top of page

Breath & Shadow

Winter 2021 - Vol. 18, Issue 1

"The Scratch of the Pen"

written by

Clare Griffin

It was cold outside, but here it is feverish hot, an overcompensation for the chill of the season. The drawing room practically shimmers from the fire, sending out heat but not warmth into the company. There is never any warmth at such gatherings. The wallpaper of yellow flowers is too bright, not sunny and joyful but sickly and glaring. The black dresses of the ladies and the dark suits of the gentlemen stand in stark contrast to the background, just as they contrast to the complexion of their wearers, jet jewelry shining menacingly on pallid throats. Nothing is welcoming about this house, nothing was inviting about the invitation to come. Yet I came.

I am in vogue with this set, invited again and again to visit, and to play my part. Each time more people, another house, yet more requests to come, please do come to us also. This invitation the most pressing yet, to refuse a grieving family at their time of mourning would be impossible. Yet they do not want me here, are uncomfortable with what I might bring. The patriarch of the house looms over me, his blue eyes chill me with the intensity of his stare, his clinical examination of a specimen. Even when he addresses his guests, men in suits and glasses, his eyes never seem to leave me. His wife sits apart upon a chair, flanked by the female guests, clasping the dark beads of a rosary so tightly her fingers turn paler, her face covered by a veil, her whole being exuding a bitterness.

It is possible to desire the message but revile the messenger.

Finally the last of them arrives, and it is possible to begin. We leave that bilious drawing room, and solemnly pass down a corridor, men’s feet clicking on the parquet floor, women’s skirts softly swishing. The corridor is darker than the drawing room, more delicately lit with elegant lamps. The wallpaper is dark, forest green. A color I find soothing, usually. Pines are green, their display of vitality in the middle of winter, their defiance of the colorlessness of the dark time of the year, always seems hopeful to me. Here, that color seems menacing. Like the dark of the woods when you feel danger lies within them, barely concealed by the shadows.

The patriarch guides me into the dining room, to the large table where we all will sit.

The ornate chandelier above our head is unlit, sparkling only in reflection of the candlelight that will be the sole illumination of our scene. This is as it should be, the spirits abhor brightness, will come only to the softly lit places. Yet the darkness here is oppressive, even more so than the green corridor. The dark wood of the table, the chairs, the paneled walls, all seem to close in, yet the room is large enough. After the sickly brightness of the yellow drawing room, the wooden gloom of this room is heightened, feels sinister.

We take our seats in near silence. The reader sits by my right hand; the patriarch by my left. A doctor, introduced to me earlier as some expert on nerves as he stared at me unsettlingly, takes his place by the reader. The matriarch by her husband. Hushed whispers chase the rest of the attendees to their places. So many. This grand, gloomy dining room was the place for tonight, so bring together this party. To watch. To wait. To anticipate a message they both lust after and dread, delivered by a medium they mistrust.

The paper and pen have been laid ready for me on a writing blotter, green, like the corridor. Waiting. I feel the knot of anticipation as the audience is arranged. The ache that is there with me always grows stronger, and so does my apprehension. Writing is essential, is inescapable. And it is painful, exhausting. My hand might write, but my mind does not control it, I am dragged along by a power beyond me, a will that demands to express itself and with which my body must try to keep pace. To try to stop my hand from writing before the will has been expressed would snap bone. So I must write.

The whispers die down, the room subsides into deeper quiet. The matriarch rises from her place, to stop behind me and unwind from her neck a silver locket on a long, heavy chain, and opens the locket to reveal a dark curl of hair. Connecting to the spirits should take a token, and so I wait for the locket and the chain to be laid before me. But I barely need this. I felt the will since I entered this house, before even, as I approached it. Some pain radiates, cannot be contained. I have felt the will, the pressure of words that must be expressed but are hidden to me. The token is just for show, but this is a show. I take the locket, feel the soft, smooth hair under my fingers, and almost gasp. My hand seems to burn coldly with the intensity of the contact, as if I had thrust it into ice.

Feeling a wave of nausea, a pulling sensation like the undertow of the ocean just before it drowns a ship, I pick up the pen. I breathe, try to quiet my mind and acquiesce to the will I already feel pushing at the door. It will come if I allow it or not. Bile rises in my throat and darkness descends in my mind as that gripping force takes my hand, takes the pen, and begins to write.

The others wait, impatiently, restlessly, able only to listen to the scratch of the pen.

* * *

I reach the end of the paper, the will abruptly leaves, and I stop, dropping the pen, almost collapsing forward onto the table. The room seems darker still, vague faces shift nearby. A hand places a heavy glass in front of me, pours dark liquid into it from a decanter, which sparkles too brightly in the candlelight, the sudden gleam of light making me flinch. I can smell the liquid without raising it to my lips, the pungent, cloying scent of brandy, to revive me, bring me back from the other realm. Contact with the dead can be deadly.

As I sit, spent and half reeling, I see the reader’s delicate, long-fingered hand reach out to pick up the paper. It almost falls apart as he lifts it up, and I realize that the words have cut through the paper, scored the writing blotter beneath it. I look at my hand, turn it over. The fingers are blue, dark, bruised from the force that held the pen. Looking at it, I feel a throb in my fingers, my wrist, up my arm. As if a crushing strength had taken my hand, my arm, and compelled it to write.

