Traverse City, Michigan
I am seven months along now and there is little I can do. My neighbor Katy Peck says I am expecting twin boys, but I just shake my head at her. It’s a girl. I know it is. I know it without even having to ask how.
Until now, my days have been filled with cleaning the house and cooking meals for us. In the summer months I can fresh preserves and pickles. I do not can cherries, of course, not when Ray works at the Traverse City Canning Factory. The palms of his hands are stained red, though we never mention it. He says he’ll never eat another cherry; that you’d have to kill him to get him to eat one. Sometimes in June when the cherries are ripening, I will cut them into little pieces and bake them into a chocolate cake. Ray eats two or more slices in a sitting.
Lately though I find that doing even the simple things is hard. My daughter is heavy. She pulls on the muscles of my stomach. Sometimes she flips around and jabs me. It’s the strangest thing to feel her flutter around, and something that only she and I share. During these times, I go for a walk to the beach. It’s just two blocks away and it seems to calm her. Or maybe it just calms me. At any rate, she quiets and we listen to the waves lap against the shore. I gently pull my dress up to my knees (if no one is looking) and wade in to the cool water.
It’s on the day that I find a Petoskey stone as big as my hand that I think of my mother. If you ask me, I will tell you my mother is Mallie Lyn Young and my father is Charlie Young and that I am the oldest of three, Irish girls. My sisters are as red headed as my parents. My hair is dark as a secret.
A Petoskey stone has a story to tell. It’s made of hundreds of tiny hexagons side by side, of coral long dead. Somehow, over the years, it transformed. It started as coral and became something else, something millions of years later I can hold in the palm of my hand. I am like a Petoskey stone: I started as someone else’s child and became Mallie and Charlie Young’s.
My mother did not want me to know, but she gave me the box anyway. You should know this, she said, and I could tell her how much it pained her to tell me the truth. She was afraid I would not love her. It only made me love her more.
Inside I found the papers that haunt me to this day, and it’s this I think of while trying to calm my own growing child.
I was born to parents Rose and Elliott Kinney in September, 1933. This would be enough for me to wonder, but it’s the second piece of paper that troubles me, and I have not been able to say a word of it to Ray. How do I tell him what I know? It is hard enough to say that I was adopted. Somehow it’s a shame on me. So how I could I tell him about the yellowed slip of paper? It’s a death certificate for Rose Margaret Kinney dated December 1930; and yet I hold my birth certificate dated September 1933 and Rose Margaret Kinney is listed as my mother. My real mother died three years before I was born. How is this possible? What does it mean?
Of course it isn’t possible…it isn’t. Who then was my mother?
I smooth my thumb over the surface of the stone and toss it as far as I can. I hope the bay swallows it whole and won’t release it again for another thousand years.
Northern Michigan Insane Asylum
My Dearest Elliott,
You loved me once. Love me again. That’s all I ask of you.
Just try and do that and I promise, I promise, a hundred
times I promise that I will do better. I will be a better wife to you.
--A letter to Elliott Kinney, signed Rose
He dreamed of walking through a cherry orchard when in bloom. White blossoms laced with pink clung to the trees. Miles and miles all around him of green hills and cloudlike blossoms. The lake stretching out in front of him just a blue strip across the horizon. He could feel her reaching to him and he went to her, slowly, as if she would disappear like smoke if he approached too quickly. She did not. He wrapped his arms around her, pulled him close to his chest. He could feel her. He could honestly feel her. He unbuttoned the top two buttons of her dress, at the nape of her neck, tilted her head forward and lifted her dark hair so that her spine rose before him. Then, slowly, he lowered his lips and then he kissed the skin that lay exposed and vulnerable before him. “Love me again, Elliott,” she said and before he could stop himself, he said “No” nd let go of her hair.
“Good morning, sir, I do apologize for waking you and coming into your chambers and all, sir.” It was a young girl with curly red hair tucked haphazardly into a white bonnet, nineteen or so, and her hand rested against his shoulder, her bare hand touching the fabric of his shirt, burning with heat to his very skin. “I’m Mallie Lyn Peters, sir," she continued in her pronounced Irish accent. "I help with cleaning and such sir.” She covered her mouth with her hands. “For the doctors, sir, not for the others. There’s nurses and specialists who tend to them and I ain’t…”
Kinney lifted himself in bed, temporarily interrupting the girl. Her face blushed crimson. “Continue,” he said.
“I shouldn’t of woke you up sir, but Doctor Grooms is here and he’s ready to get you started and he said I mustn’t hesitate but to wake you up directly and I did too, only first I stopped in the kitchen to grab you a bit of bread and then I got to talking to one of the attendants and then well, I ate that piece of bread sir what with Charlie…I mean Mr. Young talking on and on and so and then I remembered that I needed to…”
Kinney yawned, none too discreetly. “Thank you, Mallie. If you could…”
“You want something to eat? I could go back to the kitchen.”
“I’d like to get dressed,” he said pointedly. The pink flush to her skin soon deepened to a positive burn.
“Course sir, excuse me sir. I’ll wait outside and then show you the way. It’s awful easy to get lost in here. Why I’ve heard about a woman once who…”
“Thank you, Mallie. That will be all.”
Mallie swallowed hard, curtsied, and then retreated out of his room.
