Saturday, January 28, 2023

 SIX

The day darkens. I retrieve more kindling, the Sanitarium’s ruins still yielding vast quantities of tinder and slag, the more valuable items interred too deep to recover beneath strata of ash and the ghosts of wind and snow.

I stuff my door’s cracks with straw and newsprint, my wood-stove spitting fire, slag. The cement floor glows, warms, sparks ping and flash. Perspiring, I throw off the rug, sit naked and cross-legged like a yogi.

I turn and stare at the bunk bed, its top half missing. I should have retrieved it too, however splintered and broken. What if she returns? Where will she sleep?

Eventually I rise, grimace unfolding creaky limbs, and hobble to bed. Stare at the ceiling, waiting for dreams.
~

I’m in a crowd, buoyed in the swell, swept from the night market toward the causeway by the lagoon. Above palisades, the citadel rises, its highest tower lit by floodlights. A figure emerges, in black-and-white motley, and shouts into a bullhorn. Above him banners uncurl like bright red tongues. The crowd answers with bottle rockets, air horns, rattles, sirens.

Pressed again the seawall, I recall why I’m here, though Lily begged me not to go. Two infants, Sophie and Hector, nestled in her arms, all three shivering, the stove fire not yet out, but the cold the least of our worries.

I wrench free of the mass of flailing limbs, scramble atop the seawall, and hail a passing boatwoman, who lets me board.

I crouch, grasping the gunnels with both hands as she rows away. The boatwoman smiles, recognizes me. We pass the night market, its floating gardens, its twisting streets and alleys, its archways and colonnades. Arc lights electrify the air, which smells of jasmine, burnt cinnamon, pepper. But the people are gone, the arcades silent save for a lone calliope, its orphaned music adrift on the wind.

The lagoon the color and thickness of chocolate, the boatwoman poles on, doggedly, grimacing. She turns to me, but I don’t have to tell her where to go. We enter a narrow gate and then a long channel, walls rising above us, the sky a slender, pink vault.  

Soon the sun will rise and I must wake up, which the boatwoman knows. She poles faster.

Ahead the drowned plaza, the ancient coliseum.

….

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

FIVE

I rebury the cask and return to my shed. I realize I haven’t seen the nurse and her charge in days, nor heard the roar of the tractor, though the fence has been mended and the hole in the ground is gone. My door won’t close, so I leave it ajar and crouch beside the wood stove, feeding it with kindling.

I wrap the rug around myself, though the cement floor is freezing. My knees ache. The rug is stiff, coarse, and pungent, the skin of a wild beast. I’m unsure what kind, the skin inexpertly tanned, bits of fur or hair still clinging, and no head, claws, or tail. 

I retrieved it from my psychotherapist’s office—did we discuss its origins, how he came to possess it? He struck me as peaceful, nonviolent, certainly no hunter, and I recall no other trophies decorating the room. Perhaps the answer is in the notes. 

The wood stove glows, flames flicker and embers swirl like bees. I jump up, cast off the rug, fearing it will catch fire, and race outside. 

What else haven’t I noticed lately? I was preparing my garden as if spring were near, but now I wonder if that’s true. Meanwhile, construction has halted, and machinery and supplies moved elsewhere.

I walk back to the director’s office. The wood-paneled station wagon is gone and the door again locked.

I stare in the window. The thing hulks atop the desk, still draped but better defined, though still mysterious, as if greater detail only makes it more menacing, less mechanical and endowed with volition and purpose.

Suddenly the office’s lights go on, and I imagine the creature’s head slowly turn toward me.

Monday, January 23, 2023

FOUR

I took with me, inadvertently, files unrelated to the director’s correspondences with his wife and the woman, including his predecessor’s notes of my analytic sessions with him, which he never shared with me. I didn’t discover this lapse until after I returned to my garden patch, where I meant to bury the small cache of documents.

First, I dug up a wood cask I use to store valuables and other effects. Photos, letters, few of them mine, rescued from the fire. Someone else’s wedding ring, gold fountain pen, stray earring or cuff-link. I had meant to store them for safekeeping, should the patients return, or their families.

I also entertained larger ambitions, to scavenge the ruins more systematically, like an archaeologist or anthropologist, perhaps to establish a museum or permanent exhibit, one that I might curate and lead. An ambition I tired of, then reconsidered when the director broached the subject of my tutoring his two stepchildren.

Why not do both? One would inform and enhance the other. I even imagined enlisting the children in the task, despite the dangers of sifting through precarious rubble. Surely I could convince the director I could keep them safe! Then the priest suggested I repair the basilica’s steam organ (that too could dovetail nicely with my other schemes) and again I felt helpless, overwhelmed, paralyzed.

