April 5th, 2023
Memories of Miss Mindy Tulane
by Jen Frankel
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
“This is the eye I see ghosts with,” said Miss Mindy Tulane, war veteran and sometime librarian. She opened her left eye wide, yellow-bright but unseeing.
Terrified, the child across from her let out a cry. His sleeping mother jolted upright and slapped him.
The small boy took a deep breath and began to wail. The mother, mortified, pulled the child by the arm from the compartment.
Miss Tulane disapproved of corporal punishment. This little terror, however, had grabbed the letter she was reading right out of her hands. Snatching it back from him had ripped the paper.
Then he called her blind eye weird. The eye often made people look twice at her. To the children she read to in the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library, she was a sorceress, equal parts magical and terrifying. But never just weird.
Miss Tulane knew she should feel guilty that the child had been punished for something that was essentially her fault. But her thoughts had always run far deeper than her emotions and, truth be told, she rather appreciated having the compartment to herself.
To ensure the letter was still legible even if damaged, she unfolded it and read again:
Dear Miss Tulane,
I admit that your letter has stirred some rather ambivalent feeling in me, returning me to a very difficult time in my life. Yes, I will show you the artifact, but no, I will not tell you any more until you arrive. There are more ghouls than genuine souls that visit me, and I must protect myself from opportunists.
If that circumscription meets with your agreement, I shall expect you at your earliest convenience. Please bring the object you mentioned as a show of good faith. Without it, I shall probably turn you away.
Mr. A. Bagnall.
Miss Tulane folded the letter and returned it to her purse. Then she took out the object which intrigued her correspondent, a small pin enamelled with the word Halifax in bright red. It was the only thing that Miss Tulane owned that mattered a jot, because she had no idea why she owned it at all. Why Halifax? Why a cheap trinket linking her to that place?
No, she decided. It didn’t bother her that the child had been punished. He deserved to be, even if it was for the wrong thing. On the other hand, the lie she told him did trouble her. She placed a great deal of stock in honesty, because truth was something she struggled with daily. This fib was more straightforward than most she’d told. She did not see ghosts with her blind eye. That would have been foolish. She saw them with her good eye.
As she sat primly in her compartment, the train wending its way north through the Adirondacks, she thought of the boys she’d transported during the Great War. She’d been little more than a girl herself, driving an ambulance through the mud-rutted tracks of the French countryside. There had been horrors enough in those days. After what she’d done in life, perhaps it would be more surprising if Miss Tulane did not see spirits.
She didn’t recall the absolute first time she witnessed the phenomenon, because she’d never cared to. It sufficed that as long as she could remember, she had been able to see the spirits of those about to die.
It should have been terrifying, or at the very least unsettling. They appeared to be tethered to the living bodies, hovering translucent images of their originators. The spirits grew increasingly more solid as death neared, their twisted faces giving every indication of great distress. They did not speak, but they clung to their dying selves as some unseen force was pulling them backwards, away from the object of their desperate hope.
As death became final, she would see a look of comprehension, or at least of some terrible finality, enter the eldritch, glowing eyes, and—as if a thread tying them to their corpse had at last been severed—they would depart at what Miss Tulane thought of as “a fair clip,” and vanish into the air.
Miss Tulane didn’t lie about the ghosts, because she’d never told anyone about them. Not until that odious child, and look how badly that had gone. Her lies served a purpose: they kept others safe from the horrors she knew.
Customs officials boarded the train when it reached Canada. Miss Tulane tried to look less tense than she felt, but she passed scrutiny without a second look. Her current passport identified her as Hildegard Restall, 46, of New York City, NY. She had borrowed the name from the grave of a dead infant the first time she needed to travel after mustering out of the army.
Unable to afford a sleeper car for the Montreal—Halifax leg of the journey, Miss Tulane dozed in her seat, as erect in slumber as she was when awake. Initially, taking passage on a steamer to Halifax direct from New York had seemed like the most efficient way to travel, but there had been nothing sailing at an expedient time. Although she would never admit it, this was a relief because there was another secret she had kept through all these years.
Miss Tulane found her ghosts more pathetic than unnerving or fearful, but being at sea terrified her.
