The Institution


he likes to watch them.  The skaters, I mean.  Every year I bring her a Christmas card with skaters on it, to remind her how much she looks forward to this scene.  Little girls in wool stockings and gangly boys with snowballs behind their backs – Father used to wait by the edge of the pond when we skated.  I know she remembers.  She doesn’t say so, but she does.

We got lucky, my sister and I.  When she came here they only had one open room, and it had a view of the hill and the pond below.  We would never have been able to afford it, but they hate to move patients once they’ve gotten into a routine, so she stayed.  Nearly ten years now.  I know she watches the outside world from here, like the princesses in the fairy tales she used to read to me when we were young.  Now she is the damsel in distress, here in the castle tower, waiting for Prince Charming.  Or maybe not.  He’s the one who put her in here in the first place.

A few times a year we go out to pick daisies on the hillside, or walk past the trees.  I tell her stories of Johnny Appleseed and she looks at me with insect eyes and nods solemnly.  The drugs don’t let her smile anymore.  She used to try, so they upped the dosage.  They said smiling made her unhappy.  And she was.  Smiling reminded her of everything she used to be, and would never be again.  That’s why she needed restraints…but she’s better now.  Now she can work on her painting, and her pottery.  They even sell some of her projects in the shops downtown, though of course she doesn’t know that.  The profits help fund the institution – if she’d found her talents earlier, she might have gone in a different direction.  But she had been a princess even then.  Married her prince, wore her gown, had a beautiful little girl of her own.  And then her palace shifted, and she began to fall.

There are sisters like us down on the ice right now.  I see them holding hands, shrieking at friends, whispering secrets into cherry red ears.  I wonder how many of them will watch their sister, their big sister who was the star of the stage and the belle of the ball, come apart at the scenes.  Whether the first drunken evening will register as a true problem, or whether they, too, will excuse it as a mistake.  Whether they will find their baby niece on the doorstep with a note saying “I can’t”.  Whether they will see the manic smile on sis’s face when she waves goodbye to the husband she once adored.  Oh, how she laughed.  Her ecstasy was contagious, it always had been.  But the character of it changed.  Men came and went, her daughter forgotten to my care, her bills unceremoniously shredded with careful fingers and placed in the flower beds.  The neighbors finally contacted her husband – she was lowering property value in the neighborhood.  No one knows how low values can go in situations like these.

Exasperated and embarrassed, he had taken her straight to the Northampton State Mental Hospital, and then telephoned the family.  There had been no divorce.  He was within his rights, as he constantly reminded us.  He sent no Christmas cards, and did not visit.  It was just as well.  It was best if nothing upset her.

I watch my niece glide quietly over the rough ice.  The other children avoid her, and she’s used to that.  Despite my best efforts to familiarize her with her peers, she already shows signs of the illness.  A bad example, set when she was just a baby, indelibly inked onto her spirit.  The family wonders what will happen to her when the episodes arrive.  Perhaps a bedroom next to her mother.

They do not recognize each other.  My sister watches the skaters from the safety of her room, and even if we were on the shore of the pond, she would not know her child.  But even from this distance, I can hear the girls’ tiny giggle, slowly evolving into a laugh as she spins in circles, tighter and tighter.  Her shout carries into the institution’s walls.  For a moment, I think my sister’s eyes show her old intelligence, her daring, the spark of a kindred spirit nearby.  And then the narcotic cobwebs descend, and she turns to her finger paints.  The expressionless faces on the Christmas card mirror the recipient’s own empty eyes.  Below, the child with the demonic grin keeps laughing.

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This story is one of a series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.