The lobotomists stroll with their wives,
umbrellas held aloft to shield them
from the full moon’s borrowed light and
the lunatic rabbit that sprawls upon its milky face,
while shadows dance and shirk upon the pale walls
of my asylum.
Inside, there are devils in the mirrors playing at women
they creep around corners,
dragging their bodies like grave robbers.
Hands slap walls
feet drag across floors
heads bobbing at their chest, pale and puffy
a ward full of crazy moons, dead stars with bruised faces
puffed shut from the lobotomist’s prick –
theirs is a kind of sleep walking
theirs is the nightmare of Tartarus –
hunger for the living sacrifice
the bright eye, the red blood that may animate them
for a moment: oil their dulled wicks.
today I stitch the strait jackets and watch
the hooded ones stroll the gardens –
the little of them that shows is white with porphyria,
their hats point up as if to touch
the sun that would mutilate them;
make them monsters.
But we are all monstrous here, finally
sculpted by the doctors, the inmates,
our own raw histories.
When my husband brought me here,
two signatures proffered like a contract
with the devil
I had thought he brought me to hell
Where but hell, would such monstrous creatures
scream and sing their bloody natures out?
as if they felt no shame in their malformations
as if their bodies did not cry out their sins
even in silence;
as if weeping would turn the world to them.
But now, numbered amongst them
I say, strip our hoods from us
and release the syphilitics from their mercury cells.
Let us run free through the grounds
Down in the town, they can hear our screams.
Let us visit our horrors upon them,
drag them down in the streets
and chafe their sanity with our brutalised bodies
The woman beside me has begun to hum
a monotonous cicada thrum,
as if she has sensed the turn of my thoughts.
She has stitched the strait jacket to her fingers
and leaked her grey blood upon the canvas
the warden tuts and severs the thread,
I see the woman’s hand twitch as if she thinks
to slide her wrist beneath the blade.
Dust has settled in the old woman’s wrinkles.
Perhaps she was young once, loved once;
she soon wanders off sucking her fingers, tasting perhaps
a touch of her old life
I gather that fabric to me,
nurse the soiled canvas, spattered
with the syrup of her once-were dreams –
surely there is magic in it, a residual life,
I fold it tight and slip it beneath my dress
before the warden returns and rebukes me for laziness,
a needle, lengths of thread disappear as quickly
and I think of the rotting canvas
the face I have sculpted from lunch meat and twigs
that hides beneath my cot.
I will make her a body and she will be my sister
I will make another mirror – carve my true face upon her.
She will be my reliquary
The nurses come for me soon – they seek to evict
the unwelcome guest in my head, the crazy songstress
that sets my eyes rolling, my feet drumming
as if I had somewhere else to go
and she has begun to stink
like the snakes my husband hung
upon the chook house door.
Her reek follows me through the dormitories,
past the many doors and windows
with their false promise of escape,
even the dead ones, with their purple faces
as if they smell their own incipient rot
but she is almost fully formed and unbeautiful
Elspeth, I whisper as she moves beneath my mattress
Elspeth, I whisper.
I have given her my name, yet she is restless
and in the morning I see
greasy streaks upon the windowpane
terms of endearments, words of anger
scrawled on the glass where I huff my morning breath
to read her solemn protests –
still, she leaves a puckered kiss upon my cheek
a coldness that no rubbing will warm –
she cannot help but love me, her maker
the one who pressed her mouth to her
and breathed her name
Elspeth I whisper and drape my hand beside the cot,
and she slips her ill-formed hand in mine.
Margaret, she whispers back –
as if she has the right to rename herself, recreate herself;
as if I were not her mother,
her other, the cause of her birth.
My reliquary has become insistent upon
She suspects me, I think
her feet drum beneath the bed, waiting for the moon,
friend to the mad and the gifted,
so that she might slip through the glass
and skulk about the mania gardens.
Already the wardens whisper of ghosts –
mad Margaret, who is yet tethered to me,
though I feel that tether stretch
as I dream of hammers and doctors
and the lunatic rabbit in the moon
it is the day.
I slip my arms beneath her weight and lift her onto the cot.
She has finished herself somehow; I see eyelashes, fingernails,
a flush of freckles across her nose.
her cheeks are high like mine, her mouth small;
her body fits my own exactly
we might be twins/sisters
but for the way my body folds unnaturally upon its seams
but for the green sheen across my cheeks,
the stuff of me protruding like an ill-kept secret.
She sleeps and creases her seventeen year old face
I kiss that familiar face, just once
And leave a greasy smear upon her lips
slide beneath the bed as the nurse’s footsteps approach
and feel my sister shift her weight,
Come Elspeth, it is time, Nurse Kerry says
Margaret mutters, tired from her nightly revels and
the nurse drags her from her bed.
I feel her listless limbs dragged towards the infirmary
as if some part of me, the part that animates her
still lingers in the flesh. Unwilling to part.
They are quick.
I jerk beneath the mattress as if with an electric shock
and feel the cold points of metal slide beside my eyes
like tears, unshed for my poor reliquary.
I curl against the wall and close my eyes
as her weight settles yet again
upon the mattress – it seems too soon,
and I can’t keep my eyes open
I can’t keep my eyes open,
and my head falls to the side, eyelids half slung
as I struggle against my body
and she is there, my martyr
and she is perfect.
Margaret crawls in beneath my cot,
throws her arm across my shoulder
and for a moment we are both comforted.
She nuzzles her perfect face into my neck,
whispers my name, Elspeth, Elspeth –
like a husband, with reproach and ownership,
as if I were the half-made thing
I the doctor’s doll, soulless
newly initiated denizen of hell
just a puppet constructed of lunchmeat and twigs,
of an old woman’s blood, a madman’s jacket
Goodbye, goodbye, she says.
S.E. Gale wrote this poem on a writing retreat at Aradale Insane Asylum – now inactive as said, located in Central Victoria, Australia. Once known as the most brutal mental institution of its time in Victoria, people as young as four and as old as ninety, were treated with shock therapy, mercury baths and lobotomies as part of their therapy.
Many of the people incarcerated in this institution were merely old, unwell or unwanted. Others were considered social pariahs of the time. Prostitution or masturbation was enough to have you committed. Men who had grown dissatisfied with their wives could have them committed with the appropriate number of signatures. It wasn't hard to do.
However, Aradale also housed the criminally insane and psychotically violent. Undoubtedly, many who arrived sane, soon shrugged that sanity off as an encumbrance to survival.
The institution itself lies behind a Ha Ha wall upon the highest hill in Aradale. The winds were believed to have a beneficial effect upon a crazed mind. Residents of the nearby town claimed that they were able to hear the screams of the inmates, when the wind was right.
S. E. Gale is an Australian writer of dark fiction and poetry. She would like to claim the creepiest parts of The Reliquary, as pure imagination. However, apart from a little narrative fiddling, much of what she has included is historical fact. S.E. Gale has published fiction and poetry in Ideomancer, Overland Magazine, Unsung Stories, Hecate, and other peer reviewed periodicals. She has co-written a poetry collection called I Will Not Fall, which is available at Amazon.com.
Deep Water Literary Journal
2015 - Issue 2 - August