Available June 15, 2015

"Dr. McFarland told us we were the only ones who could cure the unfortunates under our care. Our benevolent kindness would lead them to sanity. At first I believed him, but it was not long before I learned of unspeakable acts committed on those lost souls."
For Their Own Good
For Their Own Good

Available June 15, 2015 at
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For Their Own Good

The following is a shortened version of a piece published in The Florida Writer, Spring, 2013. It is from my work-in-progress, For Their Own Good.

It was 1857—a year in an era of optimism and change in America. Most believed fortune, recognition, even divine purpose were all attainable for a young man willing to uproot himself and travel across the frontier. I was no different than many of my generation. My calling beckoned me to Illinois where I accepted the position of medical doctor at the Jacksonville State Hospital for the Insane.

I had never given much thought to what occurred inside such sites. I was not particularly interested in patients who lost their sensibilities, let alone the establishments housing them. Their existence was only a vague part of my consciousness. So, when my mentor, Dr. Peterson told me about the need for a medical doctor in an asylum in the west, I was curious, but hesitant. In the end, in spite of my apprehension, for reasons even I was not completely aware of, I accepted the position.

Not long after I disembarked from the train in Jacksonville, I spotted an open carriage pulling up to the depot. A short, wiry man dressed in clothes worn by farmers threw the horse’s reins over a hitching post and walked toward me. “You Doc Fletcher?”

“How did you recognize me?”

A wide grin covered his weathered face. “Only feller all in black wanderin’ around lookin’ lost.”

“And you are?”

“Name’s Henry. Hired hand out at the asylum—sort of a jack-of-all-trades, you’d say. Matron Hacker sent me to fetch you. We best git goin’. Like to pull in before the sun goes down.”

“How long have you worked at the asylum?”

Henry leaned his elbows on his knees, holding the leather straps between his fingers as the horse assumed an easy walk. “While now. Get my three squares and a cot. Pretty easy, except for some of them loonies. They got some strange ones out there.”

A sliver of bright sunlight from the sinking sun found my eye and I squinted. “How much further?”

Henry pulled his hat down, shading his eyes. “Not too far. Keep lookin’ to your right. The gate’ll be comin’ up soon.”

At the end of a wide turn in the road we came upon an iron gate attached to two brick columns. A small stone ball sat on top of each. More columns, connected by an iron fence, ran across the front of a large stand of elms. They stood so close together I could only see a few sparkles of light coming from what was left of the sunlight.

“Nice trees, huh? They did not have to take ’em down when they built the place six years ago.”

The horse walked around the curved driveway. Mature trees gave way to smaller, younger ones, no more than a few years old. Through their tops I glimpsed the roof of a large structure. A five story edifice with four story wings on either side rose in splendid isolation. My eyes watched a flock of crows fly from one end of the building to the other as I attempted to grasp the hospital’s enormous size.

Grecian columns holding a protruding roof created a covered entry way in front of an immense door. The porch was topped by a railed balcony with a perfect view of a graceful fountain.

Henry stopped the carriage in front of the wide stairs leading to the entrance. The windows were dark except for flickers of light which disappeared almost as quickly as I saw them.

Two figures dressed in white stood in the entranceway’s shadows. Henry carried my bag up the steps, tipped his hat, and bowed slightly. “Nice to meet ya, Doc,”

Walking toward the carriage he slowed his walk as he passed me. He spoke close to my ear. “If you’re ever in a fix, tell one of the farm workers and I’ll find ya.”

I stood facing the portico, a small speck beside such grandeur. I turned to look behind me. Dark spaces were beginning to fill in between the trees and I felt uneasy. The ever-present sound of crickets was all I heard. I looked from side to side but saw no one. In spite of the indistinct statues waiting for me at the top of the stairs and the glimmers of light inside the walls of this sanctuary, I felt utterly alone.

Climbing the stairs I discerned one of the figures was a woman. Her white dress covered by an equally bright apron skimmed the floor. A man with a white shirt and trousers stood slightly behind her.

She held herself straight. Her hands clasped forearms that rested on her belly. “Welcome Dr. Fletcher. I am Matron Hacker. ”

I held out my hand but she merely tilted her dark-haired head. “Dr. Cooper sends his apologies. He had a church meeting tonight he could not miss and asked me to show you to your quarters.”

She turned her back to me and addressed the muscular man behind her. “Take Dr. Fletcher’s bag, Charles.”

Charles picked up my bag and gestured me to follow Matron Hacker.

The long hallway inside the door was lit by gas lamps attached to the walls. A large circular table sat in the middle of the room from which Matron Hacker picked up a kerosene lamp. “I will show you to your room. I am sure you are tired.”

Matron Hacker lifted her skirt as we walked up the curved stairway. I looked over the banister and saw only darkness. We stopped on the third floor and proceeded down a dim hallway. The matron opened a door to a small parlor. A fireplace was ablaze, the room warm. “Charles will put your bag next to your bed. I’ll have one of the girls in the kitchen bring supper to you. Is there anything else you need?”

The room was perfectly comfortable, furnished much more formally than the house I shared with my sister Sarah. “I appreciate your welcome. Everything is more than adequate.”

She bowed her head slightly. The glow of the flames highlighted her pale, pudgy features. “Dr. Cooper requests you join him for breakfast in the morning. He dines quite early. I will have someone wake you.”

“I look forward to it. Thank you again.”

I was surprised how quietly the door closed behind Matron Hacker and Charles. They made their way into the hallway soundlessly. If there were others in this massive building I could not hear them.

In only moments, there was a gentle tap on my door. A large woman wearing a food stained apron stood in the doorway, holding a tray covered with a white cloth. “Brought your supper.” Her arduous walk betrayed the physical work of a lifetime. “Name’s Lena, Doc. I’m always ‘bout the kitchen. Let me know if there’s somethin’ you’re hankerin’ for.” A weary smile beamed through her wrinkles as she took her leave.

The food was what I needed, hot and heavy. When I finished the last of it I extinguished the light and lay on my bed.

I felt the rocking of the train when I closed my eyes. Exhaustion overcame me but visions from my journey and the faces of Matron Hacker and Charles encumbered my rest. Over time, a sweet peace enveloped me and I slept. In my dreams I heard an ethereal voice, singing the very hymn my mother hummed to me when I was only a boy.

Lo, how a Rose e-er blooming from tender stem hath sprung! Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as those of old have sung. It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter, when half spent was the night.

I would soon learn the clear singing I heard the night of my arrival was not an angel calming me into slumber, but a patient attempting to soothe herself in the throes of her own chaos.


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