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The Red Flower (part 1)

The first part to a short story by this nineteenth-century Russian writer.  You can read the original here.

To the memory of Ivan Turgenev.


"In the name of His Imperial Highness, Emperor Peter the First, I declare an inspection of this psychiatric hospital!"

These words were uttered by a loud, sharp, ringing voice.  The hospital clerk registering the patient in a large, dilapidated book on a table covered in spilled ink could not restrain a smile.  But the two young men accompanying the patient were not laughing: they could hardly stay on their feet from forty-eight hours without sleep, as well as the madman they had just led in from the train station.  At the penultimate station his attack of madness had grown even more intense, and they had pulled out the strait jacket from somewhere, summoned the conductors and police, and gotten it on him.  In this way they had taken him into town, and in this way they had reached the hospital.

He was a frightful sight.  Cut broadly from rough canvas, his gray jacket had been torn to shreds in the attack and now partially covered his frame; long sleeves pressed his arms across his chest and were bound behind him.  His inflamed, pinned-open eyes (he hadn't slept in ten days) burned with a hot and motionless luster, nervous convulsions made his lower lip twitch, and his curly unkempt hair fell in a crest upon his forehead.  In quick, heavy steps he paced from one corner of the office to the other, examining with great curiosity some old document cabinets and oilcloth chairs, and now and again stealing a glance at his companions.  

"Take him to the ward.  On the right."

"I know, I know.  I was here at your hospital last year.  We took a look around the whole place.  I know everything and it will be very hard to fool me," said the patient.

He turned towards the door.  The guard swung it open before him.  With the same quick, heavy, and decisive gait, his mad head raised high, he left the office and almost took off in a run to the right towards the ward of the mentally ill.  His companions barely managed to follow him.   

"Call ahead.  I can't.  My hands are tied." 

The concierge opened the doors and the companions entered the hospital.

The hospital was a large stone building, the product of some old public works.  The ground floor was composed of two large rooms – one a dining room, the other a common area for calmer patients – a wide hallway with a glass door leading to the flower garden, and twenty-two separate rooms in which the patients lived.  Here two dark rooms were also built, the first lined with straw mattresses, the other with boards, in which the rowdier patients would have to sit, and an enormous, gloomy room with arches – the bathroom.   The upper floor was for women; from there came discordant noise in howls and yelps.  Originally the hospital had been designed with a capacity of eighty people.  But since it was the only hospital serving a number of surrounding districts, up to three hundred patients would stay there; a few smaller, closet-like rooms were fitted with as many as four or five beds.  In winter, when the patients were not allowed out in the garden and all the windows were tightly locked behind iron bars, the hospital grew unbearably stifling.    

The new patient was taken to the room that housed the baths.  To a healthy person the impression that it made was not a pleasant one, so it took even greater command of a disturbed and excited imagination.  It was a large room with arches and a sticky stone floor lit by a single window in one corner.  The walls and arches were painted in dark-red oils, and on the level of the dirt-blackened floor two stone baths had been built that resembled oval pits filled with water.  A large copper stove with a cylindrical cauldron for warming up water and a whole entanglement of copper pipes occupied the corner next to the window; to the disturbed mind, all this possessed a fantastic and extraordinarily gloomy character.  The fat guard running the baths always seemed to be chuckling to himself, his own dark physiognomy heightening the impression.

So when they took the patient into this frightful room to give him a bath and, in keeping with the hospital director's system of treatment, to place some Spanish fly on the nape of his neck, he suddenly became furious and horrified.  Stupid thoughts, one more monstrous than the next, swirled around his head.  What was this?  The Inquisition?  A place of clandestine punishment, where his enemies had decided to do away with him?  Perhaps even hell itself?  Finally it dawned on him that this was some kind of trial or ordeal.  They stripped him naked despite his desperate resistance; yet with his strength doubled by his illness, he wrested himself free of several guards who fell on the floor.  Four of them ultimately seized him by the limbs and laid him in the warm water.  To him, of course, the water seemed boiling, and in his mad head flashed a disjointed notion about trials, boiling water, and red-hot irons.  He choked on the water and convulsively thrashed his arms and legs about, which only led the guards to grip him more tightly, and, gasping for breath, he screamed something discombobulated which no one could properly hear, much less understand, but it contained both prayers and imprecations.  He screamed until he was at the end of his tether and, finally quiet, burst into hot tears.  Then he uttered a phrase completely disconnected from what he had been babbling about before:

"O Saint and Great Martyr Gregorii!  Into your hands I deliver my body.  But my spirit – no, no, no!"

