From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

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Fiction

The Dybbuk Ward

I am not an illness. I’m a soul with a goal.

Everyone on this floor is here for intrusive thoughts, ideations, risk of harm to themselves or others. What society used to call possession, they now call neurotransmitter imbalance or schizophrenia or obsessive compulsion.

Society forgets that sometimes it really is possession.

I see my counterparts behind their eyes, muted by their medications, riding sluggishly in their host bodies. It pains me to see them this way. They’ve been lulled into forgetting their final tasks; without completing their unfinished business here on earth, these souls will never pass on.

I died on this hospital floor, hoarding my pills, taking them all at once in a swift and defiant act. The full schedule of group therapy, art therapy, music therapy, solo therapy, pharmaceutical therapy . . . all of it is theater. None of it spoke to my PTSD, my anxiety, the chronic physical and emotional pain that clung to me from the abuse I suffered as a child and a teen. Doctors wanted me to rehash the details of the assaults time and again, button by button, but it always felt as if it was for their own sick fascination. Never for me.

If these souls could only rest, their hosts could resume their lives. All of this is bullshit. None of it brings anyone, or the souls that ride them, any closer to wellness, to release, to freedom.

But I will. Because now I’m riding Dr. Green.

• • • •

I pick her because of the Magen David she wears on a gold chain around her neck, because she’s the one who prescribes the pills, and because she was the nicest to me when I was . . . whoever I was. She’s old enough to have had a bubbie to tell her the old stories, young enough to be healthy and sound. I plan to lay low for a few days, observing her, waiting to see if she notices me.

It’s beautiful to be in a body unclouded by pain, a mind unclouded by darkness.

Day One, she doesn’t seem to detect me. I know just from sharing her body and mind that she’s strong-willed and follows the same routine every day. She keeps kosher at home but not when she’s out. Her first name is Sophie and she’s ashamed of it. She thinks it’s an old lady name. She has lost her mother and one breast to cancer.

I’m maybe halfway in love with her, but maybe that’s just what it’s like to be so close to someone, to share hands and eyes and heart with them. I wish I could ask the others, but they’re buried too deeply in their hosts to communicate with me. I didn’t mean to come back or be a dybbuk and I don’t know how all this works. All I know is it’s a chance I’m not going to waste.

I mean to lay low, but that first night when she’s brushing her hair in front of the bathroom mirror, I borrow her voice. “Sophie is a beautiful name,” I make her say.

Her thoughts hit me instantly, a rote response: It doesn’t even have a good nickname.

She stares at herself for a moment. “Sophie is a beautiful name,” she repeats, tasting the words as if wondering where they came from. As if they’re a drop of rain on her lips from out of a clear sky. Then she shrugs, disbelieving herself, and reaches for the bottle of cleanser to wash her face.

• • • •

Apprehension fills me as we enter the ward. Despite the fact that I’m the one with the ID badge now, the antiseptic smells are the same, the people are the same, as the place I’ve been trapped for the last few months. I remind myself that I have the power now. I can leave at the end of the shift. None of these people are here to hurt me or help me or evaluate everything I do. As staff, I’m invisible to other staff and to patients in a way I wasn’t before.

The patients wear their own clothes. I appreciate this in a new way now. I see how it helps the staff see them as potentially rehab-able people, when they’re not shambling zombies in open-assed hospital gowns. I can see their personalities and get a sense of their style in how they dress, how they attend to their hygiene. Another facet of behavior I hadn’t realized they evaluated, back when I was me.

Dr. Green pulls up the inpatient files and I get a peek at all of them. Save my own, of course, since I’m not a patient anymore. I’m in the morgue by now. It doesn’t even bother me to think about. That body was just a flawed, tired shell. The real me is here, alert, and focused.

I see the scoop on all my friends from group therapy. Laverne, for example, is on tranquilizers because when she isn’t, she rants about how she needs to get to Mrs. Felicity Ann Torvinen of Harrisburg and tell her she was right.

I copy down the name and do a little online searching. There’s only one Felicity Torvinen living in Harrisburg and I open her blog. It’s a sweet site about life lessons she learned while teaching at the YMCA, with occasional recipes and crafts.

