The Doll Sanitorium was written as a stand-alone short story suitable for readers ages 12 to adult, but the author has intentionally ended the piece as a cliffhanger. She hopes one day to expand the narrative, even broaden it into a book, as she continues to explore the journey of Catesby Wythe, a young teen whose spirit has been defeated by oppressive family dynamics, but who begins to find a sense of self after moving to the North Carolina mountains in the late 1920s.
Catesby’s mama, a speak-first kind of redhead, said she hadn’t married a Wythe only to be jilted. She was still lovely, light as a landing wasp.
She had that, and she had the other God-given thing: an angelic singing voice. “A harp in human form,” her husband had pronounced in a lost decade.
Indeed, she was only 32 now, and nothing to be thrown off. “Like yesterday’s wash water,” said her mother-in-law, shrugging her old-woman shoulders under her shawl. She spent her days tapping through the house’s cool downstairs wing, marshaling bitter delights over a bone-handled cane.
But the younger Mrs. Wythe was a creature of feeling. “Like common trash,” she sobbed, snuffing a Woodbine against a windowpane in the marital bedroom.
The room was on the second floor of the old homeplace, hot and high, and still she always kept the drapes open next to her side of the four-poster bed. Because of her boldness, the South Carolina sun had bleached out a section of the old wallpaper, and a column of bicycling Victorian ladies were fading slowly to ghosts. Outside the glass, the Wythe view went on: a rolling lawn on which lived a small dynasty of magnolia trees.
She was a modern woman, Mrs. Wythe, and could no more go back to being Miss Leona Mackle, upstart from the river bottom, than a cat could commence barking. So she accepted the money that her husband sent, mere breezes of aid at a libertine’s pleasure. She wrote out a change of address for the postmaster, packed up the better suitcases she could pull down from the attic, and boarded the train from Greenville with her daughter.
They were headed up the grade, over the state line into North Carolina. “To the mountains we go,” said Mrs. Wythe. The cooler air meant a cooling of shame — such was the course, Catesby felt.
Catesby was an only child of fourteen, early to bud and yet childlike. She was, well — bless her heart, the sweet thing — she was off, said some neighbors. They would say it every day but Sunday. And why shouldn’t she be not-quite-right? The girl’s mother was a Mackle, after all, and her father, for all his good blood, a confounding mystery. Why, he was twice his wife’s age! Active derangement was unbecoming in a settled man of means — though some claimed they had smelled the whiff of anarchy in him all along.
Until the scandal of her father’s departure — the facts thereof so surreal it required the more learned neighbors to explain to the commoner folk how things stood — Catesby was considered most interesting for an event she could not remember. She had been an older sister, ten years ago, to twin brothers. They were early babies — babies too frail to withstand the world. So it was told.
“This one was mighty green,” her mama would proclaim to company, poking a thumb at Catesby. “Four years the little princess, yes ma’am, and then lo and behold: not one brother but two! The Lord blessed us. And such handsome little men, for being so delicate — they had my red hair, you know, full heads of it. Even the nurses took on after them. Law, Catesby was green as grass.”
On her own theatrical cue, she would add: “But a jealous sister has nothing on influenza.”
By rights her papa, being quite old, should have been carried off instead. Grandmother, too. But no. Charles Augustus Wythe was already 40 by the time of the epidemic. And a man who laughs off a plague at 40 can devise a plan at 50 that will make the newspapers.
He was another person who required an audience in the pursuit of happiness. Between man and wife, that was the real likeness.
Had she been asked to judge their performances, Catesby would award her papa for his lordly drawl; for his incurious timing. He was a big, leisurely man attached to a carved pipe. This constant accessory suggested kinship to his old mother’s cane. Like her, he too had all the time in the world, though he brushed his own hours with kindliness. No blurted word or gesture suggested questionable breeding, far less future villainy.
“Why, to my recollection, Catesby doted on the poor infants,” he would counter. “She’s quite the little wisewoman, you know. The tranquil Madonna type, even at four.”
If the younger Mrs. Wythe felt the slight to her own maternal instincts, it did not deter her. She would change her locality overnight, she was that keen, but her impatient ways: never.
