24 Ladies Resting
On 01 February 1946 a Tuesday Ward 4 is a wood building with 24 ladies resting and 22 babies. Ward 4 has 25 beds. 24 ladies eat 22 dinners. 24 ladies take medications. 23 ladies sleep in 23 beds and 1 lady sleeps under 1 bed; these are the numbers.
Mrs. Erdman fills herself with sausages. She knows tomorrow will be chicken with gravy. She has been here long enough to know the way of things and begin to emulate them—cracks in her skin, moss in the cracks, routine crying. Here it stays busy with all of the births, however, and Mrs. Erdman is a more abandoned kind of building.
What about the wood and the women are the same. The women lie inside the wood walls or walk circles outside the wood walls every day. The women lean on the wood walls and tap on them with their fingernails and sometimes throw their spoons or bundles of miniature clothes at them. When they throw the bundles of clothes, it is dark and the women are naked and they are the various fading colors of the wood walls. The women might be planks that have fallen. What if the planks got up and walked away. The women are angry and press themselves into the wood. The wood is stamped with many faces of women.
Mrs. Deering announces her birthday in the hall. The women are sweaty from walking and hold themselves up against the wall. I am having a birthday, she says. The women nod. They show their apologies on their faces. Mrs. Deering ducks her head over and over, like a nod.
A man named Henry Larson designed the sanatorium. It was built in the years between 1882 and 1884. The labor was not slated to take longer than nine months. The man and his friends got carried away. They put on towers, turrets, and a spire. It was praised. It held 480 beds and promised to heal. When the sick exceeded 480, another man put up wooden buildings around the grounds, for the women. Ward 4 keeps a book on this history, and the women read it aloud to one another at night.
Mrs. Haley wishes she had a birthday this month. She would have a butter cake, candles, and a present wrapped in blue. She could start a new wish and keep it to herself. Mrs. Haley would be an ordinary lady, or she could wish to be an ordinary lady.
Mrs. Turner smells clean as bed sheets that have just been washed five times without soap and dried on a hill, full of no smells but the smell of clean. Ms. Hamilton smells like perfume you might spray over sheets that were just washed but got bloody again before time for the beds to be stripped. Mrs. Kipper smells like gift soap with bits of lilies in it.
The women all think Mrs. Bret was too old to try, but no one can reprimand her. Some evenings she holds both hands of one or another of the other women and speaks quietly with her mouth pressed against the held woman’s shoulder, and the held woman might slip once and call Mrs. Bret Momma, but no one can reprimand either of them for that.
What about the wood keeps the women all together. The women walk outside the wood walls every day, but they come back inside the walls to stay every night, side by side, on metal beds that smell of metal. Every morning the walls are the same and the women are the same inside it. They rise, shuffle around stiffly, walk outside, and return to their metal beds. They lie to find pictures like mobiles swirled into the ceiling.
On 02 February 1946 a Tuesday Ward 4 is a wood building with 24 ladies resting and 19 babies. 1 lady screams for 2 hours. 4 ladies go home. 20 ladies eat 20 dinners. 20 ladies take medications. 20 ladies sleep in 20 beds and 2 ladies cannot sleep.
Mrs. Kuiper is the caboose to and from the dining hall, an empty brake van at the edge of a train filled with children. She is a large duck nudging some ducklings along. The women have thin calves with wrinkly stockings. Their blue and pink cloth bottoms are round. Mrs. Kuiper hangs back further. The women are round and paler in the sunlight. They are duck eggs. They have not been born. Eggs on legs, Mrs. Kuiper thinks. She tries to conceive of the way this should be illustrated in a picture book, but she cannot stop the legs from being far too fat and covered with the blue and green shadows of burst veins.
During the first three months of his project, land surveyors tried twice to stop Henry Larson from building. They found little support. His castle continued to grow. In 1885, one year after its completion, a landslide collapsed a temporary wooden building on the grounds, but the sanatorium was undamaged. In 1902, when the sick exceeded capacity, a series of wooden buildings was built in a ring around the sanatorium.
