The Creeping Women

“What a delicious garden!” Jane said after we moved into the house and began to explore the grounds of the estate my brother had leased for the summer.

It was good to hear such joy in Jane’s voice, for she tends to be absorbed in melancholy matters most days, and as spending the summer at the estate—three miles away from the nearest village and other people—was for her sake, I was glad to see such an immediate, happy response from her.

It was a delicious garden, I must admit, though I’m not sure I would have employed that particular word to describe it. But Jane is (was?) a writer. Whenever she talks, she says things in such a peculiar way that I feel as if I can understand whatever she speaks of in a new manner, the way clouds sometimes take on the form of an elephant or a castle, but only once someone else sees them as such do they become apparent to others.

As we strolled along the box–bordered path in the gardens that day, for instance, Jane told me that she sometimes saw expressions in inanimate things. I did not encourage her to continue in this line of thought, of course, as it was the sort of thinking that had concerned my brother John for a good many months, especially after the baby’s arrival, but Jane went on without any prodding on my part.

“I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy store,” she told me. She was not looking at me when she said this, but instead had lifted her chin and seemed to peer outward and upward, perhaps at the clouds on the horizon, seeing one of those forms I could not locate before she saw it. But it also somehow seemed as if she were performing for me. That is the thing about Jane, one of her many charming aspects: One can never tell if she truly believes the queer things she proclaims, or if she is just having a bit of fun with you.

“Really, Jane,” I replied, offering a friendly but disbelieving grin in return for her childhood confession. I liked Jane so very much. I wanted to be good friends with her, good sisters, but I’d known for a long time, since before my brother had announced their engagement, that I should never allow myself the pleasure of believing, even for a moment, in the romantic nature of Jane’s perspective.

“Yes, really,” Jane said. She smiled wistfully. She had seen life, she said, where others could see no living creature. “In fact,” she continued, “I remember what a kindly wink the knobs of my family’s big, old bureau used to have, and there was one chair that always seemed like a strong friend. I could hop into that chair and be protected if ever something frightened me.”

I pressed my lips together firmly and did not give her another response. John would have been upset if he felt I had encouraged this sort of talk from Jane when he was, at that very moment, trying to cure her, to return her to her proper self.

But truly! The winking knobs of a bureau? A chair that is a strong friend? I will never know how Jane comes up with such ideas.

I shook my head that afternoon, two weeks after we had moved into that ghastly summer estate, as we walked among the flowers, in the shade of the tall oaks, and I shake my head now as I sit here recalling that very moment. I think it is strange, however, to do now as I once did in a memory as I recall it.

That is also the sort of odd observation Jane might have had before she became fixed upon that horrid wallpaper.

I shall not dwell on such thoughts, though. I shall not be like Jane was then.

“The problem with Jane,” John would often say, “is that she is endlessly thinking about her own condition.”

“There is a forest in that wallpaper, Jennie,” Jane told me, only a month ago, in early midsummer. “Can you see it?”

But I would not permit myself to enter into those dark woods. Not after seeing how it seemed we might lose Jane to them forever.

It was Jane who first convinced me to take up the habit of keeping a log of my days as they passed away. I would never have thought to keep a narrative of my own life, but Jane said every woman should tell her own story, lest it be told by someone else. She was quite convincing. Jane was always quite convincing about anything she put her mind to. But it was really her words—the way she used them—that convinced people. And so, properly convinced, I took up ink one day and began to scratch my days into this sheaf of paper.

“A thread,” Jane once called it. She meant the line of words on a page. “Look at the way the lines make a pattern, Jennie,” she had said, and I watched as the tip of her soft finger traced the curved and ragged edge of her own diary.

Another time, it was not a sewn pattern but a piano. “Look at these thick, white spaces between the paragraphs,” she said, “and the winding empty space of the borders. This page looks like the keys of a piano, does it not, Jennie? The black keys between the white spaces? If you play these paragraphs as well as the white spaces between them, I do believe they will also make as much music as a piano.”