Now they were a family of two, hardly a family at all. “Posture, Catesby,” she said on the train, landing hard pinches to her daughter’s waist. “Keep a smile on, child.”
The bruise appeared just beneath Catesby’s rayon corselette. It was late spring, 1928, and undergarments were growing lighter.
In Asheville, they lived in a room near the top of Flora Sorrell’s Boarding House, a tall, square building faced handsomely with stone but made of brick in the back, as though only there did it mean business. On the first full day, Mrs. Wythe bought a cheap folding screen to separate the two iron beds; she chose the bed nearest the door, sequestering for herself the room’s tall wardrobe and its vanity with pitcher and washstand. She put herself that much nearer the shared water closet and bathtub, located a half flight down at the end of the hall.
In this fateful way, Catesby received the gift of the lone window. She sat on the hard little bed, away from all eyes, making fists of wonder. A real mountain loomed in, bold as a thrown shoulder. Mornings and evenings, it was one shade, hazy violet-blue, but during sunny hours, some magic changed it. By noon the mountain revealed a more insistent face beneath its veil of mist. It became a bulge of trees: a million or more in full green leaf. No one could ever count them.
Just before it rained, the trees turned featureless again, the mountain a black shadow, though the wind made the nearer leaves flicker inside out. Bewitched, they flashed silver at her. Catesby’s papa, back when she was small enough to sit in his lap, had read her Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
She took the sill as her own, and populated it with her pewter hand-mirror and hairbrush set and the remaining dolls of her old life: a celluloid family of four that could live in a girl’s pocket, and dear Marguerite, a rag doll with yarn hair, bright orange, glued to a head fashioned out of a wooden darning egg. Mama had made Marguerite. Besides being able to sing like a lark, she was also clever with a needle and thread.
Mackles were resourceful, said Mama. Wythes were not.
Catesby’s first days were a tumult of opposites: grabs of joy amid smothering. She no longer had her own silent bedroom, or the heat-drenched sleeping porch, or the shrouded back parlor, or the large lower cabinet in the butler’s pantry, or any of the hiding spots of the old homeplace. She no longer had the enchanted stone crawlspace of the disused icehouse in which to make her own world.
But on the boarding house’s rocking-chair porch, she snuck selfish breaths of the crisp, thin air. Unknown smells all by themselves were good news.
There was seldom an open rocker, but even so, Mrs. Wythe chattered without ceasing to the other residents of the boarding house. She joked giddily, she coquetted, excusing her daughter’s affliction and covering silences not yet established.
Milquetoast, she said later, about the ones who could not match her vivacity. She had expected such.
Mama went for brisk walks alone, disappearing around the street into the square. But first, “Don’t imagine for a minute I will not be back,” she would say, squeezing Catesby’s chin in her dainty freckled hand. “Meet my eyes, child.”
Then she sallied forth. She hunted down the druggist to write out her prescription nerve tonic, and placed an advertisement at the newspaper office stating that Mrs. Charles Wythe, trained soprano, was available to give singing lessons and take in fine mending. Mama stayed up late, pacing the hotel’s iron-gated skywalk, lighting one Woodbine from the end of another. When she came back to the room, Catesby heard her whispered swears curling under the folding screen.
She crammed her pillow over both ears. This was the time, right after midnight, when her own tears came unstuck. She could call for her father in the mountain dark, and, like the mountain, make no noise about it.
In the service kitchen, one afternoon, Mama showed Catesby how to fry eggs on the hot plate and boil water for tea. “This is how you manage without servants,” she said. Some days she was proud and laughing — the wave could not be predicted. “You’re half Mackle,” she reminded Catesby. “Mackles make do.”
But they ate back in their own room, not in the dining room with the rest. They chewed food lifted from Wythe china by the tines of Wythe silver, and they wiped their mouths with monogrammed Wythe linen napkins. Back home, they might have had candied sweet potatoes and buttered biscuits on the side, with lemon icebox pie to follow. Their vegetable now was olives spooned from a jar, purchased in a little deli on the square. Dessert was tinned almond cookies, crescents hard as beach shells. Sometimes the cookies were breakfast, too.
Once they were finished, Mama announced she would have a nap, and sent Catesby back to the kitchen to rinse off the Wythe plates and saucers and forks and teaspoons.
