Mad Maudlin

Mad Maudlin

illustration by iain mccaig

For to see mad Tom o’Bedlam, ten thousand miles she’s traveled.

This original short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by editor Paul Stevens.

 

Peter found her slippers just inside his office door. Standard white hospital issue, placed with exquisite care in the small gap between the bookcase and the doorframe, perfectly aligned, heels against the wall.

The police officer just shrugged at Peter’s questioning glance. The man was standing a few feet inside the office, thumbs in his belt and elbows tucked against his body, failing to hide his discomfort. He went out quickly when Peter nodded, to take up station in the hall.

Known facts, Peter thought, preparing himself. Female patient, Jane Doe. Age between thirty and fifty. Unnerving manner.

Good sense of pitch.

The humming stopped when he drew near, before Peter could identify the tune. He said in a friendly voice, “I found your slippers by the door. Aren’t your feet cold, without shoes?”

From beneath his desk came a cockney accent, rough but not hostile. “’Ave to take care of them. Not wear them out. Got a long way to go yet, lovey.”

“I see. Where are you headed?” No answer; he hadn’t expected one. Peter stepped back to a simpler tactic. “Why are you under my desk?”

He could see her bare feet through the gap where the modesty panel didn’t quite reach the floor. Hard feet, armored with calluses, and profoundly filthy. The nurses hadn’t wanted to bathe her. Hadn’t wanted to spend any more time with her than necessary. Downtown hospital, veteran staff that had seen absolutely everything three times over, and they didn’t want to be in the same room as this woman.

After a long enough pause to establish that the patient wasn’t going to answer that question, either, Peter tried a third time. “Is there something I can call you?”

“Been called a lot of things, duck. Mad, Maud, Mad Maudlin.”

Maudlin. He couldn’t tell if she meant it as an adjective—a play on her name—or a name in its own right, the English variant of Magdalene. Or perhaps she was just playing with sounds. But at least he’d gotten an answer, which was more than the nurses had managed. She mostly just swore at them, called them whores. “May I call you Maud?”

Silence, that somehow carried the quality of a shrug.

“My name is Peter, Maud. I’d like to talk to you. It would be easier if I could see you, though. I don’t suppose you might be willing to help? Maybe come sit in a chair, so we can talk?”

Another pause, this one considering. He’d never met someone so able to express herself through a desk. Just as he began pondering his next move, knees dragged against carpet and the feet disappeared. And Maud stood up.

He barely stopped the Jesus that wanted to burst from his mouth. Tangled, matted hair, hanging in stringy ropes, its original color impossible to tell. Pointed, thrusting chin, bearing a slash-thin mouth. Strong arch of a nose, and on either side of it, two eyes that could have driven nails into a concrete wall.

Mad Maudlin grinned at him, revealing a disastrous set of teeth. Never taking her eyes off Peter, she rounded the desk, walking on the toes of her filthy feet, and took one of the two chairs.

No wonder the nurses avoid her.

He’d been on the psychiatric ward of this hospital for eleven years, practicing psychology longer than that. He’d seen a lot of homeless people, many of them mentally ill or implicated in a violent crime. But nobody like this woman.

Peter swallowed, even though he knew she’d spot that sign of weakness. There was no reason to be afraid. The police had taken the weapons she’d carried into the emergency room. Her hands might be skin over tendon and bone, strong as iron, but both the officer and an orderly were just outside, watching through the window in the door; one threatening move—even a hint of a threat—and she would be sedated, bundled into restraints, and dealt with more cautiously. But she hadn’t offered violence to anyone.

Not since admission, anyway. The question was whether she’d done so beforehand. And whether Peter could find any hint of where this woman had come from. Mad Maudlin.

He pushed the name away. Delusional behavior, the nurses said; well, he wouldn’t help that by calling her “mad.” Or overly sentimental, for that matter. Not that she looked sentimental in the least. Peter swallowed again. Not since his first encounter with a violent psychotic had he felt so unsafe in his own office. No, not unsafe—out of control. Whether Maud attacked him or not, the simple act of standing up from beneath his desk had somehow put the reins of this encounter into her hands.

So take them back. “Thank you, Maud,” he said. “Would you like some water?”

She nodded. He filled a paper cup from the cooler next to his desk, then pushed it across to her, refusing to let himself retreat in a hurry when that was done. Instead he took the other seat. “If you’re hungry, I can get you some food, too.”

“Not ’ungry.”

She’d come in at seven fifteen; it was now a little after ten. “Did you have breakfast, Maud?” A wobble of her head that looked affirmative. “What did you eat?”

“Souls.”

He’d expected that. Not the specific answer, but something in that vein; the transfer orders from the emergency room cited her incoherent and frightening speech. Schizophrenia likely. “Where was that, Maud?”

Again she displayed those appalling teeth. They lay at all angles in her gums, and some had broken off. If they hurt, she gave no sign. In a dreadful accent he thought was supposed to be southern, she said, “The Good Lord don’t keep his kitchens in the attic.”