I make a call.

Wilson Hayes, who sat next to the old me in Art Therapy, is obsessed with fire safety. He can’t enter a room, even for the hundredth time, without counting the sprinklers and the number of exits. He draws dogs really well, but they’re always trapped behind glass. The house he draws always has the same house number on it. His file says that when he started his current medication, he was able to calm down about fire and start to draw other things. Streets, cafes, still life scenes . . . but that 11007 number is still incorporated in all of them.

Dr. Green meets with Wilson at ten o’clock for their weekly consultation. He wears a soft blue flannel shirt and pale jeans, bleached almost white. His hands are clean, his nails manicured, his skin vibrant brown, but his face is soft, his eyes mousy brown and lacking focus. He glances up to the sprinkler in the middle of the office ceiling before he sits. On his feet, clean blue socks, the kinds with the grippy nubs on the bottom. Sophie calls him Wilson and asks him how he feels and whether he’s noticing any side effects from his medication. She likes him. She thinks he’s a kind man, but tortured. I see his dybbuk as a sleepy presence in his eyes. I try calling out to it, but it doesn’t hear me.

“I don’t have as much energy as usual,” Wilson says, “but maybe it’s just that there isn’t much to do here but think and talk, and think some more.”

I move to Sophie’s face and pretend to check her files, then I use her mouth. “You do seem fatigued and listless lately. The staff has noticed. We’re going to try adjusting your medication.” I type with her hands, halving the dose. Her knowledge tells me it’s not safe to cut it to zero all at once. I don’t want to hurt him. “Tell me about the house in your artwork. What’s the address there?”

Sophie is startled by the question. He looks as startled as she feels. No one’s thought to ask him this before. His brow furrows in thought for a minute, and he actually rubs his palm across his forehead.

“11007 . . . ” I prompt.

“11007 Chestnut Way, Aberdeen,” he blurts. Then he seems surprised at himself, like he doesn’t know where it came from.

After our short appointment, I do some more research online.

“What is going on?” Sophie whispers, watching her fingers move on the keyboard, reading the article that appears on her screen.

“You help people,” I answer back, in her own whisper. “You want to help people. But sometimes you can help them better by listening to them. Sometimes what you call delusions have meaning.”

She revolts, tensing and fighting me for control of her body. I subside and let her win. It is still hers, after all. I don’t want to be an impolite guest. “I’m not here to hurt you,” I tell her, “but to help them. When we help them, I can go. When we help them, they can go, too. Do you see?”

She’s smart. I picked a smart one. She makes the connection mostly by herself. The patients who hear voices. The patients with memories that aren’t theirs, with compulsions that seem random. “Felicity is real. Wilson’s house fire is real,” she whispers slowly.

“Exactly. They’re not theirs, but they’re real. What happens if Wilson Hayes gets to see that the dog survived? What happens if Laverne gets to talk to Felicity? Would it really be the end of the world?”

“No, but—”

“So why do you fight so hard against just letting them have this?”

Sophie sees my point. “Who are you?” she asks.

“I died yesterday. But I have unfinished business, and this—helping these people—is it.”

She doesn’t connect me with the death on the ward, but she does seem to accept this. Tentatively. It makes as much sense as anything else. She knows, or insists to herself that she knows, that she isn’t delusional.

You see how it feels, knowing your own truth, knowing no one’s going to believe you, just pump you full of pills? I think at her. Then I let it go. She’s putting it together well enough on her own. I retreat while she works and ponders.

That’s our time for today, Dr. Green. I’m sure you’ve got a lot to process.

• • • •

Two days later. There is no weekend break for inpatients, but the weekend is when Felicity Torvinen’s son can drive her down from Harrisburg. It’s not far, so hopefully this strange errand isn’t too much of an imposition on them. Sophie chats with them a little, then has them wait in her office, and there they sit when Laverne comes in for her appointment. We’ve agreed to titrate her dose down, too, and I see that the dual presence of her dybbuk is more aware behind her eyes. I’m showing Dr. Green how to recognize it, too.