Mrs. Ullman wonders if anyone else secretly thinks Miss Eason a hussy. The nurses bring her pudding to eat instead of her dinner, and Mrs. Carson spends her time outside picking flowers from her chair to make a bouquet for the girl. There is a buttercup drooping out of Miss Eason’s hair. Mrs. Ullman would not say no to a buttercup and pudding, to having this all be over and getting to go home.
Mrs. Thompson smells like a horse, large and damp and a little like grass. Mrs. Ipson smells like gas. Mrs. Mack smells like milk, which has nearly no smell at all, and can sneak up on you.
Mrs. Haley cannot remember the last time someone put a flower in her hair. It would make her an ordinary lady, or else it would root in her scalp and she would grow more flowers, each one wholly unique, a gift for each of the other woman. She would have to be taken away, for medical studies. She has been asking for medical studies for three weeks now, and the doctors turn her down repeatedly. They say her case is not extraordinary. They say her baby is nothing new.
What about the exercise path keeps the women moving together. They move toward the birds and the birds disperse. A woman drops a handful of raisins from breakfast and the birds converge for the raisins but only until the raisins are gone. The birds will disperse again. They will fly down chimneys and into cars. The shriveled fruits cannot hold their attention for much longer now. They have no exercise path like the women have. The exercise path keeps the women moving together each morning and evening, as if they will never disperse. The women entwine their wet hands.
On 03 February 1946 a Tuesday Ward 4 is a wood building with 20 ladies resting and 18 babies. 1 lady nurses 1 baby. 2 ladies go home. 18 ladies eat 18 dinners. 18 ladies take medications. 18 ladies lie in 16 beds and 12 or 13 sleep.
A visitor leaves Mrs. Jeffrey a book about a family who works for a traveling circus. The father can lift anything, including the train cars full of the animals. The mother contorts. She is very thin. One daughter swallows swords and the other has a beard and tail. The son has never grown. He is still as small as his baby brother, who seems wholly ordinary and causes the family worry, until the day he flies. He does not come back. The family quits the circus. All the women pass the book around.
Miss Stephens used to menstruate heavily and never off schedule. Her mother marked the dates she was due to begin on the calendar the family used. She bought her daughter black school skirts. Edith was a forgetful girl, her mother had always said. It was not untrue. Miss Stephens would sit down to play the piano at ten in the morning and add a new burgundy geranium to the upholstered floral stool before she finished her étude. Ten in the morning was her time. She was born at ten in the morning.
Mrs. Parker smells like children’s fingers after they have eaten peppermint candy. Miss Stephens smells like finding a dead cow in the toilet room and cutting it open and climbing into the grainy insides of it.
The workers who built the wooden buildings around Henry Larson’s sanatorium had to begin their project three times. The first time, a fire took down their work. The second time, they held a strike for accident insurance. The newspaper headlines contained a lot of jokes. Before the issue was settled a group of people came in the night to steal a large amount of wood, and no one was ever able to find out where the wood had been taken, or if it was used.
What about the smoke stays in the wood after the clouds of smoke have gone. The clouds swept the wood walls and escaped through the open ceiling. The walls disappeared and the supports came down. All the wood was replaced but the replacement wood smells like clouds of smoke. The women stay in the wood like the smoke stays in the wood. The smoke stays in the wood even after the smoke and the wood are gone.
Mrs. Hines thinks about her husband and her doctor. If she were married to her doctor, she would be at home in bed. She would be doing leg exercises for a new red dress she bought for a cocktail party. She would invite other doctors and their wives to leave their children at home and eat complicated hors d’oeuvres that would challenge the woman she is now, hors d’oeuvres she can hardly imagine.
On 04 February 1946 a Tuesday Ward 4 is a wood building with 18 ladies resting and 12 babies. 5 ladies and 1 baby go home. 5 ladies and 5 babies arrive. 18 ladies eat 16 dinners. 18 ladies take medications.
Mrs. Belden had been enamored with the other women when she first arrived. Mrs. Green had the smallest upturned nose of anyone Mrs. Belden had met. Mrs. Eastfeld laughed like a young man, and Mrs. Ipson read science magazines to herself in a whisper. Mrs. Roper had a fishbowl of chocolates beside her bed and gave them out whenever anyone began to cry. In less than a week, the women began to seem essentially the same, like other people’s children. She called Mrs. Eastfeld by the wrong name. She called Mrs. Green Charlotte. She was going to name her baby Charlotte. She called Miss Eason and Mrs. Kuiper Charlotte, too. She worries she will see her sons and be struck dumb.
