The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2019

All Issues
SEPT 2019 Issue

Magnetic Sleep

John Adams Whipple, <em>Hypnotism</em>, c.1845. Daguerrotype, 5 1/4 x 7 1/4 inches. Gilman Collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
John Adams Whipple, Hypnotism, c.1845. Daguerrotype, 5 1/4 x 7 1/4 inches. Gilman Collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Little Sister brushed the teapot with her fingertips. It had been a mistake to brew the leaves early. Father—which was what they all called her husband—didn’t believe in reheating so the entire preparation would have to be discarded if the physician didn’t arrive within the next five to ten minutes. She adjusted the sandwiches on the tray. Chicken, cucumber, liver.

“Don’t touch,” Older Sister scolded. Dr. Philbert had a mighty appetite, and he’d told them that he would require energy for this particular process. Besides, he was bringing someone else along with him.

The family had been asked not to eat or drink for twenty-four hours. Bowels must be empty. Little Sister’s mouth was dry, her stomach cramped, the front of her forehead prickled with an oncoming headache. Not an ideal situation, she thought. Not when so much hung in the balance.

Older Sister sat bolt upright, one leg propped on a stool, holding tightly to her lace handkerchief. The children were out. Father was sequestered in his study but would emerge as soon as he heard the front door creak.

Middle Sister lay on the divan. She was feeling out of sorts—she always felt out of sorts—either it was a quivering in her abdomen, or a buzzing in her ears, or a tingling in her feet. At first, Little Sister had thought it must be a ploy to attract Dr. Philbert’s attention. His pale green eyes, narrow frame, and manner of leaning forward to address one in low rumbling tones were hard to resist. But the doctor didn’t paid Middle Sister any particular attention, no more than he did to any other patient. No more than to the children when he came to check on them. His fingers never lingered when he felt Middle Sister’s pulse, or examined her eyes, or listened to her heartbeat.

Middle Sister had been the prettiest of the three girls. Plump and soft-faced with a ready smile, everyone thought she would be the first to marry. No question that Older Sister would remain a spinster. Gentlemen might overlook a sharp nose, but no one could overlook a sharp temperament or that nagging voice: “A bird in the hand, my dear… Too hot… Too cold… No, no, don’t worry about me.”

There had been one bold soul who was willing to take the plunge. The miller’s son. A real step down. But beggars can’t be choosers. And Older Sister had seemed keen, as keen as she could be about anyone or anything that didn’t involve some show of self-sacrifice or piety.

A date had been set and Little Sister helped prepare the trousseau.

Middle Sister helped as well, her nimble fingers flying across the starched fabric. She took so much care embroidering the initials—stroking and smoothing each curlicued letter, coaxing the threads to lie flat—that anyone who didn’t know better might have thought she was sewing them for herself.

Older Sister waited in the ante-room on the appointed day. She held a bouquet against her papery cheeks. Her gray eyes were trained on the window, watching the guests enter. She looked almost pretty. The hour struck and there was no sign of the groom. A neighbor was sent to fetch him.

Word came back that he was nowhere to be found.

Worse still, neither was Middle Sister.

And so it was that Little Sister married first. Older Sister came to live with her and Father, her unyielding features hardened to flint. She took care of the children while Little Sister managed the rest—the cooking, cleaning, washing, garden, servants (they had just one). Little Sister felt she owed it to Older Sister who had been so betrayed.

Just before prayers one afternoon, there was a knock at the door. There stood Middle Sister, older, haggard and exhausted from her journey. She wouldn’t offer a word of explanation for her disappearance or what had happened in the interim although Little Sister tried to coax it out of her in all sorts of ways, direct and indirect. Older Sister wouldn’t spare a glance for Middle Sister. Father baulked at allowing her to stay. But Little Sister insisted. Middle Sister had nowhere else to go, she said. They must learn to forgive even if they couldn’t forget.

Older Sister devised a living arrangement that suited her. She and Middle Sister slept on opposite ends of the not very large house. They ate at different sittings—Middle Sister after the rest of the family. Older Sister timed her movements so that Middle Sister’s shadow wouldn’t cross her path. She neither spoke to her nor spoke of her. Never even used her name.

Dr. Philbert arrived in town a few years later. He caused quite a stir with his thunderous lectures in the columned Society Hall at the corner of Maple and Main Street. He’d had the finest medical training in Leipzig, Germany, and in Scotland and at the medical college in Philadelphia. He’d come to live and work in ____ because the rigors of big city life didn’t suit him.

Little Sister called on him to treat Middle Sister, whose health appeared to be deteriorating. He diagnosed what ailed her—a reticent womb—and his prescription of rest, pills and hot compresses proved at least partially efficacious. Middle Sister stopped crying out in her sleep.

