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Within These Walls

Tara Calaby lives in Melbourne, Australia with her wife and far too many books. She is currently a PhD candidate in English, researching female patients in Victorian asylums. Calaby's writing has twice previously appeared in Daily Science Fiction and also in publications such as Galaxy's Edge and Grimdark Magazine. In her free time, she enjoys playing video games, reading comics, and patting other people's dogs.

My husband visits a week after I am admitted to the lunatic asylum. He doesn't bring the baby.
"I can't trust you with her," he says. "The things you read in the newspapers these days."
I have never hurt her. I have not hurt him, either. I only hurt myself.
"Is she well?" I ask. My throat is still raw from the poison; the words come out cracked and harsh.
"Well enough. The nursemaid is good with her."
My breasts are still heavy and aching with milk. "I wish you'd bring her next time."
He shifts in his wooden chair. "The doctors said you might be dangerous."
"Not to her," I say. "Never to her."
I can see the attendant watching me closely. I force a smile.
"I'm well, now," I tell him. "It was a moment of foolishness. She cried so much; I needed to sleep."
He nods, but he doesn't meet my eyes.
From the airing yard, you can see right down to Melbourne: a growing mass of dark-roofed buildings surrounded by the drab green of native trees and grass. Here, they plant pieces of England. Daffodils push through the earth in springtime and warmth brings the scent of pine. I miss the light-dappled woods of my childhood, before seasickness and sunburn and the desolate scrubland of marital vows.
We meet for the first time in the shadow of the northwest tower. Her name is Catherine, and her brown hair shines red as holly berries when we step into the sun. She is plump and pretty and she laughs with an ease I can't remember. I tell her about my daughter--about Euphemia--and she listens with such kind eyes.
"And your husband?" she asks. "Does he visit?"
"He doesn't bring her," I say, "so I don't much mind."
I don't love him. I never loved him. I think this woman might understand.
I look for her often, but she cannot always be found. I am expected to work during most of my hours, needle-pricks callousing my fingertips and my wrists pinching with the constant in-out of the thread. Catherine is of a lower class than me, so her labor is in the laundry. Her hands are red and blistered; when I try to take them into mine, she ducks her head and pulls away. I see her, not as flawed, but as marked by her harsh life. I tell her so, once, my cheeks as pink as her scalded hands, and she looks at me like I'm a miracle.
"You're a good one, Nellie," she says, "and don't let no one tell you otherwise."
"If I'm so good," I ask, "then why am I here?"
"Because you're different, and they don't see different. They just see something wrong."
I don't ask her how she came here. Her wrists are crisscrossed with puckered scars.
The woman in the bed next to mine has been here fourteen years. Most of the time, she's lucid, but when she has fits she becomes peculiar in her mind. I ask her about Catherine one night in the ward. I don't see Catherine at mealtimes--only in the airing yard--and it feels strange that I never encounter her in the halls.
"Catherine Gastrell?" she says, her brow creasing. "You must've heard wrong. Ain't no one been here called Gastrell for years now. Poor woman," she continues, and she crosses herself, "'twas a terrible thing."
"What do you mean?" I ask. I misheard nothing.
"She destroyed herself some years back. They found her in the yard."
"I am mad," I say to Catherine. "I am mad, and you do not exist."
She looks at me like a woman condemned. I turn so I can't see her eyes.
"Catherine Gastrell died years ago," I tell her. "You can't be her, so I must be mad."
"If you're so mad," she says, "then how did you know my name?"
I turn to embrace her, but she is like iced smoke within my arms.
The superintendent tells me that I'm well again: that my melancholia has been cured by hard work and fresher air. He has written to my husband, who will come for me on Monday. My chest throbs with a pain worse than that of any poison. I am meant to be sewing, but I say that I am light-headed so that I may be permitted to sit outside.
"I want to stay here with you," I say when Catherine comes to me. "You're the only one who understands me. If I leave, I'll be alone."
"You'll have your daughter," she says, "and there are many others like me. You'll find them, now you know to look."
"But I love you," I say through tear-damp lips.
"Then live for me."
She raises a hand to my cheek, and for a brief moment, I can feel her touch.
I lie to my husband: tell him that childbirth tore me up inside. He is cold at first, but later I catch him leading the nursemaid to his bedroom. I turn as if I haven't seen them, but he recognizes the gesture for its tacit approval, and after that he is kinder.
Euphemia is round and rosy and she keeps the darkness to the shadows: my very own lighthouse in booties and bonnets. I walk with her in the late afternoon, when the sun has lowered and the light is growing weak. Sometimes I imagine I hear Catherine speaking to me, but I know it's only the memory of her within me. I miss her dreadfully, but I am living, because I know that she cannot.
I am coaxing the perambulator through summer-browned grass when a strange woman breaks away from her companion and takes hold of the front of the contraption, helping me to lift it to more even ground.
She turns to leave, but I see myself in her when she takes the other woman's arm.
"Please wait," I say, amazed at my temerity. "I think that I know you."
We've never met, and she knows it, but she understands the desperation in my eyes. She turns to her companion and receives a nod in response to a question she hasn't spoken.
"I think we know you, too," the woman says.
She offers her hand to me in introduction, and I can almost hear Catherine laughing as I smile.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 3rd, 2020

Author Comments

I am currently a PhD candidate at La Trobe University, researching female patients in Australian lunatic asylums from 1880-1910, and I think it was inevitable that this research would find its way into my speculative fiction writing. One of the things that interests me most about the women I've been studying is their ability to find a community within the asylum, especially in cases where their families outside are less supportive. "Within These Walls" is about a queer woman who finally recognizes herself and her desires in another patient, only to be torn from her new-found community due to being deemed cured. It's also a good old-fashioned ghost story, because everything's better with ghosts.

- Tara Calaby
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