Callie S. Blackstone
Everyone knows about the Edgar Allan Poe museum in Virginia.
But there’s a historic site dedicated to him in Philadelphia too.
The writer lived in Philadelphia for six years across five houses. One remains standing. It was considered an ideal location for his wife, Virginia, to overcome tuberculosis.
The famous writer was twenty-seven when he took his cousin as his bride.
She was only thirteen years old.
The house still stands, dull red brick, yellowed trim. A small courtyard is guarded by an iron fence, a raven statue on one of the posts. If you approach from the west you will meet the bird head-on. His beak and wings are spread open. He will beckon you in.
“[…] some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”
I expected the home to be like any other National Site I had visited: well-furnished with period-appropriate furniture and plaques guiding you through. Instead, I found a museum that commemorated decay: the majority of the rooms stood empty, unrenovated. I was grateful there was no entrance fee because I could have visited any of the punk houses in Philly to gain a similar experience: unfinished ceilings and walls throughout, general detritus. The types of places in Fishtown that wealthy white investors will eventually buy up and charge three times the rent for; the type that slumlords currently buy up and allow to fall into disarray, like the apartment I rented where after months I discovered several undocumented immigrants living in unsafe conditions in the basement.
I watched my step as I moved through the house. In some rooms there were images of furniture and other basic living supplies projected on the walls.
I stared into the rendering of a bookshelf, pondered what student from University of the Arts conceptualized this budget-saving project. The colors in the image were weak and the decayed brick screamed out underneath it. It was difficult to differentiate what items were being portrayed.
As I traveled through the house, I grew more and more disappointed. There was no real evidence that the famous gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe lived there. My girlfriend remained unimpressed.
I was able to sell the attraction by explaining that it was Halloween season, the perfect time to learn more about the spooky writer. Isabella, all dark hair and soft pink sweater, had paused and hesitantly nodded.
Now here she was, unimpressed with the run-down house masquerading as a museum. Her sweater got caught on some of the brink she leaned against while I spun around and took in yet another disappointing room.
The group of people we had been trailing murmured amongst itself before moving back up the stairs, away from the basement–the worst part of the whole experience. The people who designed the monument completely abandoned that space, and the ancient walls were crumbling. An abandoned fireplace loomed. The floor was raw dirt.
My hands found her hips, her neck was against my lips.
“Nikki!” she protested, her words louder than expected in that gloomy space.
“Say my name again,” I instructed, and she gave the two syllables up softly, over and over as my hands crawled up her torso. She grabbed my hands before they moved further, discovered what they were looking for.
“It is creepy,” she said. “This whole place is creepy,let’s get out of here.” I glanced over my shoulder, surveyed the room.
“Isabella, baby, I’ve taken you to places much worse than this.” She shoved me away gently. Her smile was quickly fading. She is genuinely afraid, the way she looked when you walked past the Eastern State Penitentiary and began to regale her with stories of the prison’s ghostly reputation.
“A house party with art students is one thing,” she pushed her glasses up, straightened her hair, all Isabella language for unhappy–”This is another. There isn’t even anything to look at. We need to get out of here.”
“You’re right, it is pretty lame,” I responded. “But we didn’t come here for the scenery, or to learn anything. What do we do now?” She wasn’t listening. She’d started polishing her glasses–her way of telling me she meant what she was saying.
My girlfriend brightened when we emerged from the dim basement and entered the lobby, brightly lit with walls lined with facts. Isabella loved her facts: a trip to a museum was always an endeavor, a time investment. She would read every line, savor them. Despite this, she was relatively disinterested until we discovered the relevant section.
“He really married her when she was thirteen.” I spat out the words. She nodded in return, her face contorted. Isabella is a sweet, bookish thing until justified anger at men emerges. Then she is something beautiful and righteous to behold.
“Yeah, just like I was telling you on our way here.”
“Some historians assert that they were spouses in name only,” I hissed. “That they were more like brother and sister. Right. Fucking creep.”
“Gross. Just like it says, he even lived with her and her family for a few years before they got married. He was around her all that time, when she was a little girl.”
“He lied about how old she was on the marriage certificate, that’s how it was approved. They knew thirteen was too young, even back then.”
“It says here that some of his friends claimed he waited a few years before fucking her…right…”
“Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December…” she began to recite the poem.
“So this creep wrote that about his pre-teen bride after she died? Gross, Isabella!” She gazed into me. Just as I knew how to read the way she held her glasses, she knew how to read the look on my face.
She loved me and had followed me to many crummy house parties and low quality art exhibits. She had followed me to this museum.
Now it was my turn to follow her.