“Really, Jane,” I said, shaking my head, and she put her hand upon my shoulder to squeeze gently, as if I were a child she were teaching. Heat rushed to my cheeks, and I knew that I could not hide it. Surely my face was pink. I looked away, but Jane took hold of my chin between her thumb and forefinger, then pulled my face back to look at hers.

“Poor Jennie,” she said. “Do not be afraid of me. We shall be such good sisters after John and I marry.”

“That is my hope,” I said, looking down at the page before me, at the paper she’d given me.

“Tell your story, then,” said Jane, and she left me there in my room to look at the blankness of those pages alone, pondering what sort of patterns I might make out of the words I had not yet written, wondering what sort of music I might yet compose.

“A hereditary estate,” she had called this place when we first arrived. “A haunted house, surely.”

I chuckled at the idea, but John gave me a quick look and I forced my smile away, as I learned to do from a young age around my brother. John does not entertain superstitions, even in jest. He does not believe in anything that cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or felt. He requires those who surround him to not speak of such things, or else suffer his looks. And he has many looks, though it is the ugliest he has always reserved for me. To Jane, he gives his kindest looks, the looks of a doting father who finds whatever she does to be pleasing.

Except Jane’s writing, of course. That never pleased John, even before Jane’s nervous depression, her hysteria, became apparent. It was after the melancholia enveloped her that he began to announce what I had always known he privately disliked. It was by his looks, of course, that I discerned his secret. Whenever Jane mentioned her writing, I could see his disdain. For her work. For her thoughts. For her art, I daresay. His eyes would narrow just a little, as if he were wincing from a sliver suddenly slipped beneath a fingernail. And if sitting in a chair, his fingers would begin to tap the arm, making a rhythm like a funeral march.

“A hereditary estate,” though, as Jane declared. Indeed, this place was meant for a different sort of people. John’s work as a physician certainly made us comfortable in our family home, but that house! Those rooms! Those gardens! It was all so very, very much.

And yet it was remote, stark despite the grandeur of its halls and ballroom, far too orderly despite its rambling stairwells and overgrown gardens, its shattered greenhouses that haunted the meadows nearby. By their looming frames and broken glass, I could see why Jane called it a haunted house, for it is haunted by the gone–away life of its previous inhabitants. Everywhere you look, you will find something chosen by someone else; and, if you are inclined, as Jane is, to think about invisible things, you will wonder (as Jane wondered, as I learned how to wonder from Jane) who it was that selected that chintz–covered chair, that old rocking–horse, this particularly gloom–fogged mirror that stares at me whenever I rise from my writing table to attend to Jane or to the business of the house itself.

Or that wallpaper. Jane often wondered aloud who had chosen that wretched yellow wallpaper. She spoke of it so often, in a way that made one feel if she could only discover who made the decision, she might be able to undo it like a curse.

John chose what had once been the nursery for Jane’s room as soon as we arrived, even though Mary might have made that room into a place for her to care for Jane’s child, and even though Jane herself said she would rather they take a room on the first floor, the one that opened onto a piazza where she could see the broken greenhouses that lingered in the distant meadows. “What a lovely thing to see every day,” Jane had said, but John only replied that there was only one window in that room and not space for two beds, and no room for him if she took this one.

I could tell straight away how much Jane disliked the room upstairs. It wasn’t even the yellow wallpaper that drew her attention so much all at once, but the bars on the windows and the iron rings in the walls. “This looks as if it were a gymnasium for school children once upon a time,” she said, looking around the place with a doubtful eye. There were strips of wallpaper torn away near the headboard, and chunks of plaster dug out of the walls here and there. Gouges in the floor. When I looked at Jane’s face, I could see the thought that she was forming at that very moment. Is this where I’m to live for the next three months? In this ghastly room full of the screams of ghostly children?

The wallpaper she noticed specifically. When her eye landed upon it, her obvious doubt transformed instead to confusion, and she tilted her head as she moved toward to the wall across the room. She lifted one gloved finger when she reached that wall, and began to trace the lines of the paper’s design, as if she were studying it. Quickly, though, she snatched her hand back as if a snake had lashed out of the design to bite her.

