“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 you”– the 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.”