Chapter Eighty-Nine: History

 Black and white clouds over mountains and a lake. 
“What happened to you?” 

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.

“Six years.”

My heart sank.

Six years?

“Why?”

Zenobia took a deep breath. “Because I would not give my husband what he wanted.”

“What did he want?” I pressed.

“A son.” 

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.

Chapter Eighty-Eight: Crumbling

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I wept bitterly that night and every night after…

The days were spent in a stained jacket of sorts that wrapped my arms around the torso and held them tight. I was placed in a chair and then tied down, only to be wheeled out to the veranda to take in the air twice a day. I was fed by the orderlies as apparently I could not be trusted with utensils. 

They were probably right.

Time passed slowly. 

I thought about all of the ways I could hurt that man with a spoon: evisceration would be difficult but if he held still long enough maybe with some chloroform or ether, I could ram the handle up a nostril and do some damage to his brain, I could scoop out each eyeball or maybe even his testicles, I could shove the handle into each ear and render him deaf, I could use that same handle at his jugular and maybe make him bleed to death….

I asked everyone I came across about my daughter but was only met with blank stares or shrugs. I begged for answers, news, any bit of information. 

None came.

Dr. Jenkins himself was a specter, flitting in and out around my periphery. How lucky he must have felt when I fell into his lap here. Had it been orchestrated, his little charade? Or purely chance? What were the odds anyway? 

I had no uterus. No ovaries. No child. He had robbed me of everything I had left.

Everything but my hate.

It was not a strong enough word, really…

After a week I was pinned down for an exam by him, my legs spread wide and held in place by two male orderlies as he painfully probed with his fingers. All the while he watched my face with a grin, clearly enjoying himself.

I held his gaze until he looked away.

If I could only kick him.

But I could not. I had already tried. 

Hence the male orderlies.

They leaned heavily on my legs, forcing them still. I could no longer feel my feet, the circulation had been disrupted for so long.

I wiped away all outward emotion. I resolved that I would not give him the satisfaction of having control of me in that way any longer. There were places in my mind where he could not touch me. I escaped there until he was done. 

A female attendant stood silently to my right, shifting her weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other. She had little to do besides serve as an observer, a witness to my humiliation. I wondered what she must be thinking. Whenever I looked at her she looked away.

He moved up to my abdomen and removed the sutures. They had been terribly itchy. Restrained all day and all night, I could not reach the area to scratch. That fact alone was enough to drive me mad…

He was rough but the removal was a kindness, after all. My quality of life would be vastly improved. I hated him all the more for making me feel even this small amount of gratitude toward him.

Soon enough it was all over. 

I should have killed you when I had the chance, you bastard.

My legs were released as he stepped back, my chemise pulled back down to my ankles. The blood rushed back into my toes, a wave of prickly pain that excruciatingly crescendoed and then died away. He walked up to the basin and pitcher placed on the table next to the head of the bed. He washed. 

As he dried off his hands and rolled his sleeves back down he leaned in close to my ear and spoke softly. “I hear your daughter will be adopted out by a nice family. They needed extra hands to labor around the farm. They have adopted six other children from other unfit mothers already. I hope the girl does not mind cow shit…”

I closed my eyes and let the hate wash through me. I could feel it in every hair of my body, every pore, every fiber.

For now hate was my hope.

Chapter Eighty-Seven: Tethered

  

There were voices: a man and a woman, speaking in hushed tones. I tried to focus, to listen to their conversation through the fog in my head.

“The incision seems to be healing well now, Doctor.” The woman, whispered.

A man’s voice responded, softly, “Excellent. Maybe now she will not endanger herself by moving around.” 

“Shall we remove the restraints?” 

Were they referring to me?

“No. Not yet.”

I could hear the nod of the crisply starched cap, even though I could not see it.

Did I dare open my eyes?

It was then that I realized they were moving away. My opportunity to ask questions…

“Where am I?” I blurted out, looking about.

The man had turned away and was walking toward the bed across the ward, his back to me.

“You are at The Royal Asylum For Women.” The nurse spoke kindly, brushing hair back from my forehead.

“Why?”

“You had an acute attack of abdominal dropsy brought on by a neurosis.”

“Where is my daughter?” 

“Safe.”

“What does that mean?” I demanded.

“She is being cared for elsewhere.”

“By whom?” 

“I do not know.”

“Bring her to me!” Anger crept into my voice.

“I cannot. You are not able to care for her in your condition,” she said sternly.

“My condition.” Fear suddenly replaced anger. “What is my condition?”

“You have had a surgery.”

“What kind of surgery?”

“Dr. Jenkins performed a hysterectomy.” She looked at me pityingly. 

Oh, God.

