Traverse City State Mental Hospital, 1952
My mother says that so much has changed on the grounds of the hospital, and not just the name. It used to be, she says, that there were patients everywhere. At first everything was lovely, she says, that Irish lilt in her voice weakened but still present. My mother speaks musically even when she doesn’t want to. She says: Patients working on the cow farm, tending gardens. It was beautiful really. It was peaceful. Then things changed, slowly at first, as they do. There was all that trouble with the money and overcrowding and then a special ward for folks with TB. It became a different place then. I don’t like to tell you. Walking the grounds, you could hear moans and cries. And in the wards, it was sometimes a scary place. You’d have to read a person’s sickness by looking in their eyes. A person’s eyes will tell you everything you need to know, the way you can look at a dog and tell if it’s rabid or not. Sometimes patients will smile, but their eyes tell you they’re about to bite. Now, those people on the edge aren’t on the edge anymore. They take parts of their brain and it sends those people into some other world. I can’t say that’s a good thing because now it’s like they’re not even there and this place, this place has become so quiet, but it’s not a quiet of rest, is it? It’s more a quiet of pain.
She says this to me as we walk the grounds together. And I try to look into her eyes to gauge what she is feeling, but she keeps her gaze focused just ahead of her. I do not often come to see my mother at work, where she has been for as long as I’ve been alive. She is only thirty-seven, but her shoulders have widened over the years, her belly has grown too, evidence that she has borne children. Her hair which as a child was fiery red has dulled and it is laced with grey. After my father passed away, my mother’s body seemed to drift out of her control. She is solid now, with little shape to her. She walks briskly forward, as she does in all things. And she seldom looks in my eyes.
Lobotomies, she spits it like a curse. Why, if you take the time to get to know a person and recognize that their illness is just that…an illness…you wouldn’t need such a fool thing. If there were more money and more beds and more staff…She drifts here. She cannot finish the words. She pauses and then says, There’s not a one of them that is possessed by a demon or uncontrollable. I nod as if I agree with her.
We are at the tunnels. She doesn’t pause or look at me to see if I am sure I want to do this. My mother, especially when things are difficult, plows straight forward. Energy and momentum, I suppose. We walk. The tunnels are brightly lit. Clean. Not at all what I imagined.
I don’t know how long we walk or how many turns we take. I know that I grow tired and I can feel every bit of my daughter’s growing weight pulling on the muscles of my back. Finally, we reach a small room. Not a room really but rather a false end to one side of the tunnel, as if they were building a tunnel but did not connect it to anything. Here my mother stops. She turns to look at me and her green eyes are almost grey and it is true I can read what she is feeling. She looks at me for a long time and then takes my hands in hers. Her voice is soft and fragile. This here is where they met, she says, your father and your real mother. The words pain her. I can see that.
You are my real mother, I say.
My mother hugs me then, tight, and I can feel my daughter between us. It is a hug of holding on. I think she whispers thank you but I can’t be sure. She doesn’t want to talk to me about these things but she does this for me because she is strong, and fierce, and she loves me as if I were her own.
Still in her arms she says the words I already know. Your mother’s name was Ama and she called this place her home.
Northern Michigan Insane Asylum, 1932
Images came to Kinney in waves, violent as the lake in a storm. Water rushed and he felt his hand press against the lean muscled chest of Kostic. With a firm push downward, Kinney forced him under the water and held. Kostic thrashed, churning the water like a great sea beast. Kinney held. The water was so cold he soon lost any feeling at all in his arms and this was a comfort.
Then he walked on a beach, studying the sands in search of Petoskey stones, fossils that would not show themselves unless touched by water. His arm ached and it was still cold. He turned the sand with his bare toes searching, but found nothing—and then, out in the water, a flash of white caught his eye. Perhaps the crest of a wave mounting. No. Not a wave at all. No. It was Rose, floating in the lake by their house, fully clothed, her white dress spilling around her, her hair reaching out and bleeding with the water. Kinney called to her, ran into the water but could go no further. The water pushed against him, held him back.
He was under water, being held, Kostic laughing as he pushed him under again and again. Then he was breathing. “Look at him, he’s sick,” said a man with long white hair. White? Yes. And the pale eyes of an albino. His skin the color of a ghost. “Sick like us?” Said a woman. A lovely woman with large breasts in a too-tight top. She licked her lips. “Get away get away don’t touch don’t touch.” Fingers tickling him. “I’ll touch him. Get him Taste him.” Then the fingers pulled back and Kinney’s arm began to heat. There was pressure too and he realized it was because someone held onto him.
Rose looked down at him, touched his forehead, her smile deep with sympathy. “Poor baby,” she said. “Poor baby.” She kissed him.
And then singing, softly at first, and then with growing force as if he were walking closer to the source of the voice. But he was not walking, was he? The sound carried him. Mallie. Mallie Lyn Peters sang a lullaby to him. The voices called to him. Mallie’s voice and Rose’s beautiful and harmonizing, but the others…the others delayed and discordant and sharp as razors.
Rays of light and shadows shifted and oozed and took human shape. Hands grabbed him, dug into his shoulders and waist, lifting him. He was carried, floated through the air, tumbled without touching the ground. He could not scream. He could not talk. Someone had stolen his voice, his very breath.
It was a dream. Of course he was dreaming, but he was also half-awake. So he floated in the netherworld between the dream state and reality and he could not cross over. When Kinney finally awoke, he awoke to rain thrashing the windows. An ice storm. And he awoke to a sound of someone choking, and the slow realization that the someone was himself.
“You’ve had a fever, Doctor Kinney,” Mallie murmured to him. “Take a deep breath now. You’re all right. All is well. You are well now. You collapsed you did. Underneath.”
Kinney tried to speak but his voice was hoarse and not his own.
Mallie nodded as if she understood. “How long were you down there? You were missing for a time. Overnight maybe? Chilled, feverish. And then you were helped up here and I’ve been taking care of you ever since. It’s been a week now. We thought we’d lose you, but Ama said no. You were a fighter, and Ama is one to know.”
“Ama?” It was the only word he could manage to speak clearly.
Mallie Lyn leaned in close to him and whispered in his ear. “She’s a secret, Doctor Kinney. One you must keep. Please, sir. If you could.”
He nodded his head and noticed that Ama was in the room with them even now. She sat in the corner, her face hidden in shadow, but clearly the mirror image of Rose. Kinney was not a religious man, but at once he believed in a power greater than himself. He nodded again and Ama rose from her chair to come to him. “Yes,” he said. He would promise to keep her.
Ama stepped into the light. “Hello, Kin-ney,” she said softly and reached to touch his face.
He burned. Suddenly. Fiercely. And with a different kind of fever. She was Rose and not-Rose, but without question, Kinney knew one thing: this Ama would belong to him. He would own her. Completely. “Hello, again,” he said, and then with that he slipped back into sleep but this time, he did not dream.