“A hysterical girl is a vampire who sucks the blood of the healthy people about her.”
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
The first time the fit came over me it was as if I’d plunged into a deep well, and though my hands scrabbled for purchase on the slime-covered brick casing, all I did was sink farther into the murky dark. Everything had been extinguished: I was suffocated by the absence of light and sound. I must have screamed. I must have flailed about, my limbs shuddering so frightfully that Mother called for help. I must have lost consciousness, because when I opened my eyes the doctor was there, eyeing me gravely from beneath his white eyebrows.
I burst into tears anew, and this time I felt the sobs racking my body as if I were being tossed about in a gale on the high seas—it was that terrifying. The lack of control, the utter decline of my senses.
When the doctor slapped me, I fell silent in shock, and he told me that my emotions had gotten the best of me, that my delicate female constitution couldn’t handle so much education, that I had best withdraw for the rest of the semester and focus on more womanly arts: some light embroidery, perhaps, in preparation for my upcoming wedding.
I broke into laughter, because his explanation was so ridiculous it warranted nothing less. As if the prospect of my marriage could cure me. Every time I thought of the man my parents wanted me to marry—that horrible, stinking man who brought a fortune into Father’s hands, who I was supposed to submit to—it was enough to drive any woman to despair.
Hysteria, the doctor said.
A wave of sickness rolled through me, my stomach wanting to toss up all of its contents, but all I could do was gag and clutch at the bedclothes.
I was confined to my bedroom. The curtains were drawn, soft blankets were piled on top of me, the fire was built up so that the room fairly steamed with suffocating warmth. It was May, late spring in Massachusetts, and it was growing hot already. The doctor gave me asafoetida, and each time I smelled the horrid odor of his pill bottle I wanted to flee, but then he gave me something else, and it dragged my eyes shut and clogged my mind with thick fog that obscured all but the faintest of memories: outside Founders’ Hall, on the lawn, a shadow beside me.
No one visited. I was to be isolated, the doctor said. Once I thought I heard a commotion downstairs—I struggled awake from my drugged sleep thinking I had heard a familiar voice. But no one came. I watched the sun make its track across the sky through the crack in the blue velvet drapes, and I sweated in my flannel nightgown.
I had to leave this house. I could not marry that man. It was more than a silly girlish wish; it was a demand, raw and brutal, as if I were clawing myself out of an early grave. If hysteria was the way to get it, so be it.
Salt air, the doctor proclaimed, would cure me. I was taken to a sanatorium by the sea, where they locked me in an echoing room and did not allow me to rise out of bed for two weeks. I heard the wind blowing against the shuttered, barred windows, and I swam in and out of restless sleep. A nurse came several times a day and forced me to drink endless glasses of milk until the curdled stench of it lingered on my mouth even when I wasn’t drinking it.
The well had never seemed so long or so dark. In the middle of the night when I awoke, gasping, from nightmares, my hands reached for the walls and I was horrified to discover that they were real.
The day that I was allowed to rise out of bed I could barely believe it. The nurse unlatched the shutters and the strong summer sunlight came pouring into my room, and I saw for the first time that the walls were plastered white, and they were bare of all decoration.
The nurse handed me a card on which a schedule was written, and she explained to me that this was to be my regimen until I was recovered. The words blurred together on the card; I could not read the handwriting.
The nurse helped me out of bed, dressed me in a gray flannel robe, and slid thin slippers on my feet. Come with me, she said, and I walked on quivering legs out of my room and down a long empty hallway, the smell of salt in the air, until I came to a tiled room outfitted with a wooden bathing chair. I was made to sit in the chair, and another nurse came to assist the first one. They stripped me of my robe and nightgown and slippers, and before I understood what was happening they had turned the hose on me.
I shrieked at the frigid jet of water on my back. I scrambled off the chair to kneel on the floor, clutching my arms around myself. They hauled me back onto the chair and continued their water treatment. Cold, then warm, cold, then warm, until my teeth were chattering and I had no knowledge of which way was up or down.
She is at the beginning of her treatment, a man said, another doctor whom I did not recognize but was examining my naked, wet body with dispassionate dark eyes. I wanted to hide from him. She has much room for improvement, he said, and all I could do was stare in horror at his pink mouth framed between a bristly dark mustache and beard, and the wet flick of his tongue against his teeth.
For lunch that day they fed me steak—steak! A huge hulking piece of it, along with potatoes and bread and peas. It was so much food; my stomach protested as the nurse forced it down me, and then I lay there like a stuffed goose awaiting slaughter until the nurse returned in the middle of the afternoon with another glass of milk.
