Peter died during their attempts to contact the dead with static electricity. The irony didn't escape Marianne. Static electricity, or the triboelectric effect, takes place when substances of opposing polarities rub against each other. Marianne found the contact of everyday objects generating electricity romantic. Glass stroked with silk creates a charge. A comb run through oily hair creates a charge. Rabbit fur rubbed with latex creates a charge.
People worry about dying from a cruel and foreign disease, or a fiery plane crash, or violent home invasion, or not dropping to the floor fast enough during a bank robbery. What people don't realize is that people often die in common, sudden, and uninteresting ways. A bus hit Peter.
The walk sign flashed white. He stepped off the curb to cross the street. The bus turned right, crushing him. The windshield wiper severed his cheek from ear to jaw. The impact of the windshield broke his neck. It split the vertebrae clean in two. Peter died upon impact.
When Marianne received the call, words tumbled from a nurse's mouth at the hospital, bounced off a satellite, and trickled into Marianne. She said nothing and hung up the phone. She placed it on the work table she and Peter shared – had shared. She tucked her hands, palms together, between her knees. The sun eased down the windowpane. The room darkened. She didn't move for two days.
Peter had always admired her stoic persistence, her reserved stubborn nature. As she hunched, immobile, at their – her – desk, she grieved. The agony of loss gripped her chest and throat, stifling her ability to wail, to weep, to molt the pain like an old skin. Grief settled in her chest like a hunk of ice. She and Peter had been common-law married for ten years, together for twelve. Life without him no longer made sense to her.
The only action that motivated her to move again, that promised solace, was to continue their research. She would contact him in death.
The results of an experiment can't prove a hypothesis, only disprove. When the bus crushed Peter, he and Marianne had disproved the effectiveness of contacting spirits with electricity conducted with friction between: gold & glass, steel & teflon, and cotton & polyester. They had been prepping to spark supernatural activity by rubbing sulfur on the human body – smelly, anti-fungal, and safest when dry.
Before their joint foray into pestering the dead, Peter had obsessed over beaming signals into space to communicate with other life forms. By the time he and Marianne met, he dropped that hobby, but related his efforts to her in detail: the radio he rigged up, the signals he sent through the air, the radio-waves that wavered upwards, eased past the ozone layer, and cascaded into space like sea on shore. Peter described the open expanse of space like the ocean. He imagined his signals stirring white trails of phosphorescence, data echoes in an empty expanse.
At first, Peter sent: hello, hello, hello, hello, hello, hello.
He realized 'hello' probably didn't mean anything to aliens.
He transmitted the word 'peace' in every modern language, then tried to garble out ancient languages, proto-languages.
Silence reigned in the astral realm.
After that, Peter began to broadcast Portishead albums. He felt the pining vocals and gentle synth would be at home drifting through gas giants and nebulae. He spent his nights alone, winding music past the stratosphere.
That changed after watching an interview with Stephen Hawking, during a lazy late-night internet browsing session. The eminent physicist discouraged earth contact with aliens. In fact, he advised humans do everything to avoid drawing intergalactic attention. He cited extraterrestrial predator species. Stephen Hawking compared aliens docking on earth to Europeans arriving in North America.
Paul Davies, another respected astrophysicist chimed in to note that alien brains, with their different architecture, would interpret information very differently from ours. “What we think of as beautiful or friendly might come across as violent to them, or vice versa.”
Peter stopped broadcasting Portishead, destroyed the radio, and looked for a new hobby.
He became obsessed with reality television. Or rather, he became obsessed with “certified ghost hunters” attempting to record spirit activity on camera. He brooded over ectoplasm measured with scientific instruments: the ability to compile quantifiable data on something that – in technical terms – didn't exist.
Ghost hunters held up electromagnetic meters to determine variations in the magnetic field of a haunted bedroom or basement. Geiger counters groaned for radiation. Thermographic cameras snapped images of hot flashes or cold zones, consequential due to the centuries old idiom that the dead suck the heat from the room – the classic concept of a ghostly chill. What invisible data did the instruments measure? Was any of it really from non-human presence? Questions nibbled Peter’s brain late into the night.
Before meeting Peter, Marianne devoted her time to study. She worked hard to score in the top ten percentile during high school, won three scholarships for academic prowess, attended a respected university in a mid-sized city, and ground her way through a Bachelor's in Art History in four years. During her studies, she noted spirits wove their way through the art of the ages. She entertained the idea that something so prevalent in human history had to be based on some real, shared experience.
During her education, when allowed, she focused on costume and death culture: garments created for mourning purposes. Victorian mourning jewelry held a special fascination for Marianne. The bereaved carved jewelry from jet. The work was often crafted not by an artisan, but by the two tired hands of the grieving loved one. Viewed as a semiprecious stone, jet is actually petrified charcoal. Unearthed from bogs in the foggy moors of England, mourners split craggy black lumps into fragments and honed them into brooches.
