St. Grace’s Mental Hospital, Saigon, Vietnam 1982
While walking hesitantly past the iron bars, Laurence glanced inside the crib-like cot and saw the semi-conscious body of a young American woman. He quickly recognized her and winced at the sight of her bruised and battered body, with its contorted arms and legs and sunken eyes, like two black marbles. Laurence had finally found who he was looking for, after arriving that morning and scouring the hospital for her presence.
Laurence was a photographer, who was currently working in Thailand. Although he had been raised in Midwest America, his European roots had given his skin a rich olive hue; his strong nose was wide and flat, and his thick, heavy dark hair was complimented by a neatly-trimmed, lustrous beard.
While Laurence was forty-two years in age, his strong, youthful body was as powerful physically as his nature was passionate and kind. Today, freshly bathed and dressed in a crisp white shirt and tailored linen khaki suit, his eyes glistened as he gripped his fedora hat.
He peered through the iron bars of the hospital bed. The woman’s eyes were staring up at him without any hint of recognition, but he felt that even when they had been apart, he had remained beside her night and day. He observed her every expression and movement in the adult-sized crib, amazed by the perseverance of the human soul. Those wild and hungry eyes transfixed him, seeming to carry the essence of the world’s unhappiness. He couldn’t think of a single action he could do to help her at present, but he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had to carry her through this.
The sick woman’s hair was entangled and matted, mirroring the state of the brain beneath it. Her glances darted from left to right without really focusing on anything, giving her the air of a panicked, dying wild creature. She was unaware that her parents and Laurence were even there to help her. Indeed, when she had first caught sight of those once-familiar faces, something inside her had snapped and all hell had broken loose, requiring her to be restrained and trussed up like a rampaging beast. She felt disoriented, maddened, and terrified, perhaps as anyone would, just after they had been hog-tied and placed in an iron-barred crib.
Everything in this place seemed as if it were a nightmare brought to life. The apathetic Vietnamese nurse, with two very white, rodent-like front teeth, was small and coarse-featured, and contemptuous of Americans. She always wore latex gloves when she tended to the young woman. The institutional concrete walls were dirty, the same dingy hue as the sick woman, who emanated long years of accumulated internal filth. To her visitors, being there was like witnessing an exorcism, but an emancipation that was years overdue.
“This will help to silence the crazy talk,” the nurse said as she injected the sick woman with a syringe of morphine. Her mother gasped as though a jagged blade had been wrenched inside her own gut, moving upward and piercing her very heart. Her face buried in her hands, she whispered to Laurence, “I can’t believe that’s my daughter. I can’t deal with this. Why us?”
“These things are a part of life. No one is free from them,” Laurence replied gently. “I just can’t believe that we found her.”
Her father stood still and silent, his face expressionless.
After the patient became calm she begged for a cigarette. The nurse helped her out of the crib and supported her as she walked to the exit. Her parents and Laurence were left alone, standing alongside the row of cribs in the ward.
The sick woman leaned on the arm of the nurse, floating through the concrete halls into the chill air under an outdoor awning.
A cigarette, ahh, a bit of salvation...
The gray, cloudy sky had just unleashed a light rain, yet this could not cool the oven-hot air that seared her skin. She struck the match a couple of times before it lit and took a long, deep drag on the cigarette. She poked the nurse’s arm and with a sudden urgency implored, “Hey, please, don’t tell anyone my name…”
Abruptly, her expression changed, and she locked eyes with the nurse and muttered, “Now that you finally caught me, you’re going to tell them, aren’t you?”
She reached out her arms toward Mahatma Gandhi as he materialized in the room to give her a kiss on the forehead, and he stayed by her side, only visible to her.
“I assure you, nobody knows what you know. Your secret is safe. I won’t tell nobody,” said the nurse with a closed-lipped smile, stepping back to avoid the smoke.
The young woman’s gaze became focused on a white concrete fountain in the garden with a statue of a woman in it, which she was convinced was a supernatural being. Entranced, she stared at the endless stream of clear water pouring through the hands of the goddess into the tiny, ornate pool. That statue resonated its own mood; apart from a tranquil solitude, it was weighed down with a weariness from witnessing the multitudinous degrees of insanity it had observed in silence each day, since the dawn of humanity.
