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Wandering those white, labyrinthine halls I met many people. Most of the names and faces have faded, yet once in a while - by whim of dream or memory - I spy someone familiar, a reflection on the rainwater pooling in my mind.
I didn't think of it that way before, of course. Words have only started to come to me now. But the impressions from that time still exist, pressed and ancient leaves, flowers.
In one of the long rooms, the same sterile, bleached shell as the others, I saw color. There were ten or so beds, and on one there lay a girl with vivid violet hair, and this color drew me to her like light draws a moth. She was surrounded by the electrical hum of machines and the shivering whispers of people in white coats, but these did not seem to bother her. She was looking up at the fluorescent light in the ceiling.
The adults were used to wanderers such as myself and never paid too much attention to us. I came up to the girl – well, I thought of her then as an adult though she was at most five years older than me – and touched her wrist lightly. Her gaze switched from the ceiling to my face, but she remained still, and at first I was frightened that I had stumbled upon another half-dead creature, as had happened before. Then she smiled and sat up, tousling my hair. “Hi there,” she told me. “Aren't you brave?”
Her smile washed over me and filled me up, so that I had to smile back at her. The girl laughed and ran her outstretched fingers through the hair that had drawn me to her. “Sit on my bed and let's talk! It’s nice to have a visitor.”
I hopped up onto the white sheets and settled there. “What's your name?” the girl asked me, and I told her, “Sandra.”
“Sandra,” she repeated. “That's a pretty name! But - is it all right if I call you San?”
No one had given me a nickname before, and I had always been a little stifled my name. “Okay,” I replied, and thus I was christened.
“What do you want to talk about, San?”
I looked down shyly. I did not normally need prompting, but sometimes in the presence of somebody who impressed me in some way - exciting admiration or fear - I forgot how to speak.
She waited patiently. After fiddling with the hem of my robe, stretching and crushing the emotionless blue between my fingers, I met her eyes again. They were warm, brown eyes. They reminded me of nothing so much as when the light shone through mother’s amber earrings, the dark ones; when I was alone I used to take them out of her purse and suck on them, believing they would be sweet like honey.
“Why do you have lines on your wrist?” I asked her, stroking the pale skin of her upturned arm. There were indeed lines, vertical ones, rose-pink and corded. The question caught the girl off guard and she blinked, the light in her eyes going on and off, on and off. I think it may have been the first time somebody asked her what they were.
“Scars,” she said, and even I could tell that the brightness had worn off her voice.
Living there I had seen scars, of course, but they had mostly been different. Messy scars, long winding canyons of lumpy irritated flesh. There was a symmetry to these. She allowed me to leave my fingers on her wrist, I could feel each little divot of each scar but also her pulse which was like a butterfly fluttering under my hand.
She sufficiently recovered herself for the brightness to return to her voice, if not her eyes. “What do you mean, why, eh? Why do I have them?”
“I - how old are you, San?”
“Seven. I’m seven and a half.”
“Seven and a half? You’re a big girl, aren’t you? Can I tell you a story?”
I nodded solemnly. Stories were important in the hospital: the nurses sometimes brought picture books to our room and told us stories. More than that I had come to learn that most people like to tell their own stories, especially the elderly or the terminally ill, those who felt they did not have much of a story left to live. At least as long as they weren’t too frightened or ashamed to tell it.
“All right. All right. How about… uh, I don’t know how to start…”
Perceiving her difficulty I suggested, “Once upon a time…”
“That’s always a good one, isn’t it? I guess it’s different from what I had in mind. Okay then. Once upon a time, there was a girl. A girl just a bit older than you, ten years old…”
There was a princess that lived in a tall castle, locked in the top room by her evil stepmother, who had very long hair…
I listened, because I was polite, but of course I’d heard that story many times before.
Still, I came back the next day to visit Loren again. That was her name - Loren. And because I liked her voice, and did not have much else to do, I asked for another story. This time I got the one about a glass slipper. Before leaving to get my medications, I asked her if she could tell me a new story tomorrow.
“Don’t you like these?”
“Yeah. But I’m not that little.”
“Too old for princess stories already? I’ll see if I can think of something.”
