Monthly Archives: December 2011

XV

these days are best spent watching in

seated silence, benches placed, rows

angled outside of wards. From here

we can be, look –

-ing through, for the sick to be seen

 

there on their sides, evidence of the human:

footprints and hands by vials of god

while children sleep to ignore insides

 

a hospital, an aching room, these

dishes multiply themselves as walls

sweat slowly on christmas day with

 

lessons learned for all of us


remember the deed remember A53

A new illness creeps and leaves – a wave that

takes the flesh off my bones and returns it quietly

every few seconds I become anew and

we talk of pasts and strangle landscapes

ignoring changes outside our door

 

you stay sitting, throwing up old lives as though

nothing will remind you of rings, a move, the day

you created someone real while

 

I slowly gathered closer, my days reshaping

in my feet. A distraction: I can be there, too.


newday

these words take liberties

on my tongue, stolen truth
in sleep-and-talk
where time gets eaten
by the time you take

and mindfully, I stop my gaps to start
recounting, counting – seconds gather
space in sleep,
verbally tied,

then a memory—
I used to believe—

all the words were just a name

and I wake strapped up and
whaleboned in, a sliver
with which inhaling
on each second, each sound
all again seem just alike

you turn to me, and yet, and yet


First draft of a second (half a) chapter of Floodlands

Floodlands

 Chapter II

Elsewhere in the hospital, one of the patients was clambering against the chipped plasterboard of the hospital walls. Her hands were a mess; a collection of gnawed chicken joints heaving with gristle and tiny growths, all wrapped in a loose skin of iodine dipped newspaper cuttings, each page telling some old, typical tragedy. She kept her wrists and elbows in contact with the skirting which ran along the floor, and her hair trailed over the warped parquet beneath her knees. She was saying something to herself, reminding her fingers of the rules of a game. The other patients could continue their endless marathons of invisible chess, she would mutter. Her game was the real thing. All she had to do was join herself with the plaster, there were plenty enough holes and gaps, giant stratified spaces where the textures had been chipped away by sharp hips and rubbing wrists. She just had to find the one that would let her in. It couldn’t be far away now… She had almost found it, just a couple of days ago. Her head had been pushed against the underside of a windowframe, and she could feel the heat passed down through the glass and into the whitewash, into her dry cheeks. There had been a space, a small gateway through which she thought she saw two stone heads, an eternity apart… if only she could fit through, she could begin the second stage and move closer to home. All she had to do was contort herself in, and then run, and run and run…

She dipped underneath a woman leaning at a stiff forty-five degree angle against the sides of the room, her feet almost a metre in front of the back of her head. As she jostled against the kneepits of this rigid human ladder, all rungs of ribs and the stink of perspired barbituate, she was overcome with some small sense of ecstacy. Here was a sign, she sighed. The angle, the passing beneath thin thighs, the shadow of another cast perfectly onto her back for a second or two – all such things were symbolic and perfect, part of the plan, the greater game. Two huge faces were waiting for her touch – just a graze with her nails would be enough, and the shape above her now was just like their shape, she could perceive home in this moment. It would be so easy. The feeling washed over her like a euphoria, an ending.

This sensation, however, passed quickly and was certainly not picked up by the other woman, whose gaze was fixed solidly onto the handle of a door in front of her, an old brass grotesque which curled in upon itself in a way which was currently being perceived as both coquettish and threatening. It had been communicating with her and the ghosts of her sisters for the past two and a half hours, and so she barely noticed the awkward shuffling beneath her. A pounding on the tiles and the scrape of broken nails on glass – another patient hurled herself passed them, and they looked up to see a rare sighting of the female lycanthrope on one of her lunar days, running away from sodium lightglares and itching at the lupine hair she could feel scratching away on the inside of her skin. She didn’t even see the other two, and couldn’t hear the muttering which followed our crawling patient as she kept herself pinned to the base of the wall, propelling herself down the corridor by her scabbed and clicking knees. Somewhere, there had to be a gap large enough…

The rest of the corridors were completely empty. Somewhere, a girl was talking. A shaft of sunlight was splitting a room in two, and a hundred pairs of ears sweated together as they listened.

