Synesthesia: A Short Story by Alison McPherson
The cabin we were renting for the night was just a ten minute drive from Lily Dale, removed from the porches filled with campy wood carvings of black bears playing, stone cherubs beckoning, rustic stars of metal hanging from the front doors. In town, the streets were busy but everyone walked so calmly, moved so gently that the air seemed still. The local gift shop sold wind-chimes along with figurines of fairies and angels. A back room sequestered behind a curtain in the corner had glass display cases full of crystals.
“You ever go somewhere a thousand times before you realize there’s a back room? That’s this place.” Roden pressed their fingertips into the cool glass.
I walked along the back wall, eyeing a shelf of beryl, “I wish I knew more about Spiritualism.” They turned their head to look at me. “I feel unprepared to experience this.”
“Get a book while we’re here.”
“No,” I read the placard for moonstone lethargically, “no…”
Roden ducked out as I continued to trace the crystals with my eyes, the molten roundness of fire agate, the jetting teeth of dioptase, the deep midnight in biotite. The room was dim but specks of light bounced off the glossy stones arranged neatly in their cases, undulating the pink satin beneath them. My head was syrupy and heavy. The air felt soft blue. On the other side of the curtain Roden flipped through dollar bills at the register.
I stood next to them at the counter: “You getting something?”
“What is it?”
“Oh, that’s cool.”
“And seventy-four cents is your change,” the woman behind the counter said, dropping loose coins into Roden’s hand.
“Thanks.” They glanced back at her before turning to me. “Here—I got you this.”
“Wait, you got this for me?”
“Yeah, aren’t you gonna take it?”
I reached out, “Wow, thank you.”
“I really appreciate it…” I turned the book over in my hand to read the blurb on the back: The dead don’t die in Lily Dale, it stated.
The service was held in the middle of a forest filled with birch trees. Rows of old conifer trunks were sliced open like church pews. The medium who spoke with us was named Patricia. Her wispy white hair seemed shred from the trees, floating in the air when the wind would shift. She spoke softly, the clunky wooden beads around her neck sometimes knocking louder than her words.
“Before we get in touch with Spirit,” she said. (Not “the spirit” or “spirits”, I was told earlier.) “For some of you, this may be your first time here in Lily Dale, in which case welcome.” She clasped her hands together, smiling warmly. Her skin meshed with the coarse fibers of the patch of chrysanthemums ironed onto her denim button-up. “You may also have several questions. What exactly is it that I do? How exactly do I do it? It’s quite simple, really. Think of me like a human pendulum. I am pulled toward people by their loved ones who have passed on to a higher vibration. Some of us can hear these loved ones. Some of us can see them. I’m fortunate enough to be able to do both. Well, sometimes fortunate… other times they won’t shut up!” The crowd laughed, bodies bobbing up and down. She continued to smile, “Does anybody have any questions?”
“Yes,” an older man raised his hand in the front row. “When was the first time you were contacted by the dead?”
“Well, for starters, no one’s dead. They’ve simply moved on. But I realized my abilities quite young. I was playing jacks in the hall when my grandfather came in to tell me to help my mother in the kitchen. I vividly remember his signature brown bowler hat tinged with ash—my grandfather was a terrible smoker. We didn’t know how bad it was for you back then… but that’s beside the point. I got up, went to the kitchen, told her Grandpa sent me in and she nearly dropped the plate she was holding. Turns out Grandpa had died two nights before but they were waiting to tell us kids until after Christmas.”
Several people mumbled or gasped. Roden nudged me with their elbow, smirking with suspicion. A woman in a red shirt raised her hand three rows back.
“Yes,” Patricia nodded.
“Do malevolent spirits ever try to speak to you?”
“When a lot of people think of spirits, they think of Poltergeist or The Exorcist or something like that. But really spirits exist to help us, to guide us with the knowledge they have obtained on the other side.”
Roden sighed, crouching forward on our log.
