Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
They put me on The Ward today. That’s what they call it here. The ward of the hospital that they send all the ailing who aren’t about to get any better. I supposed anyone on a ward just calls it The Ward, though. We ain’t special.
I’ve been in this hospital for a few months now. In and out of different wings, seeing different doctors, taking different pills and shots, been shipped up and down elevators to different departments as if I was Christmas shopping at Bloomingdale’s instead of dying. Doesn’t matter what’s wrong with me, just matters that they can’t fix it, and I’ve got nowhere else to go, so they sent me to The Ward.
I heard a lot of stories about the ward, being bounced around so much. Heard the nurses, they don’t care for you as much as they take care of you. Like a dog nobody wants. The food is worse, the beds are worse, the air is worse. Breathing in all the same air as 30 other people who’s dying, same as you. That’s another thing about The Ward. There’s no doors or walls. It’s just open air. Sure, there’s curtains, but they’re not worth a damn. You get to know one another well. I’ve been here less than a day and I know who can’t clean themselves, who can’t wipe themselves, who don’t know why they’re here, and who even don’t know who they are. I spent months of my life trying to find a way to keep living. One day here and death would be like healing. Maybe that’s the point. This is a strange place to be.
Beside me, an old man told me I would get along great with his daughter, who was coming by at 3 o’clock. That was a few hours ago now, and just a little bit ago, he acted like he just met me, and said the same damn thing again.
Closing my eyes, trying to block out where I was, envying the people who didn’t know, I overheard a woman asking a question to one of the nurses. She may as well have been a leper on the street of Galilee. I peeped open an eye and the look of disgust on the nurse’s face was almost enough to kill me right there. How someone in a position of caring could hold such animosity toward someone they don’t know is beyond me. “Is she coming?” I heard the woman ask. “Who?” the tone in his voice making my skin shrink, like I was back in school and the teacher didn’t like what I just said. “Y-you know who,” the woman sounded like she was pleading for something. The man’s eyes rolled so hard they coulda bowled a strike. “I don’t know her name.” “The woman.” “I’m sure whoever you think is coming is on their way.” That was the coldest thing I ever heard. Utter placation, and as generic as all hell. What is this place?
Once the nurse was gone I raised my voice, what I could raise it to at least. “Who’re you expectin, hon?” Silence fell across the room like a blanket. Every eye was on me, excepting the few who didn’t have the wits. Then, every eye turned away. I got no answer. I got no reprimand beyond the looks of concentrated consternation. I closed my eyes again, just wishing I wasn’t here.
The woman I asked looked at me, wide eyed, “The violin player.” My eyes matched her own. This place didn’t seem befitting something so high brow.
“Doesn’t sound so bad.”
“That’s not…” I heard defeat work its way into her voice, and then heard nothing. I didn’t hear another voice the rest of the night. Eventually I began to doze.
The lights dimmed in the hall and through the ward. The very air became hushed. My ears have never not once heard such silence. There was always some sound, but not then. Footsteps broke in like claps of thunder. A shadow appeared on the tile floor, stretched out and fuzzy, becoming clearer as the footsteps grew louder. A figure in a sleek, black dress came from around the corner carrying a weird shaped case. The light was dim but her face was so pale you could still see it. It was clean, smooth like a bar of soap. Her hair dark, like the dress, both hanging down to her knees.
She walked to the end of the bed rows, between them both. Her motions were unnatural and fluid, but so elegant. Looking around the room, all eyes were on her, and you could tell they all wanted to look away. She moved herself so she was directly in the middle of the room. She then turned herself, just enough so you could see it was deliberate, toward my side of the ward. Every shoulder across the room from me sunk, but like a relieved shrug, like soldiers being told they can all just go home. Whatever weight that side of the room dropped, my side of the room picked up. Tension built to fear.
