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Authors: Christine Wicker

Lily Dale (19 page)

BOOK: Lily Dale
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B
efore he died, Noel Lucas used to say, “If I'm the first one to go, and you feel someone pinch your fanny, it's me on the other side.”

“There are a hundred and one better ways than that for you to let me know,” Carol would reply.

It had all been a joke, of course, back in the days when their respective golf scores were of more pressing concern than illness or death or grief. Noel hadn't come back to pinch her, and if he had, Carol probably would have thought she imagined it. The messages Martie and Sherry Lee gave her—about golf lessons and dangerous tires—were convincing partly because they were so unexpected. They were nothing she could have ever imagined.

But, in truth, it wasn't only the mediums' words that swayed Carol toward believing a reality beyond reason might exist. She believed Noel's efforts to communicate with her through extraordinary means began when he was in the hospital for the last time. The first instance was one midafternoon when Carol, exhausted after a night at his bedside, left his room to take a nap. She fell asleep quickly and began to dream that Noel was coming toward her out of a blank background. Nothing was around him, and he said nothing, but the feeling was ominous.

She jolted awake thinking, “Noel's dead.”

Carol rushed back to the hospital. He was still in a coma. While she was there, a doctor told her that he didn't think Noel was going to survive. She and their daughter Stephanie put on a tape of a thunderstorm because Noel so loved listening to thunder and rain, and they began to talk to him. His heartbeat steadied for the first time. He was taken off all machines except the ventilator.

As the night wore on, Carol began to fear the moment of his death. She told her daughter that she wasn't sure she could bear it, but she also couldn't bear to leave. One of the unhooked machines began to beep. Carol left to call a nurse.

“Mrs. Lucas, there's no reason for that machine to be beeping,” the nurse said as they met in the hall.

They walked back into the room, and Stephanie said, “He's gone, Mom.”

“That was Noel's last gift to me,” Carol said when I talked to her after her visit to Lily Dale. He had somehow caused the beeping so she would not have to endure watching his last breath. “I believe that.”

A month after his death, Carol took her coffee and newspaper to the back deck. She sat in Noel's rocking chair so she wouldn't have to look at it squatting there as empty as a human lap. Everywhere she turned there was some gap left by Noel's disappearance, a thousand little jolts a day. She could see the water garden he made for her birthday and the wind chimes he hung in a too-sheltered spot. They never rang. He often mentioned moving them, but he never did.

She sipped her coffee as she gazed toward the golf course where they had played together so many times. South Carolina can be muggy even in May. This morning was cool and fresh but already airless.

Setting the coffee down, she pulled the newspaper off the table and snapped it open. She was trying to focus on the news when she heard a silvery sound. More than a sound, a commotion. It was the chimes. She could see them, shivering across the yard's dappled shade as though someone had reached out and given them a hard shake. She looked at the tops of the trees. They were motionless.

She got up. What was this? She walked toward the pond. Not a leaf moved, but the chimes were agitated, excited now into a cascade of sound. They were fairly jumping on their strings. She looked around for a squirrel or a bird. Had something fallen on the chimes? Nothing was near. Nothing was on the ground around them. She saw no animals.

Just as the wind chimes were about to fall silent, they leapt again as though someone had swiped a hand through them.

Was it Noel?

She stood close to the chimes. There was no breeze, but they were still swirling as though caught in a whirlwind.

It was Noel. She could almost feel his presence.

Carol said, “Okay, dear. I get the point.”

She turned, went back to the porch, and sat down. The chimes stopped. As is often the case with such occurrences, Carol didn't feel excited or strange. She was calm and almost matter-of-fact. Without Lily Dale, she might have passed the moment off as her imagination, but after spending time with Martie and Sherry Lee, Carol reassessed the moment and counted it as a blessing.

On another morning Carol awoke to the sound of a door opening, and then she heard Noel's voice.

“Carol, are you up yet?” he said, as he had on a hundred other mornings.

For a moment Carol believed that his death had been the dream and that his voice was the reality. Then she came fully awake, and life fell about her like a sodden blanket. She might have
sunk under the weight of it and been filled with renewed despair, except for Lily Dale.

The mediums said that Noel wasn't dead. He was alive. Out of his body, but still alive and still in touch. Carol believed it. They had convinced her of it.

“Nobody is going to take this away from me,” she said of her new belief. “I won't let them.”

 

E
very day we learned a little more about Anne.

She now lives in Virginia, where she has earned her reputation as one of the most popular mediums in Washington, D.C. She confirmed that highly placed people consult her regularly but would not give any names. It wouldn't be ethical, she said. Police and family often consult her to find missing persons, she said. She told the class about how she helped catch serial killer Ted Bundy when she was living in Florida. She saw part of his license plate and described his van. She got the names Brady or Bradley and Ed or Ted. She said they could catch him through fraudulent use of credit cards and described the hotel where he was staying. I checked with an FBI friend about confirming that story. He laughed. Nobody in the FBI would admit it even if it was true, he said.