That night I woke up from a deep sleep while it was still dark. The hospital was usually chilly, but I was sweating and the night room air was moist, warm, rubbing against my lungs each time I breathed in. I rolled onto my side just in time to vomit a thin, dribbling bile. Then I retched again and the second time chunks came up, from dinner; in the dim light I could just see the half-digested chicken, the green broccoli bits still almost whole.
I stood up on shaky legs, still enveloped by the opressive heat, and walked to the door. Soon the light was on, the vomit was being cleaned up, and I was in bed again, a nurse by my side. He stayed there for four hours, which I passed in intermittent dozing interrupted by more vomiting, until morning, when he was replaced by my doctor. By that point I could hardly breathe, even with the oxygen mask. My lungs felt furry.
Then there’s a gap of a few days after the surgery. I’ve had eight or nine surgeries. I don’t know why, maybe it’s the morphine, but there’s always a gap of a few days or more before I start remembering things again. Surgeries themselves stopped scaring me after the first three or so; I only fear that gap, I’m certain there will be a day some day soon when the gap becomes my life. I think they’ve been getting longer. Maybe that’s why it’s now that I’ve started putting things down into words.
I was made to stay in a wheelchair, wheeled about by the same silent nurse that had cleaned my vomit. I didn’t ask to visit Loren because I was afraid I would be in trouble for some reason. Instead I befriended the nurse, who was not so silent after he started telling me about his two dogs. I don’t remember his name or face but I remember picturing the dogs: two bouncing twin corgis, buff and white, one of which had learned to open the pantry doors and find his treat bag.
But why? Why do you need to know this? The corgis were named Pogo and Pong. It’s useless information, and yet I refuse to forget it. He showed me photos. The dogs were cute, and also a painful reminder of the pets I would never be able to own. That didn’t stop me from asking for more photos and more stories.
A day came when I didn’t need the wheelchair anymore, and the nurse moved on, switched to a different children’s hospital a city away. So I plunged back into the second, backwater life of the hospital, the one unaffected by the constant in-and-out rotation of trauma patients. Of course the first thing I did was search out Loren.
It took a while. I could not slip and dart unseen through the controlled chaos as I used to, still a little shaky on my feet, still unable to finish all my lunch (I’d eat only the chocolate pudding, the grainy, watery taste being the only one I could stomach). Even so, the second day of my questing I hurried as best I could, driven by a fear that Loren had left the hospital without saying good-bye. Or worse, that she’d bid good-bye to me while I was still in a post-surgery haze.
My fears were groundless. I came across her in the borderlands, the farthest wing, separated from the main building by a courtyard where a few spindly, bare trees grew in a scraggly lawn.
She had a room all to herself, a nice room like mine, painted a buttery yellow. Peering around the door I saw that she was now looking out the window, which faced a road. The view of the carls hurtling down it, at terrifying speeds, was segmented by thick metal bars. Her violet hair had faded since I’d last seen her, softened by numerous washings, and at the roots her hair’s natural, plain animal-brown showed through. I waited until she turned her head a little and I could see the whole gentle profile of her face before I was sure it really was her. Then, I pushed the door open, trotted across the small room, and clambered on the bed to embrace her.
“Aw, San! Hey now,” she laughed, “I thought you’d gone and left me!”
I smiled and said nothing, afraid to admit I’d thought the same of her. I became conscious of the fact that she seemed frailer than the last time I’d seen her. There was something flimsily transparent in her, the smudge of the dark circles under her eyes, the artificial brightness of the lipstick (yes, to my surprise, she was wearing crimson lipstick) on her face. Her wrists, I noted, were hidden beneath a long-sleeved shirt.
“I promised you a story last time you were here, didn’t I?”
Nod. Then, hesitantly, I added, “A real story. Not a princess one.”
She obliged, after a few minutes while she stared out the window to gather her thoughts.
It started out the same as the other stories. About a princess. Then, halfway through, seeing my disappointment, she straightened a little, gathered her legs under her, and changed the story a little. Her eyes grew more intense, focused somewhere beyond me.
You see, the princess fell through her magic mirror into a different world. She didn’t realize at first it was different except for the weather, which changed much more suddenly, casting the mother-of-pearl castle and enchanted forest in storm, noon sunlight, autumn, all in the course of a day. Then one day the princess to her horror discovered that somebody must have broken the magic mirