By Alex Mell-Taylor
Sixteen-year-old Harold Taylor was standing on the threshold of the George Washington Room. He was there on a dare. Harold wanted to prove to his buddies that he could go inside what was colloquially referred to as the Dead Room by DC locals and walk away unscathed and, more importantly to his ego, unafraid.
From what he could tell, it was a small, dark, intimate room. Thick red drapes blocked the outside light. The space was illuminated by gigantic turn-of-the-19th-century light bulbs that hung from the roof. Their glow landed on a portrait of our nation’s first President and High Archmage, George Washington. His hand was outstretched, beckoning Harold Taylor to come inside.
Harold placed on his head a pair of old headphones — a bulky, plastic contraption his friends had insisted he must wear while traversing the Dead Room. If you were going to see George Washington, you had to listen to the audio tour, or there was simply no point. Harold ran his fingers over the triangular play button of the digital recorder. There was still time to not do this. To turn back and go home. He could always lie? Though his friends would know. Lee had actually been to the Dead Room last summer, or at least he claimed he had. No, Harold was going to win.
He took in a deep breath and pressed play.
“Hello,” said an unfamiliar voice. “And thank you for listening to the audio tour for the George Washington Room. It’s a rather fascinating room if I do say so myself.” The voice chuckled. It was a welcoming voice with a soft, near-Southern accent that Harold did not recognize.
“If you are like me during my first time,” continued the voice, “then you are probably just outside the room, terrified. Don’t worry. That’s completely normal. This place has quite the reputation, but it’s been greatly exaggerated, I assure you. Please take a step. Be brave.”
Harold gulped and then crossed the threshold.
“You’ve most likely already noticed the first painting in our exhibit. Called Washington on White Canvas, a portrait of the High Archmage painted with oils. See how removed he is, standing in his regal purple robes. His head cocked to the side, staring at the viewer, staring at you.
“Notice the exquisite details in the backdrop. A bookshelf filled with old tomes. A window. There are dots of blue and yellow beyond the glass, though the shapes here are not well-defined. Perhaps the yellow represents the chickens he kept at Mt. Vernon or the hand of a light-skinned ‘house slave.’”
“Closer, there is an ornate table with reams and reams of parchment. What are on those papers? A love letter? Contracts? A secret? Somewhere on this canvas is the first rune in the sequence, allegedly undetectable. Can you see it? Really soak in the details of the room. How the contrast around the edges becomes darker, obscuring whatever is there in a whirl of browns and black. Please pause the recording if you want to linger here and contemplate on the dark. …”
Harold paused the recorder and stared at the painting. He didn’t know what he was supposed to be looking at. He remembered seeing a copy of this painting in textbooks as a child. It would always be included in the chapter on early America, though rarely as the opening image. It was usually buried a couple of pages in. It was a famous work, yet he found it too stuffy and pretentious to enjoy. He wondered if the man would have liked or hated him — probably wouldn’t have cared either way. He set the thought aside, forcing himself to stare at George Washington’s haunting expression. Harold had a bet to win. He spent several more moments taking the painting in before resuming the recording.
“… edges,” the voice continued. “Now, I want you to begin walking into the next room. Are you going?” the voice asked.
“Yes,” Harold found himself saying out loud, despite rolling his eyes. He was still sweating and had started to shake.
“Good. As we move, take a moment to appreciate the shift in the lighting.”
Harold craned his neck upwards. They were moving into a hallway where the red drapes no longer obstructed the light from the windows. The afternoon light poured in, washing out seven or eight sketches spread across a white wall that spanned 8 by 15 feet.
“Far less ominous,” the voice joked. “These sketches are the only incomplete works in this exhibit. We have different body parts, drawn in isolation. Two hands, two eyes, a nose, a foot. Almost a complete person. Surviving letters indicate that these were most likely drawn while Washington was heading the Revolutionary forces as the Chief Storm Mage during the War of Independence. The British would call it the Occult Wars. Washington shocked the British with his tactics, summoning gales in the middle of British encampments and even a couple of towns. The British called him the Butcher, though, to Americans, he was the Hero of the Revolution.”
“Near the end of the hall, take a moment to focus in on the right hand, pointing in the air. Practically an accusation. It’s hard to believe that these sketches were made in the middle of a war. His ink strokes are so fine, so delicate. Even at this stage of his life, he was showing some real talent. It must have taken him hours to sketch a hand this lifelike. We cannot know if all of these body parts are his, but we do know this hand is. He has begun sketching the runes that, infamously, would be included in the rest of these paintings. You can see it here at the bottom, a crescent, and the start of a delta. Given that mages back then thought magic only worked from unwilling subjects, it would have been made with blood. It was probably human. There was certainly no shortage of it.”
“Now, to keep up with the flow: I am going to need you to pause the recording now. I will. …”
Harold again paused the recording and walked into the neighboring room. To him, it appeared to be a large, ornate dining room. At the beginning of the room, a sign read, “Warning: Room May Cause Excessive Happiness.” The center had a long wooden table set up as if the museum had been expecting him and fifteen other patrons to eat there for dinner. A white tablecloth was sitting on top of it, along with fine china and napkins, elegantly folded to puff upwards.
The walls were lined with various shades of dark green wallpaper. An intricate trimming lined where the wall met the ceiling. There was a pattern of sorts on the trimming that repeated over and over again, though Harold could not recognize it. The room had several desks nestled away in the corner and one moderately sized fireplace. There was a large floor-to-ceiling window with a realistic-looking mural that peered into a fictitious Virginia countryside. Paintings were everywhere, including six large landscapes, though none of them were of Washington himself.
It was so grand, so elegant, and all Harold wanted to do was smile. A warmth washed over him as he took in the magnitude of it all. His hands unclasped, and his posture straightened. He pressed play, curious more than ever to learn of the room’s origins.
“… see you there. Are you there yet? If not, I highly recommend going there now. I’ll wait.” There was a five-second pause, and then the voice resumed. “What you are witnessing is a recreation of Washington’s salon at Mt. Vernon or the New Room as he called it for a time, due to it being one of his more recent renovations, relatively speaking, of course. It was larger than most rooms in colonial Virginia and required five enslaved people to clean and maintain it. He only used this room for special occasions, eating his food in a separate, slightly smaller dining room. Notice the sideboards spanning the large, floor-to-ceiling window. They have the same pattern as on the trimming; runes meant to encourage joviality and light-heartedness in his guests. He ordered the paneling from a Philadelphia cabinet maker named John Airkens during the end of his presidency. Washington did the runework himself. It’s estimated that three enslaved people were needed to complete them, though it could have been more.”
“As you make your way to the next room, imagine the work that must have gone into cleaning this room: scrubbing the floors, putting away the table, and setting it up again. Oh, the dusting must have been a nightmare. And as you are doing this work, imagine having to feel happy. To be unable not to smile. Do you still find it pretty? Do you still want a room like this one? Reflect as you pause the recording until you …”
Harold paused the recording. The news had been unsettling to learn, but he was still so delighted. A warmth tickled him, and yet at the back of his mind, it seemed entirely inappropriate. His gaze shot up at the runes, and then he rushed out of the room. The moment he crossed the threshold, he released a guttural cry. He screamed at the recorder.
“Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you,” he shouted. He almost threw it to the ground and then stopped himself. “The bet,” he thought instinctually. Was it worth it? Part of him no longer thought so, but he was stubborn and prideful. He had to do this — to press forward.
Harold peered around at his surroundings. He was in a tiny, dark room. Black curtains on either entrance blocked out the light. It was no bigger than a galley kitchen. There was only a single painting hung up on the wall: a pair of feet. It was dimly lit by a set of portrait lights. The lack of stimulation was oddly comforting. Harold drew in a deep breath and pressed play.