Hell, then. Delusions show a religious sensibility, Peter noted. Then underlined it mentally when Maud went on, “Down by the fires, and a big cauldron over them, with all the whores inside. But fire don’t bother me. I drank a toast of them, the boiled bitches.” She spat on the carpet. “Don’t like whores. They wants my Tom, and shan’t get ’im.”

The name caught Peter’s ear. “Who is Tom?”

Maud’s attention was on the cup in her hand. “Shouldn’t drink this,” she mused, holding it up so the morning sunlight glowed through the thin paper. “I’m quarrelsome when I’m drunk. Saltwater does that to me, salt and gall, bitter, bitter. Like betrayal.”

“I’d like to hear about Tom,” Peter said, wondering if this was a clue. The clothes on her when she stumbled into the ER had someone’s blood on them—a prostitute’s? Or Tom’s? No alcohol in her system, but she said she was quarrelsome, and if she believed herself drunk it could be almost as bad as the real thing.

She frowned and twisted a quarter-turn away, presenting her right shoulder. “Not much good to be sorry for it now. ’Ow long ’as it been? Ten thousand years? Or ten thousand miles. I confuse the two, I know it. Come such a long way, and ’ave so much farther to go.”

“Can we talk about Tom, Maud?”

Paper crumpled in her grip, the remaining water sloshing out to soak the carpet. Droplets fell from her trembling fist, and her gaze struck Peter like a spear, freezing the cry in his throat. For a few breathless beats, he thought she would attack him.

Then Maud’s lips twisted in pain, and she looked away.

When he could breathe again, Peter thought, Paranoid schizophrenia. He relaxed his stiff hands, signaled “all’s well” to the orderly watching through the window, and said, “Maud, I’m not sure how much you understand of what’s happened, so let me explain a few things. You came into the emergency room this morning, hallucinating and covered in blood. We’re concerned that someone may have been hurt, and that you might be able to tell us who.” Even if Maud confessed to a crime, he couldn’t share that with the police, unless she gave him permission—not likely. But she might let him point them to the victim. Or at least give him something that could lead him to her family, or someone else who knew her. “In return, I’d like to help you. I’m a doctor, you see.”

With a bitter laugh, Maud dropped the ruined cup and held her wrists out to Peter, still not looking at him. “Chains and whips. I knows the song. You’ll cage me and starve me, three times fifteen years, but I’ll not die before Doomsday.”

His heart gave an unpleasant jolt. Prior hospitalizations? Entirely possible; schizophrenics often cycled in and out of treatment. There was no curing them, only drugging them into a semblance of normalcy. And that left them very vulnerable to abuse. Had she been mistreated at another facility, or was this simply more paranoid delusion? “No one’s going to hurt you,” Peter promised. “There are medicines that doctors sometimes use, in cases like this—do you know if anyone has ever given you olanzapine? Or aripiprazole?” No answer. Maybe the hypothetical other doctors had discovered what the ER had, that none of the usual antipsychotics made a dent in this woman’s behavior. “I’d like to help you, but that’s hard when I don’t know your medical history. I’m hoping we can just talk. You can tell me what you know, however much you like. Does that sound okay?”

One eye appeared, staring at him through the ragged curtain of her hair. Then the hair moved, and Peter realized it was a nod. He added, “We don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to.”

Maud still hunched sideways in the chair, curled around herself, weight on her left hip. Not encouraging. He searched for a question specific enough to be useful, neutral enough not to upset her. “I noticed your accent sounds like it’s from London, Maud. Do you remember when you came to the States? It must have been a long trip.”

Maud scoffed at him. Still behind the concealing hair, but her posture relaxed, feet touching the carpet once more. “Long? That’s nothing. I can do it in my sleep. Fifteen thousand miles in a night, one time, guided by the sun.” She paused to consider her math, counting on her fingers. “Ten thousand, fifteen thousand—but if it takes only a night walking, then does it count as so much?”

“I would say it does,” Peter said. “An airplane goes fast, but it still goes the whole distance. Did you fly here, Maud? Do you remember when that was?” If he could just get one solid detail, he might be able to figure out who she was, and from there have a better idea of what she’d been doing. The police had fingerprinted her while she was strapped to a bed in the ER, screaming profane rhymes at the nurses. But if that had turned up any results, no one had told Peter yet.

He shouldn’t have let speculation distract him. He almost missed her hesitant answer. “A long time ago,” she whispered, staring vacantly past the arm of Peter’s chair. “I used to say the conquest, but I don’t remember no more which one it was. People keep conquering places. Wars. The stars fight each other, but them’s afraid of me. And the moon . . .”

“The stars are afraid of the moon?”

She looked at Peter again, but this time the threat in her eyes wasn’t for him. “Of me,” she said, in a low, animal growl. “I’ll murder the bastard. Shake ’is dog till ’e howls, and the dragon and the crow will sing victory instead of dirges. I done it before.”

The reference to murder chilled Peter. “You’ve killed someone?”

“Drank ’is wine at St. Pancras.” She grinned, curving one hand as if it held something—a glass, maybe. “Claret, I think. Or ’ippocras? After I ’ad Tom back.”