It’s still raining, the wood-paneled station wagon still there. The three visitors haven’t left, as if intent upon waiting for the director’s return. I retreat to my garden patch and dig up the cask. The tree, despite its leaflessness, its slim trunk and branches, offers shelter of a sort, and the stone bench beneath it is cold but dry.

I hunker, shivering, and stare at the cask, upended beside me. I haven’t yet reviewed my analyst’s notes, though I did peek at them.

I don’t remember our conversations, which seem so long ago. The girl is mentioned, her name underlined, and her surname similar to mine. A misspelling or variant spelling? Is she distantly related, and is that why we fell in together? Shared the same bunk bed, however inappropriate, considering my sex and age?

Saturday, January 21, 2023

THREE 

Early one morning, a wood-paneled station wagon, mud splattered, labors up the hill and pulls beside the director’s office. A man and woman get out. The driver remains behind the wheel, engine idling, headlights cutting through the gloom.

I watch from my garden patch. I set down my trowel and garden fork and walk toward them, keeping out of sight (the director, I know, is gone and won’t return until tomorrow).

The man and woman wear parkas, gloves, and boots, their faces indistinct in the rain. They open the back of the station wagon and begin unloading file cartons, computer equipment, office supplies. The driver cuts the engine and headlights. He gets out and joins them, his uniform military or paramilitary, more a bodyguard’s than a chauffeur’s.

A tarp covers the bulkiest item. The driver, reluctantly, climbs inside the vehicle, though he’s far larger than the other two. He grunts and shoves and kicks his legs until the item juts out the tailgate. It appears multi-limbed, the arms retracted, inflexible, like a giant robotic spider. The three then maneuver it onto a small handcart, where it sways, nearly toppling over.

They pause, breathless. The woman then goes to unlock the office door and props it open.

She turns, catching my eye, and I duck, but too late. The woman stares a while longer, then rejoins her companions.

~

I also spied on the director earlier, leaving in his Land Rover in the dead of night. He’d been acting strangely—furtively—ever since receiving a letter from his wife saying she and the children were impatient and coming to the Institute forthwith.

I broke into his office soon after he left, found his wife’s letter and several others, drafts of a missive he meant to send in reply. There were also recent correspondences from the Department of Detention and Psychiatric Services, most sent by the woman, I presume, I’ve been observing. The letters grew more exhortative and critical, demanding the director cease forthwith all plans of reorganization and expansion. These, too, he’d written notes and drafts in response, though I doubt he sent these either. They were too inflammatory, and the director, however incautious, is neither self-destructive nor delusional.

I think he intends to return presently. Otherwise, why leave the office in such culpatory disorder? He’s fortunate I know him better than he knows himself, and removed the offending matter to a safer place.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

TWO

Once a week, a priest visits us. He holds service in the Institute’s chapel, which, incredibly, survived the conflagration. He’s a young priest, educated and cosmopolitan, who makes a weekly circuit of the Institute and nearby villages and hamlets, saving Sunday liturgy for the diocese’s largest town and church.

Usually he comes Tuesdays, but lately other days too. Attendance might improve if we knew the priest’s schedule, though he does announce himself somewhat beforehand, arriving by motorbike, whose loud, staccato engine pierces the air for several miles.

He’d cut the engine and dismount at the Institute’s gates. Pushing the motorbike up the steep, muddy hill, his sighs and wheezings—the panniers overstuffed with priestly appurtenances—a secondary announcement, like a clock’s snooze alarm activating.

I greet the priest on the road, then follow him to the chapel, where he washes at the trough and changes into his vestments. I help set up the altar table, crucifix, and candlesticks, which I retrieve from the panniers.

Today the nurse and her patient join us. Sometimes laborers attended, but it’s past quitting time and they’ve gone home (the director attends only when there are guests or visitors).

After mass, I stay for confession. The priest knows I’m not Catholic, but he humors me.

We walk down the ruined nave toward the chancel and altar. The blackened columns and ceiling still reek of fire, but the confessional remains intact.

He has two more villages to visit tonight, but has agreed to hear my confession—and why not, aren’t I, despite my disaffection, his most loyal congregant at the Institute, never missing a mass?

In the confessional, I admit to the usual—nocturnal emissions, however involuntary, and complicated by the girl in the bunk bed beneath me. They never stopped occurring, I add, since her disappearance, but have even increased in frequency.

The priest doesn’t believe me—he knows I’ve been impotent for years.