“What is the matter, Jane?” John asked from the doorway.

Jane turned around, eyes wide, and said, “It is horrible wallpaper, isn’t it?”

This made John laugh deeply. He folded his hands over his waist, delighted. He did like Jane’s wit so much, I grant him, and I would find even more fault in him if he had not. He nodded, but said, “No,” they could not tear it down or replace it, because if he let Jane change the wallpaper, it would then be the bedstead, and then removing the bars from the windows, and then the gate from the head of the stairs, and whitewashing the basement, “and dear, we are only leasing the place for three months, Jane, really.”

Jane soon took his meaning and nodded, acquiescing.

“Then do let us go downstairs now,” she said. “There are such pretty rooms there, don’t you think?”

He took her in his arms to lead her away from the nursery, and when they were through the doorway, he stopped to look over his shoulder and say, “Jennie, make up the room for us. And see what we have in the kitchen. I arranged for the pantry to be filled, but I haven’t the slightest clue what was sent.”

“Of course,” I said, nodding, my hands folded over the apron at my waist.

Then John unlatched the gate that had once kept the children from falling down the staircase, and they were gone from my sight.

In the early days of our summer at the estate, I gave Jane a wide berth. John would leave, it seemed, for days on end, to return to town where he had serious cases to attend. Once, I counted five days gone before he returned. And not a half–hour before he appeared on the front lawn, I had heard Jane sobbing behind the door of her room. Jane cried often that summer, at various times throughout the day, though she tried to hide her tears from me and Mary, who was looking after the baby. And when John climbed the stairs to Jane’s room to find her face red and chapped with salt, he grew angry. 

“You must use your good sense and will to stop yourself from indulging in needless sorrow, Jane!” he shouted. I was across the hall, placing folded linens onto a shelf. When I looked over my shoulder, I could see through the doorway as Jane cringed at the sound of his voice. I knew that cringing feeling well, myself. John had always been loud, even when we were children. If someone prevented him from having his way, he would grimace at our father, scream like a possessed person at our mother, and with me would not hesitate to pinch, shove, or hit.

When John was gone, though, Jane would leave her room (where he advised her to stay as much as possible, “for the good of her health”), and walk the paths through the meadows and gardens. I would stay in the shadows of the oaks that lined the way down to the wharf and watch her from afar. I did not want to disturb her in these moments, when it was clear she felt better. A calm washed over her face whenever John was gone, when she could walk the perimeter of the estate, or sit beneath the roses on the front porch. And though at times I felt odd for creeping among the shadows of the arbors, I did not want to let Jane out of sight for fear that she might disappear into the water down by the bay.

There were times, too, that Jane was the one who stayed behind in the house, and I the one who walked the garden paths. At these times, I would leave her behind to write in quiet. She believed her writing to be a well–kept secret, but you cannot keep secrets from a housekeeper. Which is what I was. Which is what Jane believed I had no better hopes for as a station in life. I found that in the pages of her days once, but it did not offend me as it might have had it been the truth. In fact, as Jane observed in that entry, I was a seemingly enthusiastic housekeeper. But it was not an enthusiasm rooted in my core. It was for my brother John that I performed that role with feigned excitement. It was to avoid the moments when he might take me into a closet and stick his finger in my face, or clutch my throat in his thick hands, squeezing. It was to avoid John’s slap against my cheek, his grip on my arm, the yellow and purple bruises he left behind like blossoms.

It is not difficult to seem enthusiastic if otherwise it meant seeing John’s shadow spread across the floor, pooling around my feet, while I folded the laundry.

However, it did bother me that Jane believed I thought it was her writing that made her sick. Which is precisely why I would leave her to indulge in it, allowing her to think it a secret.

She did not notice me as I stood in shadow, beneath the rose trellis of the porch, looking past those pink and white cups, peering through their filter, to see her face framed in the window, head bent over her papers, scratching out her days in the cell of a room with the nib of the pen she kept hidden beneath her pillow.