Anne also said she helped W. W. Keeler, the chairman of Phillips Petroleum, find oil. She studied geological maps and then directed pilots to fly her to certain areas. After walking over the ground, she selected a spot and knew that oil was underneath. She stood over the spot and lifted her arm into the air. Then she brought it down like a lever, up and down, up and down. Each pumping of her arm represented so many feet of depth.

Keeler wrote the preface to a book about Anne. He definitely believed in her powers, but his testimonial to her powers didn't mention that she had found oil.

I wanted to believe Anne. I was pretty sure she was of sound mind, and I didn't think she was a liar. Her Georgetown University professor was once a Jesuit, and she told me that Georgetown had asked her to teach a class about Spiritualism. And she could do amazing things. When she and four other mediums were tested by University of Arizona psychic researcher Gary Schwartz, they were 83 percent correct for one sitter and 77 percent correct for a second sitter. The sixty-eight control subjects who tried to give messages were 36 percent accurate.

I was practiced by then at accepting stories that would have been too bizarre for comment in the outside world, but the oil story strained me. I might not understand the mysteries of the universe. I might not understand the force of love. But I knew a lot about the power of greed. Those oilmen wouldn't care if she had three heads, clucked like a chicken, and spoke pig Latin. If Anne could make them money, they'd all be asking her to dance. I asked her why the Phillips deal fell through.

“Well, Mr. Keeler died,” she said, “and my contract was with him. So that ended it.”

When I repeated that story to Shelley, she said, “Anne wouldn't lie about it.” Maybe Keeler didn't tell anyone else. If Anne was his golden goose, maybe he didn't want anyone to know. Or maybe finding oil with a psychic embarrassed him and would have run off his investors.

So what was going on? One of the first lessons I learned in Lily Dale was that truth is slippery there. It's always good to ask, Whose truth are we going by?

 

W
as everyone lying? Were they rearranging the facts to make them fit a good story? Or were they imagining things? Was anything real at the core of these stories? And if there wasn't anything, why were so many people telling so many stories? A mass case of wishful thinking?

I was increasingly aware that my quest for “just the facts, please” might be missing the reality of what Lily Dale is about. If Jung were around, he might say that the people of the Dale are tapping into consciousness beyond their individual minds to find archetypes that reflect their soul's hopes, allay their fears, and assure their inner selves. He might say they are reacting to a world that has gone too far into rationality, cutting its inhabitants off from deep wells of meaning.

Maybe Lily Dale's stories are like ancient myths that don't have to be literally true because facts aren't the point. The point is that such stories resonate with us spiritually. They answer our deep need to believe the universe contains order and purpose. In a post-modern culture, perhaps perfectly sane but spiritually adrift people retreat into their own visions because there are so few alternatives. Maybe Lily Dale fosters that, and maybe it serves a good purpose.

But I was a journalist, and facts were all I knew. My soul's desire was to see something that I couldn't reason away.

At the end of class on Wednesday, Anne announced that we would tip tables the next day. At last. Here was my chance to see something with my own eyes.

W
hen table-tipping day arrived, we were as wiggly as schoolchildren. Finally, Anne told us we could move our chairs to the side of the room. For almost a week, we had mucked around in theories and murky stories and prophecies that might be only good guesses. Now we were going to
see
something.

I was not entirely a novice at table tipping. My family once sat around a card table with our hands placed flat, the tips of our thumbs and little fingers touching as we chanted in rumbling unison, “Up table, up table, up table, up.” My uncles cheated somehow, probably by pushing one edge of the table until the other side rose. They were good enough frauds to thrill my grandmother. My eyes were pretty wide too, but when Grandma began plying the table with questions about whether any money was coming to her, my uncles fell away from the table, clutching their bellies, guffawing like donkeys, and the game was over.

A hundred years ago, communicating tables were a commonplace example of physical mediumship. Families all over America and Europe gathered, dimmed the lights, and turned ordinary kitchen tables into oracles of cosmic wisdom. One group sat every night for seven weeks before their furniture so much as wobbled, but such was the faith of the times that they didn't give up. In
France, the pastime was so popular that actors would tip tables in the wings of the theater while waiting to go on.

As usual with Spiritualist practices, chicanery was a problem. Mediums devised many ways to make tables do their bidding without otherworldly aid. They fastened poles under their wrists inside their sleeves so that when they bent their arms to place their hands on the table, the rods extended under the rim and could be used to leverage the table upward. In the dark of the séance room, they might slip the toe of a shoe under one table leg and use the force of their hand to balance the table as it rose.

In our class, the lights were on. Three tables were to be used. We didn't want them to rap answers to our questions. We just wanted them to move. One table was the big, solid, four-legged table from the Maplewood Hotel that students told me had floated last year. I was stationed at a small, but stable and sturdy, pedestal table. Two of us could fit on each side. We put our hands on the tabletop and began singing.

“Do rounds,” somebody yelled.

The table to our left started “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Our table joined after the first line, and then the third table came in. A dizzy clamor of melodies filled the old assembly hall. Some students leaned close, crooning over the flat dark surfaces, “Come on, table, come on, get up.” Others pleaded, “Please, please, table, rise. We know you can.” Others prayed, “Spirit, help us. We need your help.” One woman seemed almost in a trance as she bent over the table with her hair hanging around her face, swaying back and forth, moaning.