Kinney stepped out of his bed gingerly, as if expecting there to be pain when he walked, the way, he was sure, a mermaid new to legs would expect and anticipate pain. There was none. He walked to the window, drew open the curtains and for the first time he could see the ground of the Northern Michigan Insane Asylum before him. It was beautiful. Simply beautiful. Like a dream itself. He wondered, briefly, what price they paid to keep up such beauty. In Doctor Kinney’s experience beauty was never without its opposite for long.
Mallie led Dr. Kinney through a vast network of winding corridors until he arrived, breathless, into a great open room with twenty or so wooden tables. “We’re in one of the dining rooms, sir,” Mallie said.
Kinney looked around. Each table was set for four or more. There were tall, thin windows that reached from floor to ceiling. Sun didn’t so much as pour through the windows but somehow managed to illuminate the space from within. The floor was tiled and scrubbed clean. The effect was of an efficient hospital-like cafeteria, but it still managed to be somewhat homey. “Is there anything else I can get for you, Dr. Kinney?” Mallie asked, her Irish accent lilting. “If you wouldn’t mind I’d like to be on my way and back to my other duties before Doctor Grooms gets here. He doesn’t like to deal so much with the lesser support staff and I’d just as well like to get about my day, if you don’t mind.”
He studied her face for a moment. He’d begun his career as a medical doctor but had switched to psychiatry when his wife fell ill. He had trained himself to be sensitive to what the body said as well as how a person spoke. So much meaning clung not to what was said but to how it was voiced and sometimes, more importantly, the words held back. Mallie’s cheeks were flushed, which might have been a natural state for her. There was, however, something in the tautness of her smile and her eyes did not shine with humor but were, perhaps, dulled from a lack of it. This was a girl who, for whatever reason, was afraid.
“Certainly, Mallie. You are excused.”
She curtsied and said with relief, “Thank you, sir, kindly. If you need anything else, sir, do not hesitate to call for me. You may not always see me about, but I am sir, or someone is who knows where to find me. You have only to call my name.”
And then with a swishing of he skirts, she was gone.
Kinney walked to the window. The curtains were already tied back to allow for the sunlight and so all he had to do was to simply look outside. Funny, he thought, one would never guess that this was the home of the mentally deranged. One would guess, looking at the couples strolling arm in arm that this was some place of respite or a grand park, if it weren’t for the fact that many of the people walking were clothed in striped pajamas, their partners clothed in the white of the medical profession. And the couples, of course, were all of the same gender. There was no mixing of the sexes at the Northern Michigan Insane Asylum. Kinney knew from his research that men and women were housed in entirely separate complexes. There were also several cottages on the premises where doctors could reside if they chose. And except for the communal walking areas, the place was effectively segregated.
He wondered if the criminally insane were as effectively segregated. Surely there must be some place that they resided. It was, after all, for their care the he had been summoned, not for the care of simple depressives and drug addicts. No. Dr. Kinney’s specialty was for psychoses of a higher sort, and which he had dedicated his life and his scientific method into curing by any means possible.
“Good morning to you, Doctor Kinney,” said a deep, melodic voice. “Welcome to your new life.” The man, surely Dr. Grooms, spread his arms open wide and smiled. Kinney noted the smile, here too, did not reach his eyes.
In life, as things happen, they happen in a linear fashion. One thing follows the next. One foot goes in front of the other and then is followed again. And so the tour of the facilities and grounds did occur in a linear way. Kinney followed Dr. Grooms and listened to him and nodded, and noticed the way their shoes echoed on the spotless floors, and how sunlight was fierce in its intensity. He nodded to inmates and did his best not to immediately notice they were damaged. He saw the men’s wing and the women’s. The dining hall. The medical ward. He was brought to an office and given a coat to wear and shown how to fill out forms. Everything was precise and orderly.
Why then, when at dinner, did he remember the day not as in one moment after the next, or one thing happening after another, but as an impression? As a whole? It was as if the day and all the moments in between had melded together and formed some kind of painting in his mind. There were the cows the patients milked. And there were the rows of beds they slept in. And there was the sunlight. The unforgiving sunlight and then…there were the shadows and the eyes, and the pale skin and taut faces looking at him, hiding from him. And there was the laughter and the screams in the distance, although he only saw patients who walked and smiled happily. And at dinner time as he sat with the board and tried to cut his steak, it was not the rooms or the grounds or even the patients of the Northern Michigan Insane Asylum that he thought of at all. No. He thought of the tunnels that connected everything and inched beneath the surface.
“No need to tour that area, Dr. Kinney,” Dr. Grooms had said with a hint of ice in his voice. “That is for the unseemly things, as we like to say. The transportation of refuse and occasionally of those patients who finally surrender their lives to an illness we cannot cure.”
“But where are the others?” Kinney asked. “Where are the ones I was brought her to treat? Surely they are not strolling the grounds, whistling or milking cows of all things.”
“It is as I said,” Dr. Grooms said evenly. “The tunnels are for refuse. You will see it in good time, but today, today let us focus on all the pleasantries our facility offers.”
Kinney chewed his beef and thought how he too was guilty of hiding something that had once been beautiful and had become so unseemly.
COMING NEXT WEEK: Dr. Kinney in The Tunnels and a strange vision.