The Institute of the Dead

By Susan Wigget



Margot swam in a sea of what she intuitively knew was tears, probably her own. Tilting her head upward, she saw that the purple clouds swirled in the dark blue sky. She kept her head over the water, barely, as she paddled with all her strength. The purple clouds swirled now in the form of her fatherís face: his tall forehead, large eyes behind spectacles and below bushy eyebrows, high cheek bones, a sharp chin, hair streaming in all directions. She almost sank under the water as she looked up at this frightening image and remembered that her father had just died.

"Margot, my child," said the moving lips of the cloud face in a deep echoing voice.

"Father!" Margot yelled. She shivered convulsively. Something in the back of her head told her this was not happening, but she was still frightened.

"Margot," the cloud face said. "You must learn the truth.

"Father! What must I know?" Even as she spoke, the face shifted into regular clouds. Clutching a pillow, Margot sat up with a gasp and gazed around the darkened bedroom. Her heart was pounding as though it wished to break through the barricade of ribs and skin. She could see the white curtains pulled almost completely around her bed; through a narrow gap, all she could see was the vestige of last nightís fire in the grate, and moonlight streaming through the window. The mantel clock ticked, but otherwise the room was silent.

2

The carriage stopped in front of a desolate, dark brick building that appeared to have been vacant for, Margot estimated, at least twenty years. The four-story structure was tall, narrow, and Palladian. She saw broken, gaping holes for windows. No smoke rose from the many chimneys. The paint flaked off the pediments over the doors and windows, to reveal gray wood. Margot climbed down from the carriage with her eyes on this strange edifice. It seemed to her like a physical manifestation of rejection and abandonment, and of melancholy. Yet her strong Sensitive intuition brought her to this miserable place; and she could faintly sense her fatherís aura emanating from inside. Standing on the pavement across the street, she stared at the edifice and took a deep breath, before she whispered, "Concentrate!"

At first nothing happened; the structure across the narrow street remained a deserted building. But soon Margot could see the windows were whole and the front steps swept. A brass plaque hung on the door. She grasped her hands together, concentrated on the plaque, and read:London Institute for the Dead.

She had indeed found it! Her father had once said he wanted to visit this place when he died. She almost clapped her hands, but stopped herself; standing in front of this enchanted place and showing her elation might attract attention from a spirit inside, and she would not be able to accomplish what she wanted to do undetected. She therefore turned slowly and looked around at all the other buildings around her, and then shook her head as if to say she was in the wrong place, and climbed back into the carriage.

3

Margot entered the withdrawing room, where she closed the tall double doors behind her. Nobody was present to see that she wore her usual eccentric garments: breeches, a linen shirt and cravat, and a waistcoat. She sat down to a small, spindly-legged table that was meant to look Egyptian. She clasped her hands together on the table and closed her eyes. She believed that she had to discover what her father had tried to say from beyond the grave.

She took several slow, deep breaths and envisioned herself walking up the front steps of the London Institute of the Dead and could feel the stone under her feet, and she envisioned herself grasping the cold brass knocker and letting it thump against the door. She could see a woman in a black roundgown and black lace cap open the door for her, and she stepped inside. The woman in mourning disappeared in a cloud of black smoke that smelled of burnt cedar. Margot sensed that the door had silently closed by itself.

She stood in a small front hall. In the far corner to her right, she spotted a table; behind which floated a glowing white light the size of an orange. The floorboards creaked under her feet as she stepped forward, and she could scarcely see the paneling on the walls, for the only light emanated from a small four-candle chandelier. She walked up to the table and gulped before she spoke.

"Hello. I seem to have died a bit ago, and I would like to enroll here," Margot said. She would simply hope the spirit could not sense that she merely projected herself.

"Your name, please?" the glowing light said.

"My name is Margot Montmorency."

