The Man in the Hanging Tree: Redeye

He told her he knew her deepest desire. He told her he could read dreams in her eyes that she did not even dare whisper to the night. He told her he could make them all come true.

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11. Bedlam

 

I had expected my father to be angry. I had expected him to yell at me like he had done so many times before – to berate me and then send me to bed like the wayward girl I was. But he did not yell. Not this time. When he looked up at me from the chair in the atrium, his face older and more worn than I remembered it, he simply asked:

“Why have you returned?”

“I was wrong,” I whispered. The breath caught in my throat. I could feel tears sting my eyes. “Father, I am so sorry. I don’t know… I didn’t know.”

 My father sighed heavily.

“Leave me alone now. You are not properly attired to stand before your father. Have Lucy help you.”

I curtsied – something I had not done since I was a little girl. Lucy was already preparing a bath when I came upstairs. She sent me a long look.

“Just a moment, miss. It needs some cold water.”

“It’s fine, Lucy,” I said. “I want it this way.”

The water scalded my skin as I stepped into the tub. I breathed deeply, forcing myself to sit perfectly still until the pain had dulled. Inhale. One, two, three, four, five. Exhale. Lucy stood quietly beside me. When I finally looked up again, she fetched the tray with soap and oils. She knew I did not want help with the washing, but she asked anyway, just as she had done every time for the past five years. The ritual held a sort of comfort.

“I have laid out new clothes on your bed, miss,” Lucy said when I had washed the last scented oil off my skin. “Tea will be served in your room. Please call if you need anything.”

“Yes. Thank you.”

I remained standing in the middle of the floor long after she had left. My vision seemed dimmed somehow and I found it hard to focus. When I finally managed to rouse myself enough to walk the few steps down the hall to my own room, it was already nearly teatime.

Lucy found me sitting on the bed. I was in my fresh undergarments, but even though she had omitted the corset, putting on the dress had seemed like an insurmountable task. She paused for a moment at the door, taking in the scene in front of her. I sensed rather than saw her putting the tray down, for my eyes were far too heavy to lift from the floor.

“Tea is here,” she said cheerily. “I brought extra biscuits for you, miss – thought you might be hungry. If I don’t feed you myself, I don’t know that you eat at all. There, now, let’s just put on the dress and you are all set. It is the yellow one, see, the one you always liked best for summer.”

“It is autumn, Lucy,” I said. That, at least, I knew.

“But such a lovely weather today. Had I not known better, I might have thought it to be June! Stand up, now, let me help you.”

I stood up. I lifted my arms when she asked me, and put them down again when she asked me. I turned this way and that and held still as she adjusted the cuffs. Finally pleased, she started to set up tea at the small table by the window. She held out a chair for me and even placed the biscuits on my plate.

“There, all set. I will tend to your mother now, but you just call if you need me.”

She let her hand rest briefly on my shoulder before heading to the door.

“Lucy.”

It was not more than a whisper. Still, it was enough to stop her in her track.

“Miss?”

“What is going to happen?”

At first I thought she would not answer. She stood so still in the doorframe, all the merriment gone out of her. Then she smiled regretfully.

“I don’t know, miss. I don’t know.”

 

The sun climbed over my wall. It started in the far corner by the cabinet with the flowers and moved all the way over to the picture of the bathing children. I liked to watch it. It seemed so peaceful, so untouched by everything that went on around it. If we all were to die of the plague tomorrow, the sun would still reach that painting come evening. It did not care if we were there to see. It did not care about anything.

When the sun reached the tiny hole in the tapestry, my father would knock on my door. Sometimes I thought he could see the sun too, and waited for it to illuminate that specific flaw before approaching me. Indeed it seemed to be his cue, every day, weeks on end. Was it weeks? I do not know. Lucy said so. It all seemed the same to me.

One day, the sun reached the hole and there was no knock. The moment came and went without anything happening.

I stirred in the bed. The basin with the washcloth still stood on the nightstand where Lucy had put it days before when I refused to even touch it. She was slipping, I thought. The Lucy I knew would never leave a chore unattended. Then I remembered that I had locked the door so they would not bother me and she had been calling through it at least twice, but not at the same time. Once the sun had been by the creaky floorboard, and once it was nearly gone, just playing with the curtain. She was inconsistent. Not like father. Father always called at the same time, like a clockwork. But not today.

My fingers shook when I tried to unlock the door. It annoyed me, for I kept dropping the key, but I could not hold them still. I finally managed to fit it into the lock only to realize that I barely had the strength to turn it. When had the lock become so stiff? I would have Lucy lubricate it, I decided. Locks should not be this unyielding.

Voices drifted up to me from the stairs. They grew louder as I descended on my bare feet, and I recognized one as my father. The other sounded familiar, but I could not place it.

“It is a dire case, Abraham,” said the faceless voice. “I have seen it before in young women. It is unusual in such good breeding as herself, but it has been seen.”

“But what can I do?” pleaded my father. “I know things have been hard for her, what with my wife and everything. I always tell myself I should do better by her, but I have to attend to my duties in court and sometimes days pass without us even meeting at the dinner table.”

“You mustn’t blame yourself. If an apple is bad, it will rot under even the best of circumstances. What will not be saved cannot be saved.”

“I had hoped… You would know how to cleanse her? Bring back my little girl?”

The hope in my father’s voice was so strong it made me ache. But I had recognized the other voice now, and I knew that his attempts were futile.

“We do not perform exorcisms,” said Father Preston. “I believe you yourself were on the board that decided to stop practice in our church.”

I winced. Although I could not see him, I knew my father did the same.

“Of course,” he said. “I understand, but… Then what is there to do? I am losing her. What happened at the Hewitt’s… You must know it is not the first time she has acted out.”

“I am well aware.”

 “You remember my wife’s sister. They could only give her wooden cutlery or she would hurt herself with the shards. Never married. In the end they just locked her up in her room and… and waited.”

“Do not distress yourself, Abraham. There is no need to let it get that far. Have you considered rehabilitation?”

“What are you saying?”

“I have taken the liberty of conferring with Dr. Monro from Bedlam. He has agreed to receive the young miss at your convenience. She will be in private chambers and receive the best treatment England has to offer. They will take care of her, Abraham.”

“This is a radical move,” my father said hesitantly. “My daughter in a madhouse? I have heard of some of the methods they apply, Father. I know Maryann is not well, but…”

“They are the best in their field,” Father Preston said. “Don’t let old wives tales scare you. They will only give her the best possible treatment. If it may console you, I will visit her myself every week and say prayer.”

“That would be of great comfort, thank you. I suppose I trust you in these things, Father. I think… if you believe it best, then this is what I shall do. When should she be moved?”

“The sooner the better,” replied the priest. “Postponing the treatment will only prolong the process.”

“Of course. I will go to her at once. Hopefully she will comply without fight.” 

 

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