The heat continued in pulsing waves which carried its own passover and madness. The sun was unaware of any women shuffling, staring or shrieking beneath its nauseating influence as it inched its way across the empty sky above the hospital. Unaware, but constantly perceived by both the animate, the inanimate and the insane. Roof tiles retracted, split and fell onto parched ground. The lake waters continued their resigned retreated, and the offspring of the inbred life within flipped and gasped their slowly shrinking limbs on the crackling earth, reducing their own birthing pools to a writhing mass of incest and mucus, of shedding scales and brittle bones. Windows curled in their frames, walls groaned beneath the weight of their own gathered dust and twisting stanchions, and the women clawed at their flaking skin beneath ceiling fans turning uselessly above them. In her wood-lined office, Angela, the clammy, fattened matriach of the hospital, lay back in her seat and fanned herself slowly with gathering of greasy papers clutched in her huge fingers. They were covered in stamps and seals, scribbled on and blackened out, modified and edited to the extent that the original text had been lost some time ago, merely the shadow of the initial intention remained, a handful of consonants beneath half an inch of whitener and blotted ink. The name at the top was untouched, however, and Veronika’s face peered out from a small grey photograph stapled to the corner, her eyes drawn forever to the white borders of the image. Angela coughed, twice, dryly – her lungs were suffering from both the heat and the massive weight of her sticky bosom, and she continued to turn the pages of the old, old book which sat open on her desk. The writing angered her, and each sentence was a stinging slap to her conditioning of rationality, of order and the accepted timestream of the regimes she had devoted her professional life to. What angered her even more, however, was happening a few hundred metres away, down the parched corridors of the hospital and in the leisure sanctum, the humid central room which oversaw the gaping eyes and impossible games. Veronika was speaking, the relative silence, the pause in alarms and running feet detectable from even this distance confirmed this, and Petra, the newcomer, had clearly failed in her initial duties to silence her.

Petra had indeed failed. She had set off after leaving Angela’s office to locate the sedatives she believed she would require, but on arrival at the dispensary room she was met with hundreds upon hundreds of looming and towering shelves; leech jars filled with clear liquids and stoppered with rotting corkwood rattled above the door, racks of test tubes with labels written in the language of the old country – but not her old country – stretched out into the sweaty gloom. To her left were the barbituates, their acrid odour escaping from badly sealed lids, and the opiates were arranged in some impossibly confusing system of potency to her right. The view was dizzying, it stretched on for years, around unseen corners. The bottles reflected what little light there was in thin waves, and most appeared to be empty and clambered with dust and congealed fluid. This task could and should wait, she decided. She sensed that Angela would not care if Veronika had been dosed with enough morphine to stun the entire contents of the lake outside the windows, but even in here, this forgotten institution, some sense of her own decency remained and so the nurse walked to the central area to witness the patient she was supposed to be medicating. She had been listening to Veronika speak directly to her for forty-five minutes now, and her ramblings had been so far fascinating in tone, but ultimately unrailed and unravelled, a yarn which took no direction. There had been references, numerous references to ice, and snow, a fat mother, a wetnurse, but these were intercut with words nobody in the room could understand and long, drawn out moans and moments of stillness and silence. The audience remained rapt and transfixed throughout, and Petra was unable to resist giving her full attention –  any thoughts of sedating this sad-eyed, pallid orator had escaped her completely, as had the memory and fear of chastisement from her superiors. Petra looked around her. Three other matrons were staring dumbly and directly at the new nurse – she simultaneously began to wonder if they could speak at all and  to sense that this lecture was unusual, that her arrival had somehow provoked a shift. She was, for now at least, rendered speechless.

„I never killed a man” Veronika repeated, again staring at the nurse in front of her, eyes unmoving and fingers splayed out before her, a blind girl unaware that she could see. „Anyway, your home is in my book. And I remember every word, if I try. Let me tell you about your town”

 

Somewhere down a wavering corridor, through a set of shivering mirages, Angela turned a page, and checked to see that her door was locked. An echo danced towards her office, it was the sound of Veronika clearing her throat, of a hundred patients listening expectantly.

„Towards the end, a girl disappeared. She packed very little, this they knew, for little was taken from her quarters. An old sealskin bag, a few scarves, possibly some dried meats taken from the end of summer’s shelves somewhere. Her bed was left neatly rearranged, the furs were folded onto each other as was her habit in the mornings, except this was not a morning, no… not this far north. The winter ensures that the mornings never come, not until something is appeased, something is begged for. Only night, occasionally twilight. The herring boats go south each hour, and some of them might glimpse the edges of a new day in the far distance, but they know it will be many months before they can bring one back with them. Still, the birds gather around their masts, screaming their demands and taking their sacrifice. Up there, all is symbol, all is sacred. The ghosts of dead men swim alongside the scraping hulls, exchanging limbs for fins, breath for breath of a different kind. The stars are not stars, rather something quite different. Trees are spoken of in hushed tones, and rarely seen at all.”