After that, they took me outside for the first time since I had arrived. The sanatorium was built upon a brown hill overlooking a rocky beach. In the distance I saw the froth of the sea breaking upon gray stones, as gray as the building where I was now imprisoned. Overhead, seagulls wheeled in the high blue sky, and the sun was hot as a furnace on my skin after those two weeks in the dark.
I was forced to walk back and forth across the hill, and as I walked I saw other girls in the windows of the building, their faces pressed close to the glass, all pale skin and wide eyes. Were we all hysterics? I wondered.
Day after day I woke, suffered the freezing water, shivered in my bed, ate my overpowering supper, and walked outside. My fits lessened in their severity. The doctor was pleased. He said I was coming back to myself, but in truth I only felt more deeply buried, as if the well was still being dug out beneath my feet and I was sinking inch by inch into the ground, and soon the circle of sunlight above me would disappear entirely.
At night I heard the other girls screaming.
Well, I had escaped my marriage, after all.
The only time I saw anyone other than the nurses and the doctor was during my daily forced march in the afternoons. Sometimes I glimpsed another woman walking her own lonely path on a different part of the hill, and sometimes we would look at one another across the distance, but we were so far apart I could never make out her expression. And often I looked at the windows of the sanatorium, seeking out the other inmates’ silent faces.
It was during the fourth week that I first saw her: a flash of red hair in the window, like a smudge of fresh blood against the glass. It startled me so much I paused in my pacing, but when I blinked, she was gone.
And then it was as if I could only see her out of the corner of my eye. When the nurse brought me my breakfast, there was a flare of red in the hallway that was quickly extinguished by the closing door. And once I could have sworn I saw her walking on the rocky beach below the hill, although I was almost certain that no inmates were allowed to go so close to the shore—they were afraid we would leap into the sea and drown ourselves.
Finally, one evening the doctor forgot to close my door all the way as he came into my room to speak with my nurse, and in the crack of that open doorway I saw her standing in the corridor. She was smiling at me! Her rosy cheeks and bright, shining eyes were like the sight of the sun after a long dull winter. She was dressed like me, in a shapeless gray nightgown, but her hair was a shocking shade of dark red, a slash of color amid the lifeless tints of the sanatorium. Something groaned to life within me, my mouth dampening, my skin flushing, and the girl raised her nose to the air as if she were a dog sniffing for an unusual scent.
And then she was gone, and the doctor was leaning over me, his hands painfully gripping my shoulder as the nurse pinned down my arms, and the doctor was saying, you’ve had a fit, you’ve had a fit.
I couldn’t breathe with their hands on me. I smelled smoke.
At last she came to me.
It was late, after midnight, in the silent period after the end of the other girls’ nightmares and before the pale sunrise lightened the windows. I awoke as soon as I heard the doorknob turn, and I sat up, the sheets tumbling into my lap. I saw a shadowy figure in the doorway, and at first I thought it was the nurse, but then she raised a hand to her lips and I knew it was her.
She closed the door behind her, and I wondered how she had managed to unlock it—perhaps she had stolen a key from the nurse. She crossed the tile floor in silence, and soon I could smell her. She was the scent of night air and the sea, brisk and vivid, and when she reached her hand out to touch mine I was startled by how cold her fingers were.
“Hello,” she said, and it was as if her rich voice was the first thing I’d ever heard in my life.
“Why are you here?” I asked. I couldn’t remember the last time I had spoken out loud, and the words felt unfamiliar in my mouth, like pebbles knocking against my teeth.
“You are like me,” she said, and I heard the smile in her voice.
“What do you mean?”
“Hush,” she said, and her cold hand moved up my arm and cupped the back of my head, her fingers stroking my hair, which had been plaited into two thick braids as if I were a child still. She gently pulled my head back, making my throat arch. My body went slack beneath her touch, as if she had turned me into clay to be shaped by her own hands. She lowered her mouth to my throat.
Her lips were wet against my skin, sending a trail of shocks through my body as if she had jolted me awake at last.
She came to me like this night after night, and every day I lived only for her return.
The doctor did not believe I was improving. Indeed, when I saw myself in bathroom mirror after they drenched me with cold water in the mornings, my face did seem overly flushed, my eyes maniacally bright, as if I were seeing things no one else could see. When the doctor frowned at me, I broke into a high, keening laugh. He knew nothing. He knew less than nothing.
He took me to a chamber on the second floor that I had never been to before, and the nurses strapped me down to a chair outfitted with wires and strange patches that stuck to my sweating skin, and they said, this will stimulate your nerves, bring you back to yourself.
