1958 (three years forward)
From the road, most people who drove by might have thought the sprawling building was simply one of the many lodges that were nestled throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains. But their assessment would be several decades out of date. The sign had been taken over by wild rhodrodendron, and since the administration of the Asylum preferred maintaining a low profile, the plants had been encouraged to grow. Behind the lodge building hidden from the street view were four newer buildings with a much more utilitarian appearance. These were the medical wings where the patients’ were housed and behind those, recessed even deeper in the woods was wing number 5, called by the few people who knew it existed as the Madden Wing, in commemoration of Reverend Charles Madden whose financial donation made its construction possible.
Most strangers thought they’d passed yet another lodge, one more run down then the others in the area, so they seldom bothered to stop. The locals knew that it was really the local mental asylum, but almost no one that it was also a prison where the Followers of Christ sequestered their mentally ill, their dissidents and the occasional Fallen Follower whose soul had been lost to Satan.
Miriam Atkins came to the quiet mountain village of Foster Flats just a few miles from Black Mountain with the insights of a local. After all, this had been her home for the first seventeen years of her life, and her mom’s home for over sixty years. Still, Miriam was surprised to find herself back at Foster Flats. Her life, which had been going as planned, had suddenly taken a sharp and unpredictable twist, one from which Miriam was still reeling. She’d graduated with honor from Woodruff School of Nursing as one of the youngest in her class. On top of that, her senior year she met and married the man of her dreams – Eric Atkins, an up-and-coming enlisted man. Within a year she was pregnant with Matty. His full name was Matthew but such a tiny, precious bundle of God’s spirit wasn’t quite ready for such a long name. They were living just off the Army base in Camp Lejeune where Eric was in training when Miriam’s life path took the sharp hairpin turn. The officer delivered the letter at 3:33 pm on March 3rd. From that moment on, Miriam developed a passionate dislike for the number 3. The short letter, written on crisp white paper with the official letterhead of the commanding officer, informed her that Sergeant Eric Winslow had been killed in a freak accident during a training maneuver.
Suddenly, Miriam found herself with a newborn baby, in a harsh military town with few friends and little support. And just when she felt that life couldn’t get much worse, a second letter arrived, this one from Alice Grissom, her mother’s long time next-door neighbor informing her that Mama Winslow had suffered a minor stroke. In a matter of a few days, Miriam Atkins packed up her belongings into a U-Haul truck and headed home to Foster Flat with Matty beside her, a steady stream of tears leaking from her brown eyes, and muttering a prayer to God for guidance.
She hoped that between her government check and her mother’s social security they’d be able to make it financially but Mama Winslow’s medical bills kept climbing, so as her mother slowly recovered from the stroke, Miriam looked for a job where she could use her nursing training. Unfortunately, in such a small town, the choices were limited. In fact, the only real choice was Dix’s Home for the Mentally Ill. Of course, none of the locals called it that. Everyone simply referred to it as the Asylum.
Miriam had been reluctant to turn over Matty’s care to her partially invalid mother, but Mama Atkins assured her that she could handle him just fine. “I’m sure Matty and I will get along. What a perfect way for me to get to know my grandson. Besides, if I need help, Alice is just next door. Shoot, nowadays she spends as much time over here as she does at her house. She calls this her home away from home. Remember, we Christians need to stay flexible, ‘cause we never know where God might need us. You just go talk to that Dr. Allen. You’ll know whether that’s where you’re meant to be God’s servant next.”
It was one of her favorite sayings that Miriam had grown up with, though lately she felt sore from all the stretching God had been putting her through. But she’d learned long ago that it was a waste of time to argue with her mom when she’d made up her mind and by the set of Mama Winslow’s chin, it was clear her mind was made. So, Miriam accepted the position at the Asylum, even though the pay was far below what she should have been able to receive, given her training and experience. But the administrator, Dr. Nick Allen, had been a much better negotiator than Miriam. He’d already learned about her mother’s condition and about Matty, and he knew the limited opportunities for a nurse in the area.
Dr. Allen looked over her resume through tired, weepy eyes. It looked like he was about to cry, Miriam thought at the time, but later realized that was his general appearance, due in large part to the long hours and many headaches that came with his job. When she commented that the starting salary he suggested was far lower than she’d anticipated, he replied. “Yes, I know. Times are tough all over, and that’s certainly true for our humble facilities here. Look at it this way. When you consider that the next closest facility where you might find a job is all the way in Asheville, and by the time you take in the commute time and expense, will you really be doing any better? Besides, the patients in the Madden Wing could really benefit from your care.”
