The Northern Michigan Insane Asylum features a great expanse of tunnels connecting the separate wards, Building 50 and many of the doctors’ residences. This allows for the seamless transportation of goods necessary to the running of the facility, ensuring that your family member will not be aggravated by anything unsightly. Additionally, the Northern Michigan Insane Asylum has separate wards for men, women, and those from higher paying members of our society. There are separate wards for those patients of lower classes who are supported by the estate. The segregation of wards and the underlying tunnel systems ensures that your family member will never be exposed to someone of a different class level or mix with those of more dangerous afflictions.
--Promotional Material for The Northern Michigan Insane Asylum, 1915
We have been notified that there has been a breakdown of the tunneling system. Several patients have gone missing from locked wards and have been located in the caverns of the facility. We assure the board that this matter has been dealt with efficiently and promptly. All escaped inmates have been found and reassigned. The rumors currently circulating in the Traverse City community are without validity. As you know, with the recent influx of patients, we are experiencing a shortage of beds and materials. We graciously request additional support in both remedial staff and in two to four more physicians so that we can ensure all patients are accounted for at all times. The issue of the tunnels has been addressed and is currently being mended.
--A letter to the Board of Trustees dated 1931
The next morning Kinney was up before Mallie Lyn Peters could knock on the door. “I’m sorry to disturb you, sir,” she began and then “Why! You’re an early riser, aren’t you? I stopped by the kitchen for some bread for you sir, if you want, and this time I remembered. I told that rascal Charlie—I mean—Mister Young to not disturb me and I had a purpose. Mr. Young said I, I’ve got…” Mallie’s hand went to her mouth again, a look of horror spreading its wings over her face. “Oh, sir. I clean forgot the bread. I went on so much about Mr. Young disturbing me from my purpose that I clean forgot that I meant to get you some bread! Would you like me to go back?”
“What I would like, Miss Peters,” he said, using her formal name to slow her down and draw her attention,
“What I would like is to be taken into the tunnels.”
Mallie did not breathe and the natural rose of her cheeks withered. “I’m not sure I understand, sir. Today you’re to be meeting with the board again.”
“I’ve had enough meetings. It is time for me to get to work. It is time for me to do the job that they brought me here to do and that is to tend to the distorted minds that are brought into this facility. Now if you would kindly take me to the tunnels, please.” He issued the ‘please’ as a command and Mallie Lyn understood it as such.
“The Tunnels,” she said softly. She said the phrase as if it were a name and Kinney understood that here it was. “They’re meant only to take us between buildings sir, when the weather is rough, or someone is very…ill…and needs to be taken swiftly to the infirmary, or of course when... There isn’t anyone down there for you. Your patients are housed in a separate facility and I can walk you across the courtyard if you would like to get there sooner.” Kinney studied Mallie’s face. So there were depths to her too, he thought. She appeared innocent and girlish and yet there was an element of steel to her. He wondered if, like a knife, she also had blade.
“You may take me to my office, but I should like to go via The Tunnels.” This time he called it by its name instead of saying the words as a descriptor.
“Very well,” Mallie said and curtsied, but the way she said the words made it very clear to Kinney that it was not at all very well. “But if you don’t mind, sir, it won’t be me taking you down there. It’s not…it’s not a place for someone like me.”
Kinney did not hear Harvey Biggart approach, but rather felt his shadow in the doorway. “If you’ll come with me, Doctor Kinney. I will show you the way.” Harvey stretched out his hand, as large (it seemed to Kinney) as a paddle, and Kinney took the first step out of his room and into the sunlight.
Elliott, I love you. I love you. I love you. Don’t look at me! Don’t! Take a step back, Elliott or I swear I’ll…
He did not hear Rose’s words as much as feel them radiating throughout his body as he stepped into The Tunnels. The system was accessed through a rather secret door in the lower levels of Building 50. Harvey explained that there were several such entrances (or exits) throughout the property, mostly camouflaged so that they blended in with the environment. He took a rusted key from his shirt pocket and opened the gate.