“I’d like to discuss this more but I’m afraid if I do we won’t have time. We should really be moving on. If it’s alright with you, I need a moment to concentrate.” She shifted her weight from foot to foot, shaking out her shoulders with an exhale. The dirt shifted between her feet. Leaves tumbled down from the branches overhead. When she opened her eyes, they scanned the crowd until she fixated on a woman in the front row. I peeled open the cover of my new book to write in the margins.
Patricia approached her, “Yes, hello.”
“Hi,” she chuckled nervously.
“Hi,” the medium sighed again, staring at her without blinking. “I don’t know why, exactly, but I’ve felt pulled to you by a Larry. Do you know a Larry?”
“No, I don’t know a Larry.”
“Tall frame, wild hair, booming laugh…”
“No? Okay, let’s see… Um, he says he used to come over Thursdays to help with the landscaping. Jim brought him by the first time and you guys really hit it off.”
“Oh, that Larry!”
“I was gonna say, if you don’t remember him he certainly remembers you!” The crowd giggled, breaking the tension of their brief skepticism. Roden laughed too but it was more of a smirk with air working its way from the back of their throat without any feeling attached to it. That’s what made me look over. It didn’t sound genuine. They were leaning forward in their seat, shoulders hiked up and staring at the ground. Sweat rolled down from their tumbles.
“Roden,” I whispered, “are you okay?”
“Yeah.” Their fingers started to tremble.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m fine,” they snapped.
Patricia went on, “Larry knows how hard things have been for you since you lost Jim last year…”
“Roden,” I glanced over. “You’re shaking.”
“No shit.” Their arms began to curl into their chest.
“What’s going on?”
“I’m fine, okay?” They spat through pressed lips.
“Shit,” I reached for their hand, pulling it down from their chest. It stayed rigid, coiling even farther in when I let go. I traced my grip to their fingers and tried uncurling them one by one. They bent back in, twitching.
“—and he wants you to know everything is okay,” the medium’s voice cut through.
“Roden, you need to breathe.”
“—and that there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“Roden, slowly. In through your nose, out through your mouth.”
“—he will always be watching you.”
“Fuck,” they squawked, dropping their head forward.
I first met Roden in the hollow, sterile hum of fluorescent lights covered by the dust grey partitions in a grid of flimsy cubicles. They wanted to meet with my advisor in the comparative religion department. At the time, they were a third-year anthropology student, carrying around a marked-up and dog-eared copy of Freire for inspiration. From what I understood, the type of anthropology they were interested in was about disturbing the usual power dynamics of social research. I wanted to understand this better so I asked them if I could come along to one of their sites, the store of a healer in East L.A. They were curt with me:
“No.” No condolences. No explanation. Just, “no.”
“Why not? I know how to be respectful.”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s not my space. I can’t just bring whoever I went there.”
Roden was almost always terse like that. And after a while I understood they weren’t being rude, they just didn’t like to talk a lot. They were tired all the time, languid eyes drifting by, barely making contact with the world outside. But when speech did move through them their eyes would glow like the feeling was electricity surging through their body. I learned in that cubicle that their dad worked in the town I grew up in. He tended bar at this little spot—the only spot—on the outskirts of town. Past the southernmost part of the river near the tracks.
“Maybe we saw each other without even realizing it,” I wondered.
“I doubt it. I moved to my grandma’s in upstate New York when I was seven.”
“I didn’t know your dad was from New York state.”
“He’s not. She’s my maternal grandma.”
“Why didn’t you just move in with your mom?”
“I don’t have a mom.”
I didn’t ask any more questions. We would jokingly refer to her grandmother as Nana Roden since they weren’t out to Lucille, who almost definitely had never heard of the word “genderqueer” before. She still called Roden Becky. Driving across country after graduation for a visit, we practiced calling her Mrs. Taylor instead.
“Are you excited to see her again?”
“Mrs. Taylor?” They looked at me sternly.
“I know.” I assured them.
“Sort of? Come on. Don’t make me play 20 Questions.”
