The Experiment -Perle Besserman
For his exclusive services as Doctor John Dee’s experimental subject, psychic Edward Kelley claimed the turret bedroom of the Dee’s Amagansett mansion, plus meals, free of charge. Following a brief, somewhat testy discussion, John agreed to Kelley’s demand for the “absolutely non-negotiable” fee of three hundred dollars in cash per week before sending an email to all participants and staff canceling the Amagansett House Seminars until further notice. Its windows shut tight and curtains drawn to avoid both sunlight and the prying eyes of curious neighbors, the study now served as a “lab,” absent—at Kelley’s insistence—computers, cell phones, or any other technical device whose electro-magnetic field might interfere with his psychic energy flow; the exception being a free-standing air conditioner. According to their hastily agreed upon daily “protocol,” Kelley would sit with his hands palms down on the table gazing at the crystal in front of him; John opposite, notebook and pen in hand, ready to record the day’s events. After a brief hypnotic induction, Kelley would fall into deep trance as John watched for the shallow, rhythmic breathing, relaxed facial muscles, and dilated pupils signaling that his subject had reached what he’d designated as “Stage Five” before posing questions. On the morning of the first trial, almost as soon as he’d entered into trance, Kelley swayed once in his chair, and, before John could reach out to steady him, fell to the floor. John tried helping him up, but Kelley waved him away. “Don’t move,” he croaked in an old man’s voice, head hidden in the folds of his black poncho, knees drawn to his chest. John did as instructed but almost bolted out of his own chair a few seconds later when Kelley loosed a loud string of Latin vernacular curses. Forewarned by his Livermore colleagues that intervening in his subject’s erratic behavior (which might include Tourette’s syndrome-like “fits”) could have negative neurological and/or psychological effects, John forced himself to stay put. Suddenly, Kelley, who was still on the floor, began writhing, then crawling, on his belly toward the table, his outstretched hands groping for the crystal. These alarming antics were accompanied by a loud shriek followed—now in Kelley’s own voice, in English—by the astonishing claim that the archangel Michael was standing in front of him with arms aloft, blessing the proceedings. Though at first doubtful of the angelic—or any other—ethereal manifestation, John’s skepticism was instantly dissolved when at his end of the table, etched into the wood, a seal suddenly appeared as if by automatic writing, in the form of a circle, at the center of which were inscribed the letters A-G-L-A. At the close of that morning’s dramatic session (of which Kelley claimed to have no memory whatsoever) John searched the books in his library for the meaning of the mysterious letters. In a Kabbalistic text on the practice of esoteric Hebrew letter permutations, he discovered that AGLA was an ancient acronym for one of the powerful invoking names of God: “Thou art great forever among the hosts, O Lord.” Returning to the study during their lunch break, John carefully examined the table where the letters had been etched, noting that the seal was gone and the wood was as smooth and shiny as before. Acquainted with the similar telekinetic abilities of subjects he’d witnessed in Prague, John was less surprised by the manifestation and disappearance of the mystical Hebrew letters than by the religious nature of Kelley’s visions. Though he was curious about his volatile subject’s multiple personalities, keen to know, for example, where Kelley had learned Hebrew, not to speak of enough Latin to curse in flawless medieval vernacular, John decided it would be best not to question him just yet. There would be sufficient time for a complete psychological history, a physical examination, and a battery of intelligence tests. Kelley’s background, education, and personal life details would be revealed soon enough. There were other signs, more immediately disturbing, however, that his psychologist wife and partner, Jane, had been quick to point out, and continued to hammer home to him at night when they were alone in their bedroom. First on her rather detailed list of observations (was she secretly taking notes?) was her preliminary diagnosis of his subject’s mental status. Given Kelley’s refusal to allow any electronic or mechanical device in the room as an obstruction to his “psychic energy flow,” why had he insisted on an air conditioner? Didn’t such blatant inconsistency hint at the possibility that he might be schizoid, if not a fake? In either case, Jane argued, her neck flushing red, they could expect no end to their guest’s contradictory demands. She ended with a warning: “I’d advise you to keep in mind that surrendering control to a subject, especially a mentally unstable one like Kelley, is not only unprofessional but unethical, and could even lead to your de-certification by the American Psychological Association.” John conceded that Kelley’s request for an air conditioner was contradictory, though not necessarily schizoid. But his half-hearted attempt at countering her argument misfired, leading Jane to change tack with a rundown of Kelley’s anti-social behavior and “disgusting personal habits,” citing his rudeness, his irritability, his slovenliness, his dirty bitten fingernails, and, judging from the stains and the smell, his unwashed clothing. While he agreed with each of her points, John tried steering the discussion in a more professional direction by asserting that