“Sisters!” A beanpole of a girl tumbles forward, falling at Sister Sophia’s feet. “I am very wicked. I fear I cannot be saved.”
“Get up, child,” Sister Sophia says. “You should pray to the Lord to help you.”
The girl shakes her head, her blue eyes morose. Her skin looks sickly and yellow with jaundice. “He doesn’t hear me. I’m too lost. I’m a wicked, wicked girl.”
“The Lord hears all his children.” Sister Sophia crouches, her plump face soft and sympathetic. “What’s your name?”
The girl huddles on the floor, her dark braid hiding her face. “Stella. Oh, Sister, help me, please. The Lord comes to me in my dreams, and I beg him for forgiveness, but he never speaks.”
“It’s a hallucination from your medicine, you ninny,” the skinny nurse barks. Beneath her frilly white cap, her black hair looks limp and greasy. “The Lord does not appear to wicked girls.”
Sister Sophia rises, pulling Stella with her. “Come sit with me, Stella, and we will pray together.”
“This is your first time here, ain’t it?” The fat nurse notes my interest as Addie kneels at the bedside of a girl with bouncy cinnamon curls who lies on her back, eyes staring at the ceiling like a corpse. “That one was a wildcat when she came. Bit and scratched the matron. Wouldn’t know it now, would you? Won’t say boo to a goose!” She chuckles, and spittle hits my cheek. I resist the urge to wipe it away.
She gestures at the blond girl curtsying to Pearl. “That one says she’s engaged to a prince! Still does her hair real nice, just in case he comes to call.”
“They aren’t permitted visitors, are they?”
At the end of the row, several other girls are curled up, sleeping, beneath threadbare brown blankets.
The nurse shakes her head, double chin wagging. “Oh, no, they’re best kept away from normal folks. ’Specially the girls up here. They’re the ones what fought us when they came in or what don’t take their tea. They get extra medicine now. Gives a few of them right funny ideas, but keeps most of ’em quiet as mice.”
I work to keep the horror off my face. Mei heads down the second row of beds, taking the hands of a beautiful brown-skinned Indo girl who is swaying back and forth to music only she can hear. As she turns to Mei, I see the bruise blackening her right eye and the cut on her cheekbone.
“What happened to that girl?”
“Oh, she’s one of Brother Cabot’s favorites. Doesn’t usually put up such a fuss anymore.”
“His . . . favorites?” I echo uncertainly.
“He likes the pretty ones.” The nurse winks at me.
“Is that . . . common?” I ask, remembering lovely Mina Coste and Jennie Sauter and all the other girls from Chatham who have been sentenced here.
“Well, he ain’t the only one who comes by for inspections regular-like. The matron before this one tried to put a stop to it, you know, and got sacked for her trouble. It’s best not to get involved.”
Someone claws at my wrist with sharp nails, and I jump.
“Sarah Mae,” the nurse chides, and I look down into squinted green eyes. A freckled girl, no more than thirteen, stares up at me. The bottom of her skirt is muddy, and her cheek is smudged with dirt, her brown hair tangled with leaves. “Look at you. What were you doing on your morning constitutional?”
“Presiding over a funeral,” she says. “Will you say a prayer with me, Sister?”
The nurse tuts. “Not in this shameful state, missy! Only good girls what brush their hair and behave get to speak to the nice Sister,” she insists, hustling me down the row. “Loves animals, that one. Finds dead birds and buries them. Right creepy, it is.”
There’s a sudden clamor as the door opens and the matron reenters with a tea cart. “Teatime, girls!” she announces, smiling. “Line up!”
Several women bolt forward.
“They act like they’re starving.” But there doesn’t seem to be any food on the cart.
The nurse shakes her frizzy gray head. “They get two meals a day—porridge for breakfast and a hot supper. What those girls want is their tea.” I raise my eyebrows, and she cackles again. “Some of ’em get the shakes without it.”
“I see.” The girls each take a cup and hold it out to be filled—not poured from a teapot but ladled from a large, steaming soup tureen. Some of them cup their hands around the warmth and stare down at it for a moment first; others slurp greedily. The matron and the skinny dark-haired nurse watch as each girl drinks.
“Drink up, Mercedes,” the matron chides, and a woman obediently tilts the cup to her mouth, her throat working.
“Some of ’em will try and give it away, or pour it into the chamber pot if we ain’t careful,” the nurse explains. “Sneaky things.”
She goes on, gossiping about this patient and that, but I’m watching the girls at the end of the line. A few try to maneuver their way out of taking the tea, to no avail. One woman drops her cup on the floor, and the matron slaps her before handing her another. A tiny blonde holds the cup in her hands but refuses to drink, staring stonily as the matron exhorts her not to put up a fuss. Eventually, the matron nods at the skinny nurse, who pinches the girl’s nose shut. When she gasps for air, the matron pours the tea down her throat. The girl gags and coughs—and swallows.
“It’s time for us to move on to another ward,” Sister Sophia calls from the doorway.
I look around the room, committing the misery to memory, and I make a promise. I will make things better for these girls. They will not spend the rest of their lives here—not if I can help it.
Out in the hall, Sister Sophia takes my elbow. “Are you all right?” she asks, and I nod. I wonder if I look as horrified as I feel. “Pearl and Addie and I will go to the infirmary on the first floor. Why don’t you and Mei visit the second floor and then meet us downstairs? Mei will take the north wing, and you can take the south.”
My mind spins with questions. Will I know Zara when I see her? Will she recognize me? She must have some of her wits about her; she wrote me a note earlier this fall, urging me to seek out my mother’s diary. How drugged is she? Is her mind clear enough to help us, even if she’s willing?
There is a nurse posted just inside the door to the south wing. She’s a tall, broad woman bent over some knitting; she doesn’t bother to leave her stool when she sees it’s only me. “Most of the girls here are at work, Sister.”
“Work?” I ask. “What sort of work are they capable of?”
“Ah, you must be a new one.” The nurse smiles. She has an enormous red birthmark splotched over her right cheek. “This wing houses the patients who don’t give us any trouble. Some of them help with the kitchen garden, some down in the kitchens or the laundry. All supervised, of course, but you know what they say—idle hands breed devilry.”
“Of course.” It’s such a gloomy place; I don’t know how anyone keeps from going mad here. The scratched wooden floorboards warp and waver beneath my boots, and the hallway is dark save the nurse’s lamp, with moth-eaten curtains covering the windows and peeling paper on the walls. There are no paintings or plants to alleviate the sense of crumbling abandonment. A small dark shape—a mouse?—darts across the end of the hall, tiny nails scrabbling.