Kinney stepped into the darkness. It smelled, as he expected, of damp earth. But there was something else too. Something foul. Something beyond the remnants of refuse that they transported through the tunnels. And with that, Kinney thought, again of Rose. How near the end of her illness she had a similar scent. It was the scent of caged animals. A zoo. “I’ll lead the way,” Harvey said and Kinney nodded, following him.
The tunnel was wide and tall, as if a gigantic earthworm burrowed beneath and left a cavern in its wake. The walls were lined with brick and dripped with condensation. With each step Kinney took into the underbelly of the facility, he felt as if he were taking a step back in time, somehow impossibly taking a step closer to Rose. Love me again, she’d cried that final day, pleading, on her knees. And he had said no. Just one word. Just one word and it was as if he had unlocked the final door of her madness.
What was it about being here that brought her so very close to him? Her illness had begun simply enough. She’d always had a dreamy quality to her, but it was that very distance to her, as if she was seeing into another world just beyond his reach, that he had found so desperately attractive. She’d seemed to belong both of his world and a place where everything was brighter and more beautiful. She used to joke that she could hear music playing wherever she went and he had laughed at her, thinking she was talking with poetry. And then she’d begun to hear voices talking to her. Telling her to do things. He’d thought that by studying dementia praecox he’d easily be able to cure her. He had been wrong. There was the day he’d returned from the infirmary to find her standing at the kitchen sink, her hands bloodied and still holding the clumps of brown hair she’d ripped from her own scalp. “It’s the music, Elliott,” she’d said. “I’ve been trying to get it out.” At that moment he knew that she had slipped away from him and he had shut his heart to her. He thought he’d chosen a beauty to love for all eternity; she had transformed into a beast and had to be hidden away.
In this way, the tunnels reminded Kinney of his late wife. Not that they were twisted and dark and scary, though they were that, but he imagined if his wife now existed in another plane, it was not someplace magical, but rather someplace evil like these tunnels.
Harvey Biggart walked briskly in front of him, at first just a pace or two ahead, but soon stretching the space between them that if it were a rope, it could snap in two. Harvey walked deftly around puddles and cracked bricks, while Kinney’s ankle twisted and his feet seemed ill-prepared for this kind of footing. “Watch your step now, Doctor Kinney,” Harvey called to him, his words echoing. “We’re almost to your place.”
“Biggart, slow down!” Kinney called and Harvey paused, allowing him to catch up. He found that he was gulping for air, a waterless fish. “Could you. Explain about. The Tunnels. A bit please. Of the truth.” Kinney looked to him, expecting the man to give another version of the tour he’d already received, but this time he’d tell the truth. Truth that already Kinney suspected. He’d been given the sanitized tour of the facility. They were keeping things from him. Hiding patients from him. They’d cleaned thoroughly anticipating his arrival. Later, after he’d signed away his life to be employed by them, only then would he see the reality of the place. But Harvey did not give him a tour. He moved his head ever so slightly which Kinney deciphered as a ‘no’. And they resumed their walk through the belly of the asylum, Harvey steadily increasing speed until he was a bent shadow just out of reach.
At what point did Kinney begin to hear his name breathed to him from the walls? Surely there was a moment when there was silence, and then his name, but he did not realize when that moment happened. He was nearly running to keep up with the stooped figure ahead of him, listening to water drip, and the echo of their footsteps through the corridor. He was trying to place where exactly they were under the facility. Surely they’d passed Building 50 and the men’s ward. Perhaps they were inching under the women’s ward now. But at what point did the sound of his own desperate breathing change to the awareness that the walls were calling to him. Daahhhhkkkterrrrrrr Kinnnnnnnneeeeeey it breathed, soft, barely audible, as if the earth herself were sighing. And not just once, but his name became a loop upon itself, one syllable followed by its twin by its twin and its twin until his name became a horrible twisted sound of an echo turned against itself. He stopped in the tunnel, his heart beating so hard it seemed to want to careen from his chest. He tried to call out to Harvey, to make him stop, but he found he had no voice. He reached out to steady himself against the wall and touched not the wet, cold surface of stone, but the thick damp mass of a tangle of hair.