Tom again. “How did you lose him?”

Maud got up, restlessly, pacing as if she were trapped in the cage she’d spoken of. “It ’appens every time. Over and over again. I don’t know ’ow old I am. Last time ’e woke me up—stripped off me clothes—my red-cheeked lad. I ’asn’t slept since then.”

She halted midpace, feet planted apart like an Egyptian statue, shoulders hunched. “Maud,” Peter said quietly, knowing it was a risk, “there was blood on your clothes when you came in. Not yours. Who did that come from? The moon? Or Tom?”

The ropes of hair swung, rhythmically, as she shook her head.

“What about the knife in your bag? And your staff? What were those for?”

The laugh was more of a kack-kack-kack sound. “Giants. Wouldn’t think it to look at me, but I cracks them over the ’ead and they falls. The knife ain’t for them, though. ’Ad to feed the fairies. Needed their ’elp. To take me when it’s time.”

“Feed them what?” Peter asked, not wanting the answer. Or rather, wanting it to have changed, from when the nurses asked.

“Mince pies,” Maud said. “They likes children, the fairies do.”

The faint smile on her face made him wish he’d never asked. It had happened to him once before, that a patient confessed to a crime; the ethical burden of silence had nearly driven Peter to despair. He still didn’t know what had become of that man. But the images still haunted Peter’s dreams, and now they would be joined by the bodies of children.

If there were bodies. Sometimes schizophrenics did violent things, obeying their delusions. Sometimes they just imagined they did them. Either way, it didn’t change Peter’s duty: he was a doctor, and he had to help Maud.

Most psychiatrists would pump her full of antipsychotics and stop there. Even if they found a drug that would work on her, though . . . Maud appeared to be homeless, and certainly lacked health insurance. Soon she’d run out, or forget to take the medication in the first place, and without any family to help her she’d cycle right back down into illness. It happens every time, she’d said. It would happen again. Peter had seen it before.

Unless she really had committed a crime, and they convicted her of it. Then they’d fill her with enough sedatives to put her down for a decade, and leave her to rot.

At least she would stay here tonight. The hospital could manage that much, even for patients like her. It wasn’t enough time, but it was all he could give her.

She was staring at him again, pale unblinking eyes. Their desperation cut him like a knife, when his mind was already full of thoughts about how the system was going to fail her. And then her words took him by surprise.

“You don’t ’ave to be afraid of me,” she said. Her voice held a softness, a resonance, that hadn’t been there before, turning the roughness into something much gentler. “All I wants is to find my Tom.”

It wasn’t the tone of a mother. The possibility that Tom was her son had crossed Peter’s mind, but this sounded more like a woman speaking of her lover. “The more you tell me about him,” Peter said, “the more I can do to help you find him.”

Maud shook her head, lips pressing together so hard they disappeared, leaving her mouth only a slash in her face. Tears lined her eyes, refusing to fall. “I don’t remember,” she whispered, the admission agonized. “My wits all went when ’e did.”

 

That statement stayed in Peter’s mind, caught like a fishhook, long after Maud was taken to her own locked room and Peter went on to other patients.

Microwaving his dinner that night, he played the recording of their session and let the fishhook pull him where it would. Stress could trigger schizophrenic episodes. Perhaps Tom had left her; perhaps more than once, a cycle of stability and disruption that was both cause and effect of her illness. He’d asked one of the nurses to call other psychiatric hospitals, asking if they’d ever had a patient fitting her description.

He realized he was humming that tune, the one she’d been crooning to herself when he came in, and again when they took her away. Peter grimaced and made himself stop. Tomorrow they’d have a list of missing persons in the area: children, men by the name of Tom, anyone who might be the source of that blood. The police were pushing for a fast analysis from the lab, but that could still take weeks; all they knew right now was that it hadn’t come from Mad Maudlin. He shouldn’t think of her by that name, he knew, but—

The “but” hung suspended in his mind, like the coyote in the cartoons. Just after he realizes the ground is gone, just before he falls.

Peter whispered, “Mad Maudlin.” And the tune, the one she’d been humming, resolved itself in his mind. Into one of the English folksongs his mother had loved so much.

The microwave pinged and went dark. Staring at its glossy surface, Peter sang,

For to see mad Tom o’ Bedlam

Ten thousand miles I’ve traveled

Mad Maudlin goes on dirty toes

For to save her shoes from gravel.

Bedlam. Bethlehem, the old lunatic asylum in London. And Magdalene societies—Maudlin—for degenerate women. Archetypal figures of lunacy . . . but “Tom” was so common a name, and Peter so determined to avoid thinking of his patient as “Mad Maudlin,” he’d missed the connection. Whether his patient’s name really was Maud or not, clearly she identified with the figure in the song.

