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Saturday
Mar062010

The Red Flower (part 2)

The second part of a story ("Красный цветок") by this Russian writer.  You can read the original here.

IV.

He realized he was in an insane asylum; he even realized that he was ill.  Sometimes, as during that first night, he would wake amidst the silence after a whole day of rowdy movement feeling the break in all his limbs and a strange heaviness in his head, yet remain fully conscious.  Perhaps it was the absence of impressions during the dead of night and early morning, or perhaps the faint churnings of a newly wakened human brain that led him to understand his position, almost as if he were healthy.  Then day broke, and the light and the re-animation of life in the hospital conspired with images and thoughts in a violent wave to seize him anew.  An unwell mind simply could not handle these sensations, and once again he became mad.  His state was a strange medley of correct judgments and absurd notions.  He understood that all those around him were also patients; yet at the same time, in each one of them he saw a face secretly concealed or concealing, a face he knew before or about which he had read or heard. 

The hospital was full of people from all eras and all nations.  Here were both the quick and the dead, both the strong and famous of the world and soldiers killed in the last war and resurrected.  He saw himself in a magical circle of spells that contained all the power of the world, and in a haughty moment he saw himself as the center of this circle.  All of his fellow inmates had gathered there to carry out one task, which now appeared to him confusingly as a gigantic enterprise directed towards the annihilation of all evil on earth.  He did not know of what it would consist, but felt within himself a sufficient vortex of forces to see it to fruition.  He could read the thoughts of others; in objects he could see their entire history; large elms in the hospital garden recounted to him detailed legends of what they had witnessed; and the building, which was indeed constructed quite a long time ago, appeared as the work of Peter the Great who, he was convinced, had lived in the hospital during the time of the battle of Poltava.  He read this on the walls, on the crumbling plaster, on the shards of brick and tile he found in the garden; the house and the garden's entire history was inscribed upon them.  He populated the mortuary's small edifice with tens and hundreds of long-dead people and stared fixedly at the window giving out from its basement onto the corner of the garden.  And in the uneven reflection of light in the old, dirty and iridescent glass, he saw familiar features which he had seen at some point before in portraits.

In the meantime, the weather had become clear and fine, and the patients had begun spending the whole day outside in the garden.  Their area was admittedly not very large yet it boasted a thick growth of trees, and flowers were planted in every possible nook and corner.  The supervisor obliged everyone capable of working to contribute to the gardening tasks.  Those selected would spend their whole day scattering sand upon the path, planting and watering flower beds, cucumbers, watermelons, and cantaloupes, and digging them up with their hands.  In one corner of the garden arose a thick cherry tree; beyond it were alleys lined with elms; and in the middle, on a small, artificial hillock lived the most beautiful flower in all the garden.  Its bright colors grew on the edges of the upper square, and in its center bloomed a rare object, a yellow dahlia bursting with red dots.  It at once rose above the garden and comprised the epicenter, leading one to notice that many of the patients bestowed upon it a mysterious significance.  To the new patient it also seemed like something out of the ordinary, some palladium of garden and building.  Along each path the patients' hands were hard at work, and here you could find all sorts of flowers encountered in non-Russian gardens: tall roses, bright petunias, bushes of tobacco and smaller, pink flowers, mint, marigolds, tropaeolums, and poppies.  In that same place, not far from the porch, there grew three poppy bushes of a particular species.  This species was much smaller than the normal flower and distinguished itself by the extraordinary brightness of its scarlet color.  This flower was not lost on the patient when, that first day after his arrival at the hospital, he gazed through the glass door out onto the garden.

Going out to the garden that first time, and not even descending from the porch steps, he looked most of all at these bright flowers.  There were only two of them; by chance they had grown apart from all the others on an unweeded patch and were thus encircled by thick orache and some kind of ruderal species.

One after another the patients came through the doors where the guard was standing.  The guard gave each of them a fat, white pointed paper hat with a red cross on the forehead.  Hats such as these were used in the war and purchased at an auction.  Yet our patient, of his own free will of course, attributed a particular and mysterious significance to this red cross.  He removed the hat and looked at the cross then at the poppy flowers.  The flowers were brighter.

"It is winning," said the patient, "but we'll see about that."

And then he went down the patio.  Looking about and not noticing the guard standing behind him, he crossed the flower bed and reached out his hand towards the flower, but could not make himself seize it.  His outstretched arm, then his whole body felt very hot and prickly, as if the powerful push of some unknown force were emanating from the red petals and piercing his body.  He came closer and reached out his hand to the flower itself, yet the flower seemed to be defending itself against him and releasing a poisonous, deadly odor.  His head began to spin; he took one last desperate lunge and even had the stem in his fist, when suddenly a heavy hand was laid upon his shoulder.  The guard had found him.