"Another Montmorency. Must be a dying family," the glowing light said. Margot was about to correct it, to say that Montmorency came from her motherís side of the family, and her mother had died a long time ago; whereas her father had died a mere ten days ago. But it occurred to her that to someone, or something, that is dead, the sixteen years since her motherís death would be a short time. The glowing light emitted a shrill siren cry that would not stop. Margot stared and backed away, but she feared she would seem unghostly if she placed her hands over her ears.

"Forgive me for the noise," the light said when it finished. "You took it better than most. Just putting you on record. You are to go to the classroom at the end of the hallway, which is through that door."

Since the glow had no hands with which to point, Margot looked at each dark paneled door. One was in the center wall directly in front of her, and one each was to the left and to the right. She chose the center egress and found herself in a long, dark, narrow corridor, lit only by two sconces, and lined with entrances identical to the ones in the front hall. One of these doors stood closed at the very end of the passage, facing her. As though she were dreaming, Margotís footsteps made abnormally loud echoes, while she moved down the hallway. She opened the door at the end, and it creaked while she peeked in.

"óA temporal state between one life and the next, not really a part of either," a schoolmaster was saying when she opened the door. Through the cracked-open door, Margot could see that this instructor was a gray, translucent man in garb from the 1790ís but oddly covered with a great length of chain draped from his shoulders. Margot opened the door slightly wider and crossed the threshold. The moment she entered this room, she freezing cold engulfed her, as though her physical body had entered the room. The instructor turned to her and said, "Come in! Find yourself a seat. You have not missed much." Margot drifted into the first empty seat she found, in the back row. She thought that if her body were actually here, she would see her breath create a mist.

The other students around her distracted Margot, so that she could scarcely listen to the lecture. To her left glowed a light much like the one in the front hall. To her right was a completely white woman; that is, completely white except for the bright dripping red that circled her throat; Margot judged by her curly powdered wig and highly tailored gown with wide lapels, that she must surely be from the French Revolution. So she had only been a ghost for less than thirty years. Ahead Margot saw straight through a head with an enormous hole in it, presumably from a bullet. The room was full of the strangest beings she had ever seen: a man with an axe stuck in the top of his head, a headless body with a carved pumpkin on its desk, a tall skeleton in a black evening suit, a woman with no hands, a man with disembodied hands grasping his neck, as if they had been cut off while attacking him. But a few of the ghosts resembled living people, as Margot supposed she did. She glanced down at her hands on her desktop to be sure, and she could not see through her hands, which were their customary pale flesh color. One of these ghosts wore Elizabethan garb, and when he saw her, he suddenly glowed bright green, but that only lasted for a few seconds before he lost interest and turned back to the schoolmaster.

"It is too late for me to warn you of the dangers of selfishness or foolishness or heartlessness during your life," the ghostly instructor said while Margot finished looking around the room and at last settled her eyes on him. "You may even now be doing penance for having a stronger fondness for gold than for other souls."

4

After class, Margot found her way to a library where she could be alone, or at least so she hoped. It was an ordinary-looking library, with open-front bookcases lining the walls and heavy armchairs and side tables throughout the room. A great globe stood in a corner, and a fern in another. One wall had two tall narrow windows with dark green curtains. Somehow Margot had expected the house to be full of mould and dust and cobwebs, but she was impressed. She settled down in an armchair and thought of her father.

She wondered why, if her father had died a natural death, he would come back as a ghost and try to contact her in her dreams. She recalled that all he had said in the dream was that she needed to know the truth, and that argued against his dying from a natural heart attack. He had been extremely healthy, at least to all appearances, until the last few hours before his death. He had been dead for little more than a week, and during that time she felt as though a great void was left in his place.

She closed her eyes and remembered several years ago when, over tea, Father had looked up from a newspaper and told her about the London Institute of the Dead. He had read the article aloud to her and her brother, Roland, and he made it quite clear that he approved of such an institution. She remembered how her father had smiled slightly as he said, "If I die and you need to contact me, youíll know where to find me."

