by Ashley Smith
The following story is based on the true events that occurred before the 1877 fire at the Carrington Asylum.
It certainly was not the first time that she had threatened the place. Only last week, during her bathing hour, Mary Ann had screamed straight into Cynthia’s face, “I’m going to do it! I’m going to burn this motherfucker down!” Afterwards, she’d had a slight feeling of remorse. Cynthia was actually one of the nicer nurses on the ward. She’d never stepped out of line the way some of the others had. She just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Poor, Cynthia.
Regardless, Miss Mary Ann B. Fortune meant what she said this time. The dreaded isolation within her cell had to come to an end. The only company she knew was that of the plate of undistinguished slop shoved in her direction at 8 am, noon, and 5 pm like a clockwork. Mary Ann had grown so accustomed to the near silence and seasonal lighting shed from the nearby window that she’d begun to manifest an internal clock in which she could nearly predict the moment that the door at the end of the corridor would swing open and the food trolley wheels would squeak their way down the narrow hallway.
She’d mulled over the reasons. Was it the monotony that had actually driven her to the near point of insanity? Or was it the dreadful scream of neighbouring patients at midnight as they were jacketed and escorted to the basement? Mary Ann had once suffered from severe nightmares. She would wake in the wee hours of the night screaming and sweating, sometimes bleeding from her shoulders where her sharp nails had dug so deep into a self-offensive embrace. Within four months at the asylum, Mary Ann’s nightmares had subsided; soon after, the hygiene nurse discovered the etching near the floor of her cell that read, “Sleep yields no fear. These walls contain all the dread one will ever know”.
Mary Ann knew how to walk the line in this place. She knew where and with whom to bite her tongue to avoid a midnight visit from Lars. Lars had a reputation for his brute strength and an empty soul. Mary Ann reckoned that the 20 years employed at the asylum would damn right steal the soul from anyone, she couldn’t exactly blame him. Only last week on her way to the bathroom, she spotted Lars out on his cigarette break under the front tree. She could have sworn she caught a glimmer in his eye that indicated the bit of heart he had left in him. Her absolute mortification towards the man was only gently outweighed by her deep sorrow for him.
She had waited long enough. The time had come, she knew it was right. She was to begin her own personal revolution to free herself from this prison. She had no idea where she would end up, but it would surely be a place free of torture and belittlement and mania.
In the visiting hours three weeks prior, Mary Ann had been released to the gardens to enjoy a smoke with her brother. Arno was sweet. He was the only one who had managed through the years to continue on with regular conversation and behaviours. He never visited with superficial gifts. Her mother had made the mistake only the year before. She handed the pearly parcel to Mary Ann with a dreaded look of sympathy and sadness, which bewildered Mary Ann; wasn’t her mother the sole decision force behind her confinement? Mary Ann opened the package to find a shiny new fascinator, reminiscent of her heydey at the races she was sure. Her mother was so kind. She really shouldn’t have. It was then that Mary Ann actually lost her grip and awareness; the world around her faded to black inward and her inner ear began to swell with the haunting sound of accelerating eagle wings. She took the fascinator and delicately attached it in her short stringy hair. She looked up slowly and meticulously right into her mother’s eyes and slapped her across the face as hard as she could. Mary Ann doesn’t remember much afterwards. She still couldn’t recall if she had passed out immediately or been swiftly tranquillised by one of the staff.
Arno had not been there that day, but surely he’d heard the stories. Nonetheless, on his next visit, there was no mention of the incident. He and Mary Ann enjoyed their conversation of Edgar Allen Poe and Eccles Cake.
On this past visit, Arno had seemed a bit more jubilant than usual. Mary Ann reckoned he had finally found some decent sex. He was always involved with the most humdrum of girls. As the two of them strolled under the canopy of trees, Arno passed Mary Ann his pack of matches to light her cigarette. He was so engulfed in his recap of current events outside the Asylum, that his usual instinct to reach back for the matches did not register. Mary Ann slipped the matches into her brassiere and took a long distracting drag from her cigarette, nodding in submissive agreement into his opinion on the foreign trade.
Since that day, the matches had not left the underside of her breast. Mary Ann had actually developed a slightly obsessive compulsiveness about them, feeling for their whereabouts nearly every five minutes. It was for this very moment that she had been musing over since that day in the garden with Arno. The pale half-light from the high-moon left just enough light into her cell to find her bearings with the matches. At 2 AM on September 20, 1877, with a confident and sure hand, Mary Ann B. Fortune struck her match of death. The immediate gleam from the flaming match instinctively widened her eyes in the dark cell. She held the flame close to her face for a moment before she tossed it to the opposite corner of the wooden cell. Mary Ann sat calmly on the floor, arms wrapped around her bent knees watching the flame erupt into a violent and hungry fire. As the smoke began to fill her cell and escape out the assistance window, Mary Ann took a deep long breath, closed her eyes and accepted the destiny of Miss Fortune.
On the early hours of the morning on 20 September 1877, the entire first floor of the East Wing of Carrington’s Asylum was lost to the historical fire. All but one patient were able to escape safely. The only casualty listed in the Auckland Star was Mary Ann Fortune.