Mary: An Excerpt from “The Prisoner of Hell Gate” by Dana I. Wolff



Brothers she had once, but none so suffocating as this Brother.
It is a stifling September night. The summer does not relent. Damp- ness prevails, as always, but at this time less from the river and more from the mugginess that weighs on everything. It penetrates the very bricks,

their crumbling mortar spongy to the touch.
The lettuces in the greenhouse sag under it. Under its weight, the

shreds of old window canopies hang from desolate buildings like the fingers of discarded gloves.

More worrisome, the human souls who share her island float over the disused pier, glowing in the night, and she is their only witness. They yawp yawp yawp, chittering for help.

As if. They are long past earthly assistance.

To the west, thunder rolls, mocking the skyscrapers that in her time cropped up across the river like mushrooms. Sometimes she wonders whether they will be left to rot one day by those who now inhabit them, as all mortal people once abandoned her island. Every effort of man, she thinks, is but the scratch of a broken stick in eternal clay.

Just look! Weeds grow between floorboards of the gymnasium. Rust eats the iron hinges of boiler house doors. Long ago, her unhappy cottage rotted into the soil. Today, rats bathe in the puddles of its old depression.

She traps them sometimes for supper, which is only right, since she freed them in the first place.

“Mary,” Mr. Cunningham, the medical supply clerk, once persisted, “have you seen who opened that cage?”

“He was dead, Doctor.” She called them all doctor then. “Buried him, I did.”

But she had not. She had concealed the rat in her apron—the apron they gave her for work in the admitting ward. Concealed him and freed him in the woods with the others.

They were white, the original pack, white as any nurse’s starched uni- form. Now, many generations later, their colors run from nut-brown to dull black. They have their warrens under the leaves, where the forces of nature cut fissures in the schist of the forest floor. Also, no more than a few dozen live under the warped gymnasium floorboards. There is not enough natural food to sustain more than that, and they will not venture nearer her sleeping quarters. They know enough to keep their distance from her, and she sets her traps far from where she usually rests her head.

The thunder nears. It rattles loose windowpanes in what remains of the vast hospital.

Without breaking stride, she walks through the pitch dark, accus- tomed to it. Even up and down stairs without touching the loose rail- ing. Her gait is lumbering, unfeminine. Everyone always said so. It matches her guttural voice, like a mumble from the beginning of sound, from deep within the earth. Though she spoke when there were people around, few ever heard her. Now she sometimes calls into the empty rooms just to register the echo, to affirm her own tenacity.

She measures the passage of time only by the height of the choking vines, once kept at bay, now running riot. And by the changing skyline across the way.

When lightning strikes the bent rod atop the old foghorn tower, she grunts aloud, thinking maybe Mathilde will hear her—Mathilde, whose hatred burns so hot and strident. Next to it, Mary’s bitterness throbs like a dull ache. No less intense, only of a different texture.

She leaves the building and walks down to the pebbly shore, follows it along as the rain starts to fall in fat drops, hissing through tree leaves.

The island has the shape of an amoeba. She traces its outline with her path, callused feet insensible to the sharp rocks and broken bits of iron and twigs and thorns.

When the lightning flashes again, she sees more ghostly forms, mostly women and children. They lie atop submerged pebbles, river water flut- tering what remains of their clothing the way breeze stirs the frayed wings of a decaying moth. The sight of them no longer surprises her—not even their charred and blistered faces, their stump fingers, their pleading stone- dead eyes.

Is that water or trapped air or fistfuls of posies bulging their pockets? She may never know. They lie beyond her reach.

Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down.

Fire always factors into life’s most plaintive moments, does it not? No matter whether it comes from outside or within.

And there is always blackness, too.
“Mary,” calls Mathilde through the wind-driven rain. “Mary!”
“I’m here.”
“This happened not by accident. Men it was did this. Men.” Mathilde harries her all the way along the path in the muddy woods

and through the door and up the steps and down the hall and into the old laboratory, where she stops. Blue lightning illuminates in flashes the damp dusty room, and she sees George A. Soper standing there, imperi- ous. Stiff like his instruments.

“Leave me alone, Mr. Soper.” The only one she will not call doctor. “Leave me alone or I’ll take out your eyes with this here—”

She clutches the sturdy carving fork in her fist, eighteen inches long, the tines sharpened. She had it in hand when they first pursued her, and she will never let it go.

“Now, Mary,” says Soper. “By one means or another, I’ll have that sample.”

“You won’t!” She screams and charges him. But he is gone, long dead. The points of the fork bury themselves in the wooden cabinet. Its shaft twangs, vibrating at a high frequency.

She outlived Soper—has long outlived all those who strapped her down and had their way with her.

Ring around the rosie. A pocket full of posies. Ashes! Ashes!

Yet he haunts her still.
The rain presages something. She feels it.
She squeezes a drop of water from her hair into her palm and licks

what tastes like vinegar. Acid. It eats the island hardscape. The world changes but she does not. The world ages. She maintains.

Sometimes—rarely nowadays—men visit the island. Never to stay. Only to check on things or to snap pictures. She hid from them all these years, but must she forever?

The storm is passing. It leaves behind the scent of electricity and rot- ting fish. And a sense that something is different this time, her environ- ment altered. No living person stands across from her in the dark laboratory, yet the man’s terrible presence persists longer than it ever has. Soper.

“He’s coming for me,” she says aloud.
“No,” whispers Mathilde into her left ear. “You are coming for him.”


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