The Tunnels of the Northern Michigan Insane Asylum, 1911
Dark. Cold. Aboveground the world was caught in a fierce storm as the gales rushed through the bay, broke ships like teacups onto the shore. The wind howled. Moaned. Tore through woods. Shook trees to the roots, lifted roofs and spun an outhouse up by Kids’ Creek.
In the tunnels, all was quiet.
And then there was a panting. A slight humming. No light. Just darkness and shadows blending. You could not see her if you were looking. She was quiet as a secret. Husssshhhhh. She thought over and over. Husssshhhhh. Her fingers to her lips. Even as her belly grew, she guarded her secret fiercely. She was a feral dog and her growing secret a bone. In some corner of her mind, she knew what was happening. She was one person becoming two. She did not associate it with the animal functions she’d done countless of times with men. At her house, in the woods, in the doctor’s office, and one night down in the tunnels itself. An orderly he’d been and he’d been nice to her. He gave hear a pearl button. She kept it under her tongue to keep it a secret as well.
He had shown her how to crawl down in to the tunnels and he had met her here countless times to grunt and paw at her, to nuzzle her like a dog. To lick and pant and eventually to give her pleasure in a way different than the button. The button at least she could keep. And then he was gone. Fired. Let go. Moved on with his wife and children. She did not know. She did not understand. She understood secrets. She understood Hussshhh. She understood how to be very, very quiet even when under incredible pain. She could be completely quiet. In fact, she never said a word.
And so when the child emerged from between her legs, the woman did not cry out or scream. Her daughter entered a world of secrets and silence. Only aboveground did the world cry out and moan.
Northern Michigan Insane Asylum, Building 50, 1933
Bill Pepperidge pulled his truck up to Building 50 just as Kinney had asked, at precisely 9:00PM. Course, to Bill, 9:00PM was a strange time to make a move, and in December no less, when the nighttime wind had a real bite to it. If Bill had a place to move into, he’d wait until spring to do it. Course, if Bill had a place like the doctor, maybe he’d make the move right away too. He looked around, noted Kinney standing in front of the door. He noted that the doctor stood still, but there was an air of unrest to him. Bill nodded to himself. So much darkness and only more darkness to come.
“Seems you’ve collected some things there, doctor,” Bill said. “I remember just a few months ago driving you up here and you had naught but one bag with you then. How’d you manage to get all this?” He motioned to the stacks of bags behind him, luggage and what not.
“I’ve ordered some things for the new house,” Kinney said in a way that seemed to say that was the end of the discussion. Pepperidge tugged on his hat, nodded, and lifted the rest of the bags into the back of his truck. The bed sighed with the weight, just the way the Bill’s own bones were sighing now. He’d worked too hard and too long and there was no end in sight. Not with all the folks out of work and the dust bowl happening in the south. If there was one thing Bill knew it was that as a hired hand there were times where it served you to remain quiet and stupid. This was one of those times.
He didn’t look at the woman, or he tried not to. The little Irish girl had brought her out, wrapped her in a big blanket. The young woman was beautiful and clearly terrified out of her skin. She looked around as if she’d never seen a night sky. Course, if she was a loony (and she certainly looked like a loony) maybe everything was always new to her. Sometimes the mind was broken that way. Bill took this in without appearing to notice a thing. He’d worked at the asylum a long time. There were certain skills a man developed over time and this was one of them.
He didn’t even acknowledge her presence as Kinney pried her free from the Irish girl’s embrace. He took the frightened woman by the elbow guided her into the truck. She seemed to not know what to do exactly. Not how to get up into it or what to expect. Kinney had to lift her into the truck and when he took the seat next to her, she seemed to try to crawl inside Kinney’s own body. He held her.
Bill climbed in to. Didn’t have to worry about touching her as she was so close to the doctor. “We ready?” Bill asked and the doctor nodded his head. The woman near jumped out of her dress at the sound of the engine coming to, but Bill knew better than to ask.
Truth be told other doctors had taken lovers just as it appeared Kinney was doing. There was a fair share of loose women in the asylum, Bill knew, and sometimes they ended up as housemaids at cottages for a time. And sometimes they weren’t heard of ever again. It didn’t matter to Bill. It seemed that the women went willingly enough. Shoot, some of the women were so feeble minded they didn’t know up from down. Maybe staying with one of the doctors gave them a little bit more comfort for a time. What mattered to Bill was that he have money to put food on the table for his wife and four kids and grandchild. Sometimes, you just had to close your eyes to things.
It took a lot for Bill to drive to the doctor’s new residence in silence, but he did it. And he was rewarded handsomely for it too.
* * * * *
To Ama, the outside world was filled with scents and sounds she did not understand. There were no walls to keep her secure, no loving family to hold her. She tried to press close to Doctor Kinney but she felt no warmth there. She wanted her papas, her mammas. The world breathed ice on her face and it hurt. She wanted the shadows of her underground, not the great dark ceiling above her. She wanted her woodland creatures and her music and her box of special things. She did not understand what was happening or how they were sitting and moving so fast. The world was so loud, so loud and she pressed her hands to her ears to drown out the sound, but still it seeped in. She felt herself begin to cry. It started in the depths of her stomach, where her deepest pain resided. She felt the tears and anger forming and she let it pour out.
The Doctor held her. “Hussshhhh,” he said. Just that. “Hussshhh.” And Ama stilled. It was a magic word, a word that meant be quiet or they will find you. It was a word from her childhood and her growing years. It was a word almost as close as the name she had chosen for herself. Hussshhh. She closed her eyes. She let herself be rocked to and fro, the way Liliana would hold her and sing to her.
And then, after a time, the sounds and motion stopped. Kinney took her hand and helped her reach the ground. “This is your home, Rose,” he said to her.
Ama looked around. She knew that Kinney called her “Rose” and sometimes she answered to it. It was so dark out that the world now seemed smaller and that was a comfort. “Say, thank you dear Kinney.” His voice was a needle.
Ama closed her eyes. Her family had warned her of this moment, when she would be discovered and taken from them. She knew this could happen. She also knew that though she felt alone, she was not. They had taught her many things, ways to defend herself, weapons to use in case of danger. She would be able to use all their warnings and protect herself. “Thank you dear Kinney,” Ama said evenly. She smiled at him.
The first weapon was to make them believe you. Make them believe you would give them what they wanted. Ama could do that. She was a very talented girl.
Kinney led her into the house and out of the darkness. Ama continued to smile even as the light in the house blinded her.
The second weapon was to remember everything they did to you. Remember. Remember. Remember. Ama’s eyes were open now. Very wide open, indeed.