded, after red beefsteak and wine at the Plough and Harrow, after his employer had gone on for almost an hour over precise alterations to be made before tomorrow night’s performance (everything from costume details to a change in Fortinbras’ blocking), only after all that, in the quiet of his bedroom with Florence once more, the last minutes of October silent save for the cross-town carriages rattling through the fog, that Bram remembered the definite impression of someone—a woman, he had thought, in the grip of strong emotion?—standing, quite impossibly, in the shadow of the Nook; and, remembering his mother’s frightful stories on Hallowe’en night, wondered whether there were, in this world God had created, such actual things as ghosts.
And if there were, what any such creature should want of him.
William Orem’s first collection of stories, Zombi, You My Love, won the GLCA New Writers Award, formerly given to Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, Richard Ford and Alice Munro. His second collection, Across the River, won the Texas Review Novella Prize. His first novel, Killer of Crying Deer, won the Eric Hoffer Award for Excellence in the Small Presses, and has been optioned for film. His second novel, Miss Lucy, won the Gival Press Novel Award. His first collection of poems, Our Purpose in Speaking, won the Wheelbarrow Books Poetry Prize and was published by MSU Press, and he has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction.
Meanwhile, his short plays have been performed around the country, winning both the Critics’ Prize and Audience Favorite Award at Durango Theatre Fest, and thrice being nominated for the prestigious Heideman Award at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Currently he is a Senior Writer-in-Residence at Emerson College. Details at williamorem.com.
Miss Lucy Copyright (c) 2019 by William Orem. By permission of Gival Press.