Veronika kneeled forwards, and touched her forehead to the floor. Petra moved to stand up, to say something. There was a sensation within her that this was deeply unfair – that she should speak out. That she had heard and lived all this before, and how could a patient interred for seven years so far make these claims? She must have been barely a child upon entry to the hospital, for despite the lines in her face and the patches missing from her scalp, she was surely only in her early twenties. Veronika raised herself again, and once more looked at Petra. The nurse could only look down, and hold her tongue as best she could. „All the time in the world…”, she told herself.

„Morning didn’t come, and there was one who wished it never would. For her past held secrets, and one morning she was afraid she would have to speak them. And secrets can drive even the hardest mind to madness, can make even the strongest legs flee beyond the forests…”

 

Petra stood up. „Stop it”, she said, quietly. „Please, stop saying these things.” A hundred hands flicked away her pleas as the audience returned their eyes to the rocking girl, and behind her, Petra could sense the silent swaying of the matrons, their backs clammy from the glare of the windows.

In her chamber, hidden from the sunlight, Angela was looking over the penultimate chapter of the book she had taken into her collection, seven years ago. She had read it dozens of times before, each time resisting the urge to tear it up, or burn it, or spit on the old ink with the last of the moisture which remained in her mouth. Of all the parts of this text, this section was the most story-like, had some sense of a narrative. Not that any of it made any sense, she thought, as she gripped the sallow and flaking paper in her fingers. The chapter opened with the description of a nurse, a savage sort of nurse in a savage sort of land. All were by now aware of the types of people who dwelled north of the borders, Angela repeated to herself. And all knew what a nurse was, and regimes may rise or fall, but patients need to be kept and silenced – the world must be shielded from the mad and the dying, or at least they must shield themselves from the world. The newly born must be cleansed properly of the bloodshed and the vile fluids which coughed them into existence before being allowed to step into the society which would mould them. Everybody knew this, she said, as she read on. She read to herself aloud:

„The nurse scratched at her worn knuckles. They carried the remainder of the coal dust she had been dabbing on the incisions she’d made on and inside her patient, and it coated her fingertips, leaving a black and irridescent stain over the backs of her hands which now swung crookedly at her sides. “There, there’”, she muttered. “There, there”. A deeply gutteral snarl was emitted from the misshapen form on the ground. Pregnancy within the royal household, way up here in the north, was never an attractive or miraculous process. The ceilings were slick and hanging with the condensation of burnt seal fat, the cadence of winter with its blood and sunless skies were an infection which couldn’t help but crawl its way between the cracks in the blubberlined window frames, and the pulsating belly which carried an heir seemed not so much a symbol of life but a reminder of the inevitability of the struggle to maintain it. Little did all three of them know that a story was approaching fast, pulled by dogs and heralded by a growing fervour amongst the people of the settlement. Still, within this room, a nightmare of its own was unfurling between clawmarked thighs and coalblackened knuckles. The room continued to grimly sweat and gag, and the fires which had burned for hours were reaching their sad zenith as they spat towards their end. The nurse clapped her hands above the hearth, and thousands upon thousands of carbon granules fell to join their source, or ignited for a moment in the heat which still hovered above the embers, falling away, or upwards, or nowhere. Exhausted and resigned, she released a rattling sigh as her knees crackled and rustled with her squatting.”

Angela could hear the words falling from her fleshy lips, and they disgusted her. Here was a tale of an uncultured land, a household unshaped by regime and the changes of regime. A place without the merits of history, without institutions such as hers. Outside, the ivy fell in agreement, its battle with the dry heat coming to a toppling end as it crumbled away from the walls. Not so far away, Veronika was continuing the story, and Petra grew increasingly sickened.  Her soft voice meandered down the corridors, was carried on motes and platelets of dust.

„…It had been a long night, the reeking miasma of burning skin and heather was aching her lungs and her joints were dull and throbbing rhythmically with her old heart. She needed to lie down and continue her efforts in a few hours, of this there was little question, and the stool which numbed her hind quarters groaned in agreement. The patient continued to lie on the piled and matted pelts, a huge, bloated specimen of a woman, belly creaking and undulating on the ground, the imprints of tiny hands and feet within clearly visible, punching and stretching beneath the taut drumskin of a vast stomach. The woman was barely human in this state; she barked and groaned and flopped vastly across the floor, amniotic fluids and blood coagulating on her thighs. A child was coming, and all the nurse could do now was watch as a portent began to spill across the floor…”


for the days

This year scenes were little but slowly shattered plates

thirsting for attention amidst the ersatz of the months –

left behind a wake: empty glasses make me wonder

why a collection, a memory hardens – maybe we

soon see petrified strata in the sky

maybe we already do. I quickly box it in to find

 

these kneejoints still spit themselves as chipped glass

pushing a body through coughing births and

separating waters as they pass: my elbow looks

familiar once as it crosses what was my face –

soon we’ll see the livid form

or glass turning, or something. To notice, all, enough


gesture IV

These hands are nothing constant, forever

wrapped in moments, as with old news –

paper soaked deep in iodine for

 

they’re sallow in the mornings and

whiten up by noon and

 

