Saturday, March 13, 2021

Smoke and Straw

I heard her all night, in the bunk bed below mine, flailing at her mattress, yanking out fistfuls of rags and straw. Now she’s quieter, her breathing easier. 

She’s done this before. Tonight, doubtless, she’ll curl up over the bedsprings, the mattress not yet replaced. It’s how she likes to sleep.

Later that morning, she waves to me as I take the path to the falls. She sits beneath a tree—my tree, the one assigned to me—and grins defiantly. The tree, not much larger than a sapling, offers thin shade. She doesn’t use the bench, but sits beside the gnarled roots—curled up, as she’ll do later tonight on her bare bunk bed.

I’m allowed to walk farther than the other patients. I nod at the nurses who have taken the more invalid patients—those with walkers or wheelchairs—to the edges of the Institute’s grounds. Beyond, the land give way to furrowed earth and an idling tractor.  

The gravel path I follow leads to a dirt trail. It rained last night, and the hem of my nightgown trails in the mud. I shiver, feeling naked in the cool morning breeze.  

The trail twists beside a stream which soon widens and becomes rapids. I reach a flat outcrop, the falls churning behind me, the ground slick with mud and ice. I stand on the ledge and stare at the lake below. It is edged with marshes, creeks, and pools before turning blue and mirror-like. A few sailboats, like water bugs, zip across it, though most take shelter in the rocky coves and bays of the farther shore.

When I return, the girl’s still there, standing on the bench and stretching toward the tree’s upper branches. I glimpse one breast and the patch of pubic hair beneath her flimsy clothes. Bruises dapple her too-thin ribcage and limbs, and her eyes are dark and hollow. She resembles a mannikin of smoke and straw.

Smoke and Straw

I heard her all night, in the bunk bed below mine, flailing at her mattress, yanking out fistfuls of rags and straw. Now she’s quieter, her ...