A Part of Charlotte

by Andrea Goyan

New York State Lunatic Asylum at Utica


I lift my cotton nightgown to my knees, my bare legs exposed as the attendant helps me step inside the protection bed. That’s what she calls it, but other patients whisper its real name—the torture crib. She holds my hand, and I lie on my back. The wooden rounds poke through the thin mattress into my spine. My garment is arranged to ensure my modesty. I hold my breath as the lid is closed and latched. My heart races. I fight twin urges, one to gasp for air and the other, to scream. Neither grants me freedom from the box.

“There now, Ginny,” the attendant says, her voice sharp with the authority her position grants. “No one shall hurt thee, and thou shalt not hurt thyself.”

My name is Virginia, I think. My daughter is dead.

Her shoes click against the tiles when she leaves, taking the wan candlelight with her.

I close my eyes and hazard a breath. The color of night matches how I feel inside, we understand one another; it’s good to steep my lungs in its darkness. For a moment, I can almost forget where I am.

The moment passes.

If I bend at my elbows, my fingertips graze the lid above me. There is no room to even cross my arms over my chest because my elbows strike the sides. It is like being encased in a coffin above ground or sleeping in the mouth of an inanimate monster. I rock from side-to-side, as much as the limited space allows. My body strikes against the bars with every movement—first the right side, then the left, over and over again. Tomorrow, I will look like an overripe pear as I layer bruise upon bruise, but the pain keeps me awake. Refusing to sleep is why they locked me in their crib-bedstead to begin with. It prevents me from wandering the halls at all hours. Or, haunting them, as some nurses claimed.

“Sleep will cure you,” my doctor insists.

But sleep brings hours of forgetfulness. Awake, my memories are close.

“You cannot make me sleep!” I shout into the night.

From the bowels of the hospital, a lunatic howls.

“I don’t belong here. I’m not crazy,” I chant.

My husband is a good man. He would never consent to this, and when he hears of it, he will take me home.

“God is watching,” I whisper.

Then I remember. I lost my faith in God the night he took my Charlotte ten days before her thirteenth year.

Charlotte, my first-born and only daughter. Whether I wander the asylum floors or am locked in a box, I continue to relive her last days. That abyss is part of me now. I see her bed covered with blankets that seemed to swallow her whole. Charlotte. Her face flushed with fever. Brown eyes locked on mine, glassy and vacant as she took her final breath. My baby. I wiped her brow and cradled her until her skin grew cold. Her flesh hardened in my embrace, then softened again. I held her through it all. I’d still be there, but they would not allow it.

“Enough,” Edmond scolded as he dragged me off her. “You’re alive. Our sons need you. We must lay our daughter to rest.”

He locked me in our bedroom when they took her away, despite my screams. I wanted to be with my baby.

I pounded on that door until my arms bled. My injuries presaged my current existence. Beatings from the nurses if I cry for my Charlotte. Hours of submersion in ice water when they deem me agitated. Wristlets and straitjackets to force obedience. It is difficult to tell where one injury ends, and another begins.

My husband is a good man. He meant me no harm when he consulted with the doctor, the same quack who failed to save my child.

They stood outside our bedroom’s open door and spoke as though I wasn’t there.

“She hasn’t left the room in two weeks,” Edmond said to him.

The response, “It’s the vapors.”

Men’s words. They drifted like moldy wet leaves through the fog in my head. Nonsense, part of a realm outside my grief.

“They do not understand,” I whispered to the wooden trinket box nestled on my lap.

My fingers traced the intricate inlaid pattern and lingered on the mother-of-pearl cartouche in the center.

“Mother-of-Charlotte,” I said. “No more.”

The men babbled on.

“She will not eat.”

“It isn’t normal.”

“Her boys need her.”

“It’s hysteria.”

I opened the lid and took out my cameo. The goddess Ceres. My husband gave it to me after Charlotte’s birth. “For the love a mother bears her child,” he’d said.

The artist carved a face too serene for one who’d lost a daughter.

“He didn’t understand your pain, but I do,” I said, pinning the brooch to my sleeve.

My husband had filled my trinket box with beautiful jewelry, but aside from the cameo, it all seemed dull and lifeless. I set aside the tray with his gifts, digging deeper into the box. Like all good treasures, the best lay buried.

I’d partitioned the bottom. Each section belonged to one of my children, but only Charlotte’s contained every one of her baby teeth. The others hadn’t yet lost all theirs. I pinched hers between my fingers and removed them one at a time, setting them onto the palm of my other hand.

“What are you doing?”

I hadn’t heard the men enter. I closed my hand.

“Are those teeth?” Edmond grabbed my shoulders and hoisted me to my feet. “Show me.”


He pried my fist open and slapped the contents from my hand. Baby teeth bounced like bits of hail across the floor.

“This has to stop,” he shouted.

A tiny molar stuck to my skin. I wouldn’t let Edmond get that one. I kissed the spot, pulled the tooth into my mouth, and swallowed. Its sharp edges hurt.

Love often does.

My name is Virginia. You can try to break me, but there’s nothing you can do in this lunatic asylum to make me forget. A piece of Charlotte will always be with me.

No one can take her away.

About the author

Andrea is a writer, actress, painter, and Master Pilates Teacher. Recent stories can be found in Dear Leader Tales, Luna Station Quarterly (issue 043), 365 tomorrows, Exhumed: 13 Tales Too Terrifying to Stay Dead, The Dark Sire, and Sirens Call Publications (issue 48). She’s an accomplished playwright. Her monologue “Goodbye” appeared in the Lockdown Monologue Festival 2020 at www.suki.tv. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, a dog, and two cats. Read more at AndreaGoyan.com or on Twitter @AndreaGoyan.

About the illustration

Archive photo from 1882. Unknown provenance.