Peter turned with sudden energy toward his CD collection, but stopped with a frustrated noise. Those songs had all been on LP; if they were anywhere now, it was in his sister’s basement. But there was the Internet, and a quick search produced a variety of lyrics, YouTube videos of Steeleye Span, Heather Alexander, more. Peter scribbled notes furiously, watched one video after another, scribbled some more. Mince pies—the man in the moon—Satan’s kitchen—

Tom o’ Bedlam. I now repent that ever / Poor Tom was so disdained, one version of the lyrics went. My wits are lost since him I crossed / Which makes me thus go chained.

He’d assumed Tom was a real person. What if that was just part of the delusion? It might explain why this song, why the identification with Mad Maudlin. Hell, it was almost Jungian in shape. Tom o’ Bedlam, a male figure—it suggested the animus, the masculine face of her psyche, estranged. Perhaps she’d rejected it for some reason—rape? Or some other trauma at male hands. And in the rejection, she’d broken her sense of self.

It didn’t match any of the usual etiologies for schizophrenia. But it could still be Maud’s own narrative, her attempt to craft her disorganized thinking into a coherent shape. And maybe he could use it to help her. She wanted to find Tom; well, if Peter was right, then Tom was within her. If Maud could be brought to see that . . .

Peter glanced at the microwave, saw it blinking “FOOD IS READY” at him. He opened and shut the door to get the clock back. 10:14 p.m. “I slept not since the conquest,” he mumbled, thinking. Everyone had to sleep sometimes, but—

Leaving his dinner cooling in the microwave, Peter grabbed a few things and headed for the door.

 

 

The nurse glanced at the security monitors and shook his head, blowing out a quick breath of laughter. “No, you won’t wake her. She’s been pacing all night. Hasn’t slept a wink.”

“Hang on a moment.” The new police officer dropped his feet from the desk and stood up, hooking one thumb through his belt. “This woman might be involved in a crime. And you want to take her for a walk? In the middle of the night?”

Peter faced him without flinching. “Yes, I do. And unless you’re ready to charge her with something and cart her off to jail, I don’t think you get to give me orders about how I deal with my patient.”

“Do you want to get killed?” the cop demanded—as if they’d left Maud anything resembling a weapon. “You’ve heard how she talks. Show a little common sense.”

“How she talks and how she acts aren’t the same thing. And common sense tells me to get her out of these surroundings. She’s almost certainly been hospitalized before, so this place is a source of anxiety for her. It might help to talk to her elsewhere.”

The cop barked a laugh. “Elsewhere! Nice of you to help the investigation. After we find your body in an alley, we’ll know who to arrest for it.”

Peter rolled his eyes in annoyance. “Where did you think I was taking her, McDonald’s? We’ll go to the rooftop garden. Only one door, and if you’re afraid she’ll escape by leaping off a twelve-story building, I’m sure the fences will stop her. Is that safe enough for you?”

The officer scowled. “I’ll come along. Just to be sure.”

If Peter had believed the officer’s aim was to protect him, he might have been more sympathetic. But the man was more likely to eavesdrop, then claim what he overheard wasn’t protected by doctor-client privilege. “You’ll wait by the door, out of earshot,” Peter said. “And if you argue, I’ll leave you here.”

The cop accepted it with bad grace. The nurse buzzed the door open for them. The clang of its shutting echoed through the dark, empty hallways; when that faded, Peter could hear the footsteps of an orderly making his rounds, the faint whimpering of a patient somewhere nearby. Yes, it would be better to get Maud out of here, even if it was only for a little while.

But she resisted when he told her where they were going. “She’ll see me,” Maud hissed, trying to twist free of his hand.

“Who? Who will see you?”

“The moon!” She glared upward as if she could see through all the intervening floors.

Eleven years working at a downtown hospital carved the lunar calendar into a man’s memory; full moons did indeed bring out the crazies. “It’s the new moon, Maud. It isn’t in the sky right now. You don’t have anything to worry about.”

Her arm stilled beneath his hand, then relaxed. This time when she pulled free, Peter let her, and she bent to take off her slippers again. With those in hand, she sailed down the hall as if she were a queen processing to court.

They went up the stairs to the garden, and the cop stayed by the door, at Peter’s insistence. The night air was warm and dry, the sound of traffic muted by distance and the late hour. Peter led Maud to a bench among the scrawny bushes, about halfway between the door and the roof’s fence-girded edge. Once they were seated, he pulled his MP3 player out of his pocket. “I have something I’d like you to listen to, Maud. A song. I think it might be familiar to you.”

She took the earphones from his hand, stared at them in confusion. Peter helped her tuck the buds into place. Then he hit play, and the faint, tinny sound of music graced the quiet air.

“For to see mad Tom o’ Bedlam / Ten thousand miles I’ve traveled . . . .”

She sat unmoving through the whole song, ropy hair hiding her face. Peter watched her hand instead, wrapped around the slippers. The knuckles tightened twice, but he couldn’t hear well enough to know what lines sparked the reaction. He’d chosen the longest version he could find. Even at that, not everything she’d said was in it; Maud’s statements echoed verses Peter had only seen in obscure versions, recorded in eighteenth-century books. Either she’d done the same research he had, or she’d grown up in a household where those versions were sung.

