Imagine a farmhouse surrounded by snow. Not a thin layer of soft, flaky whiteness, the kind you might see in more civilized climates–this is Northern Michigan, where the snow falls and falls until it buries the roads, covers the windows, and mounts up before the door. The nearest neighbors are a mile away, impossibly far. Every morning, the men in this scattered community dig their way through to the barn where the livestock are sheltered from the cold. Every winter, some of the wives go mad.
There is a special asylum for these women, and in the spring you can watch the line of farm horses pulling them away in carts, plodding down the familiar road once the snow has finally melted. Women who were mail-order brides from the East Coast, seduced by the idea of family and land. Women who carried on correspondences with lonely Western farmers for years before they took the plunge. Dr. Horace Q. Grace will care for all of them, for a very moderate price. Some of them will return to their husbands, almost cured, by the fall. Others will be less lucky, and then their husbands will start all over again, biting on the tips of their pencils as they try to recollect spelling lessons from long ago. A lonely farmer hopes for a woman’s touch….
Thank God for the invention of cross-stitch. As the snow mounts up over the window, we count the months of winter: October, November, December, January, February, March, April, May…. Our husbands tunnel out to the barn, and our needles move, silver flashing through endless reams of fabric. Up and down, count over twice…. Samplers that will hang on our walls, covering the inches, more and more of them as the eight months pass. As the clock in the corner (brought from Boston at great expense) ticks away, ticking away the seconds of our lives. As the bright colors spread across the fabric, mimicking our wildness and our despair.
I spent two summers with Dr. Grace. But I will never, ever go back.
Some women talk to angels during their winters alone in the farmhouse. Others dance with devils, their wildest nightmares come true. When their husbands come back into the house for supper, they find their sweet, submissive brides speaking in tongues, mouthing obscenities in deep masculine voices. It takes months with Dr. Grace before these women come back to themselves, months of treatment with a starvation diet, months of bible readings and flagellation.
My friend Ellen was one of those women. We’d heard all the stories when we first arrived in the blazing heat of July, travelling together from Boston. During those welcoming parties, when all the farming families met together and the children played around our feet, older women took us aside.
The winters are long, they whispered to us; watch out. Don’t let your imagination run away from you. Don’t let your husband see, if it does.
They whispered the name of Dr. Grace.
The first snow fell in September, that year. An early blizzard. I stared at the white ice that covered my window, shutting out the sunlight. I tried to remember Ellen, two miles away. I thought of the women who had given us advice. I thought of my husband, Karl. A good man, but quiet. Shy. One hundred feet away.
The walls began to shrink around me.
I was always a wild girl, a tomboy. I ran outside with the boys and played their games. I wouldn’t learn how to sew, or how to sit still.
In a three-room farmhouse, there is nowhere to go, except inside yourself.
Dr. Grace’s institution is made of brick. It squats to one side of Lake Michigan, sprayed by waves. Patients are not allowed on the beach.
Ellen was blonde and small and fragile, six inches shorter than me, two feet shorter than Lars, her husband. He led her into the building as warily as you’d lead a tiger, holding both her hands behind her back.
Karl held me gently in the reception room. He smoothed down my hair when I clung to him. He shook his head when I begged him not to leave me, my voice hoarse after so many months without speaking. He walked away, out of the building, his shoulders bowed.
Ellen and I held hands as we waited for Dr. Grace. Ellen laughed, a booming laugh that shook her thin body.
I blinked. I’d barely spoken for the past three months. There had been days when I couldn’t crawl out of my own head, days I couldn’t even see Karl when he returned, or hear him speak to me. Days I couldn’t rise out of bed.
In her glowing eyes, I could see the beginnings of liberation.
Dr. Grace walked into the room. He was tall and spare, with the lines of abstinence in his face. His eyes were bright, bright blue. His voice was very soft.
By the end of the week, I feared him more than any devil in my Sunday school lessons.
By the end of the summer, I would have done anything to go home. I would say whatever I needed to, to escape. I would accept anything. I had finally begun to sew, because Dr. Grace said it was a properly feminine hobby. I sewed handkerchiefs, shirts, and samplers with moral messages. I prayed for release.
By the time we left the asylum, Ellen had lost fifteen pounds, and her voice came out in a whisper. When I tried to look into her eyes, she looked away. Within a month, I heard that she was pregnant.
The first snow fell on October 10th.
I met Ellen again on the steps of Dr. Grace’s asylum eight months later. This time, fear was not the only emotion on Lars’s face. When he looked down at the top of his wife’s blonde head, rage twisted his features into an ugly mask.
Karl kissed my forehead when he said good-bye. I didn’t say a word. I was too frightened. Behind Ellen I saw a circle of golden radiance, hanging in the air.
I had gone two winters without seeing visions. How could I begin now, in the spring?
She leaned into me, her eyes glowing, and took my hand.
“Bastards,” she said. “I killed it, though. Wasn’t he mad!”
Dr. Grace walked into the room. He looked down at his notes, and clicked his tongue against his teeth.
“Oh dear,” he said. “Martha Ann Jenssen, here again. And Ellen Björnsen. My girls. What am I going to do with you?”