“[…] the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.”
When we emerged from the house the day was as dim as the underlit building. Clouds had lowered. It looked like it was going to rain. There weren’t many people on the sidewalks. The ones who were there were moving quickly, seeking out warmth against the cold October wind.
“Well it certainly looks like the stereotype of a haunted house,” Isabella said, her eyes lingering on the building. I had her in that moment: there was no fidgeting with her hair or her glasses or her shoes, no gazing into the piles of foliage on the ground–the grounds as unkempt as the house itself–she was gazing at the building, and the huge portrait of Poe looking down on her from the brick wall. The mural was like the many others that decorated Philadelphia buildings. She glared into his eyes.
“God, what a pervert. And he called her sis after they got married.” She began to pace back and forth. “So what is the plan, Nikki? Are you going to help me handle this?” My hands found her waist again, my lips her chin–how could I help myself–
“Nikki!” she giggled. “Come on!”
“And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.”
Isabella was everything I had ever wanted in a woman: dark, flowing hair, pale skin, curves that were often highlighted by the soft fabrics she adorned her body with; a soft demeanor that hid a wicked sense of humor. It’s true that she wasn’t always as adventurous as I was; she was cautious. She was often unwilling to try out the new restaurant in Rittenhouse. But she stayed by me and she didn’t judge me and she made the most perfect squeals when I nipped at her.
But there was something else she had, too.
“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—
Merely this and nothing more.”
It took me a while to get the nerve to talk to her. She was always in the corner at parties with the straight edge kids who would lecture about why flax seed was a better source of omega-3s than salmon. She never seemed to talk to anyone, really–she just observed things from behind the veil of her dark hair.
I thought I knew all of the women in Philly, and what it was like between their legs. But it was as if she manifested out of nowhere, suddenly on the edge of my social scene. I asked around. No one knew much about her. She hated being called Izzie or Bella–only Isabella would do. She seemed to stick with the same group of punks who worked out of one of the big sex toy shops. I couldn’t picture her delicacy there, hawking condoms to tourists who had never seen anything beyond the CVS prophylactic aisle. The idea of her holding toys in her hands, showing them to people–it was obscene.
“[…]Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
’Tis the wind and nothing more!”
When I saw her enter Stir Lounge I knew I had to approach her. Her hair was wet at the edges, her shirt clinging to her body. She looked cold and uncomfortable. I got up and gave her my coat immediately. When I reached out, she allowed me to wrap it around her body.
“ Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore; […]”
It was only when she led me back to her apartment that I learned who she really is.
“Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
I woke up earlier than she did and got into her shower, allowing myself to linger with the smell of her shampoo, body wash. I never stayed for a shower after; I rarely slept over anyone’s place. This time was different. As I stood in that steamy bathroom, a series of terrifying events befell me.
First, the bathroom door whipped open–too forceful for Isabella–the girl I met in that bed the night before was soft, delicate, yielding–fragile, breakable–I could not picture her slamming a door open. I whipped the curtain back to discover that no one was there. Steam was slipping out of the room and my nipples grew hard against the air.
What the fuck?
“[…] For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”
When she finally woke up she didn’t question the puddles I left behind after searching for the intruder. I hadn’t found any evidence of one.
“I see you’ve met Hannah,” she murmured when she found me standing at her kitchen counter, hands around a mug of coffee and staring in the direction of the front door.
“Hannah?” I asked, conjuring up the idea of a girlfriend or old lover who was unhappy to find me here after savoring Isabella. My face must have betrayed me because her laughter lit up the kitchen, a bright light in that scary morning.
“Don’t worry, Nikki,” she said, finding my hand and meeting my eyes quickly before looking at her feet. Adorable, I found myself thinking, adorable. I wanted to take her right there on the floor.
“It’s just a ghost. That’s her name–Hannah.”
“But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.”
She giggled while my wet hair splayed across her stomach when we were finished. “Stop it!” she played, pushing me away before bringing me back in for a kiss, sliding on the linoleum.
“Ok, seriously, a ghost was trying to spy on me in the bathroom?”
“Well, there are worse ways to imagine spending the afterlife,” she laughed. “Make me some breakfast and I’ll tell you all about it.”
“Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken […]”
She took her toast with a thick layer of ricotta cheese.
“Weird, I know.”
“The cheese or the ghosts?”
“Nikki!” The way she sang my name on a crest of laughter.
“It’s just something that’s always been in my family. When you get your first training bra, it’s like, congrats! You’re going to see some ghosts soon.”
