Rachel eased along the seeping basement wall. Fresh linens, stacked high in her arms, almost blocked her view. The musty corridor reeked of hasty construction and paper-thin concrete. The polished marble floors in the halls above gave no indication of the dank underbelly where Rachel delivered clean laundry. Over her head, heaving mechanical guts twisted and disappeared into the ceiling, carrying cold water and flickering lights to the stomping nurses and their charges.
Condensation trickled from a shoulder-height steam pipe and collected in a slick, green puddle. Rachel stepped around it. At the far end of the hall, mildew overpowered the respectively benign odor of the underground. She filled her lungs with the stagnant air, because what came next was worse.
She tucked her nose into the rough, clean fabric and backed into the swinging metal doors. They were heavier than the kind that separated the kitchen from the laundry, where she spent most of her days. They whispered open on well-oiled hinges.
Certain maintenance requests never went unanswered—never her requests, of course, but a laundry list of things that had nothing to do with the laundry. At least, that’s what she’d heard. But she didn’t have to be there long to know at Dunning, hinges never squeaked, dumb waiters sank silently into oblivion, and orderlies secreted around corners on sighing shoes. If her beau knew where she worked, what she did during the day…
Lights in metal cages were bolted to the basement ceiling at ten foot intervals all the way down the hall leading to the patient rooms. Rachel scurried from one circle of light to the next, holding her breath for the screams she knew would be coming. The lowest, windowless levels of the asylum had never been intended to hold patients, but they’d run out of room on the floors above and converted one wing into patient rooms. Conveniently, the basement housed the most disturbing cases: those whose families were only too relieved to forget.
Rachel stopped at an echoing, muffled scream.
“I’ll take those,” a quiet voice slithered from behind her. Rachel jumped but quickly corrected the feeble imperfection. Straightening her posture, she forced her shoulders down and turned to face the sniveling excuse for a man she now realized had followed her.
“Sure.” She handed over the pile, avoiding the brush of his hands. He tried, he always tried, but she’d learned to avoid his pale, clammy fingers. He was a too-young Irish man with greasy red hair. And even though Rachel towered above him, there was a hungry determination in his stature that she didn’t possess.
Rachel did her best to look as big as possible, leveling her almost-black eyes down at him. His returning, wet smile warned her he would not be intimidated by a laundress. He hissed through his crooked teeth, maneuvering the pile to one hand. With the other, he reached to brush her cheek. Rachel backed away in time. She couldn’t make it through the swinging doors, though, before the swell of his discordant laugh filled the hall.
Paint dripped from Miriam’s brush onto the wood plank floor of her studio. Speckled and spotted with the waste of more inspired days, the floor had long ceased to shine. If only she could rework that squander.
Her art had taken a dark turn.
Ice shards clawed at the window. The night beat its way into the brightly lit room. When her father had had the townhome built for her mother, it had been lit only by gas lamps. Michael, after their marriage, insisted on electric lights in her studio. Miriam had agreed but rarely used them. Tonight, both the electric and gas lamps burned loud.
Miriam inhaled the waxy air. She used to like the dark. After her father’s death, she had found comfort in the anonymity. Her painting had been her reason for being. Now, she had other reasons. But the dark shapes on the canvas shifted, the black eyes of a woman she’d never met watched, pleaded.
Miriam cut white into the deep gray on her palette to fight the dark hues that pervaded. She lifted her brush to the canvas, dragged it along the top edge until the paint dwindled, and then repeated the process, relieved to see the brighter color.
She brought green into the lighter gray, scraped it together with her knife and applied it with heavy strokes until spring-like color dominated the edges of the tightly stretched fabric. Enough for one night. She swirled her brushes in a jar of turpentine and then tried to rub the smell off her hands.
The electric light knob had been installed near the door she never used, so she crossed to it and turned it to the off position. The harsh light faded, leaving only the warm glow of the gas bulbs. Her painting called again, and Miriam turned to examine it once more before disappearing into the secret passageway that connected most of the rooms in the house.