Kelley’s personal flaws were a small price to pay in exchange for the startling accuracy of his daily predictions, the number of hits he scored on the ESP card readings, not to mention his uncanny ability to replicate entire paragraphs of difficult scientific prose, charts, tables, and drawings at a distance. And there, for the time being, the discussion ended. * * * * * * As the weeks wore on there were more astral appearances—“spirit guides” invoked by Kelley—offering specific, and verifiable, information on a variety of unrelated topics. John no longer spoke to Jane about what was going on in the lab, lapsing only once by questioning Kelley at the dinner table on an evening in late July—and thereby provoking the flare-up he’d been trying so hard to avert. “Could these ‘spirits’ or ‘angels,’ as you call them, be psychic archetypes; I mean, timeless thoughts and images floating around in the collective unconscious that you’re picking up?” John asked almost unaware that he’d voiced his thoughts out loud. Kelley, offering no reply, sat munching on a lamb bone. By now accustomed to his subject’s rudeness, John continued. “It’s as if you’re using your imagination as an antenna, forming the messages into angelic images according to your own unconscious style. It reminds me of a subject I once worked with, a grad student who struck too many hits for chance. We labeled her ‘sensitive’ and studied her for about six months. Her visions came through as fairy tale characters she’d been exposed to in her childhood. Snow White . . . Sinbad . . . even Mickey Mouse and several Tolkien creatures. We found she was translating the messages into her own language with these images—as if personal fantasy were like a kind of dialect, or speech pattern, or accent. The voices varied, but the content of the messages was uncannily accurate. She could foretell news stories before they broke on TV or radio or in the newspapers, as much as a week in advance. Volcanic eruptions, stock market drops, the deaths of prominent figures . . . all negative messages, all coded in fairy tales. Amazing . . .” Telling him to wipe his fingers, Jane abruptly handed Kelley a napkin before turning on John. “It’s more likely that those so-called ‘spirit voices’ are actually projections of your own deepest wishes and shared fantasies,” she said archly, sweeping crumbs from under Kelley’s plate. “I’d say it’s a case of ‘right you are if you think you are.’” Snatching up Kelly’s glass, she carried it to the kitchen and tossed the leftover wine into the sink. John sat with bowed head as if praying over his untouched food. Kelley leapt to his feet and followed Jane into the kitchen to retrieve his glass. “Hey, I’m not done with my wine yet.” Shocked by an electrical charge as his hand touched hers, Jane surrendered the glass then swiveled around to face him. Her green eyes flashing, she screamed, “Damn it! Damn you both! I don’t want this at my table. I just won’t have it!” Leaving Kelley at the sink, she stomped back into the dining room and planted herself in front of John. “Isn’t it enough that you cram yourself for hours on end in that so-called lab of yours without bringing your experiments to dinner? And speaking of dinner—why don’t we ever eat alone anymore? Why can’t Kelley eat out once in a while? I’m not here to shop and cook and serve him. Only the most expensive imported beer . . . no bananas . . . no egg plants . . . only organic oranges . . . If he requires such a special diet why don’t you take him to a health spa? Who is he to have taken over the house like this? Our house?” Jane paced around the table like a lioness preparing to charge her fallen prey. “Here it is only eight o’clock and you’ve already worked yourself into a rage.” John reached out to catch hold of her as she passed behind his chair, but Jane eluded him and continued pacing. “It usually takes you until ten to really get going,” he added coldly. Kelley stood eyeing them from the kitchen doorway. “Seems to me a wife should be looking after her husband’s needs and not dictating to him,” he said, picking gristle from his teeth. “Either Kelley eats dinner out in town tomorrow, or we don’t eat at all!” Jane yelled, a blue vein visibly pulsing in her forehead. “Edward,” Kelley drawled, mocking her. “You must call me Edward from now on if we are to be one happy family. We mustn’t argue amongst ourselves, especially when there are so many enemies out there, so many irresponsible people looking to discredit John’s work. We must pull together if the research is to succeed, mustn’t we, Jane? I may call you Jane, may I not?” “Come, Edward, let’s go back to work, we have half an hour of light left,” John got up from the table, and taking Kelley by the arm, escorted him down the hall toward the study. Fighting the urge to deliver Kelley a good hard punch between the shoulders, Jane followed abjectly behind them. It was too late now; she should have punched him when he’d scuttled past her at the sink and grazed her breast with his elbow. She’d been stupid not to tell John about it, leaving her rage to fester. Why hadn’t she revealed the real reason for her anger and exposed Kelley for all the times he’d “accidentally” pressed his stinking body against hers? Would John care if she had told him? Or would that only antagonize him, provoke one of his icy silences—like the one he’d fallen into now? It was useless. The two men had already formed an alliance against her—the hysterical, possessive, shrill female enemy. “How very astute of you, Mr. Kelley, to pinpoint our weaknesses, and home in on them in such a short time!” she called at his retreating back. Turning