My body jerked the first time they sent the electric shocks through me. It was as if someone had pinched the very deepest insides of me over and over, and it made me whimper with the unnaturalness of it. This could not fix me.
“This is torture,” I said to the nurses, and they looked at me with huge eyes as if I had never spoken aloud before.
They shocked me again, and when I was weeping openly, my body quivering involuntarily, they bundled me into a wheelchair and took me back to my room, where they locked me in, the grinding of the mechanism in the door echoing in the high empty ceilings.
Shadows flitted across the wall from the window as the terror of that room gradually subsided. I knew now what this treatment would do: It would kill me.
For supper they brought me a thick steak and green peas, and the peas tasted like nothing, but the steak bled onto the plate. The sight of it made my stomach growl, and when the nurse had finished cutting it up for me, I attacked it like a savage. I wanted to lick the blood off the dish, but I restrained myself, because I saw the nurse eyeing me askance.
I was still civilized, even if they were not.
That night when the red-headed woman came, I asked her, “Why are you here?”
“For you,” she said, her voice a purr in my ear, her cool fingers soothing away the lingering pain of the electric shock treatment.
“But why?” I asked, and pushed her back so that I could look into the dark of her eyes.
“You are not like the others,” she said, and she climbed into my bed and pressed the length of her body along mine.
I knew she was right, and a cold certainty settled upon me. “What are we?” I asked as I stroked her back through the thin cloth of her nightgown.
She did not answer at first. Instead she moved her mouth across my neck again, her teeth nipping at the soft spot in my throat beneath which my pulse quivered as if to leap into her, as if to become one with her.
“We are alive,” she said at last, and when she raised her head to look at me it was as if her eyes glowed in the dark, so alive was she, so alive was I when she was near.
One night she told me, “There is a way to be free from this place. There is a cure.”
“What is it?” I asked her, my heart beating steadily beneath the cool press of her fingertips.
“It is not painless,” she warned me. “You must be sure.”
“Sure of what? That I wish to be free from this place?” I laughed sharply, the sound echoing in the high ceilings, and I abruptly silenced myself for fear that the nurse would come.
The moments ticked by in quiet. I heard footsteps down the hall, but then nothing.
She shifted beside me, her fingers gliding up to my neck. “Are you sure?” she whispered in my ear.
I had never been so sure of anything in my life. “Yes,” I said. “Let me be free.”
Her teeth were blades against my throat—a swift, precise slice, and then her mouth, cool and damp, closed over the cut and she drank me in. My back arched; I was in shock.
“What is this?” I whispered. Her body was heavy on me, her hands holding me down, her mouth consuming the liquid life of me, and I shuddered to feel her draining me, the pain of it mingled with a drunken kind of ecstasy.
My eyes fluttered closed. My body went rigid, then limp. Still her lips were on my throat, still she was pressed close to me, still she drank, and I was astonished there was so much blood in me, astonished that I could give this much and still be alive, and then at the last moment before I was certain that the world would drop out from beneath me, she moved aside and said, “Now, you.”
I forced my eyes open. Her face hovered above me in the dim light, so beautiful and so—alive—so filled with me, her eyes bright as the moon, her mouth dark and wet. She pulled me up to her, my head light as a feather, and she pressed my mouth to her neck and said again, “Now, you.”
Her skin was warm for once, flushed with what she had done to me. I opened my mouth weakly; I had no strength left; she had taken it all.
But I could smell her. I could smell the essence of myself in her, and it gave me a jolt of energy. I bared my teeth. They were not as sharp as hers. I bit down, her skin pliable and soft, and she gave a low, guttural cry as I clumsily tasted her flesh. She was salty and hot, the meat of her like butter on my tongue, the blood of her a thick warm syrup. I licked her up, each drop humming electric through me, waking me up until I was leaning over her, her arms flung out above her head, my mouth pressed to the wound on her throat, and she was laughing, the sound of her voice as rich as cream.
Wings, smoke, transformation. We slipped through the barred windows, our bodies lofted on the buoyant seaside draft.
The moon was full, its round, white, pockmarked face bright and eyeless above us. The sea smelled of salt and fish, briny and alive. All this time I’d been here, but this was the first time I’d come so close to the ocean, close enough to feel its spray as I approached the shore. We swooped over the silvered water, the saltwater spume roiling below as the waves dashed against the rocks.
Wings, smoke, transformation. I could go anywhere.
Malinda Lo is the critically acclaimed author of several young adult novels, most recently the duology Adaptation, a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of 2013, and Inheritance, winner of the 2014 Bisexual Book Award. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA, a project that celebrates diversity in young adult books. She lives in Massachusetts with her partner and their dog, and her website is www.malindalo.com.