When her service in the military had required water crossings, she used sheer force of will to keep her phobia in check. The nights were the worst. Each and every one she spent aboard a ship, she confronted the same frightening images in her sleep.
The nightmare had a curiously peaceful beginning, a sense of slight claustrophobia, and darkness broken by hazy beams of light. She could hear the lonely tolling of a distant bell over the faint sound of a child singing “Beautiful Dreamer.” The terror began when she started to fall. She plunged downwards, the descent slow but interminable. Death reached up for her from somewhere far beneath. To find peace, she needed to accept it, succumb to the end of her life. The longer she resisted, the more her fear grew, the greater her discomfort.
When Miss Tulane reached land again, the dreams stopped.
Aboard the train, she slept like the dead.
After three days in transit, Miss Tulane’s nerves were raw. Not even mortar bombardments during the Great War had affected her so badly. Only her fear of water exceeded her current state. As the locomotive neared its terminus, Miss Tulane grew increasingly worried that her discomfort was obvious to those around her—a hellish thought!
As Miss Mindy Tulane inched toward the Canadian East coast, toward the sea, her stomach churned and her limbs became heavy. Unable to stay still, she paced up and down the train. The same young porter finally stopped her and asked if she was all right. Embarrassed, she retreated to her compartment.
Reaching Halifax, the porter offered his arm to help her down. She wondered if the young mother had explained the misunderstanding over the letter, or if the child had defended himself at all. What would any of them have thought if they knew Miss Tulane had only lied about the eye, not the ghosts?
Her temper was short and her mood foul when she departed her hotel the next morning. The nearness of the sea oppressed her. Every moment in this city seemed to erode her self-image of a woman who possessed unimpeachable equilibrium and resourcefulness. It didn’t help that for the first time in years she’d had that dream, the one of drifting inexorably into darkness and death. She blamed the proximity of the Atlantic Ocean.
Although there were cabs in front of the building, she chose to walk, glad to delay her journey’s end. She set out by foot.
Finally, Miss Tulane compared the return address on the letter with that of a small storefront off Barrington Street. Bracing herself, she went inside.
A bell tinkled as she entered, but no clerk emerged to meet her. Miss Tulane noted that the shop was devoted to the relics of nautical disasters, rather than more general antiques.
Miss Tulane ran a hand over a decayed board with the faded name of a ship, The Lorelei, painted in red, cracked and peeling. She shivered, imagining it resting at the bottom of the ocean.
A man cleared his throat, rousing Miss Tulane from her daydreaming.
“Good afternoon,” he greeted her, a hint of England in his voice. “May I help you, Madam?”
“Miss,” she corrected absently. “My name is Miss Miranda Tulane. I exchanged letters with you recently about an item that might connect me to my… ancestry.”
“Yes, of course,” he said.
He took her hand and pressed it with his own, surprising her. He looked ten years older than she, well-used by sun and salt water. She had seen the same hardened look on many naval men and civilian sailors alike, the same darkness in the eyes.
She took stock of how intently he stared into her eyes, both the good and the blind, and thought that he might be dangerous.
“This way,” he said, and released her hand to lead her. “I am, as you rightly supposed, Arnold Bagnall.”
She followed him with heavy steps. The air felt thick and difficult to breathe.
Miss Tulane was suddenly aware of a strange howling. She didn’t need to look at Mr. Bagnall to know it existed entirely inside her own head. She thought immediately of the small icebergs in the mid-Atlantic that sailors called growlers. Air escaping from pockets inside them as they moved south sounded eerily like animals.
She heard something else, deep in her mind, along with the wail of the growler, a heart-stopping, dissonant groan of metal, scraping and rending.
Even more distressingly, she was unable to keep up with Mr. Bagnall although the shop was not large. When she reached the showroom in back, she halted.
Mr. Bagnall, realizing that the lady was no longer following him, asked, “Miss Tulane, are you all right?”
Slowly, Miss Tulane’s amber eyes moved to his severe, lined face. Impulsively, she told the truth for the first time about what she saw with the good one. “I suppose not, Mr. Bagnall,” she said. “You see, I am prone to visions of spirits from the afterlife, and one is standing at the end of this room.”