She did not notice me when, sometimes—oftener and oftener—I would see her stand from her chair and place a pale hand against the yellow wallpaper.

She has a sweet face, Jane. It is soft, curving, and when she has not been crying, her skin holds a faint peach color. Her eyes are blue, like the eyes of a doll I had as a child, but her hands do not look delicate at all. She has a thick callus upon her middle finger, which in some lights appears quite red, but only when it is not smirched with ink. During the summer at the estate, however, her hand was quite the opposite. It could have been a model’s hands, long–fingered, always clean. You would think she hadn’t been writing at all, and in fact she had begun to go days and then weeks without doing so. John approved of this change. He noticed the cleanliness of her writing hand and said, “You have good sense about you, after all, dear,” and all the while he held her hand in his own like a kitten, smiling and smiling.

This was soon after the Fourth of July, after Jane’s mother and her sister, Nellie, came to visit for several days, bringing Nellie’s children along like a line of goslings behind her. Between the noise Nellie’s children made and Jane’s baby being brought out by Mary to make the rounds of social engagement with grandmother, aunt, and cousins, Jane began to shrink further into the background of the household. I found her hiding in other rooms, away from everyone. I found her door locked on several occasions and, putting the flat of my hand against it, tapping gently, I would say, “Jane. Jane, dear, can I help you?” She would ask me to go away, though, and so I would.

I had witnessed Jane’s decline for weeks leading up to that visit, but did not report her odd behavior. Always soon after he returned from several days in town, seeing to his patients, John would take me aside to ask how she was in his absence, and I might have told him a great many things. I might have told him how I had seen Jane lingering by the yellow wallpaper in her nursery room for hours, or how I had heard Jane sobbing into her pillow at various times of the day. I might have said how I heard Jane mutter to herself when she thought no one was nearby, or how she would stare out her window for long stretches of time, like a princess locked in a tower. I might have told him how once she asked me, “Jennie, do you, too, see the women creeping about in the gardens?”

I had been making up her bed when she asked that question, and though I knew immediately this was a delusion, I went to stand beside her and look where she was looking. I saw nothing, of course, only the flowers and the bushes and the gnarled old trees of a formerly well–kept garden. Instead of telling Jane I did not see her creeping women, though, I asked, “What would you say if I said that I did?”

Jane turned to me, her mouth slightly parted, and said, “Oh, Jennie. Then I would say we are both doomed, surely.”

I patted her hand, the one that so often stroked the yellow wallpaper where its pattern seemed to break in the design, which she had shown me several times over, as if she had forgotten each time prior.

So when John came to demand a report on her behavior, I said, “She’s doing quite well. I should think she’s capable of returning to her social life at this point.”

To which John replied, “I am the physician in this house, Jennie. Do remember your place.”

I nodded, and looked at the floor, folded my hands at my waist. How could I forget, really?

John got the answers he wanted out of young Mary, though, which did not surprise me. Mary is a lovely girl, but naïve. When John asked her about whether the missus had been able to spend time with the baby, Mary said that she had not, and that at any time Mary brought the child near her, Jane’s face would pale, her eyes would display fright, and she’d clutch at her neck as if someone had placed a rope around it.

John nodded. I could see him tallying up the signs and symbols. And not a night passed before he broke apart a perfectly ordinary dinner conversation about the newly blooming roses on the porch trellis to tell Jane, “If you do not improve more quickly, my dear, I’ll be taking you to see Weir Mitchell in the autumn.”

Jane blanched from the threat of having to see the physician who devised the very “rest cure” John had elected as Jane’s treatment. She blanched, too, I think, from the shame John had heaped upon her in front of me. I looked down at my hands in my lap, fingers twined together nervously, hoping not to call John’s attention, as Jane said, “If only you would let me make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia. I need people, John. I need engagement.”

“My dear,” said John, “you would not be able to stand it. No, I think not. Not until I can see you have better control over your emotions.”

Jane then uttered a string of hopeless words at John. If only he would listen to her, she said. If only he could understand what she was saying. John only shook his head, though. Sighing, he pushed away his unfinished plate and set Jane to sobbing, which she usually did in private.

