Ah, Madhouse

By Sanja Pilić

Translated By Vera Andrassy

The story “Ah, Madhouse” was awarded the second place Večernji list prize for short story in 1981 and was published in Sanja Pilic's books Ah, Madhouse, (Globus, 1986), The Success Factor, (Mozaik- knjiga 2002), and Small Bag, Great Freedom, (Mozaik- knjiga 2011). The accompanying art is also by Sanja Pilić.


They brought me to M. by special train. "She's mad but harmless," they said. I looked at the landscape through the iron bars of the carriage. Then they opened the door, it was so hot that the sun burned my eyes. I was wearing a silk dress and an ivory bracelet. Somebody grasped me round the waist and helped me down the steps, onto the ground. A healthy man, he smelt of garlic, was beside me. The car door was wide open, my pigskin suitcase lay on the backseat. "Please," said the man in the white coat. "And welcome." It sounded like mockery and yet it wasn't… I tried to smile but I couldn't. My face was hardened clay, hard, useless earth.

 

We didn't drive long. When we stopped, the door of paradise rose before me. A paradise for lunatics. Of wrought iron, with black roses. It was a complicated pattern, even for lace. The door stood there, unreal and light, as if not touching the ground—it seemed fragile, like dry ikebana. It looked as though you could always walk out through it without a key as if a nice thought would be sufficient to open it. "Has the madhouse always been here?" I asked the man in the white coat. He nodded: "Yes, always." The healthy man took my suitcase and stood beside me. I could smell garlic again. I walked between the two, down a long path in the big building. At the end of the path a white room without paintings was waiting for me.

 

"I hope you'll be all right here," said the man in the white coat. "Your family saw to it that you got the best room."

 

"I don't doubt it," I said and smiled, all of a sudden my face was made of wet sand. I saw my family waving in harmony while I stared from behind the bars. My daughter was standing separately, I noticed relief in her calm, child's eyes.

 

"We'll write," they shouted in unison: a citizens' choir on platform one, at eleven twenty-five. "Just leave me alone," I screamed and the train started, rattling across the unfamiliar, broken landscape.

 

"Here we are," said the healthy man; the man in the white coat had disappeared. "Thank you," I mumbled with relief and sat down on the brass bed. The rest of the furniture consisted of a washbasin with water and a bedside table. "If there's a war," the healthy man added, "if there's a war, this is the way to the underground shelter." He raised his hand and pointed through the windows. "I'm at war already," I told him. "I'm serious," muttered the healthy man. "Well, then go on sick leave, go on sick leave while the war lasts, paid sick leave, and get out of this room," I hissed quite near his damp, trembling face. "You're really mad," shouted the healthy man and slammed the door.

 

I was in paradise. Free lunches, dinners, care, room, cleaning woman, and even paid tenderness. The door would open creakingly, the black roses trembled and new madmen arrived. One by one. I looked through the pane without opening the windows. Some died. Some lived like vegetables. Those who screamed, did it in the lonely light blue house. At the end of the park, where the forest began. They could cry, stand on their heads, walk on their hands, laugh, piss into vases, kneel, do needlework. The only thing they were not allowed to do was scream. Silence was all around me, thick as fog.

 

The healthy man avoided me. The man in the white coat came from time to time. He would put his small, warm hand on my forehead and sigh. "Is the madness here?" I asked him, touching his hand on my forehead. "I don't know," he answered. "I still don't know."

 

The cleaning woman came every day, shuffling her feet in big checkered men's slippers. She would open the door with a slow movement, then stop and start coughing. The coughing lasted for quite a while and her stooped shoulders shook, concealing the everyday scene behind her back: lunatics mumbling in the park. "Hurry up," I would shout and she would slowly close the door. She sometimes gave me mauve letters—letters from my daughter. Dear Mommy and so on. I imagined her writing them, behind a locked door. In the aunt's room. Locked in just in case. So they wouldn't see her. So they wouldn't get angry. Dear Mommy, forgive me for not loving you, forgive me for writing that I love you, forgive me for the fact that I shall love you when I grow up. I imagined the aunt bending over a saucepan, over vegetable soup. And the uncle, lying on a sofa, his bare feet on the coffee table. Because of his circulation. His blood did not circulate well enough in his white veins. But poison did. I saw the daughter entering the kitchen and opening the fridge. Where there is something to eat, there is a family. Lunch and family. If there is no lunch, there is no family.

 

The cleaning woman did not give me the other letters. There were white and blue letters. White letters from the sister cooking the vegetable soup and blue ones from the mother who is travelling. The white letters said, don't worry, we are looking after the little one, we adore her, she is growing and putting on weight, my husband has a job, of course, you don't know how prices have gone up, petrol, not to mention the rest, everything is so frightfully expensive, how lucky you are, you're in the madhouse. Bread is expensive, and maize is expensive, and potatoes are expensive, but my husband has a job. We have no children, the little one is no burden to us. Stay there as long as you can. Stay there forever. And don't worry about your little girl. My husband has a job. Lots of kisses, your loving sister.

 

The blue letters said, this is your mother writing. I'm in Greece, admiring the Ionian and Doric columns. If you had listend to me you could have been here and not there. But the madhouse is the natural end of your road. I told you not to have children. You are Rh negative and I always had problems with you. But you found that idiot and had a daughter with him. Then the idiot burned to death in his car. Allegedly, a pilot hit him, thinking probably he was flying a plane. Who on earth would believe it! Well, you could have been travelling around Hellenic sights with me. And not have to have your sister look after your poor child. Now that everything is so expensive. A good thing they didn't have children of their own, now at least they have room. And her husband has a job. A job. You should be grateful to them. Because everything costs money. Everything. And how are you? Take care. Lots of love and kisses from your Mommy.

