S.E. Gale


The Reliquary


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

like revenants


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

turn away,

as if they smell their own incipient rot

upon me


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

her freedom.

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.


Goodbye, Margaret


 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.


Goodbye Elspeth





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.