“Anything else?” he sighs.

I tell him no. He prescribes no penance, instead obliges with a terse, mumbled absolution.

Then, both of us rising, he says, “And now I have a favor to ask you.”

Again I follow the priest. (Have I mentioned he has a wrestler or weight-lifter’s physique, even in vestments?) And I’m relieved he isn’t angry, or eager to leave. I look forward to his visits, sensing a kindred soul, despite our religious differences.

He leads me deeper into the ravaged basilica, the domed ceiling and stained-glass windows shattered, the high altar and crucifix charred and blistered.

We climb to the balcony where the steam organ is, its pipes bent, scarred, tarnished. He sits at the three-tiered keyboard, hands poised above the keys, feet lightly pumping the pedals.

He pauses, toggles a switch, and the console lights up. A kind of music bursts forth, however jarring and tenuous. He frowns, again pauses, and then again his fingers ripple across the keys. The results the same, he turns to me beseechingly.

“I’m not sure how I can help.”

“Weren’t you once an audio engineer?”

I was an electrician and stagehand before I became an actor.

“Your skills, doubtless, are rusty—aha! Here’s the manual.”

He’d been sitting on it inadvertently. I take it and leave. The priest, still at the organ, flogs the keys with even greater energy, the notes raucous, loud, sour.

I review the manual desultorily, shivering, my blankets thin, threadbare.

And don’t I deserve a better domicile than a shed or dormitory? If I’m to tutor the director’s children. If I’m to help the priest with his steam organ. (The main issue, I believe, isn’t the motor, keyboards, or pedals, but the pipes, corroded and misaligned. Probably, the entire organ needs dismantling and cleaning—tedious and time-consuming work.)

I’ve had little to do for months, years even. I’m not sure I’m prepared for the coming upheavals.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

ONE
 
 

I heard her all night, in the bunk bed above mine, flailing at her mattress, yanking out fistfuls of chaff and straw. Now she’s quiet, her breath easier.

Later that morning, she waves to me as I take the path to the falls. She sits beneath a beech tree—my tree, the one assigned me—and grins defiantly. It is leafless and spindly—nothing special. 

She doesn’t use the nearby bench, but curls atop the exposed roots, as, doubtless, she’ll curl atop her broken bunk bed later tonight.

I’m allowed to walk farther than the other inmates. I nod at a nurse who’s wheeled her invalid patient—among the few patients left in the Institute’s care—to the edge of the grounds. Beyond the chain-link fence, the well-groomed lawn gives way to furrowed earth and an idling tractor.

The gravel path leads to a dirt trail. It rained last night, and the hem of my nightgown trails in the mud. I shiver, feel naked in the cool morning breeze. The trail twists above a stream that soon plunges toward rapids. I reach a flat outcrop, the falls behind me now, the ground slick with mud and ice. I stare at the lake below, which is fringed with bogs and marsh before it widens and deepens, turns indigo. A few sailboats venture out, though most shelter in the far shore’s rocky coves and bays.

When I return, I find the girl where I last saw her, now standing on the bench and stretching an arm toward the tree’s upper branches. I wonder what she sees there. I glimpse her breasts and patch of pubic hair beneath a flimsy nightgown. Bruises dapple her too-thin rib cage and limbs, and her eyes gleam dark and hollow. She resembles a manikin of straw and smoke.

~

“I’ve had to undo so many of my predecessor’s so-called reforms,” the director says, pacing his office. The windows are open, and dust and noise fill the room. Barracks and huts are under construction, though the old sanitarium, a blackened hulk since last summer’s conflagration, looms in the distance.

“Doubtless he meant well,” the director says, “though many thought his policies dangerous. I prefer to think them unwise.” He pauses, looks out the window. One building is for him and his family. “That he was a widower, and living alone, should have disqualified him. It’s isolating here, and one needs counsel, and, dare I say, a loving influence, to help inform one’s decisions, which is why we prefer new staff to bring families, especially if there are young children.”

But he’s more like the former director than he admits. They’re the same age or would be, if his predecessor were still alive. On his desk is a portrait of his much younger wife, posing in a wedding gown with two children, also dressed up, the girl about fifteen, the boy seven. The boy clutches a bridal bouquet to his breast. It’s a formal picture, taken by a professional photographer, but where is the director—the groom? 

He stares at me, staring at the portrait. “My stepchildren are the same age as the children you once taught.” I don’t remind him I merely played a teacher on TV, despite the stories and rumors my publicists spread in the newspapers and fanzines. “They’re arriving soon, and I want you to tutor them. Your duties are light, and you can use the extra work. You can also teach the staff’s children when they arrive.”

