“My dear, this jewelry belongs to me.”
I said those words years ago. Simply a gentle rebuke from a loving aunt to her wayward niece. As a completely innocent party, I could not have envisaged how our little talk would trigger a chain of events both thuggish and supernatural.
The fateful teatime took place in the ladies’ parlor of the hotel Royal Chicago. A proper, highbrow room, where one should have nothing to fear. Black walnut tea tables, red velvet chairs, and burgundy drapes. A splendid gold leaf ceiling. Tribal jewelry and beadwork on the walls, all artifacts that my brother Edgar had acquired during a bold life exploring the West. Alas, it was 1882, and he was dying, mumbling in his sickbed upstairs that ancient peoples had hexed him and his grand hotel.
I found my suite with a view of Lake Michigan pleasant enough. But the first-floor tea parlor faced the avenue, not the lake, and the stink of the street was an abomination. Sewage, horse dung, the foul odor of trampled critters. I suppose the sun had been rotting this half-grown city all summer.
That afternoon, I’d just come from a phrenology lecture quite well-attended by cultured ladies, or at least ladies in this town who sought some enlightenment. I strode into the parlor, annoyed at how my heels buried deep into the carpet and unsteadied me. That never used to happen. My cane may have banged the furniture a few times.
I wore my favorite peacock-blue silk blouse with pearl buttons and kept my bonnet on. The details and dimensions of my skull are a private matter. I had to take care of my appearance since everyone knew me: Lady Edwina, the sister of the dying hotel owner, Edgar Mulgrave, visiting from England to pay last respects to her successful brother. I was also rather remarkable in my own right. Upon the death of my husband, I took to the lecture circuit as a phrenologist, the need to pay his gambling debts overriding quibbles from illiterates about the fact of my gender.
The serving girls put me at a little alcove table where the sun knifes in far too strong. I could have demanded another table, but I had more important matters on my mind. At least with the swelter, the street was quiet.
“You should keep these windows closed,” I said to the small-headed serving girl. “Anyone could climb in and steal my brother’s treasures. Like Gunnar O’Brian tried to do.”
“I’m sorry, Lady Edwina.”
“The Tribune had a story about it.” I held up my handbag, where I kept the clipping. “Someone should examine Gunnar’s skull, to see if it’s just like any pickpocket’s.”
“Yes, Lady Edwina.”
I considered the artifacts crammed on the walls. Primitive, but precious. I’d met with the lawyer that morning. Turquoise necklaces, fossilized walrus ivory bracelets, bone earrings, silver disc belts, and armbands. Beadwork in bold colors — buffalo- and deer-hide pony masks, vests, knife sheaths, and clubs. All tribal ornaments, nothing one could wear in a civilized city, not even in America, but the stones! Amber, onyx, coral, mother of pearl, lapis lazuli. One could hardly count it all. I couldn’t help but consider that an additional income would allow me to devote more time to writing my text, Cranium Science of the Cultivated Mind.
“Don’t forget, the jewelry is all accounted for each night.”
“Yes, Lady Edwina.”
“She’s late,” I said. The girl poured me an ice water that I didn’t want.
Five minutes later, my niece Adeline made her grand entrance. Too dressy for tea time. She wore a mauve bustle dress with a tailored jacket and carried an ostrich feather fan. Too much. All very butter upon bacon. Nevertheless, I felt a tiny stab of guilt and thought, She has enough and always will. Adeline sat and smiled. She carried on for a few minutes about the theater. I smiled back. I could have expressed concern over her new friends, a rather crude social set. But there was a more imperative matter.
So, I uttered these words: “My dear, this jewelry belongs to me.” I waved a hand at the walls. “I do hope there will be no fuss.”
The only other patrons in the tea parlor were four ladies at a nearby table. Their conversation quieted a bit. Eavesdropping, no doubt. I’m sure they recognized me. That’s how it is when Hotel Monthly calls your brother the richest hotel owner in America.
The girls served the tiered silver tray of little sandwiches and cakes. Adeline squirmed. Her green gaze — one can’t trust someone with cat’s eyes like that — darted about the room, landed on various pieces of jewelry. Guilty girl! The lawyer had been right. The rumors were true. Adeline wouldn’t let go of this jewelry without a fight.
“Maybe it’s not worth that much,” Adeline finally said, not meeting my gaze. “I suppose a few can be placed in new settings and worn. Or sold. That’s all.”
