Here’s another short excerpt from the tale I’m writing about a folklorist’s visit to a psychiatric hospital in England during the summer of 1970. It is the next scene with my Chilean exile Fernanda, following on from Fernanda, Faeries and Ravens…
I was alone again. Albe, Moore and Scrope had disappeared up-country somewhere leaving me in my quarters with nothing but the sound of the ticking clock, marking out the minutes and hours; creating time to reflect on the deficiencies of my life to date. What was I doing here? I’d swapped the intolerable isolation of my university research for the unendurable confinement of this lunatic asylum. As the days had dripped by, I recognised the old symptoms re-emerging: dulled vision, stomach cramps, endemic procrastination, and a growing fear of going outside and interacting with people. I was even beginning to suspect that the hospital orderlies had all been infected with the insanity that they dealt with on a daily basis. It was usually the timbre of their voices; the merest hint of derangement that spoke of exposure to madness over a prolonged period. It was worse in the male staff. They all seemed to exhibit a disquieting emptiness in their tone, as if they were reading from a script, like bad actors. Maybe it was because they were suspicious of me. Maybe they wondered what I was doing here as well, and were acting accordingly. I went over each conversation with them since I’d been here, further instilling the the shaky paranoia that had made itself at home with me. This was not good. I had to break out from this cycle of thought before I went to meet Fernanda, otherwise I might have one of my flip-outs. Christ, they might even put me on a ward if that happened.
I pulled myself up to the desk and poised my fingers over the Olympia that Moore had loaned me, to put my notes in order. I knew I wasn’t going to manage to do anything, but the act of intention distracted me from incessantly thinking the worst of everything. I rolled the sheet of paper up and locked it in position. I stared at it for a few moments, then typed: My sister… I’m so sorry. Please come back… . My breathing shallowed and the usual tears welled up. I yanked out the paper, screwed it up and flung it over the room. One thing was for sure, she wasn’t coming back.
I made my way out to the vegetable gardens in the late afternoon. The sun was shining for once, but the wind took the heat out of it. In my head I went over some of the faerie motifs from the Aarne-Thompson index, agitated, and wondering if Fernanda would come up with anything beyond her neurotic imaginings about nature spirits. I stopped for a moment behind the laundry building, closed my eyes and pictured her. My hands shook a little. I steadied my breathing and walked on.
She was sitting on the tree stump where she fed the ravens, eyes closed, head bowed, her hands clasped together as if in prayer. I coughed before I reached her, so as to not startle her. She waited until I was a few feet away and slowly raised her head. She kept her eyes closed for a moment, then opened them; black and watery.
‘Hola,’ she said, continuing to stare ahead.
‘Hey Fernanda. Nice day… bit windy.’
God, what did I sound like? Why did I always make personal contact so uncomfortable? She didn’t seem to notice, but when she turned to look at me the curve of her lips suggested that she was reading my awkwardness perfectly.
‘It’s not a good day my friend. There is some bad news.’
I tensed up, shoulders and stomach. She observed me for a few seconds, and her words began to echo inside my head somehow. At that moment I was quite sure she was putting them there herself, negating the need to say anything else by reinforcing what she had already said by direct, wordless communication.
‘Telepatía,’ she whispered, standing up, close to me, her black eyes still pooled with tears. ‘I know you don’t believe, but it’s true anyway.’
‘I’m not quite sure what to believe Fernanda. Why is there bad news?’
‘There has been a suicide.’
‘Really? In the hospital?’
‘No, here. In the cobertizo.’
She motioned to the tool shed on the edge of the gardens. My pulse quickened.
‘A faerie has ended her life there… she did it for you.’
I stared at her, looking for something that would abbreviate her words in her face. There was nothing there.
‘Fernanda, please don’t play games with me. I can’t deal with this sort of thing right now.’
She moved closer to me and stroked back some hair that had fallen over my eyes.
‘We know you’ve been thinking about ending your life my friend. We know how sad you’ve been. She did it so you do not have to. It was a selfless act. Las Hadas have no ego. This one soaked up your sorrow and and ended her existence so that you can continue. She knew your life must carry on, but there had to be a sacrifice. The sacrifice was her life.’
A head-rush dulled my vision for a moment. My hands were shaking so much I put them behind my back instinctively.
‘Fernanda, I… I… .’
‘You must come and see. It is tragic but it is beautiful. You must come and see… come.’
She reached round, took my hand from behind me and led me, unresisting to the shed.
We walked back slowly to the main building of the hospital hand in hand. We didn’t speak, but I could hear her lilting voice in my head, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish: it’s ok… you’ll be ok. It was meant to be… mantener la calma. In between her words I tried desperately to rationalise what I’d just seen. But every attempt failed. What I’d seen was not rational, it was absurdly irrational, but as real as the neo-gothic walls of the hospital in front of us. I was going to have to overhaul my understanding of the nuts and bolts of this world. It had just been forced upon me. There was no choice. The only choice was acceptance.
She left me at the door with a kiss on the cheek but no words. I wondered why it was she who was going back to the ward instead of me. If I told Dr Dawkins what I’d just experienced, he’d probably commit me on the spot.
In my head I heard Fernanda’s voice again: she is dead but dreaming. Soñando.
‘My sister or the faerie?’ I said out loud. There was no response. I walked, unseeing, back to my quarters.
Image © Mirjam Appelhof
The Dutch artist Mirjam Appelhof’s wonderful artwork can be found on her website: The Photo-Art of Mirjam Appelhof.