She took a deep breath. Her father had been the most socially active human being she ever knew. He had contributed not only financial support to numerous universities, but had also delivered lectures at the same institutions. During the French Revolution, he wrote pamphlets supporting freedom and condemning the senseless beheadings. This school for ghosts seemed to her like a place where her fatherís spirit would be happy.

A book floated through the air and landed on the table in front of her. She opened it and on the title page read: The Egyptian Book of the Dead. She turned another page, when she felt a tugging on her sleeve. She looked up, then slightly down, to see a little boy ghost glowing white and staring at her with huge eyes.

"Would you care to be my friend?" the little ghost said. Margot, however, was rather awkward around children.

"Go away," she said. "Iím studying."

"My name is Jaspar. Would you care to be my friend?" Margot put the book down as an idea came to her. She smiled faintly at the boy ghost.

"If you help me find my father," she said. "Heís a ghost, and I have reason to believe that he is somewhere in this school."

"Oh! As long as he is here, thatís easy."

5

Following the strange little boy ghost, Margot peered into every room that she walked past in the hallways. Strange faces glanced back at her: eerie pallors and gloomy glares. Jaspar came to a doorway and swirled to face her. Margot made one step backward.

"I think you will find him in here!" the boy ghost said.

Margotís heart pounded as she peered into the room, a lounge, and the first sight was a fireplace in front of which sat her father with an open book in his lap. Margot felt a fluttering sensation in her chest, and she grasped her shaking hands together. At last, she thought, here he was, and not as a mere head in the clouds! Her father looked the same as in life, except for his abnormally pale skin. He wore his customary pointed shoes, old knee breeches, a waistcoat with pointed lapels, a crisp cravat, and a long coat. Margot was half afraid to step into the room and speak to him.

"Father!" Margot said. She meant to exclaim it, but instead it came out as a barely audible croak. Seeing her father like this made her feel even more as though she were in a dream.

"What the blazes!" her fatherís ghost said, staring wide-eyed. "Margot? My dear child, what has brought you here? You couldnít possiblyóyour wonderful youthó." He rose, but Margot quickly stepped forward and motioned for him to sit back down, which he did.

"Shhh," Margot said. She stared at her fatherís ghost as though she wanted to absorb his presence. She knew that this time she had with him would be very brief, and it would be all she could have.

"Can I stay?" a voice said behind Margot. She jumped, for she had completely forgotten Jaspar. She wanted to be alone with her father for what little time they had together, and she was annoyed by this childís presence. She did not even look at the little ghost in the doorway, for fear her father would vanish.

"Jaspar, thanks ever so much for bringing me to him. You did wonderfully, but could you please leave us alone for a moment?" She felt impatient for him to leave, which in turn made her feel guilty.

"IóI guess so," Jaspar said, and Margot looked back long enough to see him bowing his head and floating away, down the hallway. Her twinge of guilt did not last long. She hastily sat down in an armchair across from her father and scooted forward so that their knees almost touched or rather almost passed through each other. She felt as though she were floating half an inch from the chair seat and gave up resting her elbows on the chair arms. "No one must know. I am merely projecting myself. I have not died; Iím pretending to be a ghost so that I could see you."

"Oddís fish, no better proof of your amazing powers, child! You do astonish me."

"I have been experimenting with out-of-body projection, Father, and if you donít mind my saying so, I have become very good at it, though I must admit this is the first time Iíve done it for more than twenty minutes. Rather than physically walk into the building, I decided to project a ghost-like image of myself that would enter the Institute and that would, hopefully, fool all the ghosts I come across."

"You have certainly fooled me! So far as I know, nobody has accomplished what you are doing."

"Did you send me a message while I slept?" Margot asked, gazing at her fatherís ghost.

"Yes, I knew you would receive it. I wanted to tell you how I truly died. It was far worse than you realize." Margot clasped her hands together and leaned forward. A scratch at the door distracted her, and when she turned to look, she saw Jaspar standing in the doorway, with wide eyes and a wider grin.