“Perhaps.” I drummed my fingers, waited for her to look at me again. “Adeline, I’ll let you have a modest selection of the masks and warrior clothes.” I nodded at the pony mask above her head. “Such colorful beadwork. The intricate designs. It causes one to consider the biological structure of the mind, wouldn’t you agree? All of the differences between us.”
Adeline rolled her eyes and plucked a cucumber sandwich from the tray. “I’m sure,” she said, “that some people have no idea how cheap those glass beads are. But I do.”
I sighed a few times, inhaling the leather-smell of the beadwork and the horse stench from the street. As pretty as an oil painting, the image formed in my mind of old women in a gloomy tepee, stitching colored beads and dyed porcupine quills onto rawhide. Well done that Edgar removed the artifacts to a place where they could be viewed and enjoyed.
“Your father honorably obtained all of these during his Army service,” I said. “Rest assured, I shall keep everything safe.”
Adeline shook her head and her nostrils flared. “It all belongs to me.”
“Not according to the will, my dear. Something caused a rift between you and him. But of course, it’s no business of mine.”
Adeline’s eyes narrowed. “You’ll not take a thing.” She hissed the words, and her slender right hand, bedecked with an emerald ring, snaked out and closed into a fist. I wondered if the ring belonged to me as well. I would check the list.
“Now, my dear — ”
“Be careful, Auntie, I mean it!” Adeline slapped the table. The teacups rattled in their saucers.
I might have stopped breathing for a few seconds. We stared at each other and I considered how to respond. I remembered Adeline as a child, lovely girl, and measuring her skull with a caliper. Her brain organ responsible for benevolence — it’s at the top of the head, near the hairline — had been very small. More troubling, she had a pronounced module for combativeness.
“Thieves are everywhere.” I tried to adopt a reasonable tone. “Everything must be kept safe. My dear, Gunnar O’Brian could be let out.” I closed my eyes. That was my worst fear, that a magistrate would release him on a technicality. The Tribune had said that he had friends in the Chicago political machinery. Well, Gunnar O’Brian could try what he liked. My brother was a powerful man himself.
Adeline slouched in the crimson velvet of the chair. She took a petit four from the top tier and ate it whole. A bit of melted pink frosting stayed on the corner of her mouth. She chewed slowly, her gaze going to the longcase clock in the corner. She studied the time as if she had a more pressing appointment. She frowned and took another pink pastry.
I shook my head. No lawyer could erase the black letters scrawled in Edgar’s own hand. My nephew would get the hotel, and the railroad line, too. The jewelry would go to me. And Adeline would get nothing. Naturally, she’d be sulky.
I sat up straighter and cleared my throat. My main concern was proper care of the artifacts around us. Some were quite ancient, dug up from caves and sacred burial sites. One can’t expect all of it to be in good condition, though much of it was.
“Edgar was strong-minded,” I said. “A pity you’re not more like him.”
“I’m more like him than you think.” Adeline gripped the carved armrests of her chair so hard, I thought I’d hear snaps of bone and wood. Warmth oozed in through the windows, a prairie heat that’s heavy and smells like grass and flowers and makes people sneeze. “Go back to England,” Adeline said. “I’m warning you.”
With a pink crumb on her chin, she looked as harmless as a kitten.
“More ice water,” I said. While the serving girl poured, I avoided my niece’s glaring eyes and stared at the beaded red pony mask on the wall above her head. Sunlight reflected bright off the beads. The piece was a favorite of Edgar’s. In better days, Edgar had proudly explained that symbols on a pony mask reflect the medicine of the warrior. This piece had a crimson thunderbird on it. The eye openings were dark.
I heard the clip-clip of hooves outside. A man’s shout. “The noise,” I said. “I told them to close the windows.”
The sun hit Adeline’s face hard. Even though she was young, it made the lines at the corners of her eyes look ink-drawn. She leaned forward, looked me dead in the eye and said the words: “Papa was a grave robber.”
“Ghastly girl.” My voice was stern, as well it should be. “How did such a repugnant thought slip into your silly head? Edgar never stole a thing.”
On some level, I noticed Adeline’s reaction, a snort or a sniff or something like that, but movement on the pony mask above her head captured my full attention.
The mask had smiled. At least, I think it did. Maybe it was a play of light, a cloud passing in front of the sun. The artifact hung face-on with the neck flaps spread out. A squiggle at the nose could be mistaken for bloody lips. If it was a grin, it was gone in a blink. My heart pattered a bit and my eyes got blurry.
Adeline stood up. Somewhere, a door slammed.