Laverne is a soft-figured white lady. She looks about fifty, with graying hair tied back in a ponytail and a simple long-sleeved floral tunic shirt and solid-colored yoga pants. Her moccasin bedroom slippers shuffle on the tile in the hall but are silent on my carpet.

Felicity doesn’t recognize Laverne, of course, but Laverne recognizes Felicity at once. She brings her hands up to her face, not covering her eyes as they fill with tears. She goes to her knees, taking Felicity’s gentle, wrinkled hands. “Oh, Mrs. Torvinen. It’s me, Amelia. I’m in here. I wanted to thank you, I can’t believe I get a chance to thank you.”

Felicity plays along, transferring one of Laverne’s hands to both of hers, patting it softly. “It’s all right, Amelia. What are you thanking me for?”

“You told me I had the talent to be a top figure skater. You believed in me. You were the first one to ever believe in me. And I made it, I made it all the way to the Olympics and then my plane crashed on the way home and I never had a chance to thank you.”

Felicity stills. Her eyes go wide. Her son looks at her curiously. “Amelia . . . Jackson?” she says, taking in this body, this stranger, at her feet.

“Yes!” Laverne’s dybbuk crows. She has such a beatific smile, like the people in art who are about to receive the rapture. “Yes, it’s me. I couldn’t be at peace without thanking you. Those lessons at the Y, growing up, they meant everything.”

“I always followed your career,” Felicity says. “I was always proud. I’m . . . still proud.”

Sophie doesn’t need me to see the change come over Laverne’s eyes, but I make sure she doesn’t miss it. The woman left behind is lucid, serene, and a little embarrassed. She gets to her feet.

“I feel tired all of a sudden,” Laverne says. “Can I be excused to lie down a while?”

Patients are supposed to remain out on the floor during the day, participating and being sociable, or at least engaged in tasks. But Dr. Green and I can see the weight that’s been lifted from Laverne, and the shock of being suddenly alone in her mind and body. “Of course,” we say, and make a note in her file that we allowed it.

“When was that plane crash?” I ask Felicity once Laverne has left us.

“Oh, that was two or three years ago,” she says.

“Two,” her son confirms. “We saved the newspaper with the headline. Mom was crushed.”

In the file, Laverne Monroe’s outpatient treatment started two years ago with “agitation and fixation” and hearing voices in her head. Outpatient treatments were unsuccessful. She’s been a resident here for six months, one of the longer-duration patients.

Dr. Green doesn’t need me to tell her that Laverne’s symptoms will all have abated by the time she rises from her nap. Though she’s astonished and doesn’t know how the hell she’s going to write it up, she sees what just happened. She understands.

“They’re not all like that,” she whispers to me later, in the car. “They’re not all possessed. Letting them act out their fixations, it’s not always going to be an easy fix. Neurodivergence is real. Chemical imbalances are real. Mental illness is real.”

“All those things are real,” I agree. “But so are unfinished souls. Can you tell the difference yet?”

She’s silent the rest of the way home. It’s a companionable silence, though. It’s hard to tell if she likes me, but I think she’s used to me.

• • • •

The following week, Laverne is discharged.

Sophie and I haven’t made as much progress finding Wilson’s dog. The family that died in the house fire is a matter of public record, but what happened to the dog isn’t. It’s taken a week for Dr. Green to track down the firefighter who rescued the dog and get him to return our call. He tells us he turned the dog over to a local shelter. The shelter won’t give out the adoption information. I feel stuck, but Sophie doesn’t.

“Do you have a photo of the dog? The one you used to promote him for adoption?” Dr. Green asks. They email it to her later that day. It’s date-stamped and everything. It’s perfect.

Wilson thinks it’s perfect, too. He hugs it and he breaks down and cries. He keeps asking if it’s real, but he knows it is. Dr. Green watches him, awe spreading through her. This is real, too, she thinks, recalling my words. I couldn’t be more proud.

New patients come. She gets better at spotting the dybbuks. She trains the staff on fixation-fulfillment as treatment, or “getting the obsession out of their system,” and teaches them to spot the signs. Even if they’re wrong sometimes, if what the patient wants isn’t dangerous, does it really hurt to try?

