A Madness So Discreet

by Mindy McGinnis


They all had their terrors.

The new girl believed that spiders lived in her veins.

Her screams sliced through the darkness, passing through the thin walls of Grace’s cell and filling her brain with another’s misery to add to the pressures of her own. Grace pulled her pillow tight over her ears, ignoring the feather shafts that poked through the cheap muslin and pricked her skin. On the other side of the wall she could hear Mrs. Clay shifting in her bed, sleep stolen from both patients by the new girl, who hadn’t learned yet that screaming didn’t bring help.

Quite the opposite.

The ward door crashed open, the metal clanging against the stone wall and bringing cries from all corners as patients rushed away from the noise and whatever fresh hell it brought. The girl screamed louder, ignorantly drawing her tormentors to her. Grace identified the dragging gait of the women’s ward administrator as they passed her cell, followed by Dr. Heedson’s lighter step.

An unintelligible string of words from the new girl was silenced by a sharp crack. Another slew of syllables that meant nothing brought the harsh snap of a kick. Grace jammed her fingers into her ears until all she could hear was her heart as it pushed blood through her body, no matter how she wished for it to stop. The new girl wasn’t learning the efficacy of silence, the art of invisibility. Grace had given up speech long ago. Once the words no and stop had done nothing, the others refused to come out, their inadequacy making the effort necessary to voice them an equation too easily solved. Grace curled into a protective ball as Croomes and Heedson left the ward, the whimpers of the new girl trailing in their wake. Grace could deafen herself with her own hands and squeeze her eyes shut so tightly that the muscles in her face twitched in agony. But the acuity of her memory was a dark artist at work in her mind, painting pictures without her permission.

She moaned, pressing her forehead into the sharp ridges of her kneecaps. They poked through her threadbare nightgown into her eyelids, sending sparks across her sight, defying her dearest wish—to stop seeing. Faces were the most painful and the most likely to surface in the dark hours of the night. The spider girl’s moans had conjured her mother’s face in exquisite detail, each finely etched wrinkle apparent as she grimaced under whatever new indignity had been brought upon her, the edges of her lips permanently stained with wine.

Grace turned her head from the apparition, tentatively drawing her fingers from her ears. The ward had returned to silence, but her brain would almost welcome strings of gibberish in the dark, anything to send her thoughts on another avenue than the one it had chosen. It barreled on, resurrecting her father’s face twisted into a paroxysm no daughter should ever witness.

Her cry broke the stillness, bringing movement from Mrs. Clay’s cell. A soft humming threaded through the air, the only comfort her friend could offer through the walls that separated them. Grace latched on to the notes, following the pattern until she learned it. She joined in soundlessly, the silence she’d enveloped herself with too sacred to break. Her mind toyed with the notes, happy to be busy. She relaxed as it allowed itself to be bent to her whim, tracing the pattern of the lace cloth at home instead of the faces around the table. Grace’s hand fell to her belly as she drifted into sleep, cradling the life that grew there.

They all had their terrors, but at least the spiders that lived in the new girl’s veins were imaginary. Grace had learned long ago that the true horrors of this world were other people.


It was still dark outside when they were called to breakfast by the sound of Miss Marie walking the hall with her cowbell. Even though the clanging noise seemed to perforate her lips and bounce off her teeth while she dressed, Grace preferred Marie’s method of waking the inmates as opposed to Croomes’s; she was more likely to unlock the door and barge in, hoping to catch some infringement that she could punish.

Grace’s nightshirt went over her head, a flimsy shift taking its place. There were no undergarments to bother with; she’d been stripped immediately after her admittance, her corset, chemise, and petticoat whisked from her bare skin to reveal the guilty bulge of her belly while she was given a bath, Croomes scrubbing unnecessarily hard over her tender abdomen.

The lye soap had left burn marks on her skin, some laced with the deep scratches from Croomes. They scabbed over while she lay crying that night, the last of her voice seeping out of her while the Grace Mae who had worn a red velvet dress hours before fell asleep to wake only as Grace. Her family name had been stripped from her along with her clothes. There would be no record of a person with the last name of Mae in Wayburne Lunatic Asylum of Boston. Her father wouldn’t stand for it.

As her first days in the asylum had passed, she began to think of her body as a scab that served only to protect the tiny movements inside of her. Eventually she would be able to protect it no more; it would be forced into the world kicking and screaming, wanting nothing more than the protection and silence that the darkness had offered.

She understood babies now, and their reluctance to be born. Once hers was forced into the light and taken away, her body would be of no more use. She could only hope it would be allowed to slough off the world, unnoticed. Until then, she had only to wait.

Grace combed her light hair roughly with her fingers, catching the split ends in the ragged tips of her nails. Miss Marie gave a perfunctory tap on the door before unlocking it, taking one glance at her, and saying, “Well, you’re one less I’ll have to help dress, at least,” and moving on.

Mrs. Clay was in the hall, deftly working her dark hair into a bun with the pin she was allowed to keep even though it was against the rules. Grace stepped over a writhing woman, well aware of her own untidy hair and what price Mrs. Clay paid for her small luxuries. To be an exemplary patient meant she was paraded about when the Board came to inspect the asylum, her hairpin a prize won at a carnival where she was the animal on display.

“Hello, dear.” Mrs. Clay smiled, the tiniest of lines around her mouth edging more deeply as she did. “I hope you slept well.”

Grace shook her head as Mrs. Clay tucked her hand inside of Grace’s elbow to steer her toward the dining hall. Unperturbed by her walking partner’s continued silence, Mrs. Clay kept on. “Come and have your food before there’s none left for you or the babe.”

Food was a constant struggle. The kitchens provided only what they could afford for the day, regardless of how many mouths there were to feed. Many inmates never made it to the tables in time to see food but made the best of it with crumbs and scraps that fell to the floor. If not for the driving necessity of eating for two, Grace would’ve been happy to be a forgotten one who died quietly in her cell.