Jet is negatively charged, so when rubbed with human skin, human hair, wool, or silk it builds static; it generates electricity. According to the spirit hunting history of reality TV, ghosts called attention to themselves flickering in television screens, warping radio play, toying with faucets, and strobing overhead lights.
Spirits interacted with modern, harnessed electricity, but Marianne wondered how they touched the electric before it was channeled through wire. She liked to think the women with broken hearts wicked away sections of jet and the friction of their hands on stone hummed. The mourning women slept with the brooches pinned to the throat of their nightgowns and the movement of their hair in the night sparked back loved ones lost. Silk dresses impaled with brooches generated charge that caused the mourning women to pause in a dark room after quieting the candles, caught in a cloud of familiar scent, or sure she just heard a passed-away voice, or stooped to pick up a deceased relative’s favourite book – which had mysteriously fallen off a shelf.
Peter watched reality ghost television. Marianne studied, mused over, and wrote about death culture in clothing. The theory of spirit contact through triboelectricity they generated together.
A week after Peter's death, Marianne composed herself enough to leave the house. She waited until the early morning, just past 3 a.m., and packed a bag. Into it went an analog tape recorder and case of miniature cassettes, wallet, keys, pair of black latex laboratory quality gloves, and the pelt of a dead rabbit, including head and limbs.
She drove to the cross-streets where the bus had killed Peter. At the gray time period between very, very early and very, very late – the streets were empty. The occasional vehicle burst past with a roar with a flash of headlights. She parked a block up, on a residential street, and walked down to the corner with the bag slung over her shoulder. City crews had washed the blood away. Then, rain had washed the blood away. Then, more rain had washed the blood away. Rain had poured over the individual peaks and crevices in the cement until nothing remained of Peter. Fortunately, tonight was dry. Marianne pulled the tape recorder from the bag and clicked record.
“November 7th, 2014,” she said. “Initial attempt to contact Peter at the place of impact. Death residue is nil. White noise is minimal. Triboelectric technique using neutral/negative latex gloves, black, and positive rabbit fur, legs and head intact.”
Marianne placed the tape recorder on the curb. She pulled on the latex gloves – the black plastic ended just past her elbow. They made an awkward creak when she bent her arms. Her shiny black hands pulled the rabbit fur from the bag.
Marianne crouched on the curb with the rabbit folded limp over her left forearm. She stroked it with her right hand. She maintained the stroking close to the mouth of the recorder: the circular series of dots that indicated where the receiver hid.
Her shiny black fingers moved through the fur. It began to crackle. Small white sparks danced between her glove and the rabbit. She stroked until the first dregs of morning traffic began to move past in twos and threes. Then, she packed up and left.
At home, she placed the tape recorder on the table in their workroom. Exhausted, but the kind of exhausted where her limbs felt heavy and her mind felt like she'd downed five shots of espresso, she peeled off her clothes and lay in bed.
She couldn't sleep.
Her hand wandered under the sheets to his side of the bed. An indent, shaped by a familiar and absent form, sunk in the mattress. Did it? Was she just so used to having him there? She twitched the lamp on and an ocher glow spread over the bed. She ripped the bedding away from the mattress – flat, neither concave nor convex.
She couldn't sleep, she may as well try again.
She dragged her underwear over her hips and down her legs, kicking it into the corner of the room. From the bureau, she pulled out a pair of peony pink silk underwear. She slipped them on, the fabric cascading over her skin like rainwater. An antique jewelry box, carved from oak and engraved with red-crowned cranes sat on top of the cluttered bureau. Inside, her collection of antique mourning jewelry lay in rows. She selected a Victorian mourning brooch, carved from jet into a bouquet of round-mouthed Morning Glories. Bare foot, she padded across the carpet to the bed, climbed astride with the old mattress springs squeaking as they adjusted, and knelt.
Marianne clicked on the tape recorder.
“November 7th,” she said, “second attempt to contact Peter. I'm working from the bedroom. Place held importance for the spirit. White noise is undetectable. Triboelectric technique using neutral/negative jet – petrified charcoal approximately three inches long by half an inch wide. Combing with silk, underwear, a garment once touched by the deceased.”
Marianne set the tape recorder down on the sheets. The ceiling fan swung in wobbly arcs. She considered turning it off, for the sake of background noise obscuring potential contact, but she wanted the room to be cold. As cold as possible. Inviting, even, for a spirit combing through the delicate cobwebs in the realm of the dead, seeking a friendly portal to the realm of the living.
She hadn't washed their sheets since Peter died. The pillowcase still held his scent. Marianne pressed the cool piece of jet to her breastbone, in the space between her breasts.
She could roll over in the dark and press her face to the pillow, imagining it was early, it was morning, and he had just gotten up to get ready for work. He was just down the hall, in the shower.
She closed her eyes. The piece of jet traced its way down her stomach, to the hem of the silk underwear. She cleared her mind and tried to think of nothing. The stone felt cool against the chill of the room.