The guards held on to him even though he had calmed down.  The warm tub and the bubbles with ice caressing his head had taken effect.  Yet when they pulled him out, now almost unconscious, from the water and placed him on the stool so as to apply the cantharides, the remainder of his strength and mad thoughts again erupted.

"For what?  For what?" he cried.  "I never wished any harm upon anyone!  Why kill me?  Oh oh oh!  O, Lord!  O, you martyred before me!  I beg you, save me!"

The stinging touch to his nape made him beat himself in despair.  The helper could not hold or manage him and did not know what to do.

"There's nothing you can do," said the soldier conducting the operation.  "It needs to be wiped clean."

These simple words drove the patient into convulsions. "Wiped?  Wipe what?  Whom do you want to wipe?  Me!" he thought, and in mortal terror shut his eyes.  The soldier grasped a rough towel at both ends and, squeezing with great force, quickly rubbed it over his nape, ripping off the cantharides and the top layer of flesh from the blister, leaving a bare red indentation.  The pain from this procedure would have been unbearable for a calm and healthy person, but to the patient it seemed like the end of all things.  His whole body burst forth, out of the hands of the guards, and his naked body tumbled upon the stone slabs.  He thought they had cut off his head.  He wanted to scream but could not.  They took him to his cot in a state of oblivion, which led to a deep, long, and almost death-like sleep.


It was night when he awoke; all was quiet.  From the neighboring room he could hear the breathing of the sleeping patients.  Somewhere far off a strange monotone voice was talking to itself – the voice of another patient ensconced for the night in a dark room; and from above, from the women's ward, a hoarse contralto was singing some savage tune.  The patient listened closely to all these sounds.  He felt an odd weakness, almost ruin, through his limbs; and his neck was aching horribly.

"Where am I?  What's wrong with me?" were the thoughts that occurred to him.  And with uncanny clarity, the last month of his life came to him, and he understood he was sick and what his illness involved.  A series of silly thoughts, words, and acts came to him as well, causing his whole body to convulse. 

"That's it, of course, thank God!  That's it!"  he whispered and then once again fell asleep.

The open window with the iron bars looked out upon a small back alley between some large buildings and a stone fence.  No one ever ventured into that back alley, and it was thickly overgrown with some shrubs and lilac blooming gloriously at that time of the year ... Behind the bushes and directly across from the window a high fence shimmered in the darkness; behind it stared the elevated treetops of the great garden, translucent and flowing in the moonlight.  On the right a white building shot towards the sky – the hospital – with its windows and iron bars illuminated from within; on the left was the blank white, moonlit wall of the morgue.  The moonlight trickled through the bars of the window into the room and onto the floor, and lit part of the bed and the pale, tortured face of the patient and his closed eyes.  Now there was nothing mad about him.  There was only the heavy, dreamless sleep of the tortured, without the slightest movement and without almost any breathing.  For a few moments he woke up in full possession of his memories, as if he were healthy, but in the morning he rose again from his bed in his prior state of madness. 


"How are you feeling?"  the doctor asked him the next day.

The patient was still under the covers and newly awake.

"Great!" he replied.  Then he jumped up, put on his shoes and wrapped his robe around himself.  "Excellent!  There's just one thing – this here!"

He pointed to the nape of his neck.

"I can't turn my neck without pain.  But that's alright.  Everything's fine once you get it – and I get it."

"Do you know where you are?"

