To find out more about this blog series of 'Tales From the Rookeries' and the original series, 'The Meadowsweet Chronicles' you can read the introductory post HERE. To read more stories in the series, there is a link menu in the sidebar.
Please note that these are flash fiction pieces, designed to be playful in style and genre. They have not undergone professional edit so feel free to add constructive criticism in the comments - always learning, always growing!
The Night of The Storm (1854)
On return from my rounds, I ask the matron if there is anything that can be done. She is a woman of God and believes that such natural discomforts are fitting for creatures who have abandoned Him. When I ask if her God would abandoned his own children, she reprimands my insolence and dismisses me to my duties with the veiled threat of permanent dismissal and a dented reputation. In my situation, as a young woman with no family and no home, it may as well be a threat on my life.
Hoping for more compassion and action, I interrupt the good Doctor Carson to inform him about the situation; he offers me a face that suggests a level of concern but no actions that might solve the situation.“The problem is, my dear,” he replies, “we would have to move them, and there is nowhere to move them to.”
He gives me a kindly smile and then returns his attention to his notes. After an incredibly long minute of silence as I wait for some kind of eureka moment, I take my leave, closing the door quietly behind me.
The stormy weather does something to the lunatics; it’s as if they are mirrors to the wildness of nature; its unstable and often cruel moods are reflected in their actions as if they are turning nature’s energy into some beautiful but confused choreography. I cannot imagine the primal horror they feel when the crack of thunder and lightning splits heaven open like a wound bleeding the wrath of some angry God.
I have promised Henry that I would return within the hour, when I have found a solution to his increasingly wretched position. Unlike most of the patients housed on the subterranean floor, he is lucid, even with the weather – almost too lucid, so that you might think for a moment that it is you who is mad and that it is he who is sane. He has this way with him – a cold calmness, even on the hottest of Summer days; it’s a trick of his madness; the same madness that allowed him to savagely murder seventeen people in one weekend of night-time park prowls and then return to his work as an eminent surgeon on the Monday.
It was not the first killing spree he had committed; although he has told me he has very little recall of the actual events of the three previous times he had mutated from calm and efficient surgeon to savage and insatiable predator.
Nevertheless, of all the patients I have responsibility for, I like Henry the most. He is always polite, and he has a gently burning fire behind his eyes that suggests amusement; in a similar way that a god might look down on earth and find his creations somewhat ludicrous.
As I walk my rounds with my leather nurses’ boots treading echoes in the halls, the cries of the sad and desperate join in melancholy chorus with the wind. I wonder if, like them, I will ever leave this place, or whether we are all doomed to spend our lives within its grey, unkindly walls.
With the lower floor flooding, the rats are spilling up the stairs, stalking their quiet shadows against the tiled skirting. There will soon be more cries of horror as they seek sanctuary within the cells and add more lace to the patients’ fears. The drafts have blown out many of the candles that usually offer some small, reassuring light, and now as I turn on my journey towards the care-taker’s office, I am entering a dark and shadowy world, lit only by the candle that I carry.
A scream, far away and yet close, barrels through the corridors, causing the hairs on my neck to prickle and rise. I am used to cries of sadness, of woe, and of pain, but there is something about this scream that is different to the rest; in it is a perfect clarity of understanding; like waking one morning to see the face of Satan in place of your own. I stop in my tracks, waiting for it to end. It is some moments before it finally quiets, and then the silence is almost worse than the sound of the scream. I pick up my skirts and turn towards that awesome absence of noise; my soles tap quickly on the hard floor and my candle-light flickers with the threat of extinguishing at any moment. For a while, my thoughts of Henry are gone.
When I bump into Doctor Carson, also plucked from his own purpose by the sound of such a blood-curdling scream, I almost laugh with relief.“You heard it too, Elizabeth?”
I nod my head and bite down on my lip. I am hoping he is going to dismiss me to my duties and spare me the investigation that he is clearly about to undertake.
“Come then, we had better see what awaits us,” he says, unable to hide the anxiety in his voice.
I follow in his steps. I am grateful that in this part of the building, there is no need for the candlelight as it is serviced by the gas lamps on the walls. I blow out my candle and when sure that the wick is cold enough, I stick it into one of the depths of my large apron pockets. On this dark night, I want to carry the light with me.
Now that there is nothing but the eerie yawning silence, it is hard to navigate our way, but Doctor Carson, through some kind of intuition, carries on, taking turn after turn until I can hardly believe that a scream could travel so far.
We arrive at the office of the Matron. My heartbeat trips over itself as I see the spray of blood across the glass of her office door.
“Stay here,” Doctor Carson whispers.
I notice how a light sweat has broken out on his brow. He scans the corridor hoping to see reinforcements in the form of the male orderlies. He does not want to face the scene alone, even though he is no stranger to violence or blood.
He reaches out a tentative hand and pushes open the door. I read his face, searching for the narrative; it flickers with the crisis before resettling into some kind of blank calm.“Find help!” he says. I note how his voice has cracked between the words.
With morbid curiosity, I try to peer around his bulk to see inside, but he has positioned himself to ‘protect’ me.
From inside the room, I hear the death groans of the matron. He mistakes my hesitation for fear.