As I contemplate my hand, I vaguely hear the reader begin his grandiose preamble. As if no one else in the room has attended a reading before, no one else is aware of the form of this most in vogue of communications. He stands, barely visible in the gloom outside the wane light of the candles on the table, and expostulates. Reminds the crowd that communications are just one step. That messages from the other side can be odd, erratic, unfocused, mix garbled noise with content of real import. That interpretation is the goal. That he will read the text, such as it may be, end to end, with no interruptions. That then the real work, his work, will begin, the work of analyzing and translating this missive from beyond.

His level, self-assured voice halts, and I realize he has finished his introduction. We have reached the point those gathered have been waiting for, we will all hear the words that were written through me. He coughs, to clear his throat, and begins to read aloud.

writing in blood through blood with blood writing as blood writing to stop writing never to

stop writing that cannot be controlled

writing that never should have been started writing that cannot be stopped writing from beyond writing for now writing for ever and always we know what you did

we know what you did

we know what you did

we know what you did father

writing cannot be unwritten writing cannot be erased writing cannot be denied or overwritten or manipulated or undone

be careful what you wish for father

doors once opened will not stay closed

we know what you did soon will the others

dark acts committed in darkness can still survive the light will the darkest actor survive it too

tombs were not built to hold secrets

this one will not hold yours

I could not survive your darkness father

will you survive mine

words once written cannot be unwritten

words once written cannot be unwritten

words once written cannot be unwritten

words once written cannot be unwritten

words on-

As he reads on, the reader loses his self-assured tone, his voice cracking, his delivery uncertain, stumbling over the words he had committed to read, yet seemingly unable to do anything but read until the whole text had been read. At last he stops, his voice felled as suddenly as my hand had been, and the room falls into deafening, suffocating silence.

* * *

The silence seems to deepen with every passing moment, to take on new dimensions, to become a cavernous pit hiding monsters in its depths. I stare at the table, still light-headed. I feel a sharp pain in my shoulder and cry out. I realize that it is a hand grasping my shoulder, still sore from the writing. I had been falling forward into the table, and the hand pulled me back. I look around, and see that it is the doctor, calmly restraining my failing body from collapse.

Propping me up with one hand, he takes the glass of brandy in the other, and puts it to my lips. Presses it firmly against them, forcing me to open and to drink, pouring more and more into me. The brandy burns my throat, its noxious stench fills my nostrils and its acrid taste makes me retch. I try to pull away, but the doctor’s strong hands pin me in place as I struggle and cough and gasp for air.

The doctor’s intervention breaks the spell, and sound returns to the room. The audience begins to fidget, and to whisper. I hear fragments through my haze. Murmured comments about marks on the body. Quickly hushed remarks about dark rumors of a family secret. Louder mutterings about charlatanry, about blackmail and slander and malice. The susurration grows, like a rising wind that brings a storm. A hissing, buzzing, ascending wave of noise.

The only silent figures are the family, a cavern of stillness on my left. I glance at them, and see the patriarch staring stonily ahead, paler than before. I notice that his face is drawn and thin, like a skull. His wife next to him is silent, but her hand that still pushes the rosary beads through her fingers shake and tremble on their endless task. In the dim light of the candles her face behind the veil is in darkness. They sit, side by side but separate, two wordless figures in a sea of whispers.

The doctor coughs and begins to speak. His hand remains on my shoulder, but he addresses the rest of the room. He came tonight, he explains, as a man of medicine and of science. As they can see, such evenings can lead to the need for medical assistance, and he was asked to join the company to prevent mishaps. This practice of psychography he finds to be interesting merely from a medical standpoint, talks of a recent article by his colleague Mercier on the nervous mechanism behind it. He shares Mercier’s view that it is an affliction like the petit mal, and shares his hypothesis that the content of such unconscious writing will ultimately be proven to be traced to the psyche and the background of the mediums. Unhappy childhood. Sublimated memories. Neurosis. Regrettable.

As the doctor finishes his impromptu speech, a solemn, elderly, bearded man opposite tersely asks about my condition. The doctor glances at me, and pronounces me weak, but somewhat recovered. The gentleman curtly states that it is time for me to leave. The doctor nods, and pulls me firmly from the chair. I struggle to find my feet as I am pulled up, and propelled past the still-sitting family and guests, along that green corridor to the front door. A maid is sent scurrying in one direction for my cloak, and a footman in another to fetch the carriage. The doctor presses some coin into my hand, and murmurs a warning never to return to this house, or to speak of what transpired this evening. I am moved through this in a daze, from the room, to the corridor, to the steps of the house, and into the carriage and away.

I sit stunned for a long moment, hearing only the crunching of gravel under wheels and hooves. It is dark, and cold, and brightly clear. I feel something like relief, an escape from the suffocating house into the free midnight blue of the open air. A stab of pain from my arm brings back a knot of worry. From where do the writings come? From my mind, twisted and broken, as the doctor said? From a lost soul in the beyond? Why do I write at all, why do I come to these places, face the desire and the fear that those who employ me have for these messages?

They fear the answers I give them and resent those I cannot.

Perhaps I should stop. Pack up, leave this city, move somewhere I am not known and make myself anew as someone else, someone who has no idea of the writings of the dead.

Could I do it? Resist that wrenching force, that implacable need to write? How would I live without the pay I earn through it? To live with the hate and fear of those who feed me and the pain of how I earn their coin is still to live. Existing is writing, writing is existing. What is the writer without the pen? She just fades away.

Clare Griffin is a historian of early modern science, mental health advocate, and fiction author specializing in pieces on the neurodivergent experience. She works as Assistant Professor for the history of science and technology at Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan. She lives with OCD and a bipolar spectrum disorder.

bottom of page