The train from Quincy is delayed the evening of September 26, 1904. There is a washout on the tracks, so the train pulls into the station at the top of the hill in Bartonville very late – around one in the morning. The sixty patients being transferred from the Adams County Poor House are huddled in a boxcar, crowded together for warmth in the chilly night air. Nurses and attendants meet the train, ready to escort the new patients up the gentle slope of the hill to the new C Row cottages.
The attendants from Adams County cast a critical eye over their charges, looking them over once more. Everyone who comes to the Illinois Hospital for the Incurable Insane knows what a stickler old Dr. Zeller is, how he hates to see any patient in chains. That was how he had amassed his collection, by confiscating any shackles that arrived on the patients. Those shackles cost money – the attendants make sure to take them off and hide them well in advance of the train chugging into the station at the top of the hill.
At one end of the boxcar stands an industrial-sized wicker laundry basket. A couple of burly attendants each grab an end of the basket and haul it out of the boxcar. They assume the basket contains the patients’ clothing, so they hump it out of the car and set it none too gently on the train station platform. The exhausted group, nurses and patients alike, head up the slope of the hill to the cottages in C Row.
“This seem a bit heavy to you?” one attendant grunts to the other as they lug it.
“Yeah, put it down for a second. I need a break.”
The basket hits the ground with a thump, and another sound – an indignant squawk – arises from the pile of clothes. A dingy white gown shifts, pushed aside by a bony hand.
“Gawdamn,” one of the attendants breathes. “Nurse! NURSE!”
That night, for the first time in forty-four years, Rhoda Derry sleeps in a bed, with clean white sheets. Strong hands bathe her in warm water, and she smells the pungently antibiotic scent of the soap that washes the filth of years from her wrinkled skin. Those same hands wrap her in a soft towel, drying her until she almost purrs with the unexpected pleasure.
Then she is lifted, then falling falling falling – until she lands in softness, like a mother’s arms. She turns her head, and her nose bumps smoothness. She sniffs – the memory is faint, but still there, buried deep in her mind. That is the scent of a clean pillowcase, taken from the line only hours before. Rhoda imagines she can still feel the sunshine that had warmed the cotton.
It has been so long since she’s cried. Her last tears had been torrents of frustration, salty acid burning the bloody ruined sockets. Now she feels hot tears once again – of relief, of grief for all the wasted years. Wetness slides across unfeeling hollows, then traces hot, wet trails down her temples. She sobs aloud until a gentle female voice starts to croon a lullaby. A soft touch wipes the tears away. “Hushabye, don’t you cry …” The voice cracks, then steadies.
Rhoda Derry sleeps.
Look for 44 Years in Darkness: A True Story of Madness, Tragedy, and Shattered Love. Coming October 10. Available on Amazon and at http://www.prairieghosts.com.