ĎHas it been a moment?" the little boy ghost asked.

"No!" Margot said. She took a breath before she spoke again. "I shall stand in the doorway when we are finished."

"As you wish," Jaspar said, pouting, and he disappeared in thin air. Margot turned back to her father, and he continued speaking as though nothing had happened.

"Long before you were born, indeed twenty-eight years ago, in 1793, I met a Frenchman, one who claimed to be an émigré, for this was during the Revolution. We gossiped at a ball. Being young and foolish, I said entirely too much about a French husband and wife who were friends of mine, and whom I knew were royalists. Little did I know that this fellow was a spy for the new French government. He headed back to his country as soon as possible, and the next thing I heard about the couple was that they had been arrested and awaited their execution at the guillotine."

"How horrible! But Father, that was so long ago."

"Do you remember that man who visited the country house shortly before I died?"

"Do you mean the French fellow you introduced as Pierre Montcharmais, just before I left for Cornwall? Yes, I afterwards, on several occasions, looked out the window and saw you two in the gardens. One time you looked like you were arguing. But it was weeks before . . . your death," Margot said. She bowed her head and gulped when she said those words. What, she wondered, did that weaselly Frenchman have to do with her fatherís demise? Tears ran down her cheeks, for she could cry as this projection just as she could cry in dreams.

"He was half the couple I had presumably sent to the guillotine. He escaped to Belgium, you see, and he thought his wife was on her way to join him, but her plans were foiled, and she died under the blade."

"What do you meanópresumably sent to the guillotine? Surely you had nothing to do with such a thing!"

"We were friends at one time. That is, we were in the same social circles when the Montcharmais visited England shortly before the Revolution. They were the royalist couple that I chatted about at the ball, with this man who was in truth a spy for the republic. My jests were enough to condemn the Montcharmais both to the guillotine. I did not mean anything by it, in truth." His eyes were full of pain, and he looked older than he had when she last saw him.

"I know you would not wittingly do such a thing," Margot said. She imagined how chagrined and guilt-stricken he must have felt.

"I sent Pierre a note to inform him that I would save them both with my supernatural ability to send people from one place to another, and that it would have to be one at a time. In this letter, I asked him to describe their surroundings and what they wore, so that I could have a clear image in my mind. He granted my request, and as soon as I received his letter in response, I went to work. I saved his life, sent him to Belgium, but was so exhausted by the time I finished, that I slept for three days, tossing and turning in a fever. After I recovered, I envisioned his wife Esme Montcharmais, but all I could see was the bloody blade of the guillotine, which indicated to me that she had already died.

"I did not hear of Pierre for a long time. I imagine he has lived many bitter years without his soul mate, the love of his life, and sees it as all my fault. After all this time, he found me."

Margot tried to imagine the misery and loneliness that man must have lived in, without the love of his life. Over the years the bitterness and anger boiled beneath a placid surface; rather than dissipating, his bitterness only became deeper. Nonetheless, he had killed her dear father, and for that she could not pity him for long. Perhaps he was a bit mad.

"Father," she said, "you have not told me how heóhow he committed the act."

"Yes, the actóvery well. I do not know what it was, but he slipped something into my tea on one of his visits. I should not have turned my back for a second. You were away, do recall, so you did not know that he called on me again."

"The servants told me, but I did not make the connection between your death and his visits. Now it seems foolish of me." Margot ended the sentence in a whisper and clutched her throat, which seemed to burn from within.

"Why should you have leapt to the conclusion that Pierre killed me? To the best of your knowledge, we got along quite well." Margot stared into the cold hearth. It contained nothing but a small pile of ashes, and she supposed that a school full of ghosts would have little need for warmth.

"Do you think Roland and I can find him?" Margot asked.

"I have every faith in your ability to find him. But why botheróI do not think he will kill anyone else, and we cannot go back and change the situation."

"We cannot go back," Margot murmured. She opened her mouth to ask why he had been so anxious to contact her in her dream.