John gathered her into his arms then, lifted her into them, and carried her upstairs to her room, saying, “There, there, my child, my little girl, my goose, you see this is exactly why you cannot manage a visit with anyone.”

I retreated to my own room, which shared a wall with Jane’s, near her headboard, and there I listened as John continued. He called her his darling and his comfort, he said she was all he had in the world and that she must make herself well again. His words angered me, because I knew he was lying. Really, though, I couldn’t expect him to reveal his secrets. Jane was not the only thing he had in the world. He had our family home, left to him by our father who had passed away three years prior. He sometimes had women that he called his “patients” but who did not seem to suffer from any ailment from what I could tell: several letters had strayed from their paths on their way to him, occasionally landing in my hands. So I know of what I am speaking. And then, of course, John had my share of the inheritance, which my sick father, long–widowed, had entrusted to his care until the day I should marry. It was a condition my father had lain out in his last will, after John convinced him that I had no head for money.

Though I do keep the household budget myself, and there is never a penny lost or overspent.

All that night, John lay by Jane’s side, whispering his sweet lies, until eventually her whimpers ceased, and then I heard the bed begin to move with the movement of John’s body atop Jane’s. When her whimpers soon returned, I shut my eyes, clapped my hands against my ears, trying to force this knowledge out of my mind. It was a horrid thing to know what he was doing to her. It was horrid because of his lies, because of his infidelities. It was horrid because of his monstrous possession of both her body and soul. I squirmed in my own bed, shook my head as if he were doing it to me, as if he had me in the closet again and then I took my hands from my ears and clapped them over my mouth to catch what would have been a scream.

Dear Jane, I thought. Sweet dove. You deserve so much better. If I could, I would share the words I have been writing since you gave me a sheaf of paper and I would play the black and white keys of the paragraphs for you like a song.

In the morning, after John had left, I went to check on Jane, who was already awake and dressed, standing with her hand placed against the yellow wallpaper. “It has a yellow smell, Jennie,” she said without looking over her shoulder at me. “Don’t you think?”

I did not answer.

“Jennie,” she said, “there is a forest in this wallpaper. Can you see it?”

I did. I did see it. The thing Jane had been seeing. There was a forest in that design, a winding and confusing forest. And there was a woman trapped within it, creeping among the trees, lost, wild, doomed, and graceless.

I shook my head and lied to Jane, though. I lied to save her. To save us both.

“I do not know what you mean,” I told her.

Then I left the room with great haste.

I already knew Jane had been seeing the woman in the wallpaper, because I had continued reading her journals whenever she escaped for walks in the afternoon. The pattern, to her, remained still in the daytime, then moved in the night when the woman imprisoned in the wallpaper’s forest would come forward in the moonlight to rattle the bars of her cage. Jane did not want anyone to know what she’d been seeing, so I suspect her questioning of me was in order to discover whether I, too, could see the direction her mind was taking. I suspect she was wondering if I would reveal her to John, as she had once remarked in her journal that she views me as his warden.

Oh Jane, I thought. I want nothing but to free us.

I did see the direction her mind was taking, but I lied so that Jane would not discover me watching her, as I did throughout the days and nights. How often had I sat beneath her window, waiting for a streamer of moonlight to alight upon her pale face? How often had I watched from the hallway, my feet silent on the floorboards, peering through the sliver of space her open door afforded me, with the bed clothes tangled between her thighs, her legs bare and gleaming?

This was something my brother knew when he convinced my ill father to place my inheritance in his care until I married. He knew about the problem of my desire. The problem of my desire (say it!) for women. John had seen this in me several years prior, when I had turned sixteen and, after church one day, I had taken the hand of my closest friend Margaret Cummings and led her into the nearby woods, where I had cupped her cheeks within my hands as she held her lips up to me like a chalice to drink from. We had been like this for some time, had kept it a secret. But John had noticed, and that day he followed us, hiding in the leafy shadows, watching us even as we believed ourselves to be hidden, protected. And then, when we had finished with our lovemaking, John revealed himself by clearing his throat and laughing wickedly. Margaret gasped before she burst into tears, and then afterward she ran away from the scene we had unknowingly enacted with an audience. John shook his head at me, grinning in his dark way. “Now how shall I ever explain this to father, dear Jennie?” he asked me.

