Authors: Ekaterina Sedia
For a few seconds a face caught by the lens sharpens into a muzzle, the eyes gleam, the viewer tries to catch another glimpse and can’t. It’s the first sight of a serial killer.
Theories abound as to what tricks were used to produce that effect. But insiders know the scene was intentionally filmed at a certain moment on a certain night. And many believe that live on nights like this is the only way to see our kind perform.
Cops, emergency medics, and bartenders will tell you that a full moon brings out the beast. But all they have is anecdotes. Ransom is the proof, as am I in my way.
I should be inside but I feel the tension they call Moon Itch stirring inside me and need to be out here tonight. So I stand in the doorway of the old apartment house across the street from the Cherry Lane. In tight black slacks and a black turtleneck, wearing light make-up I’m ready to perform. A ritual is about to take place and I am the priest and also the priestess.
New Yorkers are ever on the watch for celebrities and some have noticed me. “Josie Gannon” I hear them murmur as they stare like I’m the Sybil or a shaman.
The Why of Were,
makes me an L-ROD expert gets me on TV as a talking head when Lunar-Related-Obssessive-Disorder gets discussed. And Ransom aficionados know I’m embedded in his story. When we were both new in this city, I was the androgynous roommate.
Edia, his first New York girl friend, died of an overdose and can’t be here tonight. Random and Selka, his first wife, parted under unfortunate circumstances. He stabbed her on a certain night of the month. It wasn’t a really serious wound and she didn’t press charges. But she also won’t be showing up.
Wife Two hasn’t been heard from lately. On parting she said, “It’s waking up every day figuring out how long it is till the next full moon and wondering who he’s going to be when it happens.”
Before and after each of them I was best girl, therapist and pillow boy. I think of myself as a shaman: a woman with the strength of a man and a man with the insight of a woman. But after all these years I wonder if this is love, obsession or the absence of an alternative. At times it feels like he and I are the only true examples of a breed.
Channeling our ability or affliction is the skill. A shiver goes through me and I let my face shift from older woman to young boy, from girl to old man. For all their fascination the fans are afraid to approach me and that I think is only right.
Some members of the crowd and I share a tension, a discomfort in our skin as the time slips close to midnight. A face here and there flickers, a appears to be fluid. The Moon Itch real or imagined is almost palpable. Many are impatient, some think this is a last chance to see Thad Ransom, the great shape shifter.
Then from a sound system in the theater lobby comes a crystal clear soprano: Dvorak’s water nymph Rusalka laments to the silver night goddess her hopeless love for a mortal. Our show tonight is called,
A Song to the Moon
On cue, hand drums are heard around the corner and the crowd turns. A voice proclaims, “You know who I am. I’m the thunder at twilight and the cry at the gates.”
And there amid a phalanx of young, black-clad players is Thad Ransom, six foot four with a shock of white hair, half man, half mythic creature, all actor. At this moment the voice is Barrymore’s, the eyes could belong to an intelligent coyote. But the haminess is all his. Ransom’s managed to become a man notorious for being notorious.
A camera and a boom microphone follow him. Another camera is inside the open door of the theater. He is the subject of a documentary which explains the venue, the lights and the hour.
As I step forward the young players see me, reach out and get me through the crowd. Some of our company are actors, a couple are musicians. Some are just shape shifter wannabees but tonight there are gleaming eyes and bared teeth in the group.
I notice that especially in Tomlinson, called Tommy, the company bad boy and favorite, the one who reminds everyone of the young Ransom. Tommy’s bouncing on his toes.
A couple of punks in the crowd bark, someone howls and Tomlinson answers with a long howl of his own. I’m used to danger but I wince at how the crowd plays with moon-driven actors.
A young actress Mary Kowal, puts her army around Tommy. Ransom kisses me on the cheek and sweeps me with him. He turns at the lobby door and says to the crowd, “I am the fear every factory owner feels when he finds himself awake in bed in the hours after midnight.”
Great stuff: 1940 Broadway socialism. This being the crowd that it is many besides me recognize the lines from the Kaufman and Hart comedy
Sat On A Wall.