~

I’m alone in the dormitory now, but wonder what happened to the girl. The next day I see the same nurse, again wheeling her patient to the chain-link fence. 

The girl’s on her mind too. 

“They let her go anywhere,” the nurse says, between drags of her cigarette. The smoke eddies in the still, dusty air. Nearby, the tractor roars into life and rumbles in our direction. “She steals trays of food left outside doors and at night lays her head anywhere.”

“Doesn’t the director worry she’ll escape?”

The nurse shrugs. “Why should she try? The girl has more freedom inside the grounds than outside. Or,” she adds, “the director hopes she’ll have an accident.” She nods toward a small, overgrown trail that runs beside the chain-link fence before angling toward the creek and falls. “But I wouldn’t wander far—not that you would.” She smiles slyly.

I say goodbye and leave. When they’re out of sight, I cross to the trail she pointed to. It’s narrow and difficult to follow, as if trammeled by small creatures and used only by them. Soon I stray into nettles and thorns. The fence remains nearby, but in disrepair, the wires snapped and twisted like bent or broken fingers. A recent hole’s been dug too, fresh earth scattered as if in a frenzy. 

I hesitate, then draw no nearer. The nurse may be wrong about the girl. But not about me.

~

When next the director summons me, I’m warned an influx of guests and visitors will arrive over the next few days. 

“My predecessor had little inkling of the changes to come,” he says. “Doubtless, he believed the Institut’s doors would close after last summer’s fires.” The director raises his voice over the roar of bulldozers and backhoes. Grit and dust swirl through the open window. “You and he were close. He must have been fond of you, considering the privileges granted you, which, I might add, I never rescinded.”

He pauses, lets the words sink in. From behind the desk, he leans forward. He’s changed the office’s layout and furniture so that it’s more like his predecessor’s, the couch and ottoman, the Russian icons and African masks rescued from the flames. 

But the former director, before his swift, ignoble decline, had been a renowned psychoanalyst, and while his replacement possesses an MD and Ph.D., he’s shown little interest in resuming my therapeutic sessions. Even now, his concerns seem more interrogative than analytical.

On his desk lies my folder, yellowed and dog-eared, but thick with notes. I recognize the former director’s handwriting.

“What did you two discuss,” he asks, “other than your TV and theatrical career?” 

Then my more personal information has been expunged, as promised.  

“Not much,” I tell him, hoping he’d believe me. 

“So your love affairs then, and hobnobbing with the rich and famous?” He drums his pencil against the folder and then opens it, seemingly at random.

“Celebrity gossip never interested him. He didn’t even watch my TV show. But whenever he visited the city, he’d attend one of my plays.”

“You mean those produced after your show’s cancellation. I also saw a play of yours. I found it dull, worse, incomprehensible. Actually, it made me angry. What were you trying to prove, staging such rubbish?” 

His face reddens. He pushes aside the folder and rises from his chair. “You must have been desperate for work, which explains your misjudgment—” 

He continues in that vein. Eventually, he dismisses me, saying nothing about the expected guests and my role in their visit.

~

I no longer stay in the dormitory, unable to abide any more the emptiness and quiet. Instead, I move to a shack closer to the chain-link fence. The nurse still wheels her patient to the same spot every sunrise, and the tractor revs into life a few minutes later. The noise and company comfort me.

I haven’t told the director, who doubtless knows of my move and hasn’t objected. Neither has he again summoned me to his office. 

I ponder when the visitors will arrive and what that portends.

My immediate effects are meager, a footlocker’s worth—a few toiletries, worn clothes, old books and magazines I salvaged from the fire. Journal and diary. My other possessions, which I brought with me to the Institute and Sanitarium, remain in storage. They’re mostly keepsakes and mementos: my father’s army discharge papers, my mother’s wedding and engagement rings, also my birth certificate, passport, and university diploma.

My fan letters, theater notices, trophies, awards, my scrapbooks, souvenirs, and so forth, are gone, though the director assured me they survived the fire, but won’t grant me access to them. He insists they’re not lost, merely misplaced.

“Do you know,” he said, “how many patients we’ve had over the years? And so many possessions still in storage, even of patients who’ve long died. No one wants their effects, not the heirs, not the state—”

I dismantle the bunk bed and drag the bottom half to the shed. I scavenge the Sanitarium’s ruins for curtains, linen, rugs, a table and chair. Dishes and cutlery. Potbelly stove. A transistor radio, its batteries not quite dead . . . .