When it ended, he let the silence stretch out for a little while, before prompting her quietly. “Maud?”

Her broken nails dug into the slippers. “By a knight of ghosts and shadows,” she sang in an undertone, “I summoned am to tourney.” She turned slightly to regard Peter, and her eyes gleamed bright through the hair.

“Have you heard this song before?”

“They been singing it for centuries, duck.” Maud yanked on the cord until the earbuds popped free, dangling from her fingers. “Add new verses every time I go ’round.”

“So the song describes what you feel?”

She laughed at him. “What I’ve done. I remembers enough to know that. It’s almost time.” Maud tilted her head back, hair falling away, and her profile was hard against the city glow behind.

“Time for what?”

Her teeth bared in a snarl that seemed equal parts eagerness and fear. “For tourney, love. Time to fight. Time to find Tom, and lose him, over and over. Because it don’t end; it just keeps ’appening, again and again.”

“It can end,” Peter said. He struggled to keep his voice soothing, not to let his sudden intense excitement break through. “That’s what I’m here for, Maud. You’re the only one who can make that happen, put an end to the cycle—but you don’t have to do it alone.”

She sat perfectly still, slippers forgotten in her hand. Then she turned her head, and her gaze struck him with all the force of that first encounter, when she stood up from beneath his desk. “You’ll ’elp me?” she asked, and it carried a tiny note of vulnerable hope.

“I’ll help you,” Peter promised, and on impulse, he reached out to take her hand.

Maud seized his fingers in a grip that almost frightened him into shouting for the cop. Grinning, she bent to put on her slippers, then stood—drawing Peter with her—and spread her arms. “Come on, then,” she said, and she wasn’t addressing him. “Come, all my soldiers; come to war. It’s time!”

She started walking as she spoke, away from the door, toward the edge of the roof. The fence there would stop her leaping, but Peter lagged regardless, uneasy at her sudden aura of purpose. “Maud—”

The wind had picked up. All the hairs along Peter’s arms rose, as if there was something, some things, racing past him in swirling flocks. As if they were curling around Maud, coming to her call. She was laughing, and the analytical part of Peter’s brain, the part that had spent half the night matching her words to verses of the song, found a description of the moment that was all too apt. With a host of furious fancies—whereof I am commander—

Fancies. Mad imaginings. As if all the delusions of all the patients below them had suddenly swarmed to this place, taking not-quite-corporeal form.

With a burning spear—

She reached out with her free hand, and when it came back, it glowed with a shaft of impossible light.

And a horse of air—

Maud leapt. Dragging Peter up, up, over the fence, an impossible leap, into the sky and through—

To the wilderness I wander.

 

He thought he screamed, in that moment between—but they landed hard enough to knock all the air from his lungs and put a stop to sound.

It wasn’t the street below, or any part of the city. Not for an instant did Peter expect it would be. There was an otherness to this place, going beyond the impossible green of the grass beneath his feet, the cool dampness of the air, the perfect silence devoid of birds or insects or even the wind. But it still gave him a jolt as bad as the landing when he looked up and saw where Maud had brought him.

The field was groomed into a perfect chessboard of grass, bare to the starry sky. Peter and Maud stood on one side, and on the other, a figure sat beneath a canopy, like a king or queen on a throne.

That figure shone with soft, silver radiance. The light emanated from skin, hair, clothing, as if the figure were the full moon in human form. Peter’s mind rebelled against the thought, and he jerked his eyes away—only to see the figure wasn’t alone. Others stood ranged behind the canopy, creatures twisted like anger and fear and jealousy, creatures that weren’t human.

His own side was no better. When he turned to Maud, hoping irrationally that she might have an explanation, he saw her own company milling about: the host of furious fancies, he thought, that he’d felt on the rooftop. Fairies. They had brought Maud here.

Brought them both. Because Peter had promised.

Maud was staring at him, eyes wide, hand clenched on that spear of flaring light. It wasn’t the nail-hard glare of before; she seemed lost and hopeful. Waiting for him to do something.

To help.

“What now?” she whispered.

What the hell could he do? This wasn’t psychiatry, not anymore. One look around told him that much, beyond any possibility of denial. Maud’s delusions were real. A childhood of listening to folksongs had not prepared him for this.

And yet, he had promised. He couldn’t go back on that, even if this was no place for a doctor. It would destroy the trust Maud had given him.

Everything seemed to be waiting, on both sides of the field, for someone to make the first move. Maud, or him. What would happen if they did not act?

Like iron to a magnet, his gaze was drawn back across to the shining figure. And now he saw what he had missed before: two others, standing a step back to either side. On the shining figure’s right, an armored form, and on the left, an indistinct male shape, both hidden in shadow.

He’d been more right than he knew, when he dragged up those terms from his half-forgotten undergraduate psychology classes. Animus, anima, shadow, all the complexes and archetypes of Jungian psychology—but the folksong, too, the knight of ghosts and shadows. That would be the armored one; the other . . .

Tom o’ Bedlam.