They continued on in this manner—Older and Middle Sister not speaking, Little Sister scurrying between them and Father and the children, Dr. Philbert visiting—until one day, while she was out on her morning constitutional, Older Sister stepped on a nail. Little Sister was so busy with her chores that she didn’t notice the limp until it worsened and chills set in. Flesh began to rot. Older Sister couldn’t get out of bed. Still, being Older Sister, she didn’t complain.

Dr. Philbert knew at once what should be done. The leg must be removed, else the disease would spread through the rest of her body. The physician was also clear on one other point: in order to amputate, he would need to put Older Sister to sleep.

Magnetic sleep worked. It was a tried and true method. It pulled patients into a dreamlike state so that they felt no pain during the procedure, no nervousness, no anxiety. Success rates were high. Dr. A. had used the method to great effect in Edinburgh. And morbidity rates following surgery were far lower than amputation carried out with patients under the influence of alcohol or other narcotics.

There was only one hiccup. Dr. Philbert could not control the amount of energy he released. The force of the magnetic fluid, which would be transmitted directly through the physician, might be too strong for a female to withstand unaided. Father, Middle Sister and Little Sister would need to form a human chain to absorb the excess.

Older Sister shook her head, no.

“What about just the two of us, Father and myself?” Little Sister asked.

“Not enough,” Dr. Philbert replied. “We need all three.”

“I can barely tolerate the air she breathes,” Older Sister said. “Being connected to her in any way would kill me.”

Little Sister begged and pleaded. To no avail.

She followed the doctor to his office and explained the long-standing feud.

“All the better!” Dr. Philbert jumped from his seat. “Matters of the heart affect matters of the head and matters of the body. Your middle sister’s suffering affects your older sister, and vice-versa. We can cure them both. We must make this family whole again.”


Still, Older Sister refused. She would take Middle Sister's treachery to her grave.

Father replied, “And that’s where you’ll soon be if you don’t come to your senses.”

After dinner, when it was just the two of them, Little sister asked, “Is there anything that will change your mind? Anything at all?”

Older Sister silently considered her choices.

What did she want? Little Sister wondered—to turn back the clock, to win back the miller’s son, her lost youth, revenge? If this were a fairy-tale, Older Sister might demand a first-born child, a rose plucked from the desert, Middle Sister’s heart on a platter…

Something stirred within the youngest sibling.

“There is one thing,” Older Sister said finally.

“What is it?”

“It has nothing to do with her. It’s something only you can give.”

Little Sister did not possess much of value. There was the necklace from their mother. The music box. A bit of old lace. “Whatever you want. Just tell me.”

“I want your life.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I want the life you have. A house of my own. A husband and children. A maid to boss around. A vegetable garden. It was supposed to be mine but you have it all, and I have nothing.”

Little Sister was stunned. All along, she had thought it was Middle Sister who Older Sister hated.

“Father will barely notice if he’s taken care of,” Older Sister went on. “And besides, if you leave, he will have no choice.”

“What about the children?”

“The children will be fine.”

“But how will you manage alone?”

“Oh, I’ll manage,” Older Sister said. “Don’t you worry about me.”


Dr. Philbert arrived an hour late. He apologized for the delay. It had been an emergency.

A young boy had fallen into a ditch and the doctor braced his broken collarbone, bandaged his wrist. The child was in shock but recovering.

The physician drank his fresh pot of tea and ate his sandwiches. As promised, he had brought along a maker of daguerreotypes to document the proceedings. Dr. Philbert placed four chairs in a row and instructed the family to sit side-by-side. First Father, then Older Sister, then Middle Sister, and last, Little Sister, their elbows touching.

At Dr. Philbert’s word, they closed their eyes. He stood behind them, hand on hip, gathered his energy. Placed his right palm on top of Father’s head…

Little Sister felt nothing but all at once a pulse jolted through her and she flinched.

No matter. Father and Middle Sister’s absorptive capacities must have been sufficient. Older Sister underwent the surgery without experiencing the slightest pain. When the sutures healed, Dr. Philbert provided her with a prosthetic limb.

It wasn’t much later that Little Sister vanished. Search parties were dispatched but they returned without any leads. The town gossips were surprised, and they weren’t. After all, they said, these sisters made a habit of disappearing. If it wasn’t one, it was the other. And the youngest, she had been so put upon, no doubt she craved a bit of adventure. She was probably out and about relishing her liberty.

What was more remarkable, they observed, was how well the other two managed in her absence. They could often be seen on their way to the market, the eldest holding on to her sibling’s arm for support, each carrying a basket. After a while, it was difficult to remember that there ever had been any bad blood between them.


Radha Vatsal

Radha Vatsal is the author of the mystery novels A Front Page Affair and Murder Between the Lines. Her non-fiction has appeared in the online editions of the Atlantic, Los Angeles Review of Books, Smithsonian, CrimeReads, and Kirkus. She is the co-editor of the Women Film Pioneers Project.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2019

All Issues