A visitor brings Mrs. Carson a hinged box of crochet needles and a bag of yarn. He shouts at the nurse who tells him these items are not allowed, and then he goes quietly into a room to talk the issue over with another nurse. Mrs. Carson wheels herself over to the door. By the time the visitor leaves, Mrs. Carson is allowed to crochet under supervision. Some women join the nurse who is watching her. Mrs. Carson passes the needles around.
On 05 February 1946 a Tuesday Ward 4 is a wood building with 18 ladies resting and 16 babies. 1 lady holds 2 babies. 4 ladies go home. 14 ladies eat 15 dinners. 14 ladies take medications. 5 ladies make 4 ducks, 4 booties, ½ bonnet, 1 bib, 1 potholder, and 2 circles.
Henry Larson’s sanatorium has already been marked a historic building. This is less because of its age than because it is tremendous. The historic society donated a sign that explains how the spire is a symbol of hope for its patients. The sign does not mention any instability in the foundation. It says that the sanatorium has been providing quality care for generations and will continue to provide it for generations to come.
Mrs. James smells like stale cigarette smoke. Mrs. Arlington smells like men’s cologne and whisked raw eggs. She still has flour on her face. Mrs. Reeves smells like twenty puppies were born in a bathtub and she tried to clean up the mess with bleach and her bare hands. Then she vomited, and felt embarrassed, and tried to clean that up too.
What about the women go into the stitches to make the yarn into usable items. The women stand up, sit down, drop their needles, and stop stitching for long periods of time, but items still form under their hands, and each is strong and also soft. The women are wooden and awkward. They stitch like their wrists and elbows are nailed. They have no softness to put into the stitches, but the items are soft, and some might be used.
A visitor brings Mrs. Edgar a book on decorating cakes, even though she requested the book she had been reading before she came to the sanitarium. In it, a pregnant woman waits for her husband to return from a war. She works to fix the nursery and watches out of the nursery window, seeing many bright flashes of men who are not her husband. The seasons and the fashions the men are wearing change. She decorates the nursery for eighty years. Her husband has still not come home from the war. Her baby has still not been born. She waits in the nursery to this very day. It is a ghost story.
Mrs. Flint used to crochet to calm her mind. Now the thread running over her right forefinger makes the hair all over her body stand up in spines. She sneaks the needle to bed and crochets one endless round, feeding soft pink yarn into one loose dot until she falls asleep. In the morning she will ball it up and slip it in the bag with Mrs. Carson’s ducks, and no one will notice because the bag will never be opened again.
What about the wood lets the water drip through. The wood swells with rain and begins to drip. The nurses put buckets underneath. The nurses are always putting buckets underneath. There are also cracks in the foundation where the rain seeps up. Men come to patch the foundation up. They do a poor job. There are always buckets sitting around. Have the women also done a poor job. What about the women cannot be patched up.
On 06 February 1946 a Tuesday Ward 4 is a wood building with 14 ladies resting and 14 babies. 1 lady holds 2 babies. 10 ladies and 11 babies arrive. 24 ladies eat 20 dinners. 24 ladies take medications. 24 ladies lie in 24 beds for 2 or 3 hours and 0 ladies sleep.
Mrs. Hatchet lies in bed feeling her abdominal muscles. They are very thick and strong. She uses them to pull her pelvis toward her ribcage and make her body a basket. She spreads the empty interior of her basket until her body was a room. The force of her effort pulls the other women from their beds and they shuffle worriedly around the walls like children with fears they are too embarrassed to name. It takes a long time for them to exhaust themselves. By the time they do, Mrs. Hatchet is large enough to fit all of them in. They crawl under her hands and lay their heads on their thighs. She combs their hair out with her fingers while they shut their eyes.
KATY GUNN is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama. Her first book, Textile School, will be published by the Lit Pub in 2014.