Peter’s breath caught, as if he’d found himself suddenly on the edge of a great fall. Working through it at home, he’d assumed Maud was mad, and used the song as a structuring framework for her delusions. Then he’d come here, and seen that the delusions were real. Now he stood facing what looked a damn sight like the Moon itself, and it was impossible not to think that maybe Maud was right about something else, too. She didn’t follow the song; it followed her.

The logical conclusion, then, was that Maud wasn’t schizophrenic at all. But she was: Peter knew that, as firmly as he knew his own name. Even though it wrenched his brain, trying to hold both contradictory truths at once. If Maud’s delusions were real, then she wasn’t mad. But she was mad—both creator of and created by this world she’d dragged him into. You’d have to be mad yourself, to wrap your brain around that.

Archetypal figures of lunacy. Mad Maudlin, and Tom o’ Bedlam. The only way for them to exist was to be both at once: insane, and also true.

If that was true . . . then maybe this was the right place for a doctor, after all.

Could he cure Maud?

Common sense said no. Schizophrenia couldn’t be cured, only managed, and the failure of antipsychotics to work on Maud suggested that even the latter was easier said than done. But then, maybe he’d been attacking it from the wrong angle. Chemicals weren’t the answer to a place like this. Here, he had to play by different rules.

The first rule of dealing with a schizophrenic was: never buy into their delusions.

Never encourage them, never participate in the things they imagined. But he didn’t have much choice. He stood ten leagues beyond the wide world’s end, and the only way out was through.

Ignoring the shudder that ran down his back, Peter studied the other side of the field, and tried to bring everything he knew of psychology to bear. Figures of emotion, many of them negative. The Moon, with Tom, the estranged animus, standing in its shadow. Repressed, Peter thought. Disowned. Sent from the self into the shadow, which gives the Moon—mental illness—power over them both. But how to get him back?

“You told me this has happened before,” Peter said. He heard his own voice almost like a stranger’s, the level, soothing tones of a psychiatrist so incongruous in this alien field. “You’ve won Tom back, in the past?”

Maud nodded. “But it’s different every time.”

Unsurprising. If the solution stayed the same, this wouldn’t be much of a struggle. “What did you do, those other times? How did you reclaim him?”

He suspected he knew the answer, from old verses of the song, ones that had fallen out of use. Maud confirmed it. “Jousted against the Whore of Babel once,” she said, and something like the old contempt curled her lip briefly. “Tossed ’er on ’er arse—that were a good night. Fought a dragon once. Other monsters, too.”

“So you do battle for him?”

“Not always,” Maud said, though her brow furrowed slightly. “Sometimes it’s other things.”

“When we talked before, you said you wanted to kill the Moon. Do you think that’s what you need to do?”

Maud trembled, shrinking in on herself. Peter thought she cast a swift glance across the field. On the far side, the Moon sat serene, as if waiting for Maud to take action. Some verses spoke of it as female, others as male; the actual figure could be either, shifting every time Peter looked.

“Maud,” he repeated, softly, “do you want to fight?”

She shook her head, making the ends of the ropes whip back and forth. “Can’t.”

“Why can’t you fight?”

Another brief flicker of a glance, this one more definite. Peter would have bet his hope of going home that she looked at Tom. Shifting the angle of his questions slightly, he asked, “Why do you think fighting brings Tom back?”

The fairies were hovering avidly around them, making his skin crawl. They were the delusions of his patients; his, and many others. Perhaps all the patients in the world. In the distance he heard a cruel laugh, and wondered which of the Moon’s creatures it was. Anger? Fear? “When you beats someone,” Maud said, “you can make them do what you wants.”

“But you said you fought a dragon, and other things—not the Moon. And it wasn’t always about fighting.” He waited to see if she would respond to that, and when she didn’t, he went back to Tom. “You disdained Tom, right, Maud? The song says you did—that you somehow crossed him. He’s angry at you, and you at him. Why would he come back to you, just because you fought?”

Still no answer. He wanted to say, you have to reclaim the parts of yourself you think of as masculine. But he couldn’t just feed her the answer straight out. That didn’t work on ordinary problems, like anxiety or depression; he could hardly expect it to work on archetypal schizophrenia.

He was doing this all wrong anyway—approaching it like a therapist, not like the metaphor of a therapist. With an ordinary patient, talk therapy could take weeks, months, circling around the ideas again and again until the subject was finally ready to admit the truth to herself. That was usually what it boiled down to, the therapist as—

His breath caught a second time. Oh, hell. First Jungian metaphors, and now Rogerian psychotherapy? None of this was standard operating procedure for schizophrenia. But his instincts had led him right so far; in the absence of anything better, he might as well keep going.

He bowed to Maud, a reflexive move, inspired by the notion of this place as a tournament field. “Dame Maudlin—”

“I ain’t no knight,” she said sharply, frowning at him.

Not an auspicious start. “What makes a knight?”

“A knighting.” Now her frown suggested he was an idiot.

