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…”