"No plucking," said the old Ukrainian.  "And no walking on the flower bed.  We find a lot of you nutcases here, each one after a flower, and soon you'll have carried off the whole garden."  He spoke persuasively and did not remove his hand from the patient's shoulder.

The patient looked him in the face, silently freed himself from his hand and, quite upset, walked down the path.  "O unfortunate lot!"  he thought.  "Don't you see that you've gone so blind as to become its protectors?  No matter what it takes, I will put an end to it.  Not today, however, because tomorrow we will evaluate our strength.  And if I die, well, then, it would be of no consequence, I suppose ..."

He strolled about the garden until evening, making acquaintances and having odd conversations in which each of the interlocutors heard only the answers to his own mad thoughts, expressed in silly and mysterious words.  The patient walked with one inmate then with another and by the end of the day had become convinced that, as he said to himself, "everything was ready."  Soon, very soon, the iron bars would crumble and all the inmates would escape here and fly to all the ends of the earth.  And the earth itself would tremble and shake, discarding its own shell to blossom in new and miraculous beauty.  He had almost forgotten about the flower.  But as he left the garden and climbed up the patio, he again espied those two red corners amidst the darkening and bedewed grass.  Here the patient separated from the crowd and, having passed behind the guard, began to wait for the opportune moment.  No one saw how he crossed the flower bed, snatched the flower, and hurriedly concealed it against his chest under his shirt.  And when the fresh, dew-laden blades touched his body, he gained a deathly pallor and fiercely shut his eyes in horror.  Cold sweat appeared upon his brow.

Lamps were lit in the hospital.  While waiting for dinner most patients decided to lie down a bit, with the exception of a few more agitated inmates who hurried along the corridor and through the halls.  Among them was our patient with his flower.  He walked with his hands convulsively crossed against his bosom, from all appearances fully prepared to crush and smash the plant it concealed.  When others came his way he walked quite far around them, afraid to touch the edge of their clothing.  "Don't come any closer, not any closer!" he yelled.  But such exclamations provoked little interest or attention in the hospital.  And he kept walking faster and faster, taking longer and longer strides, and spent a good hour or two in a frenzy.

"I will tire you out.  I will suffocate you!" he said softly and maliciously; occasionally he would gnash his teeth.

Dinner was served in the dining room.  Several painted or gilded wooden tureens full of watery wheat porridge were placed on large, uncovered tables.  The patients sat down on benches and were each given a slice of black bread and a wooden spoon.  It was about eight men to a tureen; a select few were allowed better food and served separately.  Quickly swallowing his portion brought to him by the guard who had summoned him back to his room, our patient was not satisfied and walked into the common dining area.

"May I please sit here?" he asked the supervisor.

"Did you really have no dinner?" the supervisor said, pouring a second portion of porridge into the tureens.

"I'm very hungry.  And I do need to build up my strength.  All my sustenance comes from food: you know that I don't sleep at all."

"Eat, friend, eat as much as you'd like.  Taras, give him a spoon and some bread."

He sat down next to one of the cups and devoured a large amount of porridge.  

"Now then, that's good, that's a good amount," the supervisor said at length, when everyone had finished eating and our patient still sat there scooping porridge out of a bowl with one hand, the other still pinned to his chest.  "You'll overeat."

"Ah, if you only knew how much strength I needed, how much strength!  Farewell, Nikolai Nikolaevich," said the patient getting up from the table and squeezing the supervisor's hand quite firmly.  "Farewell."

"And just where are you going?" asked the supervisor with a smile.

"I?  Nowhere.  I'm staying here.  But maybe we won't see each other tomorrow.  I thank you for your kindness."

Again he firmly squeezed the supervisor's hand.  His voice was trembling and tears appeared on his cheeks.

"Calm down, friend, calm down," the supervisor replied.  "Why such gloomy thoughts?  Now you go lie down and you'll sleep well; you really ought to sleep more.  And if you sleep well you will soon get much better."

The patient was sobbing.  The supervisor turned to the guards to tell them to clear off the dishes and leftovers immediately.  A half-hour later everything was asleep in the hospital apart from one person lying still fully dressed on his bed in a corner room.  He was shaking as if he had a fever and convulsively constricting his chest which to him seemed stricken with poison of unheard-of malignancy.         

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