Surely not. Why? And not the Dr. Jenkins I had known from another life… Stuart Jenkins? Surely there were plenty of other Dr. Jenkins in this world. 

Please… 

At the sound of his name the man turned around and began to walk back to my bedside.

His face.

It WAS him!

He smiled pleasantly as he approached.

My mouth filled with bile.

“Ah, Mrs. Aspern. Awake are we?”

“You had no right!” I screamed at him. Others in the ward shifted in their beds uncomfortably, taking notice. I tried to sit up but my arms were tied down to the bed. I jerked at the leather wrist restraints so hard that the bed frame rattled. 

“Oh, yes, I did. I have every right as your treating physician.”

“You hack!”

“I have removed hundreds of uteri in my career. In fact, every woman in this ward right now, has had this same procedure by me. I think I am able to judge well enough when one is causing problems.” He stared down at me haughtily. “And yours most certainly was causing all manner of infirmary.”

He reached a hand into his pocket and pulled out the old pessary, dropping it onto my abdomen. It hurt greatly as the heavy, metallic weight hit the incision. The padding from the bandages was not enough to break the fall.

I winced.

“It was probably simply pinching the vaginal mucosa, causing your pain, but it was easy to see that your uterus and ovaries were sitting too low in your pelvis, causing you fits of hysteria. You should feel much better from now on.” Another smile spread across his face.

“You did not ask my opinion!” I hissed through clenched teeth. 

It was rape. It was worse than rape. This man had had his hands inside of me, stolen from me without my consent.

A glint appeared in his eye as he leaned in close to my ear. He whispered slowly, threateningly, “The feeble minded are never able to make their own decisions.” 

Chapter Eighty-Six: Out

 

My eyelids felt weighted with lead, heavy. I willed them to open but they would not. I decided to focus on my other senses. 

There was an odor. That smell. I knew it from somewhere…

From where?

The Crimea! I was back in the Crimea.

Footsteps faded away to the left, echoing off of hard, antiseptic surfaces. 

I tried again on the eyelids, this time they opened a bit, revealing a long crack in the stained plaster overhead. It was a rusty red, like blood. My heart shot out of my chest, racing into my throat. This was not the Crimea.

Panic dragged me awake and I bolted upright.

Where was I?

Pain slammed through me, suddenly, and I cried out, falling back onto the bed.

Pain? From where?

I moved a hand down to my abdomen and pelvis. There was a large bandage there.

Oh, God! What did they do?

The walls of the long room were an odd greenish gray. I could not tell if that was because of the fading light filtering through the dirty windows or from some terrifying paint job. I looked around. There were other beds, other women.

A hospital ward.

“Psst!”

The woman to my right stared unseeingly at the ceiling, unresponsive. She was almost translucent. Her gray hair was thin and carefully arranged about her head, combed out over the pillow.

Was she dead?

I wanted to touch her waxen skin but that was impossible from where I lay.

Hello?” I ventured, a bit louder. No movement. Not even a blink. I gave up on her and turned to my other side.

“Pssst!”

The woman to my right had bright orange hair. She stirred, looking over at me, but her eyes were glassy and vacant. 

This was not going well. 

A moan escaped from somewhere. It echoed off of the bare walls and floor. I went back to examining the crack in the plaster overhead. Surely someone would be through soon?

Anne! Where was she?!?!!?

I swung one leg and then the other over the side of the bed, doing my best to ignore the pain that seared through my pelvis. Standing, my legs felt unsteady. I took a tentative step forward only to have the knees buckle and I tumbled to the floor. 

Think!

Try as I might, I could not pull myself back up. I felt warmth gushing from between my legs as redness soaked through my white shift and pooled around me on the cold floor. Short shallow breaths were all that I could manage. Colorful bursts of light flashed into my line of sight then closed off into a lengthening tunnel of dark gray.

Get up, damn it!

Thoughts grew fuzzy then faded away. 

Blackness overtook me again.

Chapter Seventy-Seven: Promises

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“Where is he now?” I asked.

We eyed each other across the vast expanse of the worn wooden kitchen table, a chasm made wider by our mutual pain and mistrust. I had not bothered to cover it with a table cloth. Why worry with niceties when your rival is sitting across from you? The surface was crossed by knife gouges and my fingers traced the marks absently as I watched her face. Her eyes clouded with something… Anger? Pain? A secret perhaps? Then it disappeared, hidden.

Finally, she spoke. “He is in Edinburgh. Probably drunk.”

We sat in silence again.

“Do you still love him?”

“Yes.” She smiled slightly. She was beautiful. “But not as before, not in the same way. I want him to find the happiness he could not find with me.” She seemed earnest, though I wondered. Who could be human and yet so magnanimous? 

“And your daughters?”