“Please don’t, brother,” I had begged him.

“What would you do to protect this from him?” he asked.

“I will never see her again,” I said, thinking that would appease him, thinking he only wanted me to break off such a relation.

But John was not concerned with our relationship. I should have known that. “We will keep it between us,” John said, and later, after our father had agreed to his suggestion to place my inheritance into John’s hands until I married, I knew the price I had paid for his silence.

Yes. I saw the woman in the wallpaper. I saw the creeping women as they crawled through the gardens, too.

Jane could not know the truth, though. I could not let her see me. Even when, one day, she caught me in her room with my hand upon the yellow wallpaper, stroking its patterns as I wished my life could be other than the one I found myself in, I could not be honest with her.

“What are you doing in here, Jennie?” she asked very calmly, and my face burned as if I had been caught in the forest touching Margaret again.

I moved to quickly escape the room and my shame, but stopped myself beside her. “That yellow wallpaper stains everything,” I said angrily. “It has smooched all of your clothes. And John’s too,” I added. “I wish you both would be more careful!”

I should not have treated Jane in this way, and I knew it even as I brushed past her and closed the door to my own room behind me. I should not have betrayed my feelings. Once one is loose, they are like threads that continue to unravel until nothing is left of the garment.

Oh, Jane, I thought. If only you knew how I feel. If only you knew how much I love you. How better I am than what my brother has made of me. I am his prisoner, like you. Together, we could free one another. 

After entertaining these thoughts, I quickly debased myself. I could hear John laughing at me and my ridiculous ideas. Silly Jennie, he’d say. Silly, silly Jennie.

It was in that moment of self–denigration, though, that I decided I would no longer let him keep us like this. I did not know how long it might take, but right then I determined I would wait until a path in that confusing forest revealed itself to me.

While John was in town seeing to patients in the days that followed, Jane took a turn for the worse. She began to peel the layers of the yellow wallpaper off up at the top of the room, little by little, until only parts of it were left, crossing the room like hazy yellow clouds. After John returned from town next day, we would finally leave to return to our own house. The summer was nearly over. But Jane was seized by her obsession and would not leave her room to help me pack things. She declared that she was tearing off the wallpaper out of spite, and I admitted that I wouldn’t mind doing the same thing. This elicited a joyful laugh from Jane, something I had not heard her do in months. She smiled and said I was her favorite, that she knew how I’d understand her. A feverish look burned in her eyes as she spoke, though, and I said, “Jane, why don’t I sleep with you tonight, since John’s away. We can stay up late talking. It will be like we’re schoolgirls again.”

“Oh, Jennie,” she said, “I cannot. For if you were to sleep in here, I would never be able to rest, and that is what John has assigned me to do at all costs.”

I nodded. Jane’s wits were damaged, but they were not dull in the least: She had seen right through me.

So I left to take up my duties of packing, making certain that all of our trunks would arrive home in good order. There was much to do, so for the rest of that day and night I was kept busy. Mary was no help at all, and Jane of course would not leave her room. She had stripped the bed of its clothing, and once I went past and swear I glimpsed her biting on a corner of it. When I turned to look a second time, though, she was standing at the window with her hands clasped behind her back like a fine maiden observing the late–summer scene before her.

Later that evening, when I went up to bring her something to eat, I found the door closed. And when I turned the handle, it would not open. She had locked it from within.

“Jane?” I called through the door. “Jane, it’s time to eat. Do open the door, dear.”

But no answer came to me.

So I called again, and rattled the knob, trying to jostle it open. “Jane,” I said, “really, this is too much. Open the door, please. You’re worrying me, Sister.”

