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After all these years, the name still gives me chills. To others, it sounds perhaps like the name for a lacy white petticoat, or a new dress pattern, but if ‘tis a petticoat, then ‘tis surely laced with malice. To me it sounds sharp, hiding every bit of its dark, deadly nature contained within those ominous walls. If it was a color, mayhap it would be gray, the color of everything inside of it, including its small, peeling corridors. The color of ash and Purgatory, the color of my limp life for many unending days. Yes, in my mind, Brookstone was always gray, as bitter its harsh industrial gates reminding you of the prison which you’d never get to leave.
The day I arrived it was windy and cold. I wore my brown dress, and felt shabby. It wasn’t my best, and it was threadbare. I held my shawl close, hoping that it would help me stay at least a little warmer. It was my only object from home, and so I cared for it dearly. The breeze was cold and heartless, welcoming me to the world of inhospitality as we got to the dock. I shivered. Just as we landed, a man came up to me and pulled me off of the small boat, and I protested. “Why won’t you let me walk? I am a grown woman, and well off.”
“Not now yer not, miss,” he said mockingly. He seemed quite the thug, a heathen, no doubt. “Your nice vanities ended the moment you got in that there ship, and your luck’s not about to change.”
“But I don’t deserve to be here! This is quite a shabby establishment, and the look brings to mind absolute horror.”
He looked at me. His clothes were as rough as my son William’s. He had resisted all finery, though it made him seem like he was from a lower class, and I had begged him to respect the classes. He had not. “Miss, once you get on the island, which you are, you’re not going nowhere,” the man remarked. It was true. We had passed over the tough wooden slabs and now onto cement. There was a lone tree poking its was up into the sky. Although it was only November, it had no leaves. He opened the large, creaking gate and shoved me inside, not gently. I fell to the ground, and my skirt got stained with dirt. I was angry, and as I was about to say something, he walked away. His parting words were, “Good luck, miss, and just try to stay alive.” His whistles cut through the sharp, bitter air and rain.
I picked myself up, and tried to brush the dirt off of my skirt in vain. A stout woman with a rectangular, intimidating frame came out of the door, a frown pasted on her face. “What are you doing?” she scolded. “How did you get out here? You’re a nasty lot, all of you. What have you to say for yourself?” She took hold of my wrist and jolted me into a standing position. My arm throbbed with pain.
“Well, you’ll get no lunch today, seeing as you chose that time to try to escape, horrid wench.” I could not bring myself to look at her face, for it fairly glowed with anger. “Incompetent lot of brats, isn’t even smart enough to manage themselves,” she muttered to herself. She looked at me sharply, her face twisting with disgust. “We’ll be putting this in your file, you hear?”
I whimpered, “But I’m not—“
“Not what?” She smiled, and, turning to me, slapped me in the face. My face burned, and I couldn’t bear the humiliation. She was a venomous woman, no doubt, but there was nothing I could do. I felt my face turn red. I looked at the ground. That was the second time in my life that I’d been slapped, and it stung worse than the first. The former, at least, was deserved. This was simply a senseless retaliation which I happened to receive.
“I’m ne where, I just-—arrived.” It was painful to speak, and I wanted no part of her verbal lashing and physical damage.
“Oh,” her tone softened for a moment, and then fluctuated again. “Then why didn’t you tell me, idiot girl? I wasted my time when I could have been eating my supper for you?” She was clearly dangerous. She reminded me of my aunt Hildegard, with whom you always had to be careful.
She didn’t wait for me to speak, though. She grabbed my arm and hauled me into the house. I bit my lip to keep from crying out in pain. The house was gray and sparse on the outside. It had no windows. It loomed over the rest of the island lot, filled with cement and a scraggly tree. I had no desire to ever know the house, but evidently nobody cared about my desires anymore.
She pushed through a door, which was once painted white, and led me inside. “Here you are,” she said with a grim sort of pleasure. I stood silently, gaping and wishing to never have gotten on the boat that brought me here. The interior was worse than the outside, much worse. While the exterior at least bore some semblance of normalcy, the inside was sterile, shabby, and reeked of horrible things behind closed doors. Well, it truly reeked of unpleasantness, urine, and whatever stale food had been served. I grimaced, and the woman laughed. She seemed to mock me. I bit my lip.
“Mary, this new-coming shabby waif wants a room!” I stiffened. How dare she? My husband was a high-ranking member of society, and I as his wife had certain privileges. A rough-looking nurse came. Her brows had stern lines, and she seemed to never smile. “Well, be off with ye,” she said, and walked over to me. She grabbed a firm hold of my arm and marched up the stairs, pulling me along with her. I cried out in pain, but she seemed to not notice. At the stairwell she turned and then shoved me into a room and closed the door, not looking back. I could hear her hurried footsteps on the worn floor, if you could call it that. I stared sullenly at my quarters in astonishment. There were no windows, and the place seemed a semblance of intentional punishment. It seemed a jail cell. Its walls were bare, and the furnishings were stiff. The air was bitter and stale. I wondered how many other women had sat in this laughingstock of a room, left here to wilt like a vase of old flowers. Here, your voice could never be heard. I sat on the floor, and started to cry. I had never broken down like this, but here it seemed correct, and the only thing I could do. At last I went and sat down on my bed, some of my vanity already taken from me. I continued sobbing, until a sharp voice jolted me out of my thoughts.
Although I had no desire whatsoever to eat, I walked outside of my room, flinching at my terror of getting caught. This place was ruled by tyrants, and I had had enough awful experiences for the day. I wished it was a nightmare, just so that I could get out of here, but I did not have luck on my side. My room was drafty, thanks to poor walls and a mid-California climate. The irony was unmistakable; we had come here to get rich from the Gold Rush, and I ended up bankrupt, both in body and in soul. It was a bitter trade. As I walked through the corridor, a nurse came up to me.