The light paint hadn’t changed anything. The soft green only boxed in and imprisoned the strange woman who stared back from the canvas with pleading, empty eyes. Miriam tore her gaze from the pain on the canvas and made her way into the dark passages. The night would be long.
“Ya sure took yer fair time.” The portly Irish laundry matron, Bonah, slapped her red palm down on the counter. Rachel obeyed the wordless directive and heaved the last bundle of sheets onto the chipped, wooden surface. It was almost time be done for the night.
“I had to…” Rachel let the excuse die off as the uninterested woman untied the bundle and pulled the sheets apart, separating those in need of extra soaking time.
“You could start on those over there, gal.” With a slight push of her head, she motioned to a mountain of linens that would never again be white.
“Yes, ma’am.” Rachel hurried to pick up one of the heavy clumps of fabric and lift it to the wide counter. She untied the knot, found the corner of a sheet, and coaxed it out of the twisted mess. Streaks of blood gave her pause.
“What ya found?”
The smell of feces and sweat pushed Rachel back a step. She lifted her wrist to cover her nose. Bonah rolled her eyes.
“These people don’t got it all right in there”—she thumped on her sweaty forehead with a red, cracked finger. “You’re gonna have to get used to surprises.”
Rachel nodded, still breathing in the smell of her own shirt.
“Goodness, gal,” Bonah dropped her dirty linens and bustled around to Rachel’s side of the table. She elbowed her away and jerked the sticky sheets apart. “You know, I thought you was a farm girl.” Bonah huffed disapprovingly while she yanked the bundle apart. “You should be able to handle working in a laundry. You just gonna have to… Oh, my.”
Bonah took a step back before quickly covering what she had discovered and securing the bundle again with a tight knot.
“What was that?” Rachel whispered to Bonah’s back.
“Don’t you tell no one ’bout this, ya hear?”
“But what was that?”
Bonah lifted the bundle and dropped it into a cart. “Don’t you touch this one. It’s gotta be burned.”
Rachel nodded, meeting Bonah’s serious gaze. Bonah glanced back to the cart, and then to the rest of the pile of laundry that needed sorting.
“Gal, let’s sit a spell, that laundry ain’t goin’ nowhere. And with it snowing like it is out there, we’ll likely be spending the night anyway.”
“Where will we sleep?” Rachel’s mind shifted to the cells in the basement of the main building. The ones with locked doors, writhing women, huddled and muttering old men, and sneering orderlies.
“We’ll bunk with the kitchen maids in the attic. Rooms are usually warm. Why, you got someplace to be?” Bonah leveled her squinted gaze at Rachel.
“Well, yes.” Rachel looked up at the windows and the blinding white of the storm. “I was supposed to go to the Foundling House.” She had an appointment to speak with the head nurse about a teaching position there. It was the kind of job she’d hoped to do at Dunning.
But that wasn’t the whole truth. She was also hoping to see Winston. He was supposed to introduce her to his family soon. Rachel glanced to the mountainous carts of laundry. When she’d left the farm, it had been with the hopes of securing a teaching position in the poor house here on the Dunning grounds. But she’d arrived to find another had already taken the position, and she ended up in laundry.
Bonah snorted. “You’ll make more money here. They don’t pay nothin’.” She reached her round arms behind her back and fought the damp knot of her apron. “But they ain’t crazy there, I suppose.”
Rachel listened to the blowing snow hit the windows set high on the walls. Somehow, she expected it to melt before piling against the panes. The laundry was perpetually hot. The boiling vats bubbled almost around the clock, and the sheets hung heavy and lifeless in the hot drying room. Any cool draft that might have found its way to drift across the floor was blocked by their long skirts and close quarters. Rachel glanced back to Bonah, still struggling with the knot at her back.
“Let me help you.” Rachel stepped closer to the older woman. “They need someone to teach after the Christmas holiday. Right now I could tend the infants.”