I can only read the changes somewhere

between my mound of venus and

 

a small scar from something huge


First Draft of a First Chapter of “Floodlands”

Floodlands

Chapter I

“I could teach you all the songs of the coal-daughters of Arkhangelsk, if I wished.”

She rocked back on her heels, the pale blue smock pooled around her calves as she observed the quick, black eyes of the women watching her. The young patient flexed her bare toes, coughed dryly, and wrapped a stray lock of hair around a forefinger before speaking.

Silence filled the room, seeking out splits in the grouting and blanketing itself against the gently warping windowframes.

“I could show you how their hands trace leaf patterns across the breasts of dead men, or how their frozen fingernails chip in the springtime, leaving jagged ridges on mahogany fingers.”

„I could tell you the last words that were spoken before the last rains came, and I can guess what they might be when the rains come again.”

She spoke for a very long time, occasionally pulling at her sleeves or wiping a bead of sweat from her eyelashes.

“I could show you, if you sat awhile and watched, the dances of the dog runners of the final years, or the way the missionaries walked before the change, with their books and beads dragging behind their hardened heels. It is all still here. It is all still in my head.”

The girl was still rocking gently, back and forth as was her habit during these reveries. The room was filled with other patients, sitting slack-mouthed and chewing on air and scratching at the formica tiles beneath their regulation slippers. Many of them were bound in clothing designed for their protection; protection from their minds, from their nails, from their jutting elbows and protuding teeth. A movement near the window – a ward nurse began to walk towards the speaker, her name tag and fob watch scuttling beneath starched collars – but the girl’s eyes shot upwards after a moment of calm, fixed the disturbance in her soot-black gaze and continued speaking at a pace which stilled the room once more.

„There was a book. What happened to my book? Those pages held histories, and you knew this when you took it from me. Return to me my heirloom, and you will be told what is coming. I can tell you the true name of the river, I can show you what bridges west and east. I can do this – I can do so much more… soon… soon, the rains are coming…”

Silence returned to the room. The hour was over and her speech was finished once more. With her monologue complete, her offers ignored, the young woman slumped back against the whitewashed wall and returned her gaze to the dry, cracked flooring of the hospital. Her audience of patients muttered among themselves and busied their hands with dog-eared playing cards, with backgammon and knucklebones – some of these items were material, tangible, whereas others existed elsewhere and the rules were lost and found and lost once again in an exchange understood by nobody; waves of confusion wracked the sense from calculated movements, only to return it every few seconds. The combined clattering of real and imaginary dice and ivory against polished rosewood and plastics produced murmuring vibrations that fluttered through the plastering with a clinical inertia, echoing around unfortunate heads and gathering beneath the toenails of the insane. It was a season of discomfort, of the ghosts of springtime and the wards of the hospital were sweating, clawing with dehydration and maddening closeness. This June had been one of the hottest anybody could remember, the streets outside – glimpsed through barred windows – shimmered and kicked up dust by themselves; inside, motes twisted in hacking vortexes around the slippers of the women; in the distance, the great lake looked parched and pallid, its dark waters grasping at its own boundaries with cracked tendrils and rasping, lapping breaths. The rains, if they were really coming, could barely be imagined.

A stubbleheaded patient stepped towards the girl, now sitting still and wordless, and reached for her neck to pull back the smock she wore. „More”, she asked. „No answers, just more”. The stretched fabric in her fist revealed a name – just one, contorted on a thick stitched label. The girl on the floor, Veronika, couldn’t continue to speak even if she had wanted to. This silence would continue, as it always did, for a further twenty-three hours.