Again, Miss Tulane avoided complete honesty. She did not mention that the ghost she saw beside the hulking cabinet at the end of the room was that of herself.
Although she had come to believe that ghosts were always tied to their own corporeal forms, this sight laid false all her notions. How could her own spectre be here when she was most certainly alive? How could it be hovering, its arm reaching into a case of pitiful treasures salvaged from a doomed ship? Most importantly, why had it taken Mindy’s face upon itself?
Mr. Bagnall himself took her admission in stride. Could it be that he saw ghosts as well? He led her deeper into the room toward both the looming glass showcase framed in dark wood and the apparition. A carved plaque above the central doors featured the name of the most famous shipwreck of them all: HMS TITANIC.
“It’s the twenty-fifth anniversary of her sinking,” Mr. Bagnall said. “When I received your letter, I found myself immediately transported back to 1919.”
The year after the Great War ended.
“In that year, I finally mustered out and returned to Halifax,” he continued, “half a man, changed almost too much to be recognized. Halifax had changed too. You know about the explosion of 1917?”
She knew, vaguely, of the carnage of that day and nodded. What a horrible time to be in this lovely town: the ghosts of the dead and dying would have been thick as fog. To have come from the devastation of Europe to a hometown changed so catastrophically? Traumatic as well.
“I lost friends and family that day,” he continued. “Me, I worked as a wireless operator in the Great War. So the fate of Vince Coleman, the dispatcher who sacrificed himself for the safety of so many in that disaster, still haunts me. After the fire began in the harbour, he remained at his post, sending warning messages until the explosion took him. Do you know about the wireless operator on the Titanic? His determination was responsible for the rescue of what survivors there were.
"When I returned to Halifax, I began my collection of her artifacts, as a measure to heal myself. You may know that more than a hundred of her victims are buried here.”
She nodded again, unsure of what to say.
“May I see it? As per the terms of our agreement,” he asked.
Miss Tulane removed the Halifax pin from her purse and set it in his hand.
He examined it with a frown. “This I recognize: a tourist souvenir, distributed only in the early 1910s. I fear you have not been completely honest with me, Miss Tulane.”
She had written to him of arriving for the first time in Halifax—or what she believed to be the first—in 1916 to travel to Europe with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. Therefore the pin would no longer have been in circulation. She could make a case for it being a junk shop find, or a gift. Miss Tulane, feeling caught, straightened her suit jacket unnecessarily, and also her spine. Fingers of cold pressed along it and into the spare meat of her back. She had survived the most filthy and heinous of wars, and damn it all if a collection of antiques or its owner would defeat her.
With a deep sigh of frustration, Mr. Bagnall removed a small wooden box from the display. He set it on a table between them. The ghost, lured along by some mystic urge, followed it and took up a position in the air above it. Miss Tulane tried to ignore the shade, but it kept drawing her the way the box drew it. A little chant began in her mind. I am not dead, so it cannot be me.
As she turned her attention to the box, a solution presented itself. A twin! A twin sister, dead at sea. That could answer the riddle of her phobia of ocean travel.
Dead in Halifax? Dead in the explosion of 1917? But then, why would the apparition look like her as she was now? And how had it come to be here? A thought struck her: the child singing to her in her dream—could it be this woman, this possible sister?
Mr. Bagnall lifted the artifact’s lid on creaking hinges. Now, she saw it was in fact a music box of a style not made since much earlier in the century. Patches of red felt clung to its interior. As the lid rose, so did a china ballerina, settling into place with a faint twang of its spring.
Terror surged in Miss Tulane.
Turning the key in the side of the box, Mr. Bagnall said, “The miracle is that the mechanism still works. It was salvaged in the early days after the tragedy from the wreck’s flotsam.”
“I thought the Titanic’s location had never been found,” said Miss Tulane hoarsely. She wondered if she should beg him not to release the key.
“Rather, it was lost,” he said, choosing to ignore her obvious discomfiture. “Fishermen knew at one point at least the general area where it sank, but only a few were callous enough to take home what they found floating there. No, they did not dive to it,” he continued, mistaking the hollow look in her eyes for a query. “By report, it must be below at least two miles of water. If it had settled on the Grand Banks, there would have been a chance, but it must be in the cold, deep water to the south. That’s what the old-timers say, at least. But for a time, you could find debris floating on the surface in those parts: deck chairs and cases, umbrellas, other items. It must have been among those. As you can see, I’ve devoted much of my life to hunting down and collecting what others took from the site. But this child’s plaything, it has brought me more pathos than the others combined. Maybe we both will solve a mystery today.”