I watched my fellow students' hands. No one seemed to be pushing. I didn't think they would, not consciously. We wanted the spirits to do their stuff, and at least three-quarters of the group had no doubt that they would. The tables had no cloths, and we stood with our hands, legs, and feet in plain sight. Others stood watching.

Our table rocked the tiniest bit. Then it stopped. Encouraged, we launched into a heartier round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” The table rocked to the right and then the left. I looked to see whether anyone's fingers seemed pressed too tightly. Mine rested so lightly that they slid when the table moved. Others seemed to do the same.

Then the table rocked again, left to right, left to right, left to right. Now it was tipping like a ship in a storm, up and down. Then it rocked forward and back, left and right, forward and back. We started to laugh with excitement. The table began to move in circles, hopping around like some crazed Cossack dancer. Our hands slid about on the surface. And then we ran, trying to keep our hands on the table as it twirled round and round, across the room.

“Keep singing,” someone yelled. “Keep singing.” I was out of breath, woozy with too much circling and laughing. The table bobbed about, tilting wildly in one direction and then skipping to the next leg. It was like something alive. And we shouted out to it, as though it could hear us, “Keep going, table. You're doing it.”

Then, with one lunge to the left, it fell completely over.

“Don't stop,” Anne called to us from another table. “Keep the energy going. You can get it up.”

I didn't see how. We sang and we pleaded and we prayed. And nothing happened. The table was completely on its side. It couldn't possibly rise. And it didn't.

“Don't give up,” Anne shouted above the voices all around, and we didn't. We knelt and canted our bodies to the side so that we could keep our hands in place. We called for reinforcements, and other students gathered around to add their hands and their all-important energy.

“MERRILY, MERRILY, MERRILY, MERRILY, LIFE IS BUT A DREAM.” We were roaring by now. All of Lily Dale must
have heard us. But the table was dead, keeled over, exhausted probably, as dead as it had been before we transformed it. We were gasping ourselves, but we kept trying. We had the faith now.

Nothing happened. Then Anne, singing along with us, moved to our part of the room. She put one hand on the table's perpendicular surface, and damned if the thing didn't start to come up. I looked at her hand, studied the nails to see whether they showed any white from being flattened. She put her other hand on the table. The fingers were touching, and then the palm. Could I see daylight between the table and the heel of her hand? Sometimes I could. I looked at the muscles and the bones in the back of her hand. No hard ridges of strain showed. If she was pressing any more than I was, I couldn't tell it. But the table was coming up. I looked at everyone else's hands and then their faces. Were they cheating?

They were looking at my hands and my face with the same suspicion. So maybe none of us were.

Steadily it rose. The heavy top was rising against gravity, tilting itself upright again. Nobody pushed from the top edge. Nobody braced the legs. I couldn't believe it, but there it was, sitting upright and then dancing again.

Anne left for the four-legged table. Students were working themselves into a frenzy around it, but nothing moved. Then our table stopped suddenly, as though someone had gripped the legs and pulled them down. For a few minutes it did nothing. Our song became shouted choruses as we beamed energy into our hands. The table rocked, and then toppled, and once again we couldn't get it up until Anne's hands touched the surface. Even if she was pushing the tabletop, I didn't see how she could move the heavy wooden top from a complete sideways standstill to an upright position. It didn't seem possible, but I saw it happen.

We left that day chattering and laughing. What happened? Something real. We'd seen it. We'd felt it. We knew it. The world
was not as static as we thought. It was full of marvels. Anything could happen next.

That night I told everyone at Shelley's about my table exploit. “I don't know what it was,” I kept saying, “but I saw it happen. I did.” Only one thing bothered me. The four-legged table didn't move. Why not?

I went back to the Assembly Hall. As I stood over the pedestal table, I pushed on its edges. It was solid, heavy, and sturdy, not rickety. I placed my fingers on it and ran them across the surface as I had before, lightly and gently. Nothing happened, but as I kept at it, not cheating, just letting my energy rise, I applied pressure to one edge and felt a shift. I continued moving my fingers back and forth. The table began to rock. Now I was using no force whatsoever, just letting my hands slide and slip, and the table was bucking all over the floor on its own momentum, just as it had in class. Drat.

The magic was gone. The mundane rules of the physical universe were once again in place. A top-heavy table. A pedestal base. Excited people. No spirits needed. We didn't cheat. Not consciously. Nobody had to.

I told Anne what I'd discovered. She didn't contradict me, just looked at me with that calm, unreadable face.
She knew it all the time,
I thought bitterly.
She knew about that table.

“What about the times it came up from the ground?” she asked quietly. “How did it do that?” The look she gave me then was a mixture of sadness and something else. Resignation? Was that because she believed and was weary of having her proofs rejected? Or was it because I'd exposed the trick?

“I don't know how it came up from the floor,” I said. My voice was flat with disappointment. Once fooled, twice wary. I would never believe it was spirits.

BOOK: Lily Dale
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