THE PHANTOM HARLOT
One month after moving in, we heard the floorboards of David’s study begin to creak and moan.
These were expected sounds, an old house’s grieving hymn. Rhythmic thuds then emerged, the clop-clop of heeled shoes pacing back and forth. I sat up in bed, perplexed. Of course we heard the house was haunted when we moved in, but we never expected any paranormal experiences. I looked to David in the dark, and he sat up too as the sounds collided with our bedroom wall. The room was carpeted; any steps should have been muffled. David and I embraced beneath the covers, stimulated into fear and excitement by the music of our very own ghost. Like teenaged lovers in a dark theater, our fear peaked and then melted effortlessly to lust. I was seduced by the magic of our personal haunting; not long into the night, we found ourselves nude and thrashing in a sea of sheets, responding to each of our apparition’s knocks and thuds with a drum beat of our own.
The house was a single floor with a large kitchen—redone with granite tops sometime in the 90s—and dark mahogany floors that looked finished in a layer of dark cocoa. The realtor had told us of a tuberculosis epidemic half a century prior, how a respected doctor had lived here, how his young daughter died of the disease while waiting for her husband’s return from Korea, how each resident since experienced the sounds of footsteps, the rearrangement of items in the home, ghastly whispers, pulled hair and any number of other phenomena. David had smiled like a schoolboy, cheeks puffed round, face reddening. He never before looked so attractive, so excited and childish, and I had draped my arms around his neck and pressed my lips to the fullness of his, clutching a gentle fist of his black hair.
After that first night, David dug out an old sound recorder he had used in his undergrad days—he wanted to mimic the ghost hunters he saw on the television and see if he could record our ghost’s voice. He left it in his study when he left for the advertising agency the next morning, and when he returned from work, we listened together to the recording. Sure enough, our ghost obliged. From the recorder’s speaker, no larger than a quarter, came the disembodied monologue of an ancient life.
The ghost’s name was Miranda and she died in the 1950s at just twenty-five years old. We found pictures in a public library; she was beautiful, the arrangement of her features coming together elegantly. She had olive skin, a defined jaw, full lips and a small mouth, big round eyes with long lashes, and dark shoulder-length hair that fell into waves. David was giddy at the chance to “hunt” our ghost like those men on TV. His grin grew as dusk came each day. I let him disappear at night, happy for the ability to fall asleep stretched out in bed for once. I could hear his low voice murmuring through the bedroom wall. He would speak for long minutes, pause for stretches so Miranda could respond, then speak again. I began to recognize the pitch of his murmurs tuning slowly—like a piano key in his throat gently winding each night—to the voice he had used with me in the earlier days of our romance. And it was here that I suspected his affections redirecting. I saw him slip the recorder into his briefcase before he left for work in the mornings.
I confronted him one day after he returned from work. As we sat at the dinner table, I asked, “What has she been saying?”
The light which hung in the air between us illuminated his face. When his black brows drew into curving slopes, a perplexed expression, the light cast shadows over his eyes. He asked, “What? Who?”
He should have known better than to feign ignorance. There were stereotypes for women like myself, women with hair tinted like rich wine, a complexion of cream, a gaze of jade. There were warnings to fear our fury. I thinned my eyes at him and spoke calmly. “The ghost,” I said.
He paused a moment and I noticed how he began to lean backward, away from the table and away from me. He gave a nervous laugh. “Right, right, the ghost,” he replied. “Maybe we should try again to get a voice, hey?”
I nodded slowly, deciding for now to play along and beginning ruminations on how to proceed with this ghostly business. That he pretended we uncovered nothing earlier confirmed my suspicions and then he had the gall to add, “Are you feeling all right, Angela? Are you unhappy here? I know the move was sudden, but you know I couldn’t turn that job down. And we picked the house you wanted! With the birch tree in the back and the nice hardwood floors. I don’t know. Maybe you should get a job? Or volunteer somewhere. Meet people.” He leaned over the table again and, his eyes welled with tears, began to plead with me. “You are happy here, aren’t you?”
I smiled and nodded.
A few days later I snuck into his office and downloaded a sound file of their dialogue. David spoke in paragraphs and I could hear the rustling of pages. He was that sort of perfectionist, the kind of man that labors each word in a love letter. I imagined him at his work desk, scribing a letter over and over until each line, every verb and participle, was perfect. As he spoke, I heard Miranda giggling childishly in the background to his failed jokes. When she spoke, I pictured David sitting alone in the room sexless, deaf to her ethereal voice. It only made me feel a little better.