It was that last statement that sealed the deal. Maybe her mom was right. The Lord did work in mysterious ways. Maybe He was guiding her back home not only to help her mother and her son, but also to serve a greater purpose with the patients who called the Madden Wing home.
“May I see where I’ll be working, Dr. Allen?”
“Sure you may, Nurse Atkins… on Monday when you start work,” Dr. Allen quickly replied as he slid the contract in front of her. Noticing her shocked appearance, he continued. “We’ve an exterminator in there at the moment, so it’s really not a good time for a tour. Now, if you’ll just sign these papers, we’ll get you on the payroll.”
And so it began. The following Monday, she met the day nurse, Ms. Rachel Rankin, a middle-aged woman with salt and pepper hair tied back in such a tight bun that Miriam thought it must give her a constant headache along with a mild slanting of her eyes. To say that Nurse Rankin’s demeanor towards Miriam was cold would be an exercise in understatement; an attitude that carried on to their first official meeting where Rankin laid down the law.
No sooner had Miriam sat down in the straight back oak chair, eliciting a grating creak from its joints, then Nurse Rankin looked over her reading glasses at Miriam with a frown and shake of her head.
“Let’s get one thing straight, right from the get go, Nurse Atkins. We currently have 12 patients here in the Madden Wing. We had 12 patients a year ago, we’re likely to have the same 12 patients a year from today. We have room for four more patients though I don’t expect any others at present. In other words, these are chronic care patients. There’s little hope of their recovery. They don’t expect it, their families don’t expect, it’ll be a lot easier for you if you don’t expect it. Our job is to keep them reasonably comfortable, keep them from hurting themselves or each other, and keep them out of trouble until the good Lord decides to take them home. Is that clear?”
A whirl of responses spun around in Miriam’s head, but before she could decide whether to articulate any of them, Nurse Rankin continued.
“We have two orderlies that work in the Madden Wing. Part of their compensation is room and board, so at least one of them should always be available to you. Their names are Jeremy Knight and Isaac Irons. Jeremy is a Negro but he knows his place. Neither of them are particularly bright, but both are strong and will follow orders if you stay on them. Don’t coddle them, Nurse Atkins. It’s taken me over a year to put the fear of God in them, and I don’t need some wet-behind-the-ears nurse ruining my hard work. Do you understand?”
Miriam opened her mouth to ask a question, but before she could get it out, Nurse Rankin continued on her roll. “In just a minute I’ll walk you through the ward and give you a brief rundown on the patients. They’re still restrained in their rooms, and I’m sure they’re not too happy about it. I normally let them out around 7:30 after I’ve had a cup of coffee, but I knew you’d be coming in so I didn’t bother. Ready?” Rankin stood up and walked out the room without waiting for a reply. Miriam took a deep breath, said a silent prayer for patience and understanding, and followed behind.
The two nurses walked down the hall towards the entrance to the Madden Wing. The walls were painted utilitarian gray with the standard black and white checked linoleum floor. No expense had been spared to make the Madden Wing look as sparse and unappealing as possible. The entrance was marked by an oak desk — a duplicate of the one in Nurse Rankin’s office that looked like it had been donated by the local school system. In fact, all the furnishings looked like throwaways. Behind the desk, was a black man dressed in green scrubs, reading an outdated issue of National Geographic, which he quickly tossed onto the desk when he heard Nurse Rankin clear her throat.
“Jeremy, this is Nurse Atkins, our new night nurse. You are to treat her with the same respect as me. If I hear otherwise, you’ll answer to me. Is that clear?”
“Yes’um, Nurse Rankin. That’s very clear. Don’t have to worry about me, none.”
“How are the in… patients?”
“Fairly quiet. A few complained about not getting their breakfast on time. Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Okay. Make note of the ones that complained and see that they get their breakfast last.”
“Yes’um. Will do.”
“Nurse Atkins, come with me.”
Nurse Rankin took a large set of keys from her pocket, and unlocked the door that led into the Madden Wing.
“I’ll give you a duplicate set of your own before you leave. Be sure to keep them on you at all times. Security is very important. Their limited freedom outside their rooms is a privilege, not a right. If anyone acts out, just let Jeremy or Isaac know and they’ll confine them to their room. We also have a padded cell if anyone blows up. It’s at the end of the hall.” Rankin waved one arm in the general direction.
“Ahh, here we are. This is Birdman’s nest….