 

The cleaning woman was a dear. Three times she gave me the white and the blue letters. Three times I returned them unopened. She looked at me with her round, black eyes and said nothing. She dusted the furniture, changed the water in the washbasin and then, when everything was finished, sat on the bed, next to me. "Do you want peppermints or toffees? Or green peppermints, eh?" Her pockets were all sticky with the chocolate and butter she stole after breakfast. So she kept the sweets in a separate linen bag tied round her waist. "I don't want anything," I said. "You're crazy," said the cleaning women and put a peppermint in her mouth. Everything around us smelled of soap. "I'm going to clean your windows tomorrow," she added, munching noisily. "You don't know what's good for you. You don't know it's good to eat sweets and look through clean windows. But I'm going to teach you. Want a toffee…?"

 

She usually stayed a long time in my room, that cleaning woman. The room smelled of cleanliness. The cleanliness smelled of the cleaning woman. There were flowers in vase. In sweet water. I dropped lumps of sugar in the vase, for the flowers. It made them live longer.

 

The days grew shorter and shorter. The mumbling in the park also grew shorter. The lunatics walked around in their pajamas, always ready to go to sleep. I had a pair of pajamas too, men's ones. They had the initials L.F.—Lunatic Female. L.M.—Lunatic Male. We all slept in identical white-blue stripes, all cut the same way. I had a special room, a special bed, and a special cleaning woman.

 

In the morning. I went down to breakfast in the canteen. All of us who were harmless went there. And all those who were grown up. All those who could hold a spoon without spilling the soup. We ate. Breakfast was a festivity. Eating was a festivity. Munching too. Picking your teeth too. And television in the early evening too.

 

On television they were saying if there is hunger, if there is no hunger, if the world goes mad, if it doesn't go mad, if this side attacks the other, and if the other side attacks this one, and we watched in our white-blue jackets. We watched the commentators in their suits and their silk ties, and the women newscasters in their patterned blouses, and our stomach were full and our beds clean.

 

The healthy man sat by the door, always ready to slip away at the least noise. I sometimes watched him. He bit his nails, regularly. He sobbed with fear. The news was destroying him. The enemy did not fear garlic. The enemy was mad. No one could help him. We were mad, too. He was healthy and unprotected.

 

In the end I began to be afraid too. I trembled with fright in my room. I had a daughter. I didn't have a daughter. She had an aunt, an uncle, and a grandmother. I had a room and a cleaning woman. And a diagnosis. The war had started a long time before but we hadn't noticed.

 

I would go to the wrought iron door, the one with the black roses and stand there for hours. The man in the white coat was walking his anxious face. He did not come near me, nor did he put his hand on my forehead. It no longer mattered what it was—hysteria, schizophrenia, depression, neurosis, phobia, cretinism, debility— nothing mattered any more. All of a sudden we all had unhappy childhoods, mothers who did not love us, and fathers who travelled around. The door stood there, fragile and black, not touching the ground. You only had to push it a little, and it opened. It opened at a mere touch, without a key. I stood there like a guard. But no one entered anymore. No one went out either.

 

When the sirens started to wail I was awake. Snow had fallen overnight and lay untouched. White as the walls of the room, without a crease, like a taut sheet. I saw the cleaning woman hurry by in black rubber boots. She waved. "Hurry-up," she shouted. I pretended not to hear her. I had some peppermints in the drawer for her. I had bought them at the tobaccoinst's. But she did not stop. She was running headlong, incredibly fast—I would never have thought it possible when I was laying in bed, waiting for her to close the door. Gone was the slackness from her stooping shoulders as she flew by the window like a bird.

 

Then I saw the lunatics running in file. They were mumbling with pleasure, they thought it was a game. They were wearing grey coats. Some were in wheelchairs. Some were on stretchers. The strange procession passed like a vision across the snow. The man in the white coat was shouting: we must save ourselves, help us save ourselves, we must evacuate the screaming ones, hurry-up everyone, hurry-up, this is a real war, hurry-up…

 

I leaned my head against the glass. It was cold outside. There was a war outside. All right. But here, in the room, it was warm and clean. The bed had a blanket and a pillow. It was soft. There were flowers in the vase. This was a new time, guns were history now, they had said. Lots of things were history. I should have been afraid of viruses and radiation, but somehow, as I was standing in the warm room, I wasn't afraid. I thought with horror of the shelter under the ground, of people in white coats who were screaming, of cleaning women who were screaming, of lunatics who were screaming, of fear swelling like beans in water. Of collective fear. Of collective eating, crying, sniffing, wailing, trembling, and dying. Reality was squatting in the shelter there. In the room, dreams were sleeping in warm safety.

 

I looked through the window. I saw the healthy man run, he was yellow in the face. He was last, he who had been ready to be first for so long. He had not taken a life insurance policy with an insurance company nor had he gone on sick leave, he had done nothing to be ready when the sirens started wailing.

 

It began to snow again, in big, reluctant flakes. It was all so unreal. I saw my daughter eating her soup, I saw myself shruging helplessly. There was no point in saving one's life for later, for the good times and nurses who prevent the bleeding. There was no point in waiting for the recovery. The madhouse was outside the iron door, too, lunatics were boxing each other's ears in the fields. Brave, enthusiastic madmen. They had the same striped pajamas, L.F., L.M., there in the field, immersed in the snow and the blizzard. I could not distinguish them from the distance. They all looked alike. Each of them had a brother who he had not recognized. I looked through the clean window, which still smelled of the cleaning woman. There were flowers in the vase. The bed was still warm too. I slowly backed away from the window and sneaked to the bed with noiseless steps. Nothing exploded. I lay down mumbling contently and pulled the snow-white sheet over my head.

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