She opened her case and pulled out a polished violin, finest looking instrument I ever saw, and a bow. Her face fixed to a point on the wall, unblinking, anchored. She lifted bow to string and immediately my ears heard the most beautiful music I remember ever hearing. The sound was crisp. The walls seemed to be absorbing it, wanting to take it in for themselves instead of bounce it round the room like they ought to. It was like this particular hall was made precisely for the sound of those strings. The melody lifted through the room, it drew tears from every eye. The notes were such a mix of mourning and hope, like a southern Baptist woman singing “Amazing Grace” at her child’s funeral.
I closed my eyes savoring some of this pleasure. Every other eye stayed glued right to her. I hadn’t had much enjoyment in a while, so I was letting myself take some peace. When I opened my eyes, I lost my bearings for a moment. I looked in the middle of the room, but she had moved. She was closer to the beds on my side now. I hadn’t heard her stop playing. I hadn’t heard any footsteps. And yet, she had moved. I watched her now, with the same intensity as everyone else in the room. I noticed no movement, but if I really thought about her position from before, I could tell she had moved closer to the beds. Without so much as twitching a muscle, and with no noise but that violin, she was taking herself and that violin to some place else in this room. Like she was floating.
After a short time, her goal became clear. She was heading straight for the space between the third and fourth bed. The third bed, as it happened, was empty. The look of pure terror on the man’s face in bed 4 was a marvel to behold. I did not know a person’s face could hold such fear, and silently. He looked like he was screaming as loudly as anyone had ever screamed, but the violin’s sweet voice wouldn’t allow such a ruckus to share in the space that it wanted.
The chair reached the foot of the bed, and the woman’s body began to rise. Now on her feet, she took a step toward the bed, toward the man, not looking at him, just staring forward. Another step toward him, and her posture relaxed some. The bow lifted from the strings and the music faded out, as if the air wanted to hold onto it, some notes still hanging around even after she stopped playing.
Her gaze finally broke and looked down at the man. He appeared unable to move. Her hand gently sunk to his forehead, her arm’s motion just as fluid as her walking had been. Calmness struck the man at once. He looked so at peace that you could not tell he’d just been the most scared a human being could be. His chest rose and sank steadily under his covers. The woman began to bend at the waist, putting her mouth to the man’s ear, whispering something to him. The man’s eyes grew open, he breathed in one long, deep breath, and his chest moved no more. She rose herself to a standing position, turned around, immediately walking out of the ward, and left out the same hallway she came in from. The lights went out, and none of us spoke. We all just pretended like we were okay and able to sleep the whole rest of the night.
At some point, we must have started believing our own lies and actually fell asleep. When I woke up, there were nurses gathered around the man who just got the private serenade. It was surreal. Watching those people lift a man – one day; living, eating, drinking, speaking – the next; breathless, lifeless, gone – from his bed onto his gurney. His entire life is done. His experiences now mean nothing. His memories erased from the universe. And these people carrying him out are just having a day at work, which they’ll forget long before their own lives and memories fade to oblivion.
The rest of the room is doing their best to act like it’s just another day. Most of their days involve staring off into nothing and hoping the time goes quick, so it’s not like it was a hard job. But still, I could tell most of them were faking. Pretending, just like me, that what we saw last night didn’t happen. That this man just went, and wasn’t taken. But we all knew.
There’s a kind of kinship that comes with knowing. You ever want to make a friend closer? Tell them a secret. Friendship requires nearness of bodies. Secrets require nearness of souls. The bigger the secret, the nearer the souls. I’d bet, right then, there in that ward, our souls couldn’t be any closer. Probably huddling scared if we’re honest. Before, I was an outsider, but after that, I was with them. I was in. Finally a part of an exclusive club and I wanted nothing more than to be out of it.
The sourness that was cast onto the day burned everyone’s mouths and everyone’s eyes. Hardly any of us spoke a word, and fewer of us opened our eyes any more than we had to. Like this, in the way a man walks to the gallows, we lived through the day. The motions were just that. We only did what made the day less difficult. We did nothing that might cause us the sin of enjoyment, as that would do nothing but bring the terror of the night to us sooner.