In act one the daughter of a dull, rich family brings home a Greenwich Village artist named Pierce Falkland. His specialty is huge murals of heroic workers and farmers. In the second act Falkland paints his greatest work on the living room wall and turns their world upside down.
A young John Garfield played it originally on Broadway. Clark Gable, of course, did the movie with a lot less socialism and a lot more kissing.
On the night of a full blue moon almost forty years ago young Ransom as Falkland blew the minds of the second string critics sent to view a revival of that rickety comedy. “Pure Animal Power!” one of them wrote.
Tonight, for a few moments, the white hair and the years are wiped off his face and he is the young stage radical. Ransom and I have planned and discussed tonight’s show for months. But this is unrehearsed and spontaneous. With such an actor at such an hour it’s impossible to predict what will happen.
The crowd, the people looking down from apartment windows applaud. A few howl. At times I wish the Food and Drug Administration would speed up the approval of drug therapy for Luna-Related-Obsessive-Disorder, not for the actors but for the fans.
A camera tracks us as Ransom and I go through the lobby and down the center aisle of the Cherry Lane. The curtain is up revealing an unadorned stage. The house lights remain on for this performance.
The audience turns to watch us. Our players stop in the standing room at the back of the house.
After this we’ll play larger venues—big old theaters, concert halls, open meadows in parks. The Cherry Lane is a choice both sentimental and artistic; an evocation of Ransom’s past, a chance to capture a performance in an intimate setting.
Ransom turns his back to the audience and stands motionless facing the rear wall. The cultists all lean forward in their seats. Behind them our players are a shifting background of black clothes and moving faces.
I sit on a stool stage center. When the music stops, I lean forward and slip into a favorite dual roll as man of learning and priestess of the moon.
“As I speak the clocks have moved past midnight.”
Someone down front gives a little yip and someone in back answers. I ignore this.
“In the wild, the hunt for food is all consuming,” I tell them. “Some of us have bits of that obsession, especially on a night like this. In the hunt the ability to choose your physical form is a huge advantage and some of us retain traces of that.
“We are a society addicted to turning problems into excuses and letting cable TV news define our character.
“They whisper that we are a menace. But in my entire career I’ve have seen just five full lupus transformations and all of them were in hospitals, jails or both.”
As I speak, the audience murmurs. I feel my mass shift, my face crinkle. Without a mirror or monitor I know that my face is half man of learning/half woman of magic.
Ransom turns slowly, faces the audience, steps forward. “My father,” he says softly, “would have looked the way I usually do if he’d lived as long as I have and gave up crew cuts.” This part he has rehearsed.
“Thaddeus Taylor Ransom preached hellfire in the fields. He’d done a bit of college, University of Nebraska, before he went off to war. Got wounded and frostbitten in the Battle of the Bulge. Won a Silver Star, two purple hearts, maybe lost a few things.
“But my father believed that God in that very time gave him what Dad called his visions and the voice to tell us about them.”
Ransom’s delivery is slow and steady, growing hypnotic just like his father’s must have been. “He could describe the sun at midnight and the red eye of Satan. His family was Presbyterian but that church wouldn’t hold him when he returned. Instead he discovered The Children of the Fire, an apocalyptic sect. In your moment of spiritual need the Children were there with the comfort of a guaranteed fiery death.
“My father became a preacher. He was a charismatic, a hands-on healer.” When Thad reaches this point his face has become stark with burning eyes as its main feature. “He preached on Sundays. And sometimes in church it could seem like he was burning the world down.
“Often, though, he saved the most intense moments for his family. That was my mother and two sisters and me.”
Here Ransom’s voice rises. “And at certain times, nights like this one, he would gather us in the living room and run something like this, ‘The Lord’s Great Eyes, God the Father’s great eyes are upon us. His fiery gaze is upon us. It burns into your chest, into your heart, into your soul!’
“One of those nights, he woke me up, just me. I must have been ten, maybe eleven, dragged me out in my pajamas to a pasture where there was a pond and baptized me under the moonlight. I’d been baptized years before in daylight and in church.
