“What’s the first thing you remember?”
I gasp as I open my eyes. Everything is…fuzzy. I breathe in again, and once again gasp. I have to consciously draw air in and out of my lungs. In. Out. In. Out.
My vision starts to clear and I can see the wood paneling above me. I look from left to right and see…things I can’t quite explain. Large metal blocks with flashing lights and wires. I realize that some of the wires are attached to me. I pull them out and wince at the pain, but no sound comes out of my throat.
I sit up and see that I’m naked. I wrap my hands around my damp body. I don’t know why I’m wet. It’s as though I’ve been left out in the rain.
“What did you think?”
I look up at the man sitting across from me.
“Pardon?” I ask.
“What thoughts were going through your head as you awoke?” he asks me as she scratches words in a notebook.
At first, I think this is a strange thing for a person to ask, and I look back at my embroidery. But then I remember that this man, this doctor, is a doctor of the mind. A “mental physiologist” he calls himself, this Dr. Carver. So, of course, he is going to ask about my thoughts.
I didn’t think anything.
My mind was blank. I was confused. Lost. It was more…sensations. Cold. Wet. Scared.
I didn’t think at first. I just acted.
I didn’t think I needed to cover myself, I just knew I had to. But I didn’t know how. I tried to stand, but my legs gave out underneath me and I fell to the floor.
“Is that how you got that scar?” Dr. Carver asks, and my hand flies to my chin.
“I suppose,” I say.
What’s one more scar? My whole body—my arms, my legs, my stomach—is riddled with them. But in the dress I’m now wearing, with sleeves to my wrists and collar up to my skull, no one would know.
The medical doctors know. The woman who helps me dress knows. The first men I met on the street know.
I assume Dr. Carver knows as well, but he hasn’t seen them.
“Then what?” he asks.
I reach up to the table I had been lying on and pull myself to my feet. I see some clothes draped over a chair across the room. I find my strength and make my way across the room to them. There are many pieces, but my fingers…they can’t make sense of them. One piece is simply a white linen shift, which I pull over my head. But the dress…it’s heavy, complicated. So many ties and buttons. I drop it to the floor. There is a pair of shoes under the chair. I slip my feet into them, but I cannot tie them. I leave the laces loose, dangling.
The wooden floor is loud under my lumbering steps. There is no one else here. I hear only the dripping of water and the humming from the machines and the breath from my lungs. I no longer have to tell myself to breathe. It is as though I’m emerging from deep water, slowly entering back into the world. There is only one door to the room. I have no idea where it goes, but I can’t stay here. I walk toward it.
“Why couldn’t you stay there?” Dr. Carver asks.
I pause in my embroidery work and try to remember. I still had few conscious thoughts at the time. I only knew I was scared. Whatever this place was, I wasn’t safe there.
“But something gave you that sense,” Dr. Carver prods. “If you were confused in a single room, surely leaving that room would be even more confusing. More frightening. Why did you leave?”
I suck in a breath as my heart races and I feel my eyes water with tears. The terror I felt returns.
I had to get out.
I open the door and only wooden stairs descending into darkness lay before me. I had been in an attic. I feel along the wall for a railing and slowly take the stairs one at a time, my heels clattering on each step.
I finally reach the bottom of the stairs and open another door. The door hinges squeak, and I pause. Waiting for someone to hear me. But no one comes. I look out into the hallway and see that the house is old. Dusty. Abandoned.
There is light streaming in through a dirty window and tattered curtains at the end of the hall. Spider webbing dangles from the ceiling. A table is overturned and a vase that once sat upon it has shattered on the floor, but no one has bothered to sweep up the shards.
There is another stairway, so I walk toward it, the floor creaking with each step. I creep down the stairs toward the front door. It is ajar, as though someone left in a great hurry.
I listen, but still hear nothing. My mouth has gone dry, so I lick my lips as I brace myself for whatever might be waiting for me on the other side.
I run out the door, leaving it wide open behind me. To my surprise, I find myself in an open field. I look back and see that the house is just as decrepit on the outside as it was on the inside. All cracked windows and peeling paint. There is an overgrown lane leading from the house, but I don’t take it. I run in the other direction, toward the woods.