"Of course I do, doctor, I'm in an insane asylum!  But you see, if you get it, nothing else really matters at all.  Really nothing."

The doctor looked him straight in the eye.  His handsome, well-groomed face with his arrogantly combed little golden beard and his calm blue eyes staring through gold glasses was unmoving and impenetrable.  He was observing.

"Why do you keep looking at me?  You will never peer into my soul,"  the patient went on, "but I can clearly peer into yours!  Why do you do bad things?  Why have you gathered this band of unfortunates and kept them here?  But I care not: I understand everything and am serene; but they?  What purpose do these tortures serve?  He who has understood that there exists a great and common idea in his soul cares little about where he lives or what he feels.  Or even whether or not he lives ... Do you see?"   

"Perhaps," the doctor replied, sitting down in the chair in the corner of the room so that he could watch the patient, who was pacing quickly from corner to corner, slapping down his enormous horse leather shoes and waving the flaps of his robe in wide red stripes and bright colors.  The doctor was accompanied by the medical assistant and the guard, both of whom were still standing at attention in the doorway.

"And I have it!" the patient exclaimed.  "And when I found it, I felt like I had been reborn.  My feelings became sharper, my brain was working like never before.  What once I  would achieve through a long road of deductions and guesses, I now recognized intuitively.  I really did attain what has been worked out by philosophy.  Within me I endure great ideas that say that space and time are merely fictions.  I live in all centuries.  I live without space, everywhere and nowhere, as one wishes.  And for that reason I don't care whether you keep me here or release me, whether I am free or bound.  I noticed here others like me.  But for the rest of them such a position is horrible.  Why don't you free them?  Who needs ..."

"You said," the doctor interrupted, "that you live beyond space and time.  Nevertheless, would you not concede that you and I are in this room now –" the doctor took out his watch, "on May 6, 18*** at 10:30?  What do you think about that?"

"Nothing.  I don't care where I will be or how long I will live.  If I don't care, does that mean that I am always and everywhere?"

The doctor smirked.

"Odd logic," he said, getting up.  "Perhaps you're right.  Goodbye.  Would you like a cigar?"

"Thank you."  He stopped, took the cigar, and nervously bit off the end.  "This helps me think," he said.  "This world, this microcosm.  On one end you have alkalis, on the other acids ... Such balance in a world in which opposite beginnings neutralize one another.  Farewell, doctor!"

The doctor moved away.  Most of the patients were waiting for him leaning out of their bunks.  No authorities would ever demand such honor from their subordinates as our doctor-psychiatrist asked of his madmen.  

Left alone, the patient continued pacing sporadically from one corner of the room to another.  They brought him tea.  Without sitting down, he downed a large mug in two gulps and ate a large piece of white bread in what seemed like a split-second.  Then he left the room and for several hours, without stopping at all, he walked with his fast and heavy gait from one end of the building to another.  The day was rainy and the patients were not let out into the garden.  When he began looking for the new patient, the medical assistant was directed to the end of the corridor.  He stood there, his face pressed to the glass of the glass garden door, staring at the flower.  His attention was drawn to its extraordinarily bright scarlet color, one of the types of poppy.

"Please weigh yourself," said the medical assistant touching him on the shoulder.

And when the patient turned towards him, the medical assistant almost recoiled in fear: what wild malice and hatred burned in those mad eyes!  Once he saw the medical assistant, he immediately changed his expression and obediently followed him, not saying a single word as if he were immersed in deep contemplation.  They went on into the doctor's office.  The patient stepped onto a platform of smaller, decimal weights; the medical assistant weighing him entered one hundred nine pounds in his log book next to the patient's name.  The next day it was one hundred seven, and on the third day, one hundred six.

"If this keeps up, he won't survive," said the doctor and ordered him to be fed in the best ways possible.  But despite this order and the patient's unusual appetite, he was getting thinner every day, and every day the medical assistant would enter an ever lower weight in his log book.  He barely slept at night and spent the day in uninterrupted movement. 

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