The woman’s eyes darted fearfully from the trees in the distance, then to my face, then back to the trees again.
Yet she remained silent.
I tried again.
“Why are you here?”
She grimaced, wrinkling her forehead, but never acknowledged my question.
Her brown hair frizzed out about her ears, the bits that had slipped out from the large braid that ran down her back.
She seemed terribly normal.
She fed herself. She didn’t make odd noises or weep and wail incessantly. She groomed herself as much as was allowed here, brushing her hair every morning and evening. I had watched her walking from one woman to the next, whispering God knows what into each ear, patting shoulders, offering encouraging smiles.
“What is you name?”
She sighed a great sigh, then closed her eyes.
“Zenobia,” she spoke softly.
“Zenobia? That is your name?”
What an odd name.
She nodded slowly.
It was quiet except for the birds in the trees.
Her eyes opened suddenly. “I gave myself the name. She was an ancient Persian queen.” The woman fixed me with a piercing gaze, waiting expectantly.
My mind wandered, imagining her in rich Persian regalia, riding a great white horse, commanding vast armies. When I did not answer, she coughed, bringing me back to the asylum. “Well? You are…?”
“Oh!” My cheeks reddened. “I am Evelyn.”
“That isn’t made up, is it? It’s rather plain.”
“No.” I shook my head.
“You need a new name…” Her voice trailed off as the orderly came back through looking even more sour.
It was hot outside on the porch, but after several weeks here I knew that it was preferable to the suffocating wards and spent as much time out of doors as I was allowed.
I decided to try again. “Why are you here?” I asked tentatively.
She gazed at me suspiciously.
“Why do you care?”
“I don’t think you are insane…”
She smiled sadly, pushing back a bit of hair from her damp forehead.
“Depends on who you ask,” she replied, laughing.
We fell silent as a dour female orderly with a pinched face strode purposefully past, shoes clacking on the wooden veranda.
“How long have you been here?” I ventured once the orderly was out of earshot.
My heart sank.
Zenobia took a deep breath. “Because I would not give my husband what he wanted.”
“What did he want?” I pressed.
She pointed to a stooped young woman with golden hair and vacant eyes. “She has been here three years. We call her Theodora. She sank into a deep melancholy after the birth of her first baby. Her husband took a mistress. She was placed here to keep her out of the way. Now another woman, her rival, is raising her child in her family home.” Zenobia shrugged. “She will never leave. Over there by the doorway, that one is Hippolyta. She had several lovers. The wife of one grew jealous and made a report. In the process she was deemed mentally deficient and imprisoned here two years ago. She had no family that would take her. She will also probably never leave.”
She paused to look around.
“That one, Hatshepsut,” she nodded her head to an elderly, wraithlike figure, “Refused to marry an earl. Her family had her committed decades ago.”
She turned back to me. “How did you get here?”
“I am not entirely sure. But Dr. Jenkins and I have…. we have a history.” I told her about Edinburgh, about the Crimea, about my daughter, about the surgery here. “Did… Did that happen to you?”
“It happened to all of us, one by one, since that man arrived…” She spoke softly, her eyes darting around, watchful and guarded again.
Zenobia rose from her seat. “Excuse me. I must go.” She started to walk away but stopped short suddenly and turned, smiling. “Hedwig.”
“I beg your pardon?” I was confused.
“Your name. Hedwig. The Polish queen who crowned herself the King of Poland. That will do nicely for you, I think.” She paused. “We are not normal. We are exceptional. All of us.”
And then she was gone.