FROM THE JOURNALS OF DR. LESTER SHEEHAN
MAY 3, 1993
I haven’t laid eyes on the island in several years. The last time was from a friend’s boat that ventured into the outer harbor, and I could see it off in the distance, past the inner ring, shrouded in the summer haze, a careless smudge of paint against the sky.
I haven’t stepped foot on it in more than two decades, but Emily says (sometimes joking, sometimes not) that she’s not sure I ever left. She said once that time is nothing to me but a series of bookmarks that I use to jump back and forth through the text of my life, returning again and again to the events that mark me, in the eyes of my more astute colleagues, as bearing all the characteristics of the classic melancholic.
Emily may be right. She is so often right.
Soon I will lose her too. A matter of months, Dr. Axelrod told us Thursday. Take that trip, he advised. The one you’re always talking about.
To Florence and Rome, Venice in the spring. Because Lester, he added, you’re not looking too well yourself.
I suppose I’m not. I misplace things far too often these days, my glasses more than anything. My car keys. I enter stores and forget what I’ve come for, leave the theater with no recollection of what I’ve just seen. If time for me really is a series of bookmarks, then I feel as if someone has shaken the book and those yellowed slips of paper, torn matchbook covers and flattened coffee stirrers have fallen to the floor, and the dog-eared flaps have been pressed smooth.
I want to write these things down, then. Not to alter the text so that I fall under a more favorable light. No, no. He would never allow that. In his own peculiar way, he hated lies more than anyone I have ever known. I want only to preserve the text, to transfer it from its current storage facility (which frankly is beginning to moisten and leak) to these pages.
Ashecliffe Hospital sat on the central plain of the island’s northwestern side. Sat benignly, I might add. It looked nothing like a hospital for the criminally insane and even less like the military barracks it had been before that. Its appearance reminded most of us, in point of fact, of a boarding school. Just outside the main compound, a mansarded Victorian housed the warden and a dark, beautiful Tudor minicastle, which had once housed the Union commander of the northeastern shoreline, served as the quarters of our chief of staff. Inside the wall were the staff quarters – quaint, clapboard cottages for the clinicians, three low-slung cinder block dormitories for the orderlies, the guards, and the nurses. The main compound was composed of lawns and sculpted hedges, great shady oaks, Scotch pines, and trim maples, apple trees whose fruit dropped to the tops of the wall in late autumn or tumbled onto the grass. And in the center of the compound, twin redbrick colonials on either side of the hospital itself, a structure of large, charcoal stones and handsome granite. Beyond were the bluffs and the tidal marsh and a long valley where a collective farm had sprung up and then failed in the years just after the American Revolution. The trees they planted survived – peach and pear and chokeberry – but no longer bore fruit, and the night winds often came howling into that valley and screeched like cats.
And the fort, of course, which stood long before the first hospital staff arrived, and stands there still, jutting out of the southern cliff face. And the lighthouse beyond, out of service since before the Civil War, rendered obsolete by the beam of Boston Light.