An even greater dread gripped Miss Tulane as Mr. Bagnall released the key, allowing the ballerina to begin her revolving dance. From the box itself emerged a series of plinks as the cylinder inside turned. She recognized the tune immediately.
“‘Beautiful Dreamer,’” she said, more horrified than before. “My favourite song.”
After the mechanism ran down she asked, the words emerging in a whisper, “What connection does this have to me?”
He shut the box delicately as if it had not survived so much worse, and turned it over. On its base, a brass plate had been fastened. Despite some corrosion, it read clearly, “To my darling Abigale from your adoring nanny Miss Miranda Tulane.”
And then Miss Tulane did the inconceivable, and fainted.
She awoke on the carpet, thinking for a moment that she had chosen a terribly uncomfortable place for a nap.
Nearby, on a chair, Mr. Bagnall looked at her with dispassion. He had clearly left her where she had fallen. The apparition hovered over the table, focused as before on the music box.
“Well, Miss Tulane,” he said, “I gather that you have been lying to me, and not just about your acquaintance with Halifax.”
Inside, she felt a stirring of fear as her life’s foundation of lies crumbled before her one good eye. “Beautiful Dreamer” rang in her head as she sat up and forced herself to reply.
“Mr. Bagnall, my great secret, which I have kept not just from you but from everyone, is that I have had no memory at all of my past before the Great War. Until now.”
His eyes turned querulous, but he still made no move to help her to her feet.
To her great embarrassment, Miss Mindy Tulane burst into tears.
“Abby,” she said, remembering, finally. “Brown ringlets and a hellion’s temper, but sweet when it warranted. I suppose I took on my strength of resolve in response to hers. I gave her the music box the day we sailed. My own parents died when I was younger than she was then, leaving me in the care of the state. In those days, girls were ejected from the Orphan Asylum upon reaching the age of sixteen, and could expect no more to be done for us. I didn’t mind. I wanted an adventure. I found a job with a family in New York and travelled there for the first time in 1911.”
She looked up at the ghost, whom she now noticed had a blind eye too, the mirror of her own. Its pale face contorted in rage, as if angry at her for being alive. Still, it nodded, goading her to continue. “I had been with the family for such a little time! We travelled across the Atlantic in January by the south route, and were set to return aboard the Titanic. I failed them so terribly.”
He kept his silence, forcing her to go on. “There was a little boy, too. Harold—Hally. Abby’s brother. We sailed in second class, but their father knew many of the first-class passengers. His employer had bought our passages. He was the one who came to wake us when the ship began to founder.”
The memories came fast now. The sound reverberating through the ship, through which the children had somehow slept. The sight of the ice, pink and blue in the starlight, passing outside the porthole window. Their mother’s frenzy as she packed, while Miss Tulane dressed the children, making a game of it. She was determined not show the children her own fear, so her body had tensed around it until it shrank into a hard ball of terror in the pit of her stomach. She had never been truly frightened again since that night. Truth be told, she had never felt much of anything.
The turmoil on the boat deck ran at a such a pitch that she felt unwilling to add to it. As for the children, she vowed to stand between them and the alarming truth. She placed herself there with conscious intent, even between them and their hysterical parents. The children would not see her terror, no matter what happened. The lies had begun that night.
Then, the rush of the water, its coldness. The way the children’s hands were abruptly no longer in hers, how the screams of the people in the water around her were drowned out by the screams that seemed to emanate from the ship itself.
She saw her first ghost somewhere between the shock of the water and the moment she realized she was going to die. The green, unearthly lights of the great ship fell away beneath her, as if she instead had taken flight. Only the lights of the stars in the water showed the falseness of that illusion. The “unsinkable” monster of a ship, had gone down into the water of the north Atlantic without a ripple. How could that be?
A piece of debris struck her in the left eye, and swelled it shut. The chill kept it from swelling more, and froze the blood in its tracks down her face.