“Quickly child, there may be a chance we can save her,” he says as he rushes to her side. Before the door swings shut, I see him pressing his hand to a wound that is pumping out blood like some kind of macabre fountain. She needs a surgeon.
I pick my skirts up with both my hands. Adrenalin and inspiration fuel my flight through the endless corridors and down the stairs past the rats and into the darkness. I have no time to stop and light a candle. It is not the light I need. As I reach the bottom of the stone steps, I barely notice that the hems of my skirts are damp with flood waters. I have a clear purpose. I feel in my pocket for my hoop of keys, searching out the key that I should not have but which I could not resist stealing. Maybe in my heart I had always known that one day I would free him.
I am calling out his name, as if to raise him from the dead.“Henry! Henry!”
My feet slosh through the water and I try not to think about the human waste and the disease that is churned up in it. By the time I arrive at Henry’s cell, the last one of the row, he is waiting for me. A look of saintly calm upon his face.
“Elizabeth?” he asks.
He should not know my name and giving it to him was perhaps the very first turn of the key that would inevitably unlock him.
“I need your help,” I plead.
He looks at me with eyes that tell me he has been waiting for this moment. They barely flicker with surprise. Every thought I have tells me that this is a wrong choice and yet every feeling I have confirms it is right.
I place the key in the lock and turn it, springing the locking mechanism. It is surprisingly easy, as if God is condoning my actions. A boom of thunder rattles the walls. Even in the short few minutes I have been back down here, the waters have risen, and with them, the cries of the patients. As much as I feel driven to save them, I know that leaving them here to drown is equally a kindly act.
For a moment, my hand rests on the handle of his cell as if I might have a change of heart. Henry waits. I open the door.“We need a surgeon,” I hurriedly explain, “and it will be at least half an hour before Mr. James can get here. It’s the Matron… someone has attacked her.”
He nods. “It’s been a while,” he says almost apologetically.
It’s been three years almost to the day. I remember the very moment he arrived.
I lead him away from the cell, past the other patients who call for rescue too. I do not fear having my back to him – although I should. He seems in no hurry and I have to urge him on.
“Quickly, please. She’s already half-dead.”
As soon as we are free from wading the flood waters, I trip up the stone step, hidden by the swirling waters. His hand strikes out to steady me.
When we arrive, Doctor Carson flinches before proclaiming,“My God, Elizabeth, what have you done?”
I do not answer. Henry is already assessing the Matron’s wounds and shaking his head. He says,
“This is not good: the wound is too deep. The weapon has caught one of the main veins; I can tell from the spray of blood on the glass. There’s nothing to be done. It’s a priest you need, not a surgeon.”
Doctor Carson has his eye fixed on Henry in the way that venison fixes on a hunter.
“Thank you, Henry,” Doctor Carson says gently. “Perhaps, Elizabeth could escort you back to your room if there is nothing to be done.”
“I can try to stitch it,” he says, “but I don’t hold much hope.” Then almost as an aside he whispers,
“She’s dead anyway.”
The blood is still pumping out from between Doctor Carson’s fingers and then, just like lightning illuminates the sky, I see that the Matron is more to Doctor Carson than a colleague. He loves her.
Doctor Carson nods, giving his permission for Henry to do whatever he can. I feel the sensation of others at my back, and turn to see two of the male orderlies crashing through the door. They are about to take hold of Henry, but Doctor Carson raises a hand and they stop. Silence fills the room as Henry works. Despite the years of confinement, the rough treatment and the pain, I watch as his hands work like the hands of an artist. I cannot imagine those same hands ripping apart bodies like they claimed.
Eventually, the blood stops to a mere trickle, but I am not sure whether this is because Henry has been successful, or because the Matron is simply empty. Then, Henry sits back on his haunches, holding her wrist in search of a pulse. I am holding my breath as we wait, and it is only when I see Henry’s shoulders rise and fall with laughter that I breathe out.“I can still do it,” he says. “I still am.”
With the crisis over, Doctor Carson instructs me to call for Mr. James. We all know that the Matron is far from saved. There is an awkwardness in the room. All is out of joint. This man, the lunatic, has saved her life – for the present. He is more than a creature, more than a murderer, more than a lunatic, and nobody knows how to treat him.
Finally, Doctor Carson issues the instruction for the orderlies to return the patient to his room. I begin to protest. We all know that it isn’t a room, but a cell – and tonight, it is no more than a tomb.“But, Doctor, surely we can…”
“Elizabeth, please hurry with word to Mr. James.”
I am just about to leave when the room erupts. From somewhere there is a terrible yawping roar and a flash of white cottons and flesh. I try to make out the scene, but there are so many bodies. Blood splatters the walls, and floors, and faces. There seems one body too many, and as I stand somewhere between terror and fascination, I see that it is not Henry that is the painting the room red, but another patient, Joe, who has been hiding in the Matron’s office watching his crime play out like a play. There is something sharp and glinting in his hand, but I am desperate for him not to see me and so I hide behind the door frame. Dread causes my legs to turn to sculptured stone. The rich copper smell of freshly slaughtered meat.
All at once, I am being pulled along the corridor.
“All?” I ask, knowing that within the last few minutes, the beast in Henry has appeared. His hands are stained with blood and his face is jewelled with blood.
As we run, I know that no matter how deeply I love him, I am holding hands with a beast that will both love and destroy me.