I wondered what sort of terrible woman could lose her husband to a ghost. I crooned to myself, But Angela! You have a body! Surely you attract his attention better than a woman he can never touch! But then I came to reason that this, if true, would mean that no woman had ever lost a lover to another through only the distance of letters or phone lines or the electric web of the internet. Phantom lovers all. By now, we knew better; words and photographs were all it took to inspire love or lust. Miranda’s voice was no different than perked teenaged breasts bared to a webcam, seducing my husband across the distance of life and death.
The paranormal television shows on cable showed me cases of jealous hauntings, spirits that acted out with malice toward their same-sex housemates. Not once had Miranda haunted me, not in all the time we lived in that house. I expected to see her face behind me in the mirror every morning, or for her to throw the remote at me, or shut the lights off at night while I tried to read. But no, all her attention was toward David. To be honest, I was offended. It was like she didn’t even acknowledge me as a threat, as if her love with my husband was already greater than anything I could have ever hoped to have with him. It was downright insulting.
When David went off on a business trip for a week, I had a minister come into our home. Reverend Little was a slender young man with thin brown hair curling over his head in a failed attempt to obscure the receding hair line. He had a wide set jaw and a chin that came to a point and appeared both meek and resolved all at once. I thanked him with such fervor that he seemed a little frightened.
“She’s a seductress,” I said. “She’s Lilith straying my husband to Hell. She is a servant of Satan.” I was raised a Christian in the strictest way; my mother rapped a yard stick across my knuckles until they blistered into tiny red volcanoes This felt like the type of claim to rile the reverend in action. I’d heard other women say similar things on TV.
He nodded with a silent, careful pump of his head and stalked slowly through the halls and rooms of our home. His black robe billowed majestically with each movement. I wondered if everyone looked so reified in robes; I wondered – an honestly wicked thought, Lord forgive me – if priesthood was merely a sacrosanct illusion. Maybe Reverend Little was no more in tune with Heaven than I. Or the phantom harlot.
The rosary hanging over his shoulders jangled with muted clicks as Reverend Little entered David’s study. He hummed a flat, skeptical tone, spun on his feet and faced me with a frown. “I sense nothing sinister here,” he said with a shrug.
“Well, your feelings are wrong,” I said and marched through the room to David’s desk, where his voice recorder sat. Her voice sang out from the desktop speakers as melodic as a siren’s. Her voice brought to mind an image of taut fair skin, plush lips painted vibrantly red, catty eyes, soft white mountains of breasts that rose and fell with each syllable. It was impossible, even for me, to not picture how her words influenced her breasts, how each utterance might cause a mild quake of their flesh as display of how they’d yield and crush in your hands like gelatin. Even Reverend Little could not hide the flushing of his cheeks when he heard her cooing my husband’s name. I pressed stop and gave the reverend an impatient eye.
“Well, now,” he said, a flustered hand rubbing his neck, “I hear nothing extraordinary, my dear. These are just the sounds of an old house.” I glared. He coughed dryly and then added, “I suppose I could see how one could mistake these sounds for something like a woman’s voice. But a ghost, absolutely not.” I could see the gleam in his eyes; he too had been seduced by her and lost himself to lust. I saw the wicked curling of his lips, his chastity splintered as soon the fantasy hit him. Her magic was impossible and the weakness of men, infuriating.
Reverend Little thinned his eyes toward me and he backpedaled. I could tell: she had enraptured him. She could even pierce into those of sacred souls. “No,” I commanded. “You have to help me be rid of her.”
He looked at his feet and shook his head in slow and sweeping arcs. And then he retreated from the study, down the stairs. The sound of the door ignited a battery of firecrackers inside my stomach.
After months of this, I became determined to take back my husband. It wasn’t natural—he used to crave me, used to return from work with such ravenous hunger for my body that he’d immediately pin me to the nearest surface and strip me bare. Now I was plotting just how I could force myself upon him. When he got home from work each day, I pinned him to the bed, worked him stiff with my hands before my body ate his up. When I rode him, I threw my voice to the back wall. I thought of my moans beating against it, bleeding through the sheetrock into the other room and to Miranda’s eavesdropping. David’s body always sank lazily into the sheets when I was atop him; he was still, a plank of wood adrift. Sometimes I slapped him awake; I called him names; I demanded that he touch me.