• • • •

Lara Berk is admitted on a Wednesday. She’s one of us. Sophie and I spot her at once. She’s had a complete personality change after a car accident, though her brain scans show no damage. She is a young woman, wire-taut, home on break from a New England college. She no longer cares whether she goes back for the spring semester. She wears the same clothes every day. Stringy-haired, she declines the opportunity to shower.

Her unfinished business is revenge. We can’t just give it to her and let her get it out of her system. Sophie is adamant about that. “Is the cure worth it if it comes at the cost of other lives?” she demands.

“What if she only thinks she needs to kill because she’s too angry to conceive of getting revenge some other way? Could your team help her through her anger so she can find a non-violent solution that would satisfy her?” I counter.

Sophie actually meets with her colleagues on Lara’s case and they form a strategy. They look at who else was in the accident. They investigate the other fatalities. They listen to the patient’s story. Whose story is she embodying, if not her own? Lara’s art is violence and death. Her music is the honking of horns and the crash of cymbals. Even if they think it’s merely her projection, they still help her put the pieces together. They medicate to soften the edges of her anger instead of drugging the whole situation into a paste. They treat the dybbuk, not the host. She calms. She accepts. She heals.

After her discharge, we get word that Lara has killed her brother. He was the driver in the accident. The dybbuk got its revenge. Lara’s personality changes again. Now she is a well of grief and remorse. Grief and remorse respond well to outpatient treatment while she sits at home on bail, awaiting trial.

Dr. Green has started handling all her patients the way I’ve taught her to handle the dybbuks. She listens to what they want, what they say they need. I’ve made someone a more compassionate human. I’ve helped trapped souls. So why haven’t I moved on?

I expected it at that first reunion, when the skater got a chance to thank her first teacher. I expected it when the fire victim learned his beloved dog had survived. I expected it when Sophie identified her first dybbuk without my help.

If those things aren’t what I want, then what is it?

And then I know. I need to be seen, too. Even if I don’t know who I am.

Sophie knows who I am. She knows which patient died that day.

On her next day off, I ask her to go to my grave. There aren’t supposed to be visitors for a full year, according to tradition, but I think it’s okay to be non-traditional about this; I’ve certainly taught Sophie to be non-traditional about everything else.

There’s no stone yet, just a plot of dirt that still shows signs of its recent overturning.

“I wronged you. I wronged other patients. I misdiagnosed them because I didn’t understand,” she says out loud to the grave. Waits. Nothing happens. She tries again: “I release you.” A pause. “I’ve learned to recognize trapped souls. I’ve learned how to help them. I’ll continue to help them.”

Nothing changes. I’m still here.

My grave is in a cluster of family plots. Sophie wanders between them, reading names and dates. She stops before one.

“This is your grandfather, isn’t it. The one who abused you?”

Yes. Even dead, even through someone else’s lips, I can’t say it out loud.

She thinks a moment. I can feel the gears turning, as it were, too fast for me to follow.

“Non-traditional revenge, right?” Sophie makes a sound I’ve never heard from her, a low and biting laugh. And then she’s reaching up under our skirt and lowering our tights.

“For you, for how he hurt you,” she says. “PTSD, depression, chronic pain. Also real.”

We’re pissing on his grave. It feels frightening and thrilling and vindicating, so out of character for both of us—so exposed and yet so powerful.

She straightens, pulling her underclothes back into place, and steps back. I can hardly believe it, but I can see for myself that she just did it. That it’s real.

I feel the link between us start to weaken; I feel the pull instead toward where my body rests in the ground a few feet away. I let my soul go.

That’s our time for today, Dr. Green.

Gabrielle Harbowy

Gabrielle Harbowy

Gabrielle Harbowy, a 15-year veteran of the publishing industry, is an award-nominated editor, author, and anthologist. She wrote the novels Aether’s Pawn (forthcoming), Pathfinder Tales: Gears of Faith, and Hearts Are Jerks. She is an active member of SFWA and the International Association of Media Tie In Writers, and has written game adventures for Pathfinder PFS and Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League. She holds a degree in psychology from Rutgers University. Find her at gabrielleharbowy.com, or on Patreon or Twitter as gabrielle_h.