She sighed. “With him.” She saw my concern and hurriedly added, “They have a governess. An old, ugly governess. No sense tempting fate.” A bitter laugh escaped from her red lips.

“What do you intend to do?” I watched her face again. There was resignation this time.

“I will go back. I have no choice. I have no money of my own and no means or skills by which to support two daughters.” She stared at me, pointedly. “What do you intend to do?”

What could I do?

“I will continue to go on as I have.” I shrugged. “No choice but to keep going forward.” I stopped as realized her intent. “If you are worried that I will attempt to take him from you, I can assure you that I will not.” She nodded solemnly. 

Shame and pity washed over me. 

I held out my hand to her. 

She hesitated but took it. I squeezed. We had made a pact, she and I, two women hurt beyond recognition by love. How happy would we be if he had never crossed into our lives? We would never know. There was nothing to be done about it now.

“I am sorry, you know.”

“I am, too,” she whispered softly.

She gripped my hand tighter.

“I know of another way.” She rushed through the whispered words.

My heart pounded. “What?” Did I hear her correctly? Surely not.

“I know of another way,” she said, this time louder. “We can both have what we want. You want him. I want freedom. I know of a way but I need your help.”

“You know of a way?” My voice sounded incredulous. I cleared my throat and tried again, this time without the edginess. “You know of a way?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“I cannot tell you just yet.” She stood, still holding my hand. “Give me one year to make the preparations. I will send you a letter with instructions.” She was squeezing harder.

“One year?”

“One year.” She spoke with urgency and determination. “You promise to help me?” Her grip was beginning to hurt.

“Yes.” I stood up. “Yes, I will help you.” 

“You will raise my daughters as your own?” I nodded. “Say it! Say you will do it!” She grabbed my other hand and we stood facing each other, her eyes searching mine, looking for some clue. Could I be trusted?

“I will.”

She let go of my hands. She gave me a tight, quick hug and then held me out at arms length, joyful. 

A smile.

And then? Then she was gone. 

She walked out of my house. I watched her red dress fade into the distance from the parlor window as Anne began to fuss from the nursery, letting me know she was hungry.

One year.

Chapter Sixty-Eight: The Object

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He lifted the edge of my chemise. Cold, bare fingers pried apart the lips and probed deep inside.

Relying on the digits, rather than his eyes, he proceeded to examine every nook and cranny of my nether regions.

“Bear down,” he said tersely.

I complied.

I looked up at the ceiling overhead rather than make eye contact with him. The whole process was terribly humiliating. A strange man’s hand doing things that brought back memories of prior lovers, long gone. These hands, however, were not loving or gentle.

“Relax.”

Easier said than done. I felt like I needed to break wind, but there was a doctor’s face down there…

His fingers dug deep and high again, painfully this time, pressing toward my back.

The fingers were slowly withdrawn. In their place a cold, rigid metallic device was inserted and I felt myself pried open, wide. The instrument was shifted around. Finally, the prying sensation relaxed only to be traded for a sharp pinch that made me jump involuntarily.

“Almost done.”

A fullness then as something else was inserted. Hard. Metal. But this was smooth, almost pleasant, and weighty. It was shoved higher inside with fingers and held there with constant pressure for a minute or two.

“That is fine.” He stood up. His shirtsleeves were rolled above his elbows, leaving his hairy forearms exposed. “You may dress now.” He indicated the screen behind me.

I rose up, gingerly, gauging the fullness still left in place as it shifted inside. Shame hung in the air between us.

Wouldn’t it slide out?

I kept my thighs closed tightly as I walked to the corner. My dress hung across the back of the chair, with the crinoline and petty coats piled in the floor. How many other women had stood in this room, violated and yet hopeful of a cure?

I could hear him bustling about, instruments tossed into a pail, washing his hands in the basin, papers rustling, an uneasy cough.

Mrs. Finuiel had patted me on the hand as she exited the carriage at the house for the christening luncheon. “You should go see Dr. Peevy, my dear. He helped me with my…. issues.” She had given me a knowing wink.

And here I was.

Reasonably confident by now that the pessary would not escape its new home, I stepped out.

He was shrugging back into his waistcoat, his sleeves now rolled down and secured about his wrists.

“This should help to move your uterus back into place. The exam I just performed and the pessary itself can cause an… er… an hysteria of sorts. If you find yourself craving some uh…. shall we say excessive stimulation, please return post haste. Otherwise I will plan to see you back in two weeks and we will make sure this is fitted to the right size.”

He pushed the wire framed lenses that framed his gray eyes further back up his nose then ran his hand through his longish gray hair as he showed me the door.

The walk down the dusty steps to the street and the carriage waiting below was brief but I could feel the object inside of me shift with every movement, acutely aware of it even as I sat down on the leather seat.

Does one get used to this presence with time, then?

I was not so sure.