"Before you ask," he said, "I did not try to contact you so that you could enact vengeance. I simply wanted you to know the truth, and not to wonder for the rest of your present life. I wanted to set you at ease, as best I could. But back to Roland . . .. I have a faint sense of how your brother has faired since my death." Her fatherís ghost leaned forward and looked directly into her eyes. Margot lowered her head and clasped her hands together. She did not want to know to what extent Roland grieved.

"Ah, Roland," she said. "He is a total recluse in his rooms. He wonít come downstairs and he wonít speak to anybody, so I donít even know how much he knows or suspects of your death." Thus she had been missing both her father and her brother simultaneously, although the knowledge that her brother would eventually come out of his shell consoled her somewhat.

"He did not have tea with us because he had a migraine that afternoon," the ghost said. "It is fortunate, for he might have died as well, depending on how Pierre dosed the tea."

"I once went up to Rolandís sitting room and found him on the sofa, writing in his journal," Margot said. The ghostís lower lip quivered as he watched her intently. Margot continued, "He shares his thoughts with the journal but with nobody, not even me." She grimaced while she tried to keep back more tears.

"You neednít be disturbed about that; a journal is good solace, especially for a poet such as he." Margot jumped up from the armchair and paced in front of the fireplace. She remember how, just that morning, she went up to knock on Rolandís door, and, as she had expected, no one answered. But even if he were awake, that did not necessarily mean he would answer the door. As timid as he was, she was the one person from whom he had never withdrawn before, and his reticence made coping with her fatherís death that much more painful for her. Surely he realized that she, of all people, would understand his depth of sorrow.

"You see, it is simply one of the few situations in which I do not understand him," she said. "I thought he was completely closed up because of your death, but the journal proves otherwise. Do you understand what Iím saying?"

"Yes. Youíd prefer that heíd confide in you than in that journal." Margot stood still, looked at her fatherís ghost, and nodded.

"Give him some time and he will. Youíre the first person he will turn to, because you share the same grief and youíre very close. For now, he is keeping his thoughts to himself; using a journal is a way to do it without going mad." Margot took a deep breath. "When he wishes to speak with you," the ghost continued, "you must tell him about this, our visit to the Institute. I think it will help him."

"I am not so certain," Margot said, and she sat down in the same armchair.

"Donít you feel a bit better, now that Iím here with you?"

"Yes," Margot said. Tears coursed down her face again.

"He will be reassured that I have not completely disappeared. I am here at the Institute, and some day you two may see me again, reincarnated as someone else." When she stared at him, he said, "That is not a promise, but it may happen. I would not anticipate it too much."

"Of course not, Father. And if we do meet your reincarnation, we shall not necessarily know it is you." Margot did not care for this idea; it seemed like it would be an ironic situation, to not know that she was speaking to an incarnation of her father.

"You had better return now," her father said. "You will be exhausted when you get back into your body. I can see you are already fading." Margot looked down at the brown cloth of her breeches and at her arms, and she could indeed see through herself into the velvet chair.

"Yes, Father, but there is one more thing I must tell you. I love--."

Gasping, Margot awoke in her body at the Egyptian table in the drawing room. Her chest rose and fell in hard gasps that she could not control, for she could not breathe and did not know if she would indeed live. She lifted her head off the table and tried to scream, but she couldnít get anything out except heavy gasping sobs. Presently a maid burst through the door.

"Miss! Youíre back!" the maid said, as she helped Margot up. "Bruce told me you did not want to be disturbed, and here itís been two hours." With an arm around each other, they slowly left the room. Margotís breathing began to return to normal. At the foot of the stairs, the footman, Bruce, appeared.

"Get a pitcher of water!" the maid yelled. "Quick!" Bruce ran in the direction of the dining room.

"I shall be well," Margot said. "I spoke with him. With my father."

The End

Copyright © 2004 by Susan Wigget

Susan graduated from Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri, with a degree in Creative Writing.

E-mail: sewiget@aol.com

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