“… arrive at the next painting.” There was a pause and then a sigh. “Before we go forward, I’d like to apologize on behalf of the museum for any discomfort you may have experienced just now. I truly am sorry. No one should be forced to feel an emotion they do not want to, even a happy one. I do hope it provides some perspective.” The voice cleared its throat, signifying that the apology was over.
“Whatever,” muttered Harold.
“Moving on,” the voice continued. “Here we have another oil on canvas. The title has been lost to us. The catalog refers to it simply as Washington’s Feet, Oils, but some historians have given it a name far more sinister — The Devil’s Feet. The painting broke many taboos for the time. We can see that his feet are not clothed. They are exposed. His muscles are shown as veiny and repulsive. He never intended for this painting to see the light of day among polite society. The only people he dared show it to in life were the people he enslaved.”
“One, in particular, named Samuel, no last name in the records, was assigned to stare at this painting. It was not the most physically demanding task that one of Washington’s enslaved staff members could do, but certainly the cruelest. The runes on this painting are rather simple — a rudimentary transference spell. For every second Samuel stared at this painting, a second was added to Washington’s life. Normally a worthless spell, but Samuel was chained in front of this painting for over fifteen years.” Outside the recording, Harold noticed the sound of rattling chains being played from a nearby surround-sound system. The voice continued to speak: “He was beaten if he ever gazed too much in another direction. Samuel was only given an hour of exercise each day and only small breaks for sleep and food. He saw no one but an overseer for the majority of his adult life. After Samuel died, a woman named Lucy took his place, followed by a boy named Douglas, who died after only three years on the rotation.”
“If you will, please join me in the next room for the last of Washington’s paintings in this series. It’s just a couple of steps away. Take your time.”
Harold paused the recording. He stood there for a bit, saying nothing, thinking angry, bitter thoughts about the world. Harold had dressed up as George Washington as a kid for All Hallows Eve. He had gone to see a Broadway show about the Founding Fathers just last spring, and it all felt so stupid now. Harold was stupid. He had always been stupid. He wanted to leave this exhibit, but there was the bet, and more than that, he felt compelled to finish.
“Let’s get this over with,” he muttered under his breath.
The adjoining room was the biggest one yet. It was filled to the brim with paintings of various sizes. Many of them did not have frames. They were not well-made either. The paintings looked like they were slapped together last minute and largely unfinished. You could see entire sections where ink lines had not been painted in.
Harold pressed play for the last time.
“These are not Washington’s best work. They were made in a hurry. He did not have enough canvases for the number of works he required, and so he improvised, relying on reclaimed barn doors, shutters, and old planks. You can see towards the back where he ran out of more traditional colors and began using ones concocted from clay and other local earths. When the Civil War started to draw to a close by the start of 1878, Washington, a supporter of the Confederacy, realized that slavery would soon be eliminated. At the ripe old age of 146 years old, he devoted all his resources to making paintings, one for each of the 440 people he had enslaved to stare at.”
“For months, they were crowded into pens and barns and made to stare. While a little under 50 escaped to freedom in runaway attempts, many more died from illness brought on by malnutrition and sleep deprivation. By the time Union soldiers freed Mt. Vernon, only 87 remained. It has been estimated that if Washington had not been assassinated a year later, he would have lived until 2011. He cried when a group of formerly enslaved militiamen executed him. Alive so long, and in the end, just a man unable to grapple with his own mortality.”
“Thank you for listening to this recording. My name is Linda Washington, and it has been a pleasure to have you on this audio tour. If you’d like to hear how that gang of enslaved persons managed to secure a presidential pardon, one of them a woman who ten years later would cast the deciding vote for reparations in the Senate, join us next month for the exhibit ‘The Mississippi North Gang: A Battle for Freedom.’”
“In the next room, the museum has commissioned a series of paintings by descendants of the men and women Washington enslaved, including one of my own, titled A History of Pain and Freedom. The same transference spell has been placed on all of these paintings, except this time, we are the beneficiaries of the spell.”
“Take all the time you need.”