They chuckled with their chin down, “I mean, I guess. She’s really quiet, which I like. You’re gonna hate it. Most of the time we just sit and read. She has that grandma thing going on where I don’t think she gets me at all but I know she loves me no matter what. And that’s comforting in a way.”
“You read Freire with her?” I smiled.
Air hissed from their lips, curled like dry fall leaves, “Oh, yeah. She has some riveting thoughts on how to decolonize the pedagogy.”
I laughed, “Well, I’m excited to meet her.”
“I wouldn’t get your hopes up.”
“Why? You don’t think she’ll like me?”
“I mean, you’ll get along fine. But I don’t think you’ll find her interesting or anything.”
“Either way, she’s your grandma. She’s family. I kind of think that’s a big deal. I’ve never met any of your family before. You’ve never met mine. That’s a big deal.”
“Eh, we’ll see.” The pavement rumbled beneath us, filling the car with a mechanical hum. I listened as wind from outside whipped through the cracked window, whistling and howling. I let out a sigh, “I’m excited to ride some horses.”
“You know what I’m excited for?” Roden shifted their weight away from the window.
“Huh?” I asked.
“Ever hear of Lily Dale?”
“No. What’s that?”
“It’s this town like ten miles from Lake Erie. It’s full of mediums.”
“Yeah, butthead. Like ghosts and shit.”
I turned my head in surprise, saw the stream of yellow and green blurring together as the fields of sweet corn passed by, “Really?”
“That is interesting.”
“It was set up as a Spiritualist colony during the 1800’s. They have forty of them or something. People come from all over the world to communicate with loved ones from beyond the grave. And we’re in luck because summer is their busiest season.”
“That is interesting.” We sat in silence, only the rattling of the car beneath us. “Is there anyone in particular you want to try to talk to?”
“No,” they looked at me, brow furrowed. “I don’t even believe in that stuff.”
I blushed. “Why go then?”
“Because it’s interesting to me that some people do. It has to mean something.”
“What does it mean?”
“You study religion. You tell me. I think maybe certain anxieties or pains are just too fucking scary on their own. We need somewhere to put them, otherwise they’re too overwhelming to wrap our heads around. Maybe we create a sixth sense to understand the stuff the other five can’t. Demons and ghosts are easier to digest than evil and death.”
That night I sat in bathroom where Mrs. Taylor keeps her washer and dryer as crickets chirped below through the window. Roden was in the hall arguing with Mrs. Taylor, their hushed voices hissing. “Please don’t go, Becky,” she pleaded. “There’s nothing for you there.” I tried to tune them out by doodling in my notebook as I sat on to of the counter next to the sink. The rest of the house was quiet but the silence held the tension of many rooms filled with unanswered voices. I kept thinking about how I associate words with things they don’t necessarily mean: restlessness with the Costco on Los Feliz, low-pitched music with certain deep blues, screech owls sitting motionless on a quiet night with a sense of dread. I sat and listened for the sound of hot laundry to stop tumbling. With the way cars would pass by in lonely stretches as the branches rustled outside it felt like someone was whispering.
