My colleague from overseas was explaining the origin of the atonement room and its place in posthumous spirituality.
In his country of origin, people would construct a miniature house or sometimes a single room next to the grave of a man or woman who had died in a torturous way. This could be the grave of a murder victim or it could be the grave of a tortured soul who had been a murderer in life.
The idea was that the soul which crossed over through such a terrible absence of grace might be blinded, stunted, trapped down there in its grave, trying to work out the sum of its terrible end on earth, asking itself over and over why its life had been so horrible that it existed on even now as this echo of discontent. We are talking about those souls in a kind of purgatory or bardo hell.
The houses would be charming little creations, miniatures for sure, so small that not even a four year old could enter one. There might be cheerful, tiny curtains set in a little kitchen window through which one could spy a cup of tea waiting on a lovely table with a brilliant centerpiece of red and green and purple. This might be tea laid for the soul of a savage man who killed seven teenage prostitutes. But the idea was that here his soul would reflect, in this sweet house of eternal domesticity. The idea was that he might be liberated, his soul somehow repaired and fit once more to face God. What kind people these peasants must have been who could practice such generous, spiritual rites.
My colleague friend went on to explain that sometimes you would even see several little houses in a row next to the grave, each consecutively larger, for the soul to adjust its residency here on earth in careful increments, like the stages of pupa, chrysalis and imago in the insect.
These I thought of as serial nunneries, insect dollhouses, boxes preparing the post-mortal soul to slowly take on its true dimensions of sky.
Our experiment was set to coincide with his country’s traditional Atonement Day, when many citizens set aside a special room in their home for the welcoming of a troubled spirit who could seek atonement over the course of one night, star-rise to star-fall.
My colleague led our version of this experiment and set up a separate room at our university with some dummy controls. You darken a room, he explained, and you gather the members of the seance. You target the individual you wish to help spiritually advance on this night where we were to be (lore maintains) assisted by angels.
Our group had selected the soul of Mary Ulweather, the “Hatchet Widow of Elmo,” as our star sinner for the night. Elmo was a small town near our university that boasted several centuries of paranormally-tinged history. Mary went through four husbands in her lifetime. Three went missing, as did the fourth, but since he was recovered with a hatchet in the back of his head, she was sentenced as a four-time murderer and hung on the outskirts of the only town she had ever known.
She had been known to manifest for centuries, virtually non-stop since her death, in various parts of the town. Her spirit had been blamed for more than one suicide, more than one murder.
Mary hadn’t been penitent at the time of her hanging, but we all hoped that four centuries of unrest had perhaps brought her soul closer in tune with the idea that confession and redemption could set her soul free.
We sat down and began the seance and it did not take long at all for Mary to manifest vocally and even visually. Several members of the parties received nasty cuts on their legs and forearms. But these were like paper cuts, only discovered after the seance. It hadn't felt like much of anything at the time, just some cloth brushing us. We figured it was the confusion of emergence for Mary. It must be a strange feeling to be pulled between worlds like that.
Following our colleague's instructions, we did not interrogate Mary. As soon as she manifested, we fled the room and sealed it shut. It was a windowless room. We left the candle burning. We knew we could not film the goings-on are we would all be at spiritual risk. But we could listen at the door as the long night passed.
We were all very pleased to hear Mary crying in the room at various times throughout the night. She would suddenly weep and wail. The walls would shake as presumably she pounded them. It was as though she were beseeching heaven for something. Surely it must be grace.
We waited until we heard the call of a crow (actually brought to the university expressly for this experiment!) and then we knew it was safe to open the door. We rushed in, hoping to find testimony. It was said that tortured saved spirits often left notes of gratitude in the atonement room to angels, their Maker, even the souls who had helped them achieve atonement. Would we get a Thank You note from Mary?
What we saw on the table in the center of the dark room, the site of our last night’s seance, was the paper we had left. There were bloody fingerprints all over the pages and words in an almost indecipherable red scrawl.
“Can anyone read what she’s written?”
“I know the witch’s handwriting,” said Julie, with a dark expression.
“She wrote, ‘OH DAMN YE, LORD AND HIS COMPANY, ANGELS THAT TAUNT ME ALL NIGHT, A POOR OLD WOMAN, BELDAM,
WHY OH WHY I CAN NOT HAVE
JUST ONE MORE HUSBAND, HOUSE-BOUND?
I MISS THE SENSE OF THEIR BONES BROKEN ON THE RACK, I MISS THEIR
HANDSOME MONEYSACKS. LORD, SATAN, SHOW MERCY….I STARVE
AND YOU MOCK ME AND FEED ME NOT THE HANDSOME PREY
WHO COME TO MY DARK HAIR, MY FLASHING EYES…CURSE
THAT MORNING COMES I FEEL…RELEA….
So we counted our experiment half a success. We had managed to acquire a subject for the trail run of the atonement room.
We had failed, however, in finding a soul desiring atonement.
But we figured there was always next year.