Everything was crushed white when I first walked up the road of plane trees to the red-trimmed hospital I had been hired to work in.
I depressed the frozen brown path, ascended the pallid stone steps, and split the two cloaked flower beds situated on either side of the cracked-red door.
Once inside, the pink nurse seated behind a range of yellow folders, well-nurtured desk plants, and cups filled with pens greeted me. I don't remember what she said, but I remember it being warm and mentoring. After, she led me through the hallways to my portion of the home. The room gave me more than I it. I've always packed light and I liked to walk as much as I disliked being underprepared.
I left my things next to the door and quickly went to sleep on the more than adequate bed. Over the next few settling weeks, I cooked meals and delivered them on a rolling silver-smooth cart to the first floor orderlies whose families had retired them to the hospital. Eventually Nurse, as I had learned to call her, led me across the kitchen's checkerboard floor, through a green door, and started to introduce me to her half of the hospital that held the patients society had stabled. In the period of a week, I became the primary deliverer of meals and Nurse was able to focus her energy on the daily group meetings upstairs.
Nurse made sure to inform me of the upper floor's idiosyncrasies, most of the "recoveries" requested special meals that reminded them of life before they were interred. Food was the only thing Nurse had allowed the patients control over, for no one cares if Mr. Fischer's carrots get hugged and squeezed to death so long as she doesn't have to bury another rabbit.
Upon cooking the second floor's meals, I would load them onto the refurbished dumbwaiter near the refrigerator that led to the upstairs’ cart. Although, the stroller was more of a wheeled, large, open-faced tackle box with red-brown chains tying it to a wall when unattended than anything. The dumbwaiter then hoisted all of the blue and white plates up its thread as I climbed the staircase just large enough to be lit. The food waited to be withdrawn from behind the dumbwaiter door upstairs and deposited into the specialized food cart. Putting the plates into the custom, black plastic sections made sure that the patients’ food was kept in order, this was important to Nurse. One of the rooms I delivered to housed a half-rambling, half-mute woman named Maria. She had no known family to tend for her, nor any identification, nor country to send her off to somewhere.
Considering Maria's limited grasp of the language, the only thing she ever said was her name or some sort of sacrament, she was unable to control her daily meals; so Nurse had allowed her to keep the stained sheet she was in when she was found as her "pense-bête". Maria was one of the patients I eventually was tasked with taking around the grounds.
Maria Mikroshevikaya was a hard worker and eventually, this had become a problem. Every day, after waking up, she would make something nice for herself -- despite knowing that satisfying yourself only leaves another suffering -- and then walk the blocks to her gray box of a factory. Once inside, she would join the workers trickling into the woman's lockers and switch into her boiler suit. She would then walk to her machine and begin sewing canvas into tarps, sails, and the occasional bag.
She had started working young among the other women, and over the years their odium began to disseminate for the foreman had begun to incessantly ask them to be like Maria, so frequently that "Bud'dya kak Maria" had been agitpropped around town in the form of a poster depicting Maria's working hands being showered with red light. At first, she had appreciated the praise. Though, over time, even she began to hate the place. Her wages never went up and the other workers began ignoring her. This made her menial job, particularly when the factory churned to make its quotas during the shturmovschina, difficult. So, Maria started the habit of running parts of her hand through the machine, and then during the ensuing kerfuffle, point to the nearest woman for the loss of canvas. Maria's hands reigned supreme, and the incredible infrequentness of her self-mutilation helped her bypass detection of the foreman while still maintaining her place as the head of the strike brigade.
Every time Maria's machine stuck, the foreman would rush onto the floor, have one of the workers cut the stained strip out, and send Maria to the furnace room to fuel the factory. Maria made sure to drop the scraps outside a back window to be collected after her shift. It took Maria a long time to scavenge enough scraps, but she eventually furnished herself with a new outfit.
One day, one of the women near her began screaming. Maria continued working until she saw a rushing of women to the station behind her. Looking over, she saw one of the newer women pointing to her with one hand while the other remained attached to the sail the woman had been working on. Throwing her arms up to her rolling eyes, accepting her fate, Maria saw the familiar slamming door. The foreman escorted Maria out of the factory and directed her back to her khrushchyovka; she put the jig-sawed canvas boiler suit on and waited for whichever apparatchik it was who would take her to the camp.
Maria was allowed to keep her new uniform upon processing, for the funds for prisoners had dried as the country stagnated. It was for her ruby dotted outfit that those at the jail began calling her "Patches," unbeknownst to her.
Patches soon manufactured a dress out of her pillow case and the following morning, hopped into an unattended hamper and rolled away under the cover of her new red and white blanket.
This was the start of her Mendeleevian trek. She wandered everywhere, down through the Urals, caucus, and pale, until she emptied out into Europe pulled by aesthetics. Her pillow case tunic and flowing toga made waves in the current that carried her to France, where she was discovered by an American expat and dumped on the grounds of the hilled hospital.
Once inside, Maria passed the Nurse, was taken around the hallways, and her pillow cased frame was fitted with a new gown. Meanwhile, her bed was made with the sheet she had been in. Over time, Maria was taken upstairs to her current room.
Maria preferred the new prison she was kept in to the previous one and she was growing tired of pulling her sturdy canvas through the mud that developed in the late summer. She was used to being held in prison unwarranted, so the extensive treatment she received pleased her. It also told her that whatever was keeping her and the others in the building was trying very hard to do so, which meant they would most likely go to drastic measures to stop them from leaving. Her keepers would even take her around the grounds, seemingly provoking her to try and run, but Maria and the other prisoners seemed to know better.
Soon a new face was leading her around the perimeter, and he was more prodding than all the others had been before. He even took Maria through the gate at the bottom of the avenue of trees and walked with Maria on the road. Maria would look at the foreign sign and soon she began scrawling what she remembered of the strange lines onto her room's wallpaper. One day, she discovered a red and green book on a desk in one of the more private places she had strolled into and took it back to her room. She opened the text and was amazed to see columns of words and phrases she had not seen in several seasons coupled with words that more closely resembled the unfamiliar writing. Maria soon tasked herself with finding the words the new man had been taking her by periodically, for it was the only thing Maria could do without anyone else knowing, and that brought her peace. She would read the words trying to match them to the sign engraving in her mind. It took her three days and Maria realized she was in a French retirement center.
I finished the cooking and loaded the plates onto the dumbwaiter for Nurse's people. I opened the green door in the back of the checker board floored kitchen and walked up the stairs, unlocked the cart, and loaded it with the dumbwaitered meals. I rarely had time to savor the upstairs of the Victorian castle so I sauntered down the hallway.
Eventually I reached Maria's minimal room and knocked. Upon receiving no answer, I opened the dark room, turned on the light, put her food on the lone table, and immediately ran to get Nurse. It was the day after she had taken her quilts off her violets and she was outside patrolling for "lion's teeth".
After climbing up the stairs, we looked into Maria's empty room curiously; made our way to the open window where Maria's red and white bed sheet, now sewn into a long ribbon and tied to her empty bed frame near some childish scrawling, swayed in the wind. At the bottom on the ground were the peelings of Maria's pillows and some of the feathers blew down the Chatreuse hill into the trees toward the road.
© Copyright 2016 Liam Cooper. All rights reserved.