I don’t know why it happened. I thought it was funny. That at first he said the woman had no idea who Larry was. Hiccups are funny like that. You never know if it’s gonna get back on track and that makes people nervous so it’s funny. The suspense. And I didn’t think too much as to whether or not it was actually happening because it wouldn’t change things one way or another. We were all still sitting in the trees in upstate New York with a bunch of people wearing denim-on-denim trying to communicate with ghosts. It didn’t really matter if it was true or not. The emotional effect would be the same either way. But then I started to notice how hot it was and that the wind wasn’t picking up. It was fine with the breeze but when it stopped something about all these bodies together and the fact that it was the middle of the summer and I couldn’t hold my shit. The wind wasn’t coming. It was so God damn still. I kept waiting for the wind thinking, ‘This isn’t that bad. I can stand it for another five minutes and by then the wind will come and everything will be fine.’ But then I started to panic: ‘Two minutes, has it been two minutes? Two minutes is like half of five almost. Half of five and not even the slightest rustle way off down the trail somewhere. Has it been two minutes? Five minutes? Three minutes? Fifteen? I have no idea anymore.’ I kept pulling air in as steady as I could but I didn’t feel it in my chest or my lungs or anywhere but my lips. My lips were turning chapped from sucking at the sky like a clogged vacuum cleaner. My body felt completely petrified, hard as stone. That’s when the shaking got worse. That’s when I was actually trembling. And as I held my hands in front of my face trying to recognize them as belonging to my body the thumbs started turning inward. There’s a plant I learned about in one of my ethnobotany classes— mimosa pudica—that has leaves that curl inward when you touch them. My hands were exactly like mimosa pudica. For an appendage of my body they were as alien to me as an obscure plant growing in the dirt. First the thumbs, then the other four all at once, clamped together like lobster claws. Then they started to tingle. But tingle is such a soft and playful word for it. If my arms weren’t also numb I could tell it would sting, it would burn. Heavy and numb. I couldn’t lift them. My elbows started bending in. I say ‘my elbows started bending in’ because I didn’t bend my elbows; my elbows bent themselves. They weren’t mine anymore. I couldn’t ungrip my fists. I couldn’t straighten my arms. From beyond the numbness I could feel my palms cramping. I lurched my neck forward to bite the back of my hand. Hoping the rush of blood to my extremities would do something. When my teeth were sinking into my skin it felt so God damn good. The cramping, the tingling, the numbness. None of them went away but they were muted enough to be bearable. I kept thinking, ‘If I don’t stop, I’m gonna hurt myself. I’m gonna break the skin.’ The tingling from my arms spread to my vision as little black specks ate away at the sky. I heard my name but I couldn’t even relax my fucking hands, let alone speak. Then I surrendered to it. I screamed and I dropped my head.
I pried Roden’s arm open and slung it over my shoulder, the crease of their elbow slowly tensing closed to pinch the back of my neck. Their body was limp, dragging next to me as I struggled to get up and away from the crowd without disturbing the service. The back rows nervously glanced between the spasming, possibly unconscious body and Patricia, some craning their heads to get a better look. The weight of their collective gaze pressed down on me as I tried to slink away. Patricia called over, “Is she okay?”
“Yeah,” I stumbled over a root. “They’re fine.”
I slid Roden down by a tree at the edge of the clearing. Their labored breath sounded like dying but people weren’t supposed to die here. I laced my fingers between theirs and held their arms steady on the ground, waiting for it to stop. Without opening their eyes they leaned against my shoulder: “Thank you.”
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah. That was weird though, wasn’t it?
“I think I had a panic attack. My arms started going numb. And I couldn’t breathe.”
“Jesus,” I rested my head against theirs.
They lifted their arm, fingers still pressed side by side. “Look.” Their knuckles bent in, mimicking claws clamping shut, “I’m a lobster.”
I laughed, “Let me see your hand.” I examined the purple ridge over their knuckle. “You gave yourself a hickey.”
“I guess I did,” they smiled.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, I’m confused—I don’t know what just happened—but I’m okay.”
Patricia approached us from across the clearing. She stood a few paces away, smiling softly. The wind carried feather-like strands of her hair toward the sky. The crowd was starting to disperse behind her, some people heading down the trail and back to their cars. Nobody else watched us anymore. For a moment she just stood there, acknowledging us from afar. When Roden looked up at her, she walked over.
She crouched down, “Are you okay, dear?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Roden answered.
“I know that must have been scary.”
They wouldn’t look her in the eye. “It was fine.”
I started to interject, “We didn’t mean to disturb the—”
“Well, I don’t want to bother you,” she cut me off. “I just wanted to tell you that when you’re ready to talk, she’s here. She knows you’re in pain and she misses you too. She wishes she could have been here all this time.” Patricia stood up and turned toward the forest. For a moment, Roden’s gaze just followed her, wide-eyed. Their mouth was slightly ajar. Once she was across the clearing they turned to me.
“What an asshole,” they said. “Who says that to someone they don’t even know?”