Within moments, the lumbering matrons of the wards had begun again their rounds, serving out the porridges and pills that made up the diets of the hammocked and straightjacketed women, their heavy feet and lidded eyes avoiding contact with the moaning patients who passed their days in the open cells and old, high fenced gardens in this forgotten corner of the lowlands. The matrons were a constant presence, and their duties were met with wide eyes, incomprehensible babbling, crooked fingers and arched backs; all was routine, all was a relative normality beneath the flat ceiling. All, that is, except for Veronika, whose startling lucidity, whose daily lectures and lyrical nonsense caused a sense of unease among even the most hardened members of staff, those who had been inside for years and whose faces and dullness of movement was indistinguishable from even the most empty of the unfortunates they catered for. Veronika was different, was disturbing. She was, in the eyes of the staff, an offical nuisance, a disruption of order, but a compelling one. Within days of entry to this place, the patients, both fresh and ancient, lobotomised or bound in canvas would gather around her at eleven o’clock and sit cross legged, disciplesque, as she spoke her ravings with her soft voice, swaying backwards and forwards on her heels. She would talk for up to an hour each day, reciting half-histories, semi-truths and quasi-myths – always ending with a plea for the return of a book or a document she claimed had been taken from her, and the offering of secrets, of prophecies. She was, undoubtedly, mad. Her complete silence for the remaining hours of her committment, her reluctance to move or respond to questioning or medication confirmed this in the eyes of all who studied her, and yet she captured something in the attention of the clinically insane, and her tempered hysteria was irresistable to everyone else who stepped through the hospital gates.

She had been inside for seven years.

Veronika was not always vivid. When she had arrived, the older matrons claimed her hour of oration consisted mainly of repetitions of any snatches of conversation which had preceeded it, cut with a pleading for the book, the manuscript or even a specific page within it. After the first few months, however, she began what was recorded as her ’lucidities’ – she would speak animatedly of the explorers who travelled east, of older civilisations and of rivers that once encircled the globe, of their connections with the people of the estuaries whose elders could almost remember what life was like before. She spoke of Dravidians. She spoke of Scythians. She spoke of old, old things and even older peoples. Nobody in the hospital was qualified to check anything spoken by her, and the will or interest to investigate or think further on this oddity was sucked into the flaking antiseptic green walls of the building, the mass which soaked itself in the resignation of the sick and confined.

Occasionally, the oration was different, even frightening. Indeed, once a month, Veronika would speak in tongues, in what seemed to be languages forgotten by all but dry, ancient academics in the dejected libraries which still existed, somewhere. Occasional words would stumble from her lips, and doctors would visit on these days with linguists to attempt to record the presence of Sanskrit and Aramaic in her ramblings. All results were reported as inconclusive, and filed away in boxes for oddities and curiosa, to be used as examples in some far-off academy. The visitors could get nothing else out of her. She was presented with Rorsharch tests, electronic stimulae and antique pornography, and each was met with silence save for a single hour, when she was impossible to ignore and impossible to pause, and responded to nobody but herself.

„I can show you the designs on the staffs of the ceremonies of Drejnev. I can recite the final chapter of the songs of their leader. I can demonstrate how he inhaled the sage, and spun himself into the art of dying…”

Minutes passed in such a fashion. As always, the sisters glared from the wings, the patients froze their invisible competitions. Chess pieces made from air and memory hung above chequered boards constructed from imagined cracks in the floorboards, from the paths of ants which walked and died months ago.

„I know the true name of the child born beyond the treeline. I know where the girl went, and why she went, and why the boy was fell upon. I know why he did not speak. I know why they showed no mercy.”

The small hand on the watches of the matrons thudded in unison.

„I never killed a man”.

Somewhere outside, a gate was closing.

„Please, give me my book. Please.”

Something passed, the hinges on the main doors screamed to themselves and the hour was over. As she did every day, Veronika spun on her heels and faced the chipped walls, sitting in shivering silence for what would be, as everyone knew, an entire twenty-three hour period before speaking once more. However, a change shivered its way across the building, and it became obvious to some of the more perceptive inmates that somebody new had arrived. More tentative footfalls, a surprised pause at the noises made by the outer doors, followed by an unfamiliar knocking pattern. This happened once every two years. Whether Veronika noticed a single happening outside her senseless gaze on the wall was difficult to gauge, and nobody now would have been willing or intrigued to ask. The message had passed, the shuffling resumed. This was not always the case – this apathy was a cyclical thing. Indeed, matrons and nurses who were new to the establishment would attempt to discuss her condition with excitement and in hushed tones, comparing her to saintly figures, fakirs and clairvoyants; but after the heavy and dusty miasma of the hospital had entered their bloodstream by a process of relentless repetition and droning osmosis, they would become content to simply join the humming masses that gathered around her at eleven o’clock each day, and listen with their jaded ears to the mysteries that poured forth from her thin and emaciated lips. Normality was quick to resume itself, the wards were, for the patients, the entirity of the world. It was difficult to believe otherwise, after some time. Little changed inside.

