"Newspapers! Got 'em cheap and hot off the press! Newspapers!" The malnourished street urchin stood by the hackney wagon hocking his wares, which consisted of a hodgepodge of whatever the local garbage served up that day. He suddenly felt a poke in his back and reeled around. A bony, frail finger retreated into the hull of the hackney wagon, and was replaced by a bulging eye reeking of insanity.
"What year?" the eyeball said in a crackly voice of one who has not spoken in ages.
"N-n-n-nineteen-o-four," the urchin replied, stuttering in horror.
"Oh dear," creaked the voice. "Seven years, seven years." The eyeball surveyed the landscape, becoming particularly fixated on the way the rain glistened on the cobblestone street.
"S-s-seven years of what?" the urchin replied tentatively.
"Man. False bottom in the hackney, keeps me down here. He thinks I've gone mad." The voice stuck its long finger out, catching a rain drop, then pulling it back. "Oooh…fresh water is so good." The voice sounded pained and frail.
The eyeball appeared again and realized the urchin had gone. She was alone again, and knew the hackney would move at any moment. Retreating back into the darkness, she attempted to sleep, the only thing there was room to do in her tiny space.
She didn't know how long she slept, but awoke to hear a scuffle. Men fighting. Her husband's voice, angry, defensive. She peered out the hole she had scratched for herself over many months, and pulled back just in time for a crowbar to come plowing through, ripping the side of the carriage apart. The rain had stopped and sunlight streamed in, burning her white, paper-thin skin. She tried to shield her eyes from the sun as the policemen pulled her out.
"Good god!" one policeman said, choking back from the stench of examining the undercarriage of the hackney. "How long have you made her live like this?"
"It was for her own good," her husband scoffed. "Gone mad going 'round and telling everyone she's a countess. Now what am I to do with a wife like that while I'm out making an honest living?"
"Well," sighed one of the bobbys, "We can take her upstate. They have wonderful new facilities."
"No!" the woman shrieked. "Take me home! I'm Countess Janene of Monaco! Please, I must go home! He is not my husband, I have no idea who this man is!"
"Right, miss," the bobby said rather harshly. "We'll send you up and get you fixed."
It was only when they peeled back the blanket that had shrouded the woman that the true horror of her ordeal became bare. Hair and skin were bone-white, fingernails overgrown, curling, splitting. Her ribs so apparent that a beating heart could faintly be seen underneath. And there in her gnarled, frozen left hand, was a crumpled picture of Countess Janene of Monaco.
The policemen stared from one to the other, trying to figure out what and who to believe. The woman in the photo looked like a younger version of the woman laying before them. But Boston was an Irish town, not a place for lost countesses of French rule to wander into. Gently they gathered up the frail woman, put her in the back of another wagon, and hauled her upstate to the asylum. It was for her own good, they convinced themselves. Softly, almost mutely, the woman sang songs in French, huddled into herself in fear of what would come next.
Across an ocean, a mother and two sisters lit candles under a large, regal painting. The Countess had been missing for seven years. The last time anyone saw her, she had hopped into the back of a hackney, smiling and laughing as if the sun would always shine on her tanned face.