“Why?” Dr. Carver asks. “If you needed help, why didn’t you run in the direction where you might find people?”
“I didn’t need help,” I say. “I needed to escape.”
“Him,” I say.
Dr. Carver stops writing and looks at me. “Who?” he asks.
I shrug and return to my embroidery. “I don’t know,” I say. But he’s always been there, even in those first few minutes when I had no thoughts of my own. I just knew that he was responsible for what happened.
That was why I had to run. Had to get away. He could come back at any moment.
“So you do remember something from before you woke up?” Dr. Carver asks. “Something about the man who abducted you or hurt you?”
I shake my head. “I told you, I don’t remember anything.”
“But you remember him,” Dr. Carver says.
“I don’t remember him,” I insist, growing frustrated, which shows in the rough jagged lines of my embroidery. “I just…know he’s there. Like my eyes know to blink or my lungs know to breathe. He’s…there.”
“In the house?” Dr. Carver asks, clearing his throat and returning to his notes.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I never saw anyone.”
“Fine,” he says, and I know he doesn’t believe me. “We can revisit that later. Tell me what happened next.”
I go silent. If he isn’t going to believe me, I don’t see a point in continuing. He waits, his pen poised, but I say nothing. I sense him look at me, waiting for me to speak again, but I do not. I move the needle through the cloth. In. Out. In. Out.
Finally, I hear him straighten his papers and put them into his satchel. He knows he has lost any amount of goodwill with me for now and that I’ll say no more.
“I do hope we will continue our conversation tomorrow, Miss Banks,” Dr. Carver says.
I know he means to be polite, but I can’t help but feel a shiver run down my spine when he says the name I’ve been called since I was found in an alley off Bank Street. I don’t know what my name is, but Ann Banks isn’t it. It feels like wearing a shirt of slimy damp seaweed. I can’t wait to shed it.
But I have no idea what my real name is. Even though my functional capabilities have returned—I can walk, talk, dress myself, and use a knife and fork—I still completely lack any memories of who I am…or was. Did I have parents? Did I go to school? Did I have a dog?
What is my name?
This is why Dr. Carver is here. When I was discovered—rescued, really—dirty, lost, confused, I was brought here, to the Stonehill Sanitorium. It’s a lunatic asylum. A comfortable one, to be sure, but an asylum nonetheless. I am glad, at least, that I was not taken to jail for vagrancy or sent to a workhouse for paupers. When I was first examined, they noted that my hands showed no signs of being a worker woman and my face had the clarity of a woman who could afford expensive creams and tinctures. I believe they think I may be a woman of high birth who was kidnapped and abused. They think if my parents discover me here safe and sound, they will pay a handsome reward for my discovery and care. More than once I have seen an elderly couple—a man with his hat in his hands and a woman crying into her handkerchief—peek at me through the large windows of our parlor. The woman always runs away, crying even more than she had been before, while the man shakes his head sadly and follows after her.
I am not the daughter they are looking for.
Dr. Carver aims to help me remember who I am through his endless questions. But I have told this story before. To the police. To the doctors. It always begins with me waking up on a wooden table. Wet. Scared. Alone. And ending up here. Nothing before. And I assume there will be little to tell of my life after.
I do not entertain hope that my memory will return or that my family will find me. I only agreed to meet with Dr. Carver because it gets me out of kitchen duty.
I am not sure I want to remember.
Every night I take off my clothes and see the scars. They are horrid. They are where my arms and legs connect to my torso, along my chest, between my breasts, down my stomach, across my lower waist. And around my neck. As though I had been dismembered, disemboweled, and stitched back together by someone who had no skill with a needle.
Do I really want to know what horror was inflicted upon me to cause such scaring?
Do I want to remember what he did to me? Whoever he is.
Whether I remember or not, would I have a life if my parents did find me? When they see what abuses, what mutilations happened to their child, could they live with the despair. I could never marry. I could never let a man who was not a doctor see me…see my body. And no man who knew my past would want me.
No, I am sure it is better for all parties involved if I don’t remember. It is better that I forget and am forgotten.
I would rather be Ann Banks and spend the rest of my life in an asylum than risk remembering who I really am and him finding me.