suddenly and grabbing her by the wrist, John whispered into her ear. “I urge you to control yourself, Jane. Can’t you see that the man isn’t always aware of what he is saying?” “Bullshit! He’s more aware than you’ll ever be!” John put his hand over her mouth. “Stop it. You’ll wake Arthur.” Still holding her wrist, he maneuvered her through the hallway, opened the front door, and guided her out onto the lawn. Then cupping a handful of water from the stone birdbath, he splashed her face with it. Jane threw herself against his chest. “I’m begging you, John, please send him away.” “I’m sorry. I can’t.” Pushing her aside, he walked back into the house and left her standing alone on the lawn. A swift salt breeze was blowing in from the ocean. Across the road, a young couple sat on a green bench. A wet black dog was shaking itself off at their feet, occasionally stopping to paw the young man, who, every so often, tried to distract the dog by throwing a stick toward the dunes in a game of fetch it. Finally tired of the dog’s antics, the couple rose from the bench, interlocked arms, and headed for the beach. Barking gleefully and frantically wagging its tail, the dog followed behind them. Jane returned to the house and went to bed. John was having another nightmare. He was dead, a corpse stretched out on a surgeon’s table awaiting an autopsy. A shrouded figure recognizable only as “the enemy” entered the room with an immense butcher knife and, cutting into the soft white flesh of his belly, neatly and deliberately disemboweled him before entering his library and putting the torch to his books. Shivering and moaning, he sat up in bed, waking Jane. “What’s wrong?” John was on the verge of telling her his dream, but now fully awake and recalling the scene she’d made at dinner, decided against it. “Nothing serious, just a bit of indigestion.” “You know not to drink wine so soon before bed,” Jane said, stretching. “Listen, the birds are singing like mad.” She got out of bed, walked to the window, lifted the shade, and stood watching the thin, milky sunrise of what promised to be an overcast day, the placid open meadow at the rear of the house mocking the tumult inside her. When she’d tired of watching, she went into the bathroom, pulled her nightgown over her head, tossed it into the laundry hamper, and sat down naked on the toilet to pee. A sparrow hopped onto the bedroom window ledge singing as it went about its early morning business of worrying ants. Savoring the last precious moments between dreamless dozing and thought-ridden wakefulness, John lay with his eyes closed listening to its insistent chirping. “You haven’t been sleeping well, John. I can feel you tossing against me. Are you sure it’s only indigestion?” Jane asked, returning from the bathroom. No reply but labored breathing. Jane stood naked looking down at her husband’s heaving chest, her heart clenching with the too familiar terror of losing the man she loved more than life itself. For five minutes she stood watching him pretend to sleep, synchronizing her inhalations and exhalations with his. Then she returned to the bathroom and got into the shower. John got out of bed and followed her, pushing aside the shower curtain just as the first jet of water began streaming into the tub. Surprised as much as she by his unexpected arousal, he pulled her to him with a splash and carried her back to bed for an uncharacteristically desperate bout of morning lovemaking. After which they lay side-by-side on the damp outlines of their wet bodies watching ribbons of sunlight shimmy across the ceiling with fingers locked, and not speaking. “Do you think we’ll have to leave here as soon as our grant runs out?” Jane broke the silence. John’s body tautened; her habit of bringing up money problems immediately after lovemaking had lately put him on the defensive. “You’ll never go hungry, Jane, I promise you.” “It’s not hunger I’m worried about, it’s Kelley,” Jane said quietly. John unlaced his fingers from hers and sat up. “Are you going to start that again?” “Never mind, pretend I said nothing,” she sprang lightly from his side and started dressing. Glancing toward the window, she noted that the sun had managed to dissolve the early morning overcast. “How about a walk, before Arthur gets up.” “Sure.” “Not toward the beach this time, but back into the country roads, around the big farm.” “That would be nice,” John got out of bed and slipped into the loose saffron-colored Indian pantaloons and matching “OM” T-shirt he’d left hanging on the back of a chair the night before. “I love you, my sweet lord,” Jane said, putting her arms around him. “I love you too,” John said, trying to sound conciliatory without really feeling it. They kissed unaware that Edward Kelley was standing at the turret window of his bedroom watching them through binoculars.
Recipient of the Theodore Hoepfner Fiction Award and past writer-in-residence at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Art Colony in Jerusalem, Perle Besserman was praised by Isaac Bashevis Singer for the “clarity and feeling for mystic lore” of her writing and by Publisher’s Weekly for its “wisdom [that] points to a universal practice of the heart.” Her autobiographical novel, PILGRIMAGE, was published by Houghton Mifflin, and her Pushcart Prize-nominated short fiction has appeared in The Southern Humanities Review, The Nebraska Review, Briarcliff Review, Transatlantic Review, 13th Moon, Bamboo Ridge, Lilith, Hurricane Alice, Crab Creek Review, Solstice, Other Voices, Agni, Southerly, North American Review, Page Seventeen, Midstream, and in numerous literary journals, both print and online.