The light cast into the room by the sunset, though filtered through sterile shades, was some of the most beautiful light I’d ever seen. A day so ugly punctuated by a light so lovely was something that made my stomach churn, like whoever was in charge had the worst and most twisted sense of humor. The last of the nurses cleared the room, and the lights dimmed.
I’ve never had an easy life, and I have seen some people broken, knowing nothing but more breaking was coming. Nothing could compare to the faces in this room. Some pretended to sleep. Some, naïve, actually tried to. I have heard people say, smart people, that fear of the unknown is the most fundamental and intense fear a person knows. I can tell anyone that that cannot be any further from the truth. It’s the opposite. When you know, flat out know, that your doom is coming, that’s when you’ll be most scared. A man who hears someone behind him is less scared than one who sees a gun held to his face. There’s no one on this earth that can tell me a man who thinks he might get killed feels more dread than one who knows he will. That was all of us. We knew we were about to get killed. We just didn’t know precisely which one of us it was gonna be.
The footsteps faded in again, tap tap tapping along the tile floor. The shadow again growing into focus. The same posture. The same fluid motion. The same relief from the other side of the room when she turned her long, dark body toward my side. Everything was the same. Well, except who was gonna go.
The music was just as beautiful as the last time. This was our only solace, but the notes were certainly embittered, knowing just what would be accompanying them later on.
This time, I watched. I watched her feet on the tile, looking for motion. Watching that woman’s body was like watching the moon. You can know with all your head that it’s moving, you can know it wasn’t out before, that it’s here now, and that it will set again later, but good luck trying to convince your eyes of any of that. The melody hanging in the air all the while was terrific, in every sense of the word.
I think my hands figured it out before I did, because it was feeling their sweat soak into my shirt that made me realize I did see her moving, whether I knew it or not, and that she was heading in my direction. I damned myself for thinking this, but after noticing, I hoped she was going to either of the people next to me. I say I damned myself, but that’s the thought I’d have had a million times over, if I had to go through it again. And this woman chose me, so I was already damned anyway.
My eyes burned and let me know that I wasn’t blinking anymore. My hope that she was going after anyone other than me was quick to die. I just knew she was coming straight to my bedside. And, like I said before, that was when my fear became double what it had been.
My pulse was making my hands tremble, my eyes twitch. The fabric of my shirt was thumping as if my heart was just inside its buttons instead of being locked inside my chest. Her chair stopped moving suddenly. The bow stopped moving and she lifted it away from the violin, her thin form rising to her feet. Her face was an awful, unnatural shade, that the dim light did nothing to mask. Its smoothness unearthly, its bones too hard, too pronounced. But worst of all were her eyes. They stared, but not at me. As if, like some of those orderlies earlier, this was just a day of work for her, like she didn’t even deign to look at me when she’s about to take my life, my past, my now, my next, my everything. She stepped closer, the air chilling as she approached. My teeth began to chatter, though I tried to keep my jaw clenched. My arms felt like they were made of lead as I tried to raise them to protect me from her. No matter how hard I lifted, they stayed on my chest, weighing it down. My gasps for air became faster, more shallow. She reached my side and her gaze broke from nothingness, and fell to me. How sorely I missed my indignation of not being looked at. My eyes could not tear away from her. My heart trying to break free of its cage of bones, my pulse pushing on my skin. The grey of her eyes pierced through me. My soul broke from the huddle with the others in the room, and raced to me, begged me to hold on. Her hand reached out and slowly fell to my forehead. I swear it blistered from the cold in her flesh. All my heat, my blood, my sweat, my spirit, ran through me and into her hand. Darkness faded in, surrounding me. She began to bend down, her body bending in a way no body should, her mouth touching my ear, her breath sicky sweet like rotten fruit. All fell into blackness, as I heard her voice break in through the dark and silent void.
“We must go deeper into greater pain, for it is not permitted that we stay.”