“And what do y’ think ye’re doing here?” Her eyes blazed with what seemed, oddly, to be indignity. She held onto my shoulder harshly, with claw-like nails. I looked down.
“I was trying to go to dinner.” My voice sounded feeble.
“The dining hall’s that way, wench!” She pointed, and then pushed me towards a set of stairs. I lost my balance and fell. She walked away, as I tried to regain my composure. I walked downstairs, and suddenly, I felt a push from behind. I looked back, and a woman with wild eyes nearly trampled me. She looked like a savage. I picked myself up and watched as she ran to dinner, and slowly walked that way as well. Dinner, if you could call it that, was a thin gruel with unidentifiable chunks. I felt that I might be sick, but in this coarse place there were obviously no maids, or anyone who would help me. Still, even though I was ravenous, I didn’t eat it. The place was industrial, and all of the women seemed so feral, like animals. I shuddered. After that, we went up to our rooms. That night, I cried. What had I done, to be put in this place of horror? I knew what I had done was wrong, but surely, nothing could condemn me to this place of Purgatory; no, it was no Purgatory, it was outright Hell. The fact that I was surrounded by only mad women and cruelty made me go to sleep, and that night, as with the rest, I was plagued by nightmares.
Days passed into weeks, all with monotonous roughness and impatience. The nurses here are nothing but rough hooligans who care for nothing whatsoever but their however small paycheck, and everyone around me is insane. I begin to lose hope of getting out of here, and if I don’t, what will become of me? Will I die in my ill-humored room, or simply waste away and actually deteriorate into madness? Nobody will care, ‘tis a fact that I can now face, as I have seen the harsh truth of the bleakness of my days. Once a week we get bathed rudely, with cold water. If that’s not enough to catch disease, then I don’t know what is. Beatings accompany the shrieks from the other women, so I keep quiet. As the days go by, I am past counting. My brown dress that once seemed second-hand is now completely dark brown, from filth, and I no longer care. I wonder if I am going mad. There are many rats and mice that prowl my room, and I feel too weak, in body and mind, to shoo them away. I simply wait ‘til morn, when all of the day’s terrors will start once again.
I have endless time to spend by myself, so I think about many things: who I was, and why I’m here. The dread that once accompanied those thoughts is now vanished, and turned to a sense of disconnect, as if that were some other woman’s. I don’t know who this is, or what my part is in this, but I desperately wish it to be over. I am no longer Lucy Collins, wife of Richard Collins. I am some poor waif in a madhouse, just what the cruel owners once said. After a long time, my hair turns gray. I’m fairly sure that it is before its time, just like many other things. After many, many days, filled with dreaming and longing and thinking, I remember him. I met him one day when I was out at market, as my maid was afflicted with something or other, and he was there. He introduced himself to me, smoothly. His name was Jonathan Austen. He had dark hair and grey eyes, and I was instantly smitten with him, though I was a married woman. I told him my first name, and he smiled. “I’ll have to call upon you sometime. When could I have the pleasure?” I told him the address. Oh, but he was smooth. So clever and polite, I was able to convince myself that what I was doing wasn’t wrong. Richard had a wealthy inheritance, but he liked the adventure of the gold rush. We went out as newlyweds, and soon I birthed a healthy son. Richard named him William, but he had gray eyes like I did.
I told him to come on Friday, a day when I knew Richard would be out. The governess would look after William, and all would be well. When that day dawned, Richard didn’t notice my excitement. I had the maid serve Jonathan the best tea, and we talked, over teacakes and with accompanying laughter. I liked him, and we made another date. The next few were full of merriment and lightness, but after several, they turned serious. Johnny looked serious, as usual, but stately, and asked me a question.
“Shall we?” It was all I needed. I agreed, and I had my first affair, a bundle of nerves, excitement, and joy. Soon thereafter, he sent me a letter. Richard was home when we got it. His eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “Lucille, do you know who this is?” He practically never got mad, but when he did, it was frightening. I had no choice but to tell the truth. He slapped me, leaving the print of his palm across my face. “I’ll have to do something about you,” he said through gritted teeth. “And you’ll not like it, that much I know.” My eyes widened with terror. If only I knew what would become of me!
I cried, “But what about William?”
“Ah, he’ll manage. Better than he was with a rogue for a mother.” Richard turned and left the room, his steps heavy with anger. Three weeks later, I was on the boat to Blackstone.
I’ve been here ever since. The memories have grown fonder but hazier with time, and I know that this may be the place of my last breath. It is a ghost town, unreal in that however you get here, you’re not going to get out. I overheard the nurses talking one day about the estate, as they called it. They were unsure about its financial state. They were more severe with us, and days later, a woman died. I didn’t know her, but I felt for her. She was surely in this place longer than I, and sometimes it seems it may be good to die, to get away from this place of constant despair.
Many days later, Brookstone closed. They sent us onto the streets, and most I’m sure didn’t survive. I still had my wits about me, though, and called on Jonathan. I was nervous, but I bought a new dress and tried my best to look presentable. When I called on him, he was cool and polite, but reserved. I was a different person after all of those days of barely living, and in unhappiness. To be fair, neither of us were the people we were when we had seen each other last. He gave me a good sum of money, and I bought an apartment. I live alone, happy to be away from the institution. I’m a seamstress, mending what others have deemed unable to be fixed. However much I may try to rid myself of them, the memories of those fateful days shall always haunt me by night.