She would definitely be spanked if she broke anything, but spanked, as well, if she brought the lot of dishes, whole and rattling, back to the room and woke Mama up. Catesby waved the pieces in the air to dry them, fearing the rough common towel on its roller, and swaddled the china in the folds of her middy blouse. She divided the silver between her two skirt pockets. Then she walked it all back to their room in a bent-over shuffle, pretending the hall was a magic carpet.
Clever as a fairy, she lined up the Wythe valuables outside the door. She listened hard, and when Mama didn’t stir, she backed her steps away, turned, and tiptoed down the winding inner stairwell, through the lobby with its mismatched upholstered chairs and black wall telephone — guarded all day by the young, unattached ladies who lived at the boarding house — and opened the squeaking screen door onto the front porch, where she hoped a rocking chair might be open.
Well — one was. She gasped and hurried into it, smoothing her blouse and skirt. She was tall as a woman, tall like her papa, and her feet in their T-strap shoes reached the floor. But she wore her hair long and old-fashioned, down her back in two braids. It was dark brown, like her papa’s hair in old pictures.
Catesby rocked herself in the strange, clear sun. It was the warmest day since they had arrived in Asheville. A bumblebee hovered over a bush with showy balls of purple flowers. The leaves were curled and stiff, like plainer little sisters of the waxy magnolia leaves back at home.
From here, she could see a whole string of mountains, grander than the one that lived in her window but appearing much further away, riding the length of the horizon like some shadowy, hump-backed animal in a sea story. Catesby thought of the Loch Ness Monster: Hadn’t Papa used the word “Nessie,” telling that tale? Nessie — amusing and insignificant as one of his lap cats, or a family servant.
On the sidewalk, smartly dressed men and women passed by. So did other men and women, several degrees poorer-looking, wearing shirtsleeves or calico. Rough children shouted and chased one another. Girls her age strolled together, wearing big bows on their shingled bobs, their arms intertwined.
She looked so hard that some of these pairs of friends turned to look back at her, and she closed her mouth just in time. But many did not notice her at all. They laughed together at private, warm-weather jokes; they were closed and distant as any mountain.
“That’s a rhododendron you’re looking at,” someone said behind her. Despite her reverie, she had heard the door squeak. But she’d wished so dearly that a person wouldn’t come through it that for several moments she had assumed her wish granted.
She jumped in her seat, a beat late.
The visitor, an older boy, thought this was comic timing. He laughed politely. “I won’t bother you, Miss. I just came out to take the air.” He sat two rockers away, as though she were the dog who might bite.
He was an adult, maybe, but not alarmingly so — a long, skinny figure with a long jaw to match, and neatly slicked-back hair, light at the edges where the Brilliantine hadn’t touched. When Catesby failed to speak, he repeated, “Just taking the air.”
When the boy said “air,” it sounded more like “are.” He said, “I don’t aim to stay long.” It was an underbite that made his jaw look like that. Like George Washington. Like one of the resolute shorebirds in Wood’s Popular Natural History, another of Papa’s favorite books.
The boy’s voice came out high and swift. It didn’t descend at once in a multitude of spots, like Mama’s scorching twang. It was swift in one direction, like a river.
“My mama says this porch is part of our lodgings,” Catesby said finally. “The trouble is there aren’t enough chairs.”
He nodded and lit a Woodbine. “There you have it, Miss,” he said. “Miss —?”
“Wythe,” she said. “Catesby Eleanor Wythe.”
“A pleasure,” he said. “I’m John Israel. No middle name that I know of.” He laughed stagily, as though it were drawn out of him for the sake of observers — like characters laughed in the comic pages: “Ha, ha!”
Then he said: “You live with just your mama, don’t you? I’ve got a mama way out Turkey Creek Road, and a mess of little sisters. I’m head of the family, though — my daddy’s dead.”
“Mine’s not!” Her thumping heart rose to greet her hot ears and face.
But now — found so free — was no time to show tears. “He’s only away,” she said.
John Israel put up his hand. In this he was also swift. He held his hand in the air as though he were obliged to make this gesture every day. “Fair enough,” he said.
It was a strange thing for a person to do, Catesby thought. Like a man at war obliged to whip up a flag. Maybe girls all around him turned without warning from placid cows into charging bulls. He might have no acquaintance with tranquility.
