In a flaky corner of central Florida, mediums, clairvoyants, and spiritualists make their home in a dilapidated town where the living and the dead converge.
"Just don't sleep in room 13, you hear," warns the blonde in wrap–around shades. "The ectoplasm hasn't been scrapped off the walls yet."
I'm in Florida, 35 miles northeast of Disney World, at the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp, "Psychic Center of the World," according to the awning on the town's only hotel. I can't afford to stay here, until Reverend Steve Adkins offers me a room in Harmony Hall. If he can find the key…
"We rent out rooms to visiting lecturers or spiritualists," Steve tells me.
"But I'm neither."
"It doesn't really matter," he shrugs, "so long as no one's already in it."
Cicadas and tree frogs sing in the baking heat. Magnolia leaves blow down the dusty streets like tarot cards, snapping in the breeze. Five mediums are on duty at the Spiritualist Therapy Center. Every resident of Cassadaga is either a spiritualist or a medium. They lounge in faded armchairs, beside signs which read "Dr. Donald J. Zanghi, Spiritualist Counselor" and "Rev. Virginia Robbins–Bolek: Medium, Counselor, Healer." They recall Zen recipes and intimate chats with angels. Fairy lights trim their balconies. More than the odd shutter has gone missing.
Over ten million self–proclaimed Spiritualists live in the USA. Every Sunday two hundred of them gather with curious by–passers in Cassadaga for a Healing Service, private readings or the Afternoon Message Gathering, which aims "to demonstrate the continuity of life in a public setting".
"How you getting on this afternoon, Warren?" Reverend Steve calls up to an effeminate man slouched in a cane armchair on his verandah.
"I'm trying to muster up enough energy to water these orchids," Warren chirps back.
We climb the steps to share the shade with Drs. Warren Hooper and June Mahoney. Warren's upper arm is tattooed with his name – in hieroglyphs. June is a Southern dragon pushing eighty. Both are dressed in white kaftans and smoking Virginia Slims.
"Rory here is going to be your neighbor," Steve tells them. "If we can find the key."
"Well neighbor," warns June in a flame–scorched drawl, "you all better lock your door tight "cause it's wild here at night."
"Cosmic karma?" I ask, not wanting to get on the wrong side of her incantations.
"College kids," she says, sharp and peppery. "Last night Warren became our first victim of crime."
"I heard a commotion and came out to see it gone," he says, gesturing up at the bare branches of a big oak.
"It?" I ask.
"Stolen," stresses June. "Swiped."
"I called the Sheriff's office," Warren explains, "and said, "I'd like to report a missing U.F.O."
"A missing what?" the deputy said to me.
"A flying saucer."
"And what did this flying saucer look like?" the deputy asked.
"Oh the usual," I told him. "Colored lights around the rim and a big white beacon on the base for astral projection."
Then the deputy asked me, "Are you calling from Cassadaga?" And when I said that I was, he sort of sighed and said, "I'll send somebody around to see you in the morning."
"College kids hacked it right off that tree," flares June, clinging on to a precarious branch herself. "It's the sort of thing that happens when the moon moves into Virgo."
The "camp" was founded by George Colby, a trance medium and "the Seer of Spiritualism". He came to Florida in 1875, "led through the wilderness by his spirit guide Seneca who instructed him to organize a psychic center on the site". The first believers to follow him lived in tents under the hanging beards of Spanish moss. They practiced the gift of mediumship and affirmed the continuity of existence "after the change called death".
Steve and I saunter up Stevens Street, past overgrown front yards, garden gnomes and concrete monks. Blue jays and red–cockaded woodpeckers fly between the pines and banana trees. There are no fences between the clapboard houses but mythical beasts guard the occasional tattered gate.
We call by the homes of several more mediums, but none of them––or their spirit guides––seem to know where the key has been left. I do not understand how a clairvoyant can unlock the secrets of the afterlife yet mislay a door key.
Outside the Oracle Office I meet Mario, a big man pushing sixty, squat and broad with an athletic gait. He looks more like a Miami Dolphins quarterback than a clairvoyant.
"My first premonition was the most frightening," he tells me.
"What happened?" I ask, skeptical.
"I was sitting with my class, in a circle for the energy, when I saw this beautiful head of red hair. You know, that real rich red that some women have? I was like watching through a screen door, watching this girl walk down the drive to her car, all dressed up like she was going to a party. Her name came to me so I asked the class, "Does anybody here know a red–head named Georgia?""
Tight black curls frame a jowled face, a face which tells that he––in common with all the other mediums––has not lived a pampered life. Like most of the psychics he exudes an air of pain suffered, of having endured abuse, divorce or death.
"One of the other students did, so I told her what I'd seen. "But Georgia's alive," she said to me, "and I'm going out with her on Friday night." So I thought nothing more about it. Then the next weekend the student came in and said, "Georgia was killed in a car accident on Friday, and the last person to see her alive was her mother. She watched her walking away to her car through the screen door.""
Mario holds out broad hands more suited to catching footballs. "Once I started the course everything developed real fast," he explains. "I was getting messages for people and names of relatives on the Other Side. Like now I'm seeing, maybe, your uncle."
"My uncle?" I say, startled, wary again.
"Your mother's brother. You take after your mother's side of the family, don't you?"
"I do but…" I hesitate, doubting his motives, not expecting to be drawn into a sunlit séance. "How can you tell he's a maternal relative?"
"Because he's on the left–hand–side of my vision." Mario gazes into the middle distance, maybe into a parallel world, maybe at my uncle who had died eight years ago. "For me, it's mother's family on the left, father's on the right. I learnt that real early on. I see him being very physical," he divines. "Was he a sporty man?"
I shake my head. A bad guess. I'm relieved. Yet I also feel a twinge of disappointment.
"A gardener then," says Mario. "Did he work in the garden?"
My uncle had loved his garden. Every weekend through winter's mud and summer's droughts he had wheeled himself around it, planting, pruning, battling against multiple sclerosis.
Then Mario says my uncle's name.
Divination seems to be out of context here, in the hot sun, down the road from the Kennedy Space Center. I want to be skeptical the summery readings. I try to explain away the insight as fraud and lucky guesses. But it isn't the case. In Cassadaga I see the widow comforted. I see the bereaved consoled. Here in this flaky corner of Florida all those who have passed on live on. Death is a milestone along a much longer path.
Later that evening Reverend Steve finds the key in the bookstore. It's in a small drawer labeled "Keys". My night passes without incident. The bed doesn't levitate and the plumbing doesn't tremble with celestial vibrations. Only the midnight snores and conversation from the room above interrupt my sleep. A couple seems to drift between dead slumber and fitful discussions. They don't disturb me, at least less so than the discovery the next morning that the widow upstairs lives alone…in room 13.
Rory MacLean's Next Exit Magic Kingdom: Florida Accidentally is published by Tauris Parke in August '08. See more on the author's other books and travel writing workshops at rorymaclean.com.
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