Today, however, brought a newcomer, and the patients jostled themselves into lines to receive her. She would be, after all, someone who claimed to wish to help. To feed, to numb. To bring a sense of a path they were told they were on.

Petra was not only new to the hospital, she was and felt new in life and work in general. Still shockingly young in comparison to the jagged years carried by her prospective colleagues, her enthusiasm and youth was met with utter indifference. She had been in the academy, she had been in a variety of institutions outside. It would be easy to suppose that every member of staff in the hospital had done also, had similar experiences and years trailing at their slippered heels, but such things were not discussed. Indeed, her arrival was almost completely ignored by the majority of the staff, and tentatively received by others. Through academies and smaller hospitals over a couple of years, Petra was pushed forwards in her development and directed towards the women’s asylum soon afterwards. Papers were stamped, matriarachies were consulted, waters were scried. She was a long way from home, and somewhere inside her she missed the few black trees and the smell of charcoal. She even missed the ice and the snow, the cycles of melting and seaming, the hierarchy, the rare glimpses of royalty back home. A lot had changed since her childhood, though, and she was so accustomed to change that the journey and the shock of the new barely registered on her features. Normality was quick to resume itself outside, too. Indeed, many of the things which had been outlawed in her youth were making a reappearance, reclaiming lost years under lost regimes – religion was seeping back into the lives of the formerly repressed, and the sweltering heat of the summer had spread a little fervour, a little panic among the farming communities that stretched away from the bays and the great lakes down here. Overnight, shrines to forgotten deities were hastily constructed. Corn dollies, knots of wheat and bamboo shoots were split and formed and hung above doors, goat blood stained the sleeves of the suspicious. Petra had seen all these things on her way to her place of work, carrying her few possessions and preparing herself for a spell inside. People are people, she reminded herself.

The patients stood in rows, and Petra placed her bag on the ground and spoke in her attempt at a clipped and professional tone. She was nudged forward by a broad old matron, and a gesture was made to elicit an introduction.

„I am here to assist you, to understand you, and to guide you back onto the path from which you have unintentionally strayed”, she said. The older patients mouthed along. Generations were quick to pass inside the hospital. „Outside is a dangerous place, regimes will continue to rise and fall. You, unfortunate women, you are fortunate to be in our care, and I endeavour to help”. Someone behind her stifled a giggle. Silence was quick to fall again, and once more be broken.

One patient stepped forward, and coughed loudly. Petra jumped a little, rearranged herself and looked expectantly at the interruption. Behind her, three large matrons began to lurch forwards. „What time is it?” the patient asked, and stepped backwards again. Someone clapped their hands three times, and a murmur arose in the room. Petra hesitated, and looked around. She could have had her watch attached to her uniform, but there were rules in such establishments which were not to be disobeyed. A senior nurse leant towards her, and whispered in her ear. Petra straightened herself and looked directly at the woman who was now swinging her thin arms by her sides.

„You have all the time in the world.”

Veronika remained staring at the wall, and said not a word. Many hours would pass before she would speak again, and in the mercy of this silence, Petra began to walk to her chambers, and prepared herself for her duty. As she left the room, she did not notice Veronika turn ever so slightly to watch her treading a nervous path towards the first of many heavy doors. Several patients did notice – however, it was forgotten as soon as an invisible rook took the ghost of a bishop in an action which swooped from an infinite distance behind greyed eyes.

The first few days in this place, for anyone, were essentially a frightening experience. Petra was to respond no differently, and despite her background and respectful, courteous disposition, she found herself unable to deny the nightmarish quality of the cells, the eerie looming presence of the shock wings and the coasting beds with shackles rusted onto their fenders. Her first night was wracked with clawing hallucinatory nightmares, a grip on her neck and a tube forced down her throat. Somewhere, a baby was crying, a boy was left bleeding on the snow. Upon awakening, routine set in. She would walk silently through the linoleum corridors, stepping behind the matrons handing out sad rainbows of capsules to each of the lank-haired, sad eyed women who swayed in the mildewed doorways and stared at their feet. Suddenly, she gagged at and clawed at her throat from the hanging miasma of spilt bodily fluids, left unchecked for what could have been weeks. The hospital was filthy; there was no possible way to ignore the fact – this was a decrepit, crumbling mass that posed as an official establishment. The asylum was and would no doubt become a relic of a unenlightened age, no matter what regimes rose outside the gates. Forgotten by agents of sanitary standardisation, shunned by the ministries and largely ignored by local authorities; the water system was infested with flukes and flatworms, the chipped, cracked plaster walls housed innumerable many-legged creatures and lice were a constant source of irritation. Visitors and scholars occasionally arrived, but were kept well away from the raised welts on the scalps of the patients which were routinely lanced and daubed with iodine, with no thought or care given to the cause of the cankers themselves. Petra was asked many questions by the patients, and absolutely none by the staff.