“A tap of the sword on the shoulder?” Peter asked, in tones that invited doubt. “I would say that by summoning you to this tournament, they have recognized you as a knight—as one worthy to stand on this field of honor.” Were those phrases his own, crafted out of childhood memory, or was this place feeding them to him? He wasn’t sure he wanted the answer to that question.

Maud wavered. But he needed her to go along with this; without it, none of the rest would make much sense. Grasping at straws, Peter dug in his pocket for a pen, and brandished it in the air. “With this my symbol of authority, I shall make formal what until now has only been recognized in deed. Kneel.”

She obeyed, surprising him. Tapping her on the shoulders and head with the pen, he said, “I dub thee Dame Maudlin, champion of all souls lost to madness. For them you shall face your enemy, and emerge victorious. Rise, Dame Maudlin.”

She did, with a feral grin. But Peter stopped her before she could charge off. “Would it not be better to observe the formalities? Your victory should not be tainted by misconduct; it would sully your honor as a knight. If you will permit me, then I will serve as your messenger, and request a parlay from the other side.”

She objected to this notion almost as much as she had to the title. “Parlay? Thought you said I was ’ere to thrash them.”

“All in good time,” Peter said, wondering if his idea was wrong after all. But Maud had fought before, and always she found herself back here, having to fight again. Surely it was worth trying something new. “This will give you an opportunity to, ah—” Inspiration struck again. “To deliver your challenge in person.”

Maud liked the idea of that. “All right. I’ll meet with them. Do I come with you?”

“No,” Peter said, hiding his own smile. “I will cross. If they agree, I will wait in the middle of the field, and you and the other party shall come to me.”

For all the confidence he projected to Maud, Peter’s hackles rose when he stepped out onto the field. The fairies hooted and cheered, a cacophony of sound, echoed from the far side by the howls and jeers of the Moon’s creatures. If they rushed him . . . he didn’t think psychological theory was likely to make a very good defense against insanity en masse.

Too late for such considerations now. As soon as he came within range of the Moon, he sank to one knee. “I bring a message from Dame Maudlin.”

The silver face was remote, showing only the faintest hint of interest. Peter thought, looking at it, that he could see every lunar symbol he’d ever encountered: tarot cards, werewolves, the Apollo missions, fat smiling faces in children’s books, everything superimposed at once upon a single figure. And the voice ran like ice down his spine when the Moon answered, “We are always glad to hear from our subjects.”

Should he challenge the implication that Maud was her subject? No, that would come of its own accord, if his idea worked. And if it didn’t, well, there was always the brawling option. “Dame Maudlin requests parlay before the tournament begins. With that one.”

He nodded at Tom o’ Bedlam.

The figure stirred within the shadow. This, Peter cautioned himself, was a being as dangerous as Maud; more, perhaps, for Tom was the Moon’s captive thrall. Who could say where his loyalties lay?

The Moon sat motionless: not the stillness of a person, whose heart still beat within, but the perfect stasis of something that was never alive at all. Then it said, “Very well, champion of the Sun. Claim them if you can.”

Peter’s heart stuttered. Of course the Moon would guess; he could hardly hope to fight for rationalism and sanity here, and not have lunacy notice. No, what sent tension dancing along his nerves was the cool amusement in the Moon’s voice. It seemed to laugh at something he could not see.

The only way out is through.

Peter retreated to the center of the field and beckoned to Maud, on the far side. As she approached, and the hidden figure stepped out of the Moon’s shadow, he closed his eyes and built a vision in his own mind.

The therapist as mirror, showing the client herself from different angles, all the aspects she lacked the perspective to see—or would not see. But the mirror was devoid of judgment; it did not condemn what it reflected. Unconditional positive regard, Carl Rogers had called it. That was what Peter must give her now—give them. Maud and Tom both.

That was what he must become.

His body flattened into a silver pane, stretching until it blocked all sight from one half of the field to the other. All Maud could see, approaching, was her own reflection, growing larger and more distinct with each step.

A male reflection. Tom o’ Bedlam. And on the mirror’s other side, Tom himself gazed into Maudlin’s eyes.

Both sides feared the other’s rejection. Fighting didn’t erase that fear. But Peter rejected neither: he understood their madness and accepted it. Through him, they could reconcile at last.

Maud, trembling, reached one hand out, as on the other side Tom did the same.

When their fingers touched, the mirror shattered—and one figure was left standing in the center of the field.

A strong-featured woman, with something of Tom’s look about her. He’d been a part of her psyche originally, before repression had driven him into shadow, putting them both under the Moon’s control. Together they had passed untold ages, joining and parting, rising briefly toward sanity, only to fall into the depths of madness once more. Always had it been thus.

Always . . . until now.

The howls of the fairies could have cracked the sky. Whether they rejoiced or rebelled was impossible to tell; it was an elemental cry, thunder following the lightning of the reunification they had just witnessed. The woman raised her hand to them, but it had no effect. A sane person could no longer be their commander.

From his new vantage point, Peter said, “What now?”

The answer came in cool, unruffled tones. “Now she returns to the world of the Sun. She was an ordinary woman once, and so she is again. She has no place here.”