“But this time he had a pair of torches he’d made with rolled paper and tar. He submerged me in the water, pulled me out by the scruff of the neck and held the torches so close they singed my hair.”
“THE UNION OF WATER AND FIRE IN ONE BODY,” Ransom yells, his eyes are huge as plates. “MY SON WILL NEVER REST EASY IN YOUR SERVICE, GOD OF FIRE.”
And at that moment Ransom is as big and as terrible as that father was to that little kid. I can hear the audience gasp, see their fear.
Then the voice softens; the eyes get a little sad, a bit pensive, become no larger than anyone’s. “He collapsed in the pulpit one ordinary Sunday morning six or seven years later and died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Over time a bullet fragment had worked its way into his heart.
“Six months later my mother married a member of the congregation, a man who owned a Buick dealership. My sisters were regular kids. Maybe I was the old man’s only legacy.
“When I was eighteen I left town for state college. I ended up in the Drama Department. They say acting and preaching are related skills. At the end of sophomore year, needing more space between my family and me, I left home and ended up in New York.”
He sits on a stool. The audience nods: Ransom’s upbringing was extreme but lots of them came here from situations into which they didn’t fit. And more than a few get a bit turned inside out by the light of the moon.
I look up and smile. “My launching on the lunar path was a bit less dramatic.
“It was on a fine, warm night when I was maybe four. My Irish grandmother was taking clothes down from the line on the roof of the apartment building in Boston where she lived.
“Grandmother hadn’t really decided who or what I was—never did I think. They’d named me Joseph but were already calling me Josie. It’s a slippery name that over the years has come to be as much a girl’s as a boy’s.
“She pointed up at the moon and recited that ancient appeal to the goddess of the night sky. It was invented for protection against the creatures that mean us harm and walk in the silver light:
“I see the moon and the moon sees me
God bless the moon and God bless me”
“Was it also a prayer for those beings who are its worst captives, the women and the men ensnared in the lunar cycle? Could my grandmother sense that in me?
“It was part of the folklore of every nationality long before it became Lunar Related Obsessive Disorder and got discussed on TV and the internet.
“But if it’s a disease where is the virus? If it’s a mental disorder where are the conclusive studies? And if the moon’s role is a delusion, why are there nights like these?”
I hear my voice at a distance. My face moves on its own. The lunar priest and the woman of science flicker there and a camera catches them.
As I finish Ransom is prowling the stage. “I came to this city the usual way,” he says, “knowing noand nothing and almost immediately fell in with the perfect wrong crowd. A girl I met took me to an acting class at the New School.”
We are into an old routine, one I can almost watch myself do. “I saw him the first time sitting in that acting studio all legs and hostility,” I say. “Afterwards we talked and walked. It was late in the lunar cycle on a summer night with nothing in the sky but the Dog Star. Even without the moon he was intense. His eyes never blinked. He ended up crashing in the same pad I was staying at.”
“I’d never met anyone like Josie,” says Ransom. “But I figured this must be how people were in the big city. Josie explained a few things about my life. I realized there was noelse like Josie—except me in lots of ways.
“I don’t know if going to Central Park in the dead of night a couple of weeks later was his idea or her idea.”
Laughter follows. “It was yours,” I say, “For several reasons I expected life to include some danger. And thought anyone we encountered would find you as scary as I did. So I went along.”
Remembering that night I begin to relive it. I can smell the grass, feel the night breeze. As I return to that night I can feel myself change and see him become young again.
“The wonder of that place at midnight is you can forget the city,” he says. “Our senses sharpened. We moved in shadows, dodged police patrols, and walked to the north end of the park. The Harlem Mere at two a.m. had the Harvest Moon shining on the water. There was a waterfall and lone cars with their lights on high-beam speeding along the drives: the only other sound was the wind rustling in the trees.”
“Our heads touched the sky—without acid,” I add. And I am there. We recited Shakespeare “Oh, swear not by the moon, the fickle moon, the inconstant moon . . . ” We sang, “Oh Moon of Alabama”
, we sing a few choruses about finding the next whiskey bar, the next pretty boy. For us the Cherry Lane stage disappears.