I heard the coarse whisper. It registered somewhere in my head but I was too numb to process it properly. I did not move in the darkness.
There was impatient tapping of a fingertip on the heavy metal door. “Are you in there, Hedwig?” Knuckles rapping, louder. “It’s me, Zenobia. You have a visitor!”
A key turned in the lock and the door creaked open slowly, banging against the wall. I started.
I shielded my face from the light of the two oil lamps.
“Evelyn?” The voice. I knew the voice. A man.
No! Not like this!
My shift was stained with urine and feces. My hair had been cut short to combat the lice and what was left was matted about my head. I reeked of foul pestilence. I could hear his steps inching forward tentatively only to stop suddenly a few feet away. I could feel him recoil.
I had seen no light for…. how long? Days? Weeks? Assigned again to the “tank” for some minor infraction I could no longer remember. The dark had become a comforting companion, a warm blanket of sorts. Now they were taking it away.
No, no light! Please…
My eyes hurt. I squinted through the pain and looked up at his face. Only, it was not his face that I saw. It was horribly disfigured, unrecognizable.
Who was this man?!?!
Surely, it was another hallucination. The moorings of my mind had been set loose and I was not sure that I had ever been completely sane.
He spoke again, more softly as he squatted down beside me. “Evelyn…” It was indeed the Reverend.
I hazarded a glimpse again at his face. Scars. He must have suffered terribly.
More footsteps advancing in the hallway, raised voices saying angry words that I could not quite make out.
“How dare you!” Dr. Jenkins shouted as he entered the cell. “Explain yourself.” I whimpered at the sound of his voice.
The Reverend stood.
“Who are you?” The Reverend demanded.
“I am the director of this asylum, Dr. Stuart Jenkins. Who are you?” He replied, haughtily.
“The Reverend Drummond. I am here to collect Mrs. Aspern.”
“She is a patient here and as such, is under my jurisdiction.”
“She is no longer yours to torment.” Papers rustling. “Here. This is an order from the magistrate. I am to assume custody.”
The papers changed hands.
Someone knelt beside me again, took my hand. Only it was not Reverend Drummond’s hand. It was that other hand. The hand that caused all of this pain. The burns. The lashings. The slaps. All of the pain that hand had delivered with impunity.
I recoiled and tried to pull away but the grip was too tight.
There was a foul breath hot on my cheek. “We are not done, you and I,” the doctor snarled. I could not see but I spit at him anyway.
“Enough!” The Reverend bellowed in his Sunday morning pulpit voice. He commanded attention.
I felt my body lifted and carried out into the bright sunlight. I shielded my face from the sun against the rough fabric of his coat. Every movement and shift seemed to bring up new terrible odors and served to deepen my shame.
I was free?
“Anne..,” I whispered.
“Shhhh. Not now. Soon.”