The knot released. Bonah turned and with a curt nod acknowledged the helpful gesture.
“What was in those sheets?” Rachel’s eyes drifted to the bundle in question.
“Gal, just because someone’s mind don’t work, it don’t mean their other parts don’t.” She shifted under Rachel’s unwavering stare before dropping her voice to an urgent whisper. “The womens sometimes find themselves in a condition.”
“Yes, gal.” Bonah hung her apron on a peg next to the swinging doors and rolled her eyes. “Yes, that’s what I mean.”
“But…” Rachel hurried to catch Bonah before she disappeared down the hall toward the lunch room. “…the women and the men are on their own floors. How…”
“I suspect it’s not the other patients that are the problem, or they was in the condition before they came.” Bonah stopped in the middle of the hallway and turned to meet Rachel’s wide eyes. “People don’t work here because they want to help. They work here because they need a paycheck. And bad people need a paycheck just like good people do. What was twisted up in those sheets was too little to live anyway. Don’t you worry ’bout that none. The ones born big never survive neither. Crazy mothers don’t breed healthy babies.”
Bonah started walking again, and Rachel fell into step.
“Never you mind anything else,” Bonah interrupted. “You just do your job and stay out of the places you don’t need to be.”
The windows in the hallway were lower. Their dusty panes provided a view of the expansive stone asylum. The gray block towered overhead, looking back through its own glowing, gas-lit square eyes. Patient shadows hung and wavered against the barred glass. Two rooms in the attic flickered to life. Snow whipped between the buildings, obscuring the small, infrequent windows of the misery-infested basement. They persisted in their black, shuttered stare.
Miriam slipped out of the passageway and into what had once been her father’s bedroom. Now it was Michael who slumbered in the huge four-poster bed, unaware of her night-veiled visit to her studio. The woman still called from the painting. She had dark hair, dark eyes, and the palest of complexions. Miriam wanted to think her pallor was natural, but she knew it wasn’t. It was the color of fear. And again, Miriam railed against her changing gifting. She used to see people on the street—sometimes they were strangers, sometimes she knew them, but they would be people whose faces she’d studied. She would paint them, and then paint who they would become. This change—now painting someone she’d never met, a completely unfamiliar face, someone she knew lived and breathed, and then painting them in distress—this was new. This was different. And if this was real, she was powerless to do anything.
Miriam sat at her husband’s dressing table and fingered the silver handle of his shaving brush. The clock in the downstairs hall chimed five times. The heavy drapes remained dark. The sky was too thick, the early snow too demanding. She was scheduled to visit the warehouse today. Beatrice planned on meeting her there after her tour of the Foundling House. There were new contracts in the making, but with the snow, it promised to be a quiet day. One she should spend painting. One she should dedicate to completing that tortured stranger’s portrait. Miriam tucked her cold fingers into her pockets and looked back to her dozing husband.
If she were a better wife, she would abandon the woman upstairs, the one who stared back from the painting. She would climb back into bed with her husband, she would mold her body against his and wake him up with softness and promise. But she was not. Miriam stood and crossed to the heavy brocade drapes. They had decided on the fabric together: a cascade of peacock-like colors with gold and cream thread woven into blossoming almond trees that grew from floor to ceiling. The pink- and cream-laced blooms only opened at the very tips of the fragile branches near the top, where the mahogany carved rods echoed the unpredictable movement of tree bark.
“Come back to bed.” Michael spoke softly. He was always so careful not to disturb her thoughts. Miriam knew he’d taken on a burden when he married her. Marrying a woman who painted the future, one who preferred to be alone, one who would rather sit quietly than be forced to make polite conversation with strangers, was not on the list of dreams for any man—especially one who needed a wife on his arm for a unending list of social and business obligations. What he would think of her shifting focus, she didn’t want to consider.
Miriam nodded and unbuttoned her robe. She draped it across the chaise and slid beneath the sheets to where his warmth gathered.
“You’ve been gone for a while.” Michael’s breath rustled Miriam’s hair as she turned and he pulled her close.