It was Monday morning and Peter was up first, as always. He showered and prepped coffee for the two of them. He brought her coffee in bed. They always knocked back a bottle of wine on Sunday nights. Peter knew the alcohol left Marianne fuzzier, lazier, and she needed the caffeine to get out of bed.
Marianne stroked the neutral/negative jet over the expanse of silk. Back and forth, waiting for the charge to build. She maintained deep, even breaths.
The spoon clinked against the porcelain as Peter stirred a moment of milk into her coffee, the way she liked it. His footsteps echoed in the hall as he walked, with both mugs, to the bedroom.
The spools of tape turned in the recorder. The microphone combed the silence for sound. Marianne waited for the crackle of electricity. Felt nothing, slab of stone cold against her pelvis.
Exhausted, physically and now mentally, Marianne tucked the tape recorder, silk underwear, and jet brooch into the bag with the latex gloves and rabbit skin. She lay down, wrapped herself in a sheet on the bare mattress, and finally slept.
The next morning, she hefted the duffel bag of triboelectric supplies into their – her – workroom. A table covered in miscellaneous cords and gouged pieces of electrical equipment hunkered under a pegboard dotted with tools. A single, bare bulb glared from the ceiling. Three televisions, two of which worked, huddled on the cement floor. Marianne tucked the duffel bag under the table and cleared space on top of it, guiding wires and gears into one side of the surface with her arm. She placed the recorder on the empty space and left the room.
She paced through the motions of her morning routine with robot efficiency. Brew water. Tap coffee into French press. Pour water. Keep fingers from steam. Slip bread into toaster. Boil an egg. Eat. Think about eating. Give up on eating. Wash dishes. Leave in the rack to dry.
Marianne swallowed a few bites of toast. Nauseated by everything – toast, egg, coffee, leaving the house, returning phone calls, planning a funeral – she scraped breakfast into the trash and retreated to the studio.
The door, once shut, soundproofed the room. She lit half-melted candles crammed into spools of wire and switched off the blinding overhead light. The tiny flames warmed the cement room. She hooked the recorder up to the speakers and dragged the stool over to the workbench. Crouched, hovering over the stool, she rewound the tape. She pressed play.
Crackling. Then, her voice: November 7th, 2014, she said. Initial attempt to contact Peter at the place of impact. Death residue is nil. White noise is minimal. Triboelectric technique using neutral/negative latex gloves, black, and positive rabbit fur, legs and head intact.
Then, the sound of the zipper undrawn, the creak and snap of pulling on the latex gloves, and the soft rustling of the rabbit pulled from the bag and sprawled on her lap. Rain shushed in the background. Her fingers creaked, moving through the fur. Static. Marianne turned the volume up: the wet patter of rain on pavement, creaking latex, fur stroked in long patient arcs, and the blast of an engine as a car sped past. Her knees popped as she shifted her weight. No voice, though. No Peter, murmuring to her from beyond his place of death. None of his last thoughts were sparked by the electricity and made auditory.
She fast-forwarded the tape and listened to the bedroom episode. The ripple of stroked silk slipped from the speakers. Her breath, on the tape, caught. The ceiling fan moaned in its cycles. No Peter.
She rewound the tape and listened to both attempts again. And, again. Again, again, again. She didn't leave the studio until three in the morning. The sheet wound around her limp, still-clothed body. She dropped into sleep, exhausted.
The next day, Tuesday, she woke and shuffled, with the sheet around her shoulders, to the studio. She played the tapes back, again. She couldn't detect a voice or message. After that, she stomached an entire piece of toast. She vacuumed and checked the mailbox. This became a new routine: waking and relistening to the tapes, pressing her ear to the speaker, then attempting to deal with life. The week passed with her beginning to take care of chores and errands. Once a day, usually at night, she knit two objects of opposing polarity together and recorded the potential for sound.
The answering machine for their landline still contained a joint message. Friends and family complained it creeped them out; Peter greeted them after several unanswered rings. His mother kept calling and leaving messages of incoherent weeping. Changing it was one of the small tasks Marianne had been avoiding. It felt like acceptance of something she was happy to deny.
She brought the answering machine into the workroom, set it on the table, and pulled a stool over. She placed her elbows on the table and held herself at the temples, leaning over the machine with her eyes closed. Her heart stuttered. Her throat constricted. She couldn't speak. What would she even say?
Her throat relaxed. She wound the tape to the beginning, to listen to it one last time. Then, she would record: Hello. This is the household of Marianne. I'm not here right now. Please leave a message with your name and number. I'll return your call as soon as I'm able to.
She pressed play. The tape crackled. The tape wound forward. Marianne listened for the familiar optimistic charm of Peter's voice. Was it the wrong cassette? She popped open the player: the white label read messages in her neat cursive. She closed the machine and hit play again.
A voice popped up from the static. Hello? Hello? It was familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Young. Hello. Hello. Hello, said the voice. Peace. Pace. Paz. Paix.