“Sister!” Jane called from within her sanctuary. Then I heard her footsteps on the floor and saw her shadow creep beneath the sill, touching the tips of my shoes. “Sister,” she said, in a whisper this time, now that only the door separated us. “I will not eat with you tonight, Sister,” she said. “You are such a dear sister, but I am not coming out. I have things to attend to.”

“Jane…” I said.

But her shadow crept back under the door as her footsteps moved further and further away from me.

It was a long night full of worry and much fretting. I could hear her in there, taking down more swathes of the yellow wallpaper, laughing every now and then. I went outside several times and looked up at her window, and on one occasion saw her silhouette pass by. Oh, Jane, I thought. I have lost you to that yellow wallpaper before I could find a way out of it, haven’t I?

It was John’s doing, in my opinion, though I knew my own opinion meant very little to anyone. So I put it away and gave it no attention, as I had learned to do over the years since father died and John took control of me. John would return in the early morning, I knew, and would bring us to the boat in his carriage. I would not bother Jane any longer, I decided. Either she would come out on her own, or John would have to find a way to bring her out.

Which is what he did when he arrived in the early hours, to find me and Mary waiting in the foyer. Mary bounced the baby up and down in her arms to keep him from crying. Jane had not come down, though we heard her moving about in the room above us, and we told John what had occurred while he was away. “Weir Mitchell it is, then,” was all that he said, under his breath like a curse, and I began to worry because I knew placing Jane in the care of Weir Mitchell would only serve to send her even further into whatever madness had taken her.

John rushed up to the nursery and spoke to her through the door, quite nicely at first. But then, when Jane would not open for him, he began to pound the door with his fist, and then suddenly he was shouting down to me, “An axe! Bring me an axe, Jennie!”

I didn’t know how to stave him off of the idea of violence as an answer, but did know I needed to convince him to try some other way. Before I could intervene, though, Jane finally answered.

“John, dear!” she said in the gentlest voice. “The key is down by the front steps, under a plantain leaf!”

That silenced John for a moment.

Then, very quietly, he said, “Open the door, my darling!”

“I can’t,” said Jane. “The key is down by the front door under a plantain leaf.”

“What are you talking about, my darling?” John asked, but Jane continued to respond with the same answer. The key was down by the front door under a plantain leaf. She had thrown it out the window, she told him.

John rushed down the stairs like a wind, brushing past Mary, to find the key exactly where Jane had described it had fallen, then rushed back up to unlock the door.

“Stay here,” I told Mary then, before I turned to follow behind John. I was concerned that he might hurt Jane since she had been so difficult.

When I reached the top of the stairs, though, John had already opened the door and was staring into the room with his mouth fallen open. “What is the matter?” he cried next. “What are you doing?”

I heard Jane’s answer but did not approach to look beyond John’s shoulder. “I’ve got out at last,” Jane told him. “In spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”

Dear lord in heaven, I thought, putting my hand to my mouth. After which John did something I would have never thought I’d see in my life.

He fainted dead to the floor, half in and half out of the doorway.

Then Jane creeped over his body, crawling over it into the hallway, only to look up at me once before she turned and crawled back over John’s body and into the room again.

“Jane, please,” I said. But she could no longer hear me.

By then John had begun to recover and, groggily, he stood putting one hand to his head, wincing. Good, I thought. You deserve this after what you’ve done to her. Then he began to shout at Jane and I saw his hand go up in the air as though he might bring it down to strike her.

“No, John!” I shouted, and he looked over his shoulder at me. “There are other ways!”

For once in his life, my brother seemed to hear me. He nodded, assenting. “I will get the rope then,” he said.

The rope, I thought. What did he mean to do to her now? I did not want to know. Jane had suffered enough torture. We both had.

So as John brushed past to go back downstairs, I suddenly found myself stepping in line behind him as he opened the gate at the top of the steps. My arms flew out in front of me then, as if they had a life of their own, and my hands found a firm place on his back. Before I could realize what I was doing, I gave him a great shove, and a moment later I found myself standing at the top of the stairs watching his body tumble for what seemed like an eternity, until finally he came to thud against the bottom landing.