The woman was leaving the field, heading to the side, away from both gathered armies. “Will she remember any of this?”

“As a dream, nothing more. Only the mad believe in such things as these.”

The mad—and the psychiatrist who healed them. Peter wondered what he was going to say when he got back. He would never look at a patient the same way again, now that he’d seen the creatures that personified their syndromes and disorders, and the entity that ruled over them.

And what would the world do, without Mad Maudlin and Tom o’ Bedlam to embody its madness?

Peter turned and bowed to the Moon. “Thank you. You have opened my eyes in a way I never imagined possible. I will carry the effects of it with me forever.”

The Moon bestowed a serene smile upon him. “Yes. You will.”

 

“There wasn’t any evidence of a crime,” Peter said, “other than the blood. Which didn’t match any known victim, and there wasn’t anything to connect her to any missing persons. So in the end, they let her go.”

Shawna Cross, one of the hospital’s junior doctors, shook her head in amazement. “No, that part makes sense. What I’m sticking on is the bit where you say she made a full recovery.”

“As near as I can tell,” Peter cautioned. “I haven’t seen her in a year. But she certainly wasn’t a danger to anyone anymore.” Peter downed the last of his coffee, then signaled to the waitress for the check.

“And you did it by talking to her?” Shawna shook her head. “One conversation in the garden, and she comes back cured. If that’s true—and I’m not saying I buy it—then I can’t believe you quit. I get half a dozen schizophrenics every week, a lot of them repeat customers. Can’t do much for them, and it breaks my heart. We could use your magic, man.”

Peter smiled, digging for his wallet in his back pocket. “Sorry. But I can’t do it anymore; I can’t look at those people and see them as diseases to be cured. You have to accept them for who they are.”

“Easy for you to say. They aren’t vomiting on you anymore, or trying to stab you with their own IV needles.” Shawna dropped a few bills on the table. “Speaking of which, my break’s over. Back to the salt mines, I guess. Thanks for the story.”

Peter whispered his reply to the restaurant door, swinging shorter and shorter arcs in Shawna’s wake. “They still do those things. But it’s okay. I accept them anyway.”

“Naturally you do,” the Moon said, sitting where Shawna had been. Its radiance dimmed all the lights in the restaurant, casting everyone into shadow. “You cannot condemn the realm to which you now belong.”

The memory of the time when he would have condemned it was fading, almost forgotten. The Moon had shown him a hundred thousand variants on madness, more than he ever could have imagined before—and Peter loved them all.

“Come, my champion,” the shining figure said. “We have much work to do.”

 

“Mad Maudlin” copyright © 2014 by Bryn Neuenschwander

Art copyright © 2014 by Iain McCaig

15 comments
Michael Walton
1. tygervolant
Whoa. That is fascinating story... and what an awesome ending!
RyanTaurant
2. RyanTaurant
Simply amazing! Beautiful imagery, a perfect balance of action and introspection . . . I am very impressed.
RyanTaurant
4. missallen
Despair turned around into life; a life turned to healing. Lovely!
Theresa Wymer
5. Tekalynn
Still I sing bonny boys, bonny mad boys
Bedlam boys are bonny
For they all go bare and they live by the air
And they want no drink nor money.
RyanTaurant
6. claeten
Wow. I liked this story. Did curing Maud drive him insane? Or something else?
Anibal Casco Avila
7. anibalelcanibal
Great story. Loved it. Well constructed and paced and simply very imaginative.

The one thing that kind of stopped me for a moment was when I read: "Champion of the Sun." An IT'S ALWAYS SUNNY reference --inadvertant though it may be-- brings a different mood for a few moments.

"Dayman, ah aaah, Fighter of the Nightman, ah aah, Champion of the Sun, ah aah, You're a Master of Karate, and friendship, For Everyone!"
RyanTaurant
10. elricprincess
Pure perfection. Glorious prose and introspection. Painfully beautiful. Genius doesn't begin to describe this work.


You will write more won't you?
RyanTaurant
11. Sam "kawaiisam" Norton
Loved it! From start to end I was hooked. As evreyone stated it was definitely beauifully written.
Cassie G
12. iliadawry
Oh, this was just wonderful! Thank you so much.
Talia T
16. TaliaG
Greatly enjoyed this. I also wondered what the Moon's comments to the protagonist meant...........

And just a side note, when Maudlin was speaking sbout her journeys, I was thinking of the song , " A Thousand Miles," specifically the lines " 'Cause you know I'd walk/ a thousand miles/ If I could/ Just see you/ Tonight"
(by Vanessa Carlton, I looked it up: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/vanessacarlton/athousandmiles.html )

Loved the story.
RyanTaurant
17. Julie Palmisano
I think the doctor must have become a writer.
Andrea Jacobson
18. Moonbug
Absolutely entertaining. I gave an adaptive verbal version to our car ride on a recent road trip and it was really fun! I couldn't remember the lyric lines perfectly, but think I did well enough to give it justice. Thanks for giving me something to share and to kill time on our recent car ride.

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