“The Revolutionaries orchestrated my admittance to this mental institution. I must run away from here,” the sick woman realized.
The Revolutionaries from the desert wanted her for the powerful, secret knowledge she possessed, for she was the one person in the world who possessed this great wisdom. She could read their thoughts, and although they could read hers as well, they knew she was invaluable. They wanted her for her ability to transmit information to everyone that the frontline of her country had a secret plan that was the embodiment of evil. It was not the kind of evil that one knows for certain, but a shrouded kind of evil, that only revealed glimpses of itself in snippets of news reports.
She remembered a man in a news report who had let slip certain clues before he killed seven children and others, with absolutely no remorse. Ah, I remember that damn one. I hate myself for that one. I knew he was gonna do it and that man couldn’t hear my thoughts clearly enough to stop. I must try harder.
And she did try harder, if only in her thoughts; disjointed thoughts, which would likely trouble and alarm most other people if they had them.
The sick woman got her own room and bed the next day. Her medical chart recorded only the clinical details of her overall bedraggled appearance: her waif-like 94 pounds – give or take the small amount of carbohydrates she ate during the day – the fact she was 5’6, with short, curly, dyed-black hair, and the fact that she had light-yellow eyes. Those eyes – her Italian-American father and Portuguese mother didn’t even know where she got them. They changed color depending on her mood and what she wore. And now, she didn’t look like either one of her parents or any healthy human being, with deep cuts and bruises all over her face, chest and neck, and her body covered in silver sulfadiazine and loosely wrapped with bandages. It was a medicine normally used for severe burns, but the doctor had said it would help her deep wounds heal faster.
The woman sat cross-legged on the hospital bed, white barrenness surrounding her except for a few specks of blood on the floor from this morning, when the nurse had refused to give her a good pen and her usual stack of writing paper. Because of that she had purposely chewed off too much of her toenail, enjoying the pain of making herself bleed, which had both numbed her and given her something to do.
Could it be possible to die from this unending hopelessness?
She thought for a while about this, and briefly about suicide – but she could never kill herself, because of her ebbing and flowing faith in a God, who tried so hard to make everything good and purposeful. Things like smoking cigarettes helped to ease the pain and guilt felt so deeply in her heart for so many years. It also helped to distract her from thinking negative thoughts about her old friend Fatima.
Today she wanted to write about Fatima, who she remembered being such a special person, someone who had been so different from everyone else. Nibbling on the pen cap for a long while, she thought about how Fatima often inspired her and made her heart glow with an appreciation for life. That girl she had once known had been so optimistic and gregarious, living life for spontaneity, and relishing in anything with that exciting hint of danger. Fatima had been such a pretty girl, with long, curly red hair and green eyes. She remembered that being with Fatima had felt like walking around with a unicorn on a leash. Everyone stared at Fatima when she walked by, not just guys, but girls too. And at parties, she would be dancing and doing her thing – putting on a new record, pulling on a joint or fixing a drink for a lover – and always, always she would be smiling, swaying her body with the flow of the music, moving in her own enchanted world. She would dance all night with girls or guys, kissing them all over or spontaneously hugging them to make them feel special. Sometimes she would flash her breasts, not caring what anyone thought. Fatima had oozed spontaneity and confidence. “What in Christ’s name would Fatima do in a place like this? I were Fatima, how would I escape from here?”
The sick woman had loved Fatima in an almost odd way, in the way that drab and ordinary people idolized the rich and famous. “
Fatima was like a puppy angel, just floating around, making other people feel happy
Like everyone, Fatima had had a purpose in life, the sick woman believed, yet sometimes she wasn’t so sure about that. As the thought that her friend could be more like a stray, confused puppy and not an angel, savior puppy at all began to pound in her mind, she ripped up her notes about Fatima.
What was true meaning and purpose, anyway?
This question confused her a lot. Like that woman in the hospital, Fatima had also fervently wanted to know all of life’s mysteries and truths with an immediate hunger for answers, and without any patience for introspection or contemplation.