“Bastard,” Ellen whispered.
I squeezed her hand. Dr. Grace’s blue eyes narrowed. I remembered Karl walking away as quickly as he could. Bastards.
Women aren’t allowed to speak to each other, in Dr. Grace’s asylum. If a woman speaks to her neighbor at one of the long tables during meals, she loses her next two meals. Conversations are counteractive to progress.
But every time I saw Ellen, I saw the golden circle floating along behind her. And when I looked at the other women, I saw other things that disturbed me. Pale lavender lines marked one woman’s throat. The air behind another woman’s back was filled with red patches, the color of blood.
I was here to be cured, not to go insane.
I crept into Ellen’s bedroom one night. The doors were locked, so I had to crawl through the windows, balancing on the ledge outside. The roar of the waves filled my ears.
I found Ellen lying on her bed, her hands tied together. Gold glowed in the darkness beside her. It shone on the raw red marks that covered her face. There was blood underneath her fingernails. She looked up at me without surprise.
“They want my devil to go away,” she said calmly. “But I won’t let him. He’s all I have now.”
I sat down on the edge of her cot. Shivers of excitement ran up and down my body, fear and exhilaration mingling together. How long had it been since I’d spoken to anyone but Doctor Grace?
“Ellen,” I said, “What did you mean when you said you killed it?”
She laughed. It sounded like a sob. “I killed it,” she said. “He was so mad, like fire! But I couldn’t bear it. Little bastard.”
I looked at the golden glow. “Your baby?”
“I wouldn’t have it. Little bastard.”
The darkness was sucking me in, threatening to overwhelm me, the way my mind had dragged me down and drowned me during those long winter months.
I had to get better, or Doctor Grace would never let me go.
I swallowed. “How did you kill it?”
“Haven’t you ever been dancing, Martha? I used to dance with my brothers. I danced in the farmhouse, while Lars was gone. Danced and danced and danced. He tied me down. He said I couldn’t, it was dangerous for the baby. He said I couldn’t move, but my devil got me out. He can do anything.”
“He’s still with you, though,” I whispered. “Your baby. I can see him, following you, over your shoulder.”
She blinked rapidly. “Don’t you like dancing, Martha? I can’t dance here. They tied me up. I can’t dance anywhere, since we came to Michigan. I wish I’d stayed home, with my brothers.”
“So do I.”
Outside, heels clicked in the hallway. One of Doctor Grace’s nurses, making the rounds. Ellen’s eyes widened.
I waited until the sound died away, then I stood up. “I have to go.”
Her eyes focused on me. For the first time, I saw my old friend again, the girl I’d traveled with. “Please don’t leave me like this, Martha. Let me go. Please.”
I untied her wrists, working quickly.
“Be careful,” I whispered.
Her mouth twisted into a half-smile. “And you. Don’t let them stop you dancing.”
“I won’t.” I crawled out onto the window ledge. My long white nightgown flapped against my legs in the breeze of the lake. Fresh air filled my head, dizzying and liberating. I looked down at the rushing blue water below me, and I laughed.
I would never be trapped in my room again.
That autumn, Karl picked me up, but Lars never did pick up Ellen. She’d jumped into the lake, late one night, climbing out the window as I had. When I woke up the next morning, I saw a blue stain in the air around me. Blue of the water, where Ellen found release; blue of the fresh air that I needed.
I’ve heard since then that Doctor Grace has put bars on the windows of the patients’ rooms, to prevent any future accidents. I wouldn’t know for certain, though.
That autumn, before the first snow fell, I drove into the closest town with Karl’s team of horses. I visited every embroidery shop I could find, and I spent every last cent of available money on thread, bright golden thread for Ellen’s baby, blue for freedom, purple and red for the other women who had suffered. When I returned home, Karl was waiting for me.
He stared as I unpacked my bags. “How much did you spend out there? Are you crazy?”
I looked at him. He looked away.
He has never called me crazy again.
This July, three months ago, Lars Björnsen’s new mail-order bride arrived. Karl and I went to the welcoming party. Children raced around our feet, screaming and laughing. The sun blazed golden overhead, and a fresh breeze blew at my pinned-up hair.
I took Lars’s new wife, Sarah, aside. I whispered in her ear. I gave her a present.
Winters are hard, I whispered to her. When your imagination is all you have, you can’t let it be taken away. Don’t ever let him take it away from you.
I handed her a bag filled with bright jewels of embroidery thread, creamy fabric, silver needles.
Don’t forget, I whispered. Spring is always coming.
The first snow fell yesterday. Today, I’m beginning my newest cross-stitch. A picture of me and my devil, dancing.
-this originally appeared in Fortean Bureau and Diet Soap-
Stephanie Burgis grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, but now lives in Wales with her husband and two sons, surrounded by mountains, castles and coffeeshops. Her trilogy of Regency fantasy novels was published in the UK as The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson and in the US as the Kat, Incorrigible trilogy. Her first historical fantasy novel for adults, Masks and Shadows, will be published by Pyr Books in 2016. To find out more, please visit her website: www.stephanieburgis.com