„What day is it?”

„What year is it?”

„Did the war end?”

The answer was always more or less the same. To sway from the code would be dangerous, a blasphemy.

„You have all the time in the world, and you are safe here”.

Veronika never asked such simple questions.

Another night came and went, and the scratching heat continued to hammer its way over the town, infecting dreams and warping windowframes and perspectives, forcing mirages out of the minds of the sane and confirmation of madness from the minds of the unfortunate. A breeze would be tossed out from between scorched trees, and with it would come airy detritus, bits of last month spinning and hurling their way towards doors, only to be swept back out into the wavering space from which they came. The morning was a time for the hospital to rearrange itself – the walls yawned and groaned, old pipes coughed themselves clear and glass rattled as the temperature rose again. Somewhere, a door opened and shut, and the tiles on the roof continued their glacial journey back into the earth. Petra scratched her thighs, creased by stiff bedsheets, pulled on her uniform and walked out of her chamber. As she walked towards the central sanctum, she momentarily forget where she was – she instinctively inhaled deeply to catch the scent of snow, and gagged slightly at the harsh intake of stale air and miasmic desperation. Such a shock caught her just outside the office of the head of the institution, and her knocking was paused by a noise behind the door. Petra was afraid – the head matron was by no means a hospitable presence. This was the moment when Petra first heard the name Veronika spoken within the hospital, and it was not spoken with kindness.

The entrance to Angela’s quarters was an enormous, grotesque thing. Overdone and obscenely decorated with curlicues and arabesques, it was an attempt to instill awe, intimidation. The matriarchy was absolute, inpenetrable, and despite the doorframes being cushioned to increase secrecy, the bellowing voice which echoed within managed to chip its way through the tiniest gaps between the old woodwork of the barrier. Petra’s hands gripped the barred door, and pulled at the rusting bolt.

Angela was shouting down an old, ivory coloured telephone to somebody, her fat hands slamming repeatedly with frustration onto an ornate mahogany table, scattering biros and sample pots, empty ring binders and soiled, sweat-dampened papers. Over and over again, the obese ant-queen of the asylum was fumingly reiterating that one of the patients, Veronika, was not to be released from her course of medication for at least another seven years; that her condition had shown no signs of improvement and that her lying had become pathological, obsessive and damaging to the other patients. They had taken the book she arrived with, of course they had, she said. But somebody had to be giving her history books, encyclopaedias, poetry and classical works; somebody was attempting to usurp the authority of the sisters on the ward. Petracould hear one side of the conversation, and despite her professionalism and aptitude, her curiosity could not help but overcome. “There is no possible way that a boney whore like Veronika… disgraced, clinically insane and dangerous mountain girl could possibly have access to the vocabulary, let alone the information that she spouts… no, they will be crushed… of course they will… no. No!”

The door swung open in front ofPetra, who instinctively stepped back and away from the doorframe. She stood, and stared silently, unsure of what to do next. She had been summoned, and she had responded. She has not understood what she had heard, but was almost certain her day would have been easier had her customary punctuality failed her this particular morning. The sweat pouring from Angela’s rage-contorted face was running from the mouthpiece of the telephone as she repeated herself over and over again to the receiver, anger rippling through the fat on her arms as she gesticulated wildly and slapped away the nurses and ladies in waiting who were milling around her with papers to sign and slips to authorise.

The telephone was tossed down and rattled for a few seconds in its holder. An almost visible mist of perspiration hung in the centre of the room and crept up the windows, gathering inertia and forming beads, which would trickle in chaotic streams and separate the dust gathered on the sill. Angela lifted her head, and glared at the intruder.

“You’re the new one?” she barked.

“Yes ma’am.Petra. I’m here to receive my duties for the day. Forgive my interruption.”

“Petra… stone. Stone, girl. We’ll see if our… guests can squeeze some blood out of you,” her laughter was a horrible thing, and the nurses around her visibly stepped away by a handful of collective inches. “You’ll be dealing with our little prophet, today. I want you to find a way to sedate her. I want her performances to end. Have you made yourself familiar with our opiates?”

“Yes ma’am, but…”

“Good. Some sick new bureaucracy, a product of the fallen regime has disabled some of our more immediate practices. However, you have full access to what you need. Now, leave. I expect a full report by tomorrow, at… well, at eleven o’clock.” She grinned. It was a hideous thing to behold.