Her life belt kept her head above the calm surface, but occluded her vision as well. She kicked, trying to turn herself in a circle to search for her employers and especially the children, but her feet were already going numb. In minutes, she could not feel them at all. Within half an hour, she could hear no more screams either.
But the ghosts, they were thick around her. They clung to the bodies of the dying, bobbing in their belts. They rose from the depths below long after the ship herself had vanished, its lights either extinguished or merely too deep in the black depths to see.
They brushed past her, travelling backwards into the night, their faces always turned toward their own lifeless bodies.
Miss Tulane hyperventilated in the cold, felt her tears freeze on her cheeks, and sang “Beautiful Dreamer.” Long past all hope of rescue, a man’s voice called out, “Anyone? Is anyone alive here?”
She found out later that her rescuer was the ship’s fifth officer, a boy not much older than herself. Aboard the rescue ship, the Carpathia, she saw him once at a distance. As he went by, a woman’s spirit departed backwards into the sky. The juxtaposition formed the illusion that he had drawn her ghost away with the force of his passage, but that was all it was: an illusion.
Her ghost was there though, chained by the past—or by something stranger—to a gift she had given to a child who had died before eight years of age.
How was Miss Tulane alive? How could she have been apart all these years from her own spirit? Was this somehow the source of her notable courage and stability? Was her soul attached to Abby’s music box, as punishment for allowing that child to die so horrifically?
Only time would tell, she reasoned, if Miss Mindy Tulane reunited with her shade and continued on as a more complete person. If so, she would be glad of the years when she had not worried about the death and turmoil she had witnessed. Or, on the contrary, she’d discover that she had never left the doomed steamer at all, and at some unknown time, she would find herself flying backwards into the sky, away from a body that would again crumple to the floor of Mr. Bagnall’s shop. Away from the music box that must, somehow, be her true corporeal form…
Her nightmare came to mind: Darkness surrounded her. She felt terror, but also resignation. She was going to die. All that remained was to accept the fact.
Arnold Bagnall stared at Miss Tulane as she travelled deep into her thoughts. Compassion came into his eyes as he recognized her as a fellow traveller through the worst life could offer. When he spoke, it seemed like a truth she should already have known. “I served as a wireless officer during the war, but on the Titanic, I was fifth officer, drawn to you by that song. When I pulled you from the freezing water, it was clear that you could never have been the one singing. Your skin was blue, and the blood from your eye had crusted around your lips. I have no idea how you were still alive. You were the last, the very last we rescued.”
It seemed reasonable to Miss Tulane that the music box could never have found its way back to her except through someone also connected to that horrible event. They had the war in common too, and Halifax, the city to which the Carpathia had brought her…
“Mr. Bagnall,” she said finally, as the last of the memories flooded from her, leaving only the sound of the music box repeating inside her head, “do you suppose this is all because I allowed those dear children die?”
Instead of answering, he turned his gaze to the place where Miss Tulane’s spirit hovered, clearly seeing it himself for the first time. His breath caught, and Miss Tulane wished she had the courage to reach out and comfort him. But all her strength was gone, lost in the past. She and Mr. Bagnall had been drawn together, against the odds. Could it be that there was a great meaning in their meeting again after all this time? She was certain that the apparition portended something greater, something not just about Miss Miranda Tulane and her years of shallow emotions and lies. The sound of that music box playing “Beautiful Dreamer” and the child singing along to it (was it dear Abby, or herself?) grew louder in her head, echoing in her ears and threading a pulse of blood to her useless left eye.
And then, with growing horror, she knew without a doubt, knew there was a shadow rearing up over not just this country, or North America, but the world. She relayed it in a shaking voice to the shop owner, speaking louder than she would have chosen, but needing to drown out the song:
“Mr. Bagnall, war is coming again. And this time, it will be worse.”
Jen Frankel loves to tell tall tales full of twists and magic, and a splash of horror. She is the author of the Blood & Magic series and the Amazon-bestselling Undead Redhead, as well as hosting literary open mics for writers online and in person.
On Twitter: @jenfrankel
Books available at Amazon
Literary open mic on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/writeonliveevent
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Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.