We drove back to our cabin, ten minutes from the streets lined with carvings of bears wrestling and angels staring, once Roden could walk. They were tired afterwards. Exhausted, really. I ranted about how many people we saw wearing socks with sandals and they smiled sleepily through closed eyes, leaning against the car door to rest. Once we got there I put some of our pajamas in the dryer to warm them up since the radio said it was going to rain that night. I heated soup on the stove for us and made grilled cheese to dip in it. The rain started to lightly fall when I checked in on Roden. I asked if they needed anything before bed. They were staring serenely into the wall, thinking. They smiled quietly at me when I peered in, sipping chamomile tea with rose in their cheeks. Then I went to my room to fall asleep.
It’s happened once before when I was younger. Wind. Nothing but wind. Like I’m falling and the air is beating against me. Then I can see and I’m not falling. I’m cutting through the air. I’m cutting through the air fast. It’s dark outside but I can see light from the moon bouncing off the trees, stone gray and naked. Cold. Their branches are gnarled like scrap metal after a car accident. I hear the whistling of the night sliding past me. I’m moving so fast that my peripheral vision is all blur. I can only see tunnel. Weaving through dampened trees, over the crests of mounds of wet leaves, past barns off in the distance. I can sense far off heartbeats even if I can’t see them—quick and faint for rabbits and birds, steady and booming for horses and cattle. I’m locked on to a human. Its pace quickens the closer I get. It knows I’m coming for it. Over the lawn, across the gravel driveway, through the front door, and down the halls: right turn, left turn, left turn. I’m in their room.
I hear a crash, the mug falling to the floor. My eyes shoot open but the rest of my body is paralyzed. I feel my lungs shriveling as the air is sucked dry. A face is suspended over me, looking down past a stringy frame of hair. I recognize its features from all the times I’ve looked in the mirror: dry, dusty skin, a beak-like nose over heart-shaped lips, sad, languid eyes. The gaze, though, is tensed into a thirsty determination I’ve never known. The most acidic, demonic terror is rushing through me and yet I also feel satisfaction, tenderness. I fear this face looking down at me and yet I also care for it, feel its pain, want its happiness. I don’t know how long its been attached to me. I don’t know if it’s there even when I can’t see it. I don’t even completely believe that it’s real. But it feels like a part of me and I’ve grown to love it, if only for the fact that we have a secret together.
I woke up to the rusty smell of the wet mesh screen across the window. Besides the continual pattering of rain out back water leaked from the gutters above, ticking with each drop that fell. My head pounded and my throat was scratchy. I turned over to reach for the glass on the bedside table and Roden was sitting on the bed next to me, legs tucked beneath them and their palms resting on their knees. They sat up straight, like a statue.
“Jesus, what are you doing?” I kneaded at my eyes with my thumb and index finger. The room was dark and I couldn’t hear much. Just the cavernous rhythm of their breath sinking and rising. I turned my head toward them, “Are you okay? Did you have another panic attack?”
They exhaled next to me, hot air grazing against my arm. My eyes started to adjust and I could see their ash brown hair draped across their shoulders, drenched strands dripping onto the bedding. The green sheets around them were saturated from a light sage to a deep seaweed against their chalky skin. I leaned in and smelled earth radiating from their clothes. Looking down, their feet were caked in clumps of mud and trampled leaves, snapped twigs caught in their sweatshirt. I leaned closer to peer into their face. It was still. No curl to their mouth or creases along their forehead. Mostly unremarkable except for their eyes. Their eyes were coated in a milky glaze, pupils wandered to the back of their skull and a white sheet left behind. They continued to breathe.
“Roden?” I wasn’t entirely sure what to do. Every question I asked just led to more silence. The water dripped from the gutter outside. I reached out to touch them. Their skin was taut with goosebumps. I cupped their shoulders between my palms and pressed them to the sheets. I was surprised by how relaxed their muscles were, how softly they met the pillow beneath them. I pulled the covers over their body and fell asleep with them next to me.
By: Alison McPherson