“So…what happened earlier…”
“I think something bad happened in the bath to Hannah. She gets anxious when you’re in there too long. Or maybe she is just helping keep the water bill down for the landlord.” More laughter. “It’s ok, she’s alright. She doesn’t mean any harm.”
“Are there ones that do?”
“But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.””
Isabella didn’t have a problem with the concept of ghosts. She even liked some of them–creatures that often went unseen and spent their afterlives wailing in an attempt to connect with the living. She told me that if she was alone she would often speak to them, softly, calmly, like a mother would. I would walk in on her doing this more than once during our relationship together. She would be folding clothes or rolling up her delicately patterned tights: “Hannah, I so appreciate how you try to keep us safe…”
But there were many ghosts who were not comforted by her soft voice and remained enraged after hearing this.
“There are a lot of bad men in this world, Nicole.” She only used my full name when she was being grave. She held my eyes for a very long time. “I prefer to stay out of it–I don’t like going to all the haunted spots. Clive Den, Eastern State Penitentiary. Terrible places. Pits of despair that take and take. It’s beyond ghosts at that point. It’s something else.” She shook her head and kept cleaning her glasses. “All of us Brewer women have taken a different path with it. I’m not blind–” her face cracked then, she started waving her glasses and laughing. “I’m not blind. I’ll deal with something if it’s in my face or something. But I don’t seek it out.”
“ This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!”
Dating her was like something out of a Scooby-Doo episode, my soft Daphne often distracted from her studies by real ghosts (I had learned she was a student over at Drexel.) She was good at hiding it from other people. Sometimes her eyes would linger and her brow would crumple and I knew we were not alone. We joked we were in a throuple, Hannah the third to our coupledom, which we never defined. It seemed to be cemented quickly with my decision to make her breakfast and stick around. It turned out she had heard of my reputation long before we met.
Yes, sometimes I would tease her if we absolutely had to walk past Eastern State, but the way her body tensed around it made me start taking alternate routes, even when I was alone.
When Halloween approached I couldn’t resist teasing her a little, though–returning to the same routes. I used to love all of that haunted shit but beyond watching her shiver my joy had lessened; I started to think I could hear the screams she described.
I decided to identify some “soft spooky” things to celebrate the holiday. The first attraction was the Edgar Allan Poe national historic site.
She actually loved the idea.
“Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor. […]”
While we walked over she filled me in on the fact that Edgar married his thirteen year old cousin, who had lived with for several years before preying on her. She was angry as she spoke, her eyes gleaming behind her glasses. I thought she was upset with me taking her there, but on the contrary, her face crinkled with her smile.
“What do you think she’s doing after all these years? Dead of tuberculosis at twenty-seven after being preyed on by some creep.”
“Isabella!” I shrieked. “I thought you said you never get involved, you stay away.”
“Oh, come on. It’s Halloween and I’m a lesbian. I have to help.”
“[…] On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
“It definitely looks like a haunted house, it has that energy.” She gazed into his face, painted larger than life on the side of the building. “A perfect place for a tuberculosis ghost, really.”
“Was she there?”
“I sense her here. She visits when people come here and read that plaque and get pissed off for her. It stirs her anger up.” Laughter. “Don’t worry Nikki, she’s not mad at us at all. She likes us even, she seems happy that we’re holding hands.” With this Isabella allowed a soft flurry of kisses.
“For Virginia,” I whispered.
“Nikki!” she screeched.
“Alright, alright,” I whispered. “Alright, seriously.” I backed away. “Seriously, you are incredibly beautiful. Ok, ok. I mean it. Virginia is angry, and of course she is, fuck Edgar, thta perv. What are we going to do about it?”
The clouds opened and she recited the poem that he gained fame for, that he wrote for the thirteen year old girl he had married.
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
As Isabella recited the poem the rain started falling more heavily and the leaves started to twist in the wind. I found myself thinking that she was right–that I could see why it would be best to avoid this kind of thing–and I imagined her face lighting with glee at my realization. I also found myself clinging to her, and it was usually the other way around. Would I see an apparition of a young girl child, enraged at what had been stolen from her? As she should be, fuck Edgar Allan Poe!
“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
Isabella moved closer under the tree, shielded her phone with her shirtsleeve, and gestured for me to join her in reading the words off the glowing screen. Anger flowed through me and I channeled it into the poem.
As we shouted the closing lines, my beautiful lover smiled into the rain. There was no playing with her hair or her glasses. She was staring straight ahead.
Virginia had arrived.
“And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!”
Callie S. Blackstone writes both poetry and prose. Her debut chapbook sing eternal is available through Bottlecap Press. Her online home is calliesblackstone.com.