“I was just upstairs.” Miriam tucked the quilt beneath her chin, breathing in the scent that was uniquely theirs.
Michael hummed his understanding. It was a sound that communicated everything left unsaid. Miriam smiled and closed her eyes as Michael’s breathing shifted back to a soft snore.
When it was light, Miriam would go back to the woman who haunted her mind from the floors above and try to fix her again. Maybe, if she tried hard enough, she could paint satisfaction into the stranger’s existence. After all, if she’d never met her…
Miriam bit the inside of her bottom lip until it hurt. It would be what it would be.
“Hi, Ma.” Jed filled the doorway. Rachel watched the icy snow convulse around his lantern.
Jed stooped under the frame and shuffled into the laundry. His movements were too slow for someone who needed to hide from the dark, icy blast. He in no way resembled Bonah, which made sense, because she was not really his mother. But the way she babied the giant would lead anyone to believe that he had come from the small, stocky woman.
“Where ya been?” Bonah reached up to help him unwind his scarf. Jed bent at the waist while she pulled. Once it was removed Jed stood, and Bonah hooked her hand under his forearm, leading him to a bench in the corner of the room.
Jed set the lantern on the folding table and wrestled his gloves from his hands. He didn’t loosen the fingers first, instead he grabbed them at the wrist and yanked until his huge hands were free. He shoved the gloves into the pockets of his overcoat and turned the wick down, all the time watching the flame die. He looked up and smiled at Bonah. Her face softened, and she nodded back. He had done a good job. Exactly with what, Rachel had no idea. The nod could have communicated that he’d completed a task only Bonah had known about, or it could have meant that she was proud he had removed his gloves without assistance. In the short time Rachel had worked in the laundry, she had learned that questioning Bonah or Jed was a fool’s errand. It was enough to know that they took care of each other.
Rachel picked a sheet out of a bundle of clean linen and spread it on the table.
“Oh, don’t mess with that now.” Bonah waved her hand, indicating she was done for the evening. “We’ve already put in more hours than we should have waiting for that snow to lighten up.” Bonah glanced out of the high windows again. This time they were nearly completely covered. “I think we’d better make our way to the main building with this last load before it gets any darker or starts blowing any harder.”
Rachel nodded and tossed the sheet on top of the bundles in the wheeled laundry cart. Before she could push it up against the wall in line with the rest of the carts, Jed jumped up to stop her.
“I’ll do that.” He shrugged his huge shoulders and moved into her path. Rachel had no choice but to let him help.
“Thank you, Jed.” Rachel caught Bonah’s approving glance and nodded her understanding.
Jed had been at the asylum longer than anyone could remember. The most accepted rumor was that he had been dropped off as a child. No one ever came to visit him, but then the only regular visitors seemed to be the university students who studied the mind or the reporters who wanted to interview the most recent sensational case. And no one wanted their visits.
“There should be a bed made up for ya upstairs here in the laundry. I’ll have to find a bed in the upper floor of the main building.” Bonah frowned and wound the scarf around Jed’s neck again before attending to her own. She pulled on her mittens and tucked them into the sleeves of her coat. “Don’t ya have any mittens, gal?”
“I’ll be fine.” Rachel shoved her bare fingers deep into her coat pockets. Her coat was too thin for this weather, but the walk to the main building was short. It was the walk back alone that she didn’t look forward to. Although the maids stayed together above the laundry, and they typically ate together, that was as far as the friendships went. And as a laundress, Rachel was even further removed. The only thing worse than staying on the asylum grounds was staying there alone.
Bonah shook her head. Jed stared at the door handle.
“Go ahead,” Bonah gave Jed the permission he was waiting for as she re-lit the lantern and turned the knob for the last gas light that still flickered in the metal fixture overhead. The lantern illuminated the door, and Jed blocked the rest of the light. Rachel ducked into Jed’s shadow and sank into the cold snow. It filled her shoes, even though she followed Jed’s footprints.