He asked no more questions, but he told her good-naturedly about himself, about his ambitiousness that was thwarted only by his tendency toward laziness — a flaw he intended someday to conquer. “God willing, that is,” he said. “Ha, ha!” He murmured on, rather musically, gazing ahead or back to the porch floor. He stopped the rockers on his chair with his heels.
Her own rocking chair tortured a loose board on the down swing, but she kept on going. She might be an accompanist. John Israel said he was working the season at Cliff Haven Sanitorium, keeping the grounds, and staying at Flora Sorrell’s Boarding House because his car would not stand the drive to and from home every day.
Cliff Haven Sanitorium was where patients traveled from all over, “from all over this great big country,” John Israel proclaimed, to cure their consumption.
“Oh,” said Catesby. “The TB hospital. Mama says they come for the mountain air.”
“Believe me, I never get near ’em,” he said. “The patients, I mean. But I can see ’em, lying there on the sun porch — all lined up in their beds propped up. They ain’t allowed to move at all, so they might as well be dead. Spooky, right?”
He dared to cut his pale blue eyes at her. They were spooky, too. She nodded.
“The two eldest of my little sisters,” he began, “they used to set up their dolls in these little doll beds they had, in the middle of the day after chores, you know. I made those beds myself, out of scrap wood.”
“What are their names?”
“Ada and Patty Ray are just one year apart,” he said, “though Patty Ray is the taller one. Grace is the baby by five years. I’m the only brother.”
Catesby only nodded. She had meant the dolls’ names.
“Yes — and so — this was some years back. Ada and Patty Ray are big girls now, thirteen and twelve. But they used to line up their dolls in those beds all in a row on the porch, or under the big tree out front, or some other silly place. The folks at the hospital remind me of that.”
“It was a doll sanitorium,” said Catesby. She felt a flicker of anguish for her own Marguerite. Marguerite was living deep under her bed, mummified alive in a stolen bathroom towel. She had had to hide her from Mama after the terrible thing that had happened to her last week.
“I reckon so,” said John Israel. “A doll sanitorium! You’ve got it.” He winked straight in her face, appreciating her. Catesby smoothed her skirt over her knees and felt almost as though she would smile.
She missed her papa so dreadfully she was dizzy with it; she could have taken wing from only that much force. But then the breeze smelled like peace — clear green, like news of an armistice.
“I beg your pardon up front for what I’m fixing to say,” said John Israel.
She stopped rocking.
“You ain’t simple at all,” he said. “That’s what I think. I admit I’ve been curious. You’ve got a little-girl voice that don’t match up with your face, but you ain’t simple.”
Catesby steered her gaze to the rhododendron bush.
“Why, you’re just shy, and not even born to be shy. Yes, ma’am — that’s what I think.”
Each cluster was, in fact, a perfectly round natural bouquet, and these bunches were in turn formed by dozens of separate flowers. From where she sat, she could number them.
“Again, I beg your pardon,” said John Israel, shaking his head. “Good God A’mighty!” He tucked his cigarette package into his breast pocket and stood up to his full height. “It beats me what-all people will go around blabbing.” Then he stretched and gave a great yawn, robbing the air, and this act made a better look of his rumpled jacket and trousers.
“Say, Miss Catesby, why don’t you go ask that red-haired mama of yours if we might take a walk around town? I’m afraid I don’t have enough money just now to treat you to the picture show, but they’re blasting a tunnel through Beaucatcher Mountain two blocks yonder. I figure for entertainment that’ll do just as well.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Melanie McGee Bianchi has worked as a lifestyle journalist in Western North Carolina for more than 25 years, and is currently the managing editor of three magazines: Asheville Made, Bold Life, and Carolina Home + Garden. She has published poetry, feature articles, and humor essays regionally and nationally, and her short fiction has appeared in print literary magazines from Mississippi to Ireland. Melanie’s collection of short fiction, The Ballad of Cherrystoke + Other Stories, was published by Blackwater Press and is distributed in the U.S. and the UK. It was named a “Distinguished Favorite” in the NYC Big Book Awards in fall 2022. She has nonfiction work forthcoming in the Ballads Issue of Oxford American.