The last time, his eyes stayed fixed to the ceiling. His stomach did not flex to me. It didn’t matter. I decided to coax it out of him – the spirit of him, his physical essence that Miranda could never take. I pushed my hands into his chest; my hips galloped against his groin. I pulled a pleasured groan out from his lungs. Soon he wormed below, writhed, moved up to meet me, maybe even to challenge me. His chest slickened; the music of my moisture was a rapid staccato. He croaked; he yelped; I felt his spasm. A smile smeared across my lips in victory over her. And then I looked down on him. Satisfaction painted him; his eyes were not on me, rolled away toward whatever pocket of his mind he kept her in.
Now fury. Resolve erupted in me. Her hold on him was too strong. Fine. They could have each other, but I made it my mission to haunt Miranda.
She would agonize.
The passing weeks grew a great chasm between David and I. He spent late nights in the study, although the conversational cadence of his voice degraded into grunts and hums and moans. I could hear the rhythmic drumming of his fist upon his groin. And then, when that sound silenced, I knew Miranda had found some manner to manifest my husband’s satisfaction. Perhaps she was now possessing him, entering his body in much the same fashion that he used to enter mine, stimulating pleasure from within and entangling his soul. Of course, she did indeed possess him in the literal sense of it. There was no longer any part of David that he could divorce from her and return to me. What was love other than possession? To love meant to own. To allow ownership of. She claimed ownership of his attention, his affection, his most careless and careful musings.
Determined to reclaim my husband, I spent the night that David played poker with coworkers crudely painting the walls of our house with oil. I scrubbed it into the floors until the carpets were thick with it, expunging yellow pools by footstep. Everywhere I went, Miranda followed. I heard her trailing behind me. I pictured her sobbing, thick black rivers of mascara stained upon her cheeks and globs of snot drip-drip-dripping from her nose. I hummed a merry tune as I worked, an ancient melody my mother taught to me. When all was soaked and smelled of grease, I decided upon one final act of vindication.
I let down my hair and stripped myself nude and entered into David’s study. I knelt and bowed my cheek and my shoulders and my breasts to the floor, not caring that I, too, was now richly oiled. My ass raised on proud display, I knew Miranda could not help but to stand and to gawk and perhaps to curse at the grave offense of it all. My lips formed into a great smile and I reached my hand between my legs and I sought pleasure for myself in the physical sense of it and, too, in that this was Miranda’s dying moment and, finally, in the great arousal that was my exhibition to this dying dead woman who had taken my husband from me. This climax was the best of my life, far beyond what David or any other man had ever coaxed from me, and I attributed this to the tremendous sense of power I had over Miranda. My limbs twisted up in knots as I squirmed and shook and jerked. This swelling built and built and then there was this rapturous release and a volume of air blast suddenly through my throat as this hoarse moaning I had not made before then and not since either. And when it was done and over and I was again clothed, I felt an internal satisfaction so wholly consuming that I could feel it threading through the complex stitch work of my neurons, electricity weaving a blanket through my skin and my brain and which originated as a pulsating wonderful warmth from between my legs.
And then there was a new warmth when I left the house, when I lit the match and set the place ablaze. It took time of course, time for one tiny tongue of flame to lick up the oil on the floor and then to creep along it, and to massage its fingers into the carpet and to claw up the walls. But eventually the house was a chorus of fire and the flames stood tall and regal and sang with flickers and with hisses and with crackling. I watched Miranda’s defeat and my triumph. I wore the most pleasant of smiles and a cool thrilling shiver dropped down my spine. My arms were folded over my chest; I congratulated myself and basked and baked in the great heat, physically and then spiritually warmed in the thought of Miranda’s ending.
The sirens came. And the flashing red lights. They asked me questions as I watched the men in their brown baggy jumpsuits try to prevent the home from burning. It was too late. The home was mostly gone, and Miranda with it. I had won. I had won over Miranda and I had won my husband back. I did not and I could not answer their questions. I was mesmerized by the luminosity of the house ablaze, the brilliant orange glow cast over everyone and everything, of how much light could rain out of anything in the night like it was something magical, something reverent. I was humbled by it, by my smallness to the goliath glow. I thought this was a work of beauty. I let the light burn through my eyes, impress itself into my brain and forever brand this image to me with its sanctimonious warmth. Somewhere inside was Miranda, so small as to be a molecule, burning up, thrashing and recoiling, and cursing my name. And this was my greatest victory: even in her last moments, her thoughts were not of my husband, but only the destructive hatred she now possessed for me.