To start at the start, I suppose we must go back to the hospital.
The hospital is another world in another world. It lives by its own code, its own set of rules. It is a leper in the middle of a city, hiding behind tailored lawns and landscaped flower pots and lilyponds. Once a wall more than ten feet high and topped with spikes ran for its life around the grounds. They tore down the wall a decade ago. A decade before my demise that is.
At the time I first began to work there, shaving and playing chequers with old men, watching over them lolling on the lawns and weeding gardens of dribble, I heard stories. Stories about what it was like in the earlier days.
Once they showed me the dungeons. They led me down. Down underneath the foundations to where the disused dungeons huddle, crouched like crones in houses behind drawn blinds, afraid of the light of day. They told me about those who had been kept there. Stories of madmen and their mistresses rolling manacled in love’s madness amongst the flower beds above. They told me, women inmates who fell pregnant in the old days were shackled to the slimed stones.
Some said the bones of the babies born still lie there.
Some suggested that not all the babies were seeded by madmen.
Some, but very few, said that the warders too had their turn.
I remember the night she came. It was the night of the full moon before easter. A night when the moon scurried from cloud to fitting cloud as though frightened to look long upon the earth. A night when telephones rang wild between the back wards as nurses dialled to hear another voice and pretend they weren’t alone.
The wind whimpered and tossed in his sleep. I was duty nurse, dozing in the admissions office, wrapped in a tea-cosy of warmth beside the radiator.
I don’t know how long she knocked for. It must have been for some time. The repetition of the knocks finally stirred me.
I answered the door, I had to pull it open with both hands against the suction of the draught outside. I called an apology for being caught napping as I struggled with the door. But I don’t think she was listening. I don’t think it matters. And that was when I first saw her.
She waited on the step. The wind was her chaperone. Tugging gently at her elbow and lifting the hem of her flimsy white dress. She wore the kind of dress girls buy in eastern emporiums and handicraft of Asia shops in the city. I’m sure you’ve seen them.
She was beautiful. She was only a child. She stamped her bare bangled feet in the cold of the entrance lamp and smiled at me. Oh God I remember that smile. I bent to take her other arm to guide her up the steps. She leant against me and I felt the weight of her thighs. And she whispered of love in my ear and waved a wilted geranium, and cuckooed hello to the moon.
The female nurses bathed her. That’s the usual procedure. They brushed her hair and waited on her. The admissions officer padded into the room on grumbling shoes. He wore a grey suit of slumber. He crooked his finger beckoning her into his office. She followed like a lamb and I sat her opposite the desk. She looked radiant, like a bride, immaculate as any divine conception. But her body was the hourglass of the earth. Yes, she was made for love.
The doctor had brought a typed and sterile sheet of paper with him. A form full of blank spaces for all the answers. The doctor asked for her particulars. She smiled and whispered love, sweet love. The doctor inquired as to her name, her address, her next of kin. My name is Mary, sir, she replied offering him the geranium. And it withered half away to dust.
The doctor saw that her palm was ripe, the flower lay sore and bruised. He put it in a glass of water and buds sprang from the stem. She said, will you kindly bring my donkey to the door and strap my cross to its back. I have been called to Bethlehem. The night is to be my guide. I must tie in his mane the morning star to light me on my way. I have been chosen, she said. The nurses smiled. The doctor wrote laboriously in sperm upon the page, a single word, the word “insane”.
She was admitted in the morning at two past two and loved by twelve to three. She was catalogued and filed and given pills thrice daily. Each day she wandered the wards, touching this and touching that, as if living in a dream. She told the patients of sights she had seen. Milk on mountain tops and love in lion dens. And behind the locked doors the young men whispered love, sweet love.
There was an old rabbi who refused to live in the wards. He made his home in a closet beneath the stairs. He claimed to have wandered for two thousand years. The nurses agreed he must have and giggled and wiped their noses, smearing the smirks on their faces. He was trying to commit suicide, he told her, by holding his breath for as long as he could, slowly killing off his brain cells. He boasted he slew a thousand with each held breath.