John’s head lay at an odd angle. His eyes were open, though, and it seemed as if he were looking up at me in shock. I put my hand to my mouth, unable to believe what I’d just done, but also somehow glad for the outcome of my action. When young Mary suddenly came to stand beside his body, holding the baby in her arms, she looked up at me with wide eyes and whispered, “Miss Jennie, what’s happened?”

“He fainted,” I cried immediately. “He saw what’s become of Jane and fainted on the stairs as he ran from her!”

Then, from John’s shock–twisted mouth, a noise escaped. “Jennie,” he groaned. “Jennie.”

“He is alive, Miss!” said Mary beside him, and she began to shift the baby to one arm so that she could kneel and reach out to John with the other.

“No!” I said from the top of the stairs. “Do not touch him. It’s very important not to move him, Mary, or we could do him more harm. Quick, see that the driver goes into town immediately. Have him bring a physician. Hurry!”

There was much crying and confusion after that, but Mary listened and went out to the waiting carriage to send the driver for help. And while she was carrying out my instructions, I did what I knew I must.

I took a pillow from Jane’s bed and made my way down the staircase. One after the other, the steps creaked and groaned beneath my weight. The weight of how much I had carried for the last few years. How much would I give to unburden myself? To undo the shackles and be free?

At the bottom of the stairs, I stood over John, the hem of my dress drifting across his lips.

“Jennie,” he said, as if that were the only word he had ever learned in his life. “Jennie, Jennie, Jennie.”

No longer would he hurt me. No longer would he torture Jane.

“Yes, John,” I said, kneeling beside him now. “It is I, your silly Jennie.” I put the pillow over his mouth gently at first, then pushed harder and harder, until his eyes widened with the fear he enjoyed bringing out in others, and then it was over. Everything.

Later, the driver returned with a doctor as well as a constable, so that they could make their declarations about John’s existence and could observe the truth of Jane’s madness, as John had witnessed prior to his fall. They shook their heads and said what a terrible shame it all was.

I agreed—yes, very much so—and nodded.

“What will become of her now?” the doctor asked.

And I said the only thing that I could.

“She is my sister,” I told them. “She is my sister and my friend. I have my own inheritance, of course, and we will have what John has left behind. I will take care of her and the child.”

After they departed, I helped Jane into a carriage—Mary had already been sent ahead with the baby—and then we left that horrible house behind us. We left behind the yellow wallpaper that Jane had torn down. We left behind the creeping women in those overgrown, abandoned gardens. And we left behind the women we had been, reduced to shadows in John’s presence.

As we drove down the winding path to the dock, rocking with the motion of the rutted roads, I brought out Jane’s secret journal, passing my fingertips over the pages. I had saved them for her before John could find them. They were her thoughts, they were her feelings. They were the threads of her story. They were her music, her black paragraphs and the white spaces of silence between them. “This is your story, Sister,” I said. “If you play these lines, you might begin to remember yourself.”

After which Jane looked at me with the most mysterious of smiles.

“There was a forest in that wallpaper, Jennie,” she whispered. “Did you see it?”

I nodded. “I did, Jane,” I said, patting her hand in mine. “But we are leaving it now. A path is opening itself through the forest. We are free now. We are free to leave everything behind us.”

(Editors’ Note: Christopher Barzak is interviewed by Deborah Stanish in this issue.)


Christopher Barzak

Christopher Barzak is the author of the Crawford Fantasy Award–winning novel, One for Sorrow, which has been made into the major motion picture, Jamie Marks is Dead. His second novel, The Love We Share Without Knowing, was a finalist for the Nebula and James Tiptree Jr. Awards. He is also the author of two collections: Birds and Birthdays, and Before and Afterlives, which won the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Collection. Christopher grew up in rural Ohio, has lived in a southern California beach town, the capital of Michigan, and has taught English outside of Tokyo, Japan, where he lived for two years. His next novel, Wonders of the Invisible World, was recently published by Knopf. Currently he teaches fiction writing in the Northeast Ohio MFA program at Youngstown State University. Learn more about Chris at

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