“I gave you a chance,” Adeline said. She scampered off, her chin held high, her dress rustling, her quick, light footsteps soundless on the carpet.
The four ladies at the next table stood and left, too. They gave me some long looks. Perhaps they wanted a reading. They all had narrow foreheads.
Now I had the tea parlor to myself, except for the two serving girls.
“She forgot her fan,” I said. A girl grabbed it and chased after Adeline.
“My niece is quite rotten,” I said to the other girl, who stood against the wall with her hands in her apron pockets. She didn’t respond, although she had to have known I was speaking to her.
That’s when the men stomped into the tea parlor. Three ugly men wearing pretty clothes — dark suits and flowery silk vests. Two had crooked noses and the other had close-set black pellet eyes. The tallest one took off his hat. His head was large and well-rounded, his hair thick and slick. Impossible to identify the protrusions and indentations. My fingers itched to conduct an examination, as I knew exactly who he was. I had the clipping in my purse.
“Warm day,” he said, looking at the serving girl.
I didn’t like that so much. He should have addressed me. “Gunnar O’Brian,” I said. “I expect they let you out on a bribe, you dirty bludger.”
Gunnar met my gaze directly and snapped his fingers. The fellow with the black eyes pulled out a fancy gun, the kind with ivory on the handle and a sparkly silver barrel. The man with the gun swaggered over to the serving girl.
“Oh no, not this…” I clasped my hands together, so no one could see them shake.
“Do it away from the goods,” Gunnar said.
The fellow waved his pistol sideways, and the girl slid over.
“No! You impudent fiends!” I tried standing and collapsed back in the chair. Fear and age were a terrible weight.
The black-eyed fellow lifted the pistol. Two cracks, not very loud, and the serving girl crumpled. The little fellow’s stubby fingers grabbed a turquoise necklace. Gunnar lit a cigar while the men yanked more jewelry off the walls.
“The waste.” My stomach turned — the mess sliding down the wallpaper looked rather like strawberry jam. “The human mind, what we have, even a serving girl…”
Gunnar tilted his head, studied me for a moment, and the side of his mouth curled. He strode over like he had all the time in the world. He didn’t look angry, but the way he kicked my cane from the table was rough. “Ma’am, I expect you know what’s gonna happen.”
I fixed my gaze on the pony mask. Studied it, enjoyed the colors dancing off the beads. Pretty soon, the little man was in front of me with the gun. He didn’t make me move. Two shots, like before.
The bullets burned into my heart, both of them, and the blinding afternoon light went all gray. I thought, It’s heaven now. Or, hell. But strangely, I didn’t go anywhere. I stayed right in the tea parlor while Gunnar and his men, three stumpy silhouettes, grabbed more jewelry. It didn’t take them long; they left soon after.
But time stretched on for me.
Tea time happened every afternoon and I smelled horses outside and the leather of the beadwork that Gunnar didn’t want. No one could hear or see me, and my flesh and bones were luminous and weak. Of course, I tried to leave. When I stumbled through the tea parlor’s door, I entered a dark cave with smooth, wet walls, grainy ground stacked with slippery hairless skulls, and a damp cold like dead fingers on my eyelids.
Naturally, I tried escaping through a window. Instead of the street, I land in soft, gooey warmth. There are flashes of burning light and I feel tiny lightning bolts that prick the skin of my fingertips and send an ache all the way to my molars. I suppose I’m in the brain of God. Or some human. Perhaps death of one or the other will change my circumstances.
Most of the time, I don’t try to leave. Tea time happens every afternoon and I smell horses outside and the leather of the beadwork that Gunnar didn’t want. I wander the room, touching the beads, including the pony mask with the crimson thunderbird. If Adeline takes tea, I’ll go to her and stroke her head, even though I hate her, even though Gunnar himself takes tea across from her sometimes, with his hat sitting between them on the table.
I remember my concern over Adeline’s skull size and certain protrusions, but now I like that it’s familiar. I could examine Gunnar’s head if I wanted. Maybe someday I will.
Most days, I find a chair and let the sun soak my face. If there’s someone sitting nearby, I tell the story of what happened. I always say: “Gunnar and Adeline should beware; no French diamond rings, these beads …”
Nobody listens. But sometimes I hear a horse snort, like there’s a war pony under that mask, and after that there’s just silence like I’m the only one on a hot prairie.
Featured image: Five O’Clock Tea by Mary Cassatt (M. Theresa B. Hopkins Fund, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston / Wikimedia Commons)
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