The girl touched him and he kissed her hand and she became the spring in his woolly world of winter. And clocks turned over in time.
The girl floated through the wards on sails of perfumed air and, as she passed, the nurses keys collapsed in locks, limp with lust. The eyes of the young grey flannelled men leaned after her, stares erect. And they loved her from her bangles to the yellow of her long loose hair. We pressed her into laundry closets, we caressed her and kissed her, and swived her in turn in bed. And we thrust our members into her mouth till she cried secretions of love. I am the Virgin Mary, she said, and opened her thighs for the next.
And so it went on. Each night after nine as she went to bed, the young men with keys turned their heads instead of doorknobs. And wallowed in the wake of her hips.
I am the virgin unveiled she said and offered an apple in her hand. Fingers crept into the young men’s pockets and touched the forks of their thighs.
I’ll soon be Bethlehem bound, she said. She said, I’m as hungry as hungry can be and took the apple back. The nurses lay her on a bed like a saucer of milk and slurped up the fruit of her flesh.
She was given an egg for easter.
The egg took root and grew inside her. The nurses left her alone. Each day she pattered on poisoned feet down the corridors from Calvary and visited the old man in the closet. The nurses smiled as she passed and pursed their lips as their memories touched her belly and their fingertips felt the swell of the child. And she hurried past, begging for a donkey, crying that she was now too late for Christmas.
The aged rabbi inside the closet prayed with her and for her. The old man loved the child. He knew his time had almost come. Eternal peace drew near. On a day like today, downcast and dismal and dreary, he presented her with a string of pearls stolen from the bridge at night. He had been saving them, a celebratory gift for the birth of the child. Her unhappiness made his nose twitch so he gave the beads earlier to cheer her. The twitch refused to leave.
Her labour time rubbed harder. The pains came at seventeen minute intervals. Regular as the British railways the midwife claimed. And the nurses drew straws among themselves, joking and wagering over the expected colour of the child’s hair.
Just before dawn they gathered in the delivery room to see the outcomes of their bets. The girl-mother screamed for her womb to burst. And begged for it all to end. And she cried for Joseph. In Jesu’s name, sweet Jesu’s name for Joseph.
The midwife gave her a sponge to suck and tickled her between the legs. A warder at her bedside, he held the shortest straw, winked at the midwife and said, Peace my heart I’m here beside you.
She relaxed and gave in to the pangs and smiled and crooned of love, sweet love. They gave her a pomegranate to bite on and picked the pod of her womb. The baby popped out all wet and swagged in afterbirth. The midwife slapped the child and he yelled a lusty song of life. The midwife and warders looked and quaked. The boy babe chorused with his mother. Singing a ballad of love, sweet love.
The old rabbi in the closet took his deepest breath to date and died before the cock crowed twice.
We fled the room. The babe of three humours clutched between us and went our separate ways. Hands passed in time. I returned and held the mother’s moist hand, mausoleum cold, in mine. Wiping her womb with a sheet.
Knock, knock, said the door. I opened the door to the dawn. On the steps stooped three strangely garbed old men.
My name is Caspar, said the first.
Mine is Melchoir, said the second.
And my name is Baithasar, said the third.
We bring gifts.
We would like to see the child.
But where was the child?
About the Author
Jeremy Gadd is an Australian author who has previously published fifty short stories in periodicals and literary magazines (several of which have won competitions, such as the Billy Blue Magazine/John Clemenger Advertising Short Story Competition and the inaugural Refugee Week Short Story Competition).
A selection of eight previously published short stories, titled 'Country', was published by Ginninderra Press (Canberra) in 2008 and a selection of fifteen previously published short stories, titled 'Under Centauri' by Anaphora Literary Press (USA) in 2013.