The other nurses looked at each other at the mention of this particular hour. They then looked up to Petra, who backed her way out of the room, stepping over damp rugs and feeling behind herself to avoid the edge of the lectern which loomed at the edge of the door.

Petra left the office and walked hurriedly towards the medicine dispensary before heading towards the central and bland-walled communal area of the hospital where the clicking of knucklebones and slamming of backgammon chips could be heard ricocheting off the stones. A game of impossible chess was in its seven hundredth day, fourteen million pawns had been sacrificed to a looming and gargantuan queen, who screamed obscenities from beneath her wooden crown in the eyes of a single, shivering player. The bishops had haunted her dreams since birth, and she hit the floor three times, momentarily drowning out the ever present humming and moaning of women, alone behind other, distant doors. It was two minutes to eleven, and silence was falling like soft pebbles in a silken barrel as the patients took their places, sitting cross legged in a semi-circle around a crouched, small female figure who was hunched, her face turned towards the far wall. Petra dragged the only empty chair across the tiles, and the screeching produced a wave a nausea amidst the women gathered on the floor – silence was broken, and hair on forearms rose and fell, skin prickled and a mass exhalation spun the room into a congregation. The newcomer began her observation, and sweat was already beginning to settle in the furrows beneath her eyes.

Veronika turned, and began to speak. “There was a town”, she said. A long pause followed, as if a map was being spread before her feet, unfolded gently, as to remember the contours of the paper, to memorise something of the contents. „There was a town, and one of us in this room knows this town, was born in this town. It is a cold place, far north of here. In this town, a girl was lost.” Petra froze, memories of her youth returning – a lost place, a forgotten place. A place left outside of the rising and falling of petty empires, a place haunted with woodsmoke and strangled with icicled fishing wire. Of course, in her life, she had come across ravings before, had read at length of patients who would speak and orate to others. None of them had mentioned such calmness, such confidence. It was disquieting, and her legs itched with anticipatory worry. To look at the room packed with woman bearing lobotomy scars across their foreheads and cable burns on their arms listening intently, statued and ancient in posture on a wooden floor was more than disquieting. It was terrifying.

Veronika hesitated in her oration and looked up at Petra, her face static, as if possessed by some quiet shade, a still ghost within. A hum, a deep vibration started somewhere in the depths of her lungs and tricked from the speakers lips, seeming to pierce the listeners’ skin and invoke a soft panic in the dust-flecked air. It bounced between the clammy windows and gummed skirting of the walls, and everybody around her shifted slightly, the cladding the patients wore rustled in unison. A breath, deep and purposeful, shook Veronika back into the room, and then the sermon continued. Petra found herself moving down from the chair, and sitting on the uneven stone floor. „There was a book, once, wasn’t there? A book of histories, of stories, of truths before times. They saw the words as undecipherable poetry and hailed the writers as poets, the keepers of the books as mystics or rascals or scapegoats or worshipful…”

A pause chased her lip, and Veronika angled her face to weigh her breath and words against consequence. It allowed Petra to break her gaze from Veronika’s gently rocking form, and she saw the patients of hospital, again silent, rapt, sitting meditatively around this medical curiosity – Veronika – the girl who according to her foxmarked and sweatstained papers was incapable of conversation or communication at any other times, and showed signs of distress and terror at the smallest movements. She panicked and flinched at any confrontation, and yet for one hour a day she was a miracle, even if her words were understood by nobody, they were embraced as messianic by her audience. Petra pulled a notepad from her uniform and began to take notes, but a hand appeared on hers and gently, almost reverently removed the item from her grasp. The patient, a fat and pockmarked woman with mournful, animal eyes, placed the papers on the ground next to Petra’s knees, looked up at her face and simply shook her head, gesturing towards Veronika, who was drawing another deep breath and preparing to speak once more. The nurse complied, put away her pen and returned her gaze to the speaker.

“This book was taken from me, and youthe girl glared at the nurse on the floor amidst the unmoving insane – “you shall bring it back to me. For we have met before, and this has already come about.”

Seventy-two shaved heads moved together, fixing their old eyes onPetra. She looked to the ground. “Ravings”, she muttered to herself. “The dangerous ravings of a strange unfortunate…” Still, she kept her pen and paper on the ground, and returned her attention.

Veronika shifted onto her knees. “I’m going to tell you a story, a story from my book”, she said. “It begins in the north, in a town just below the treeline. And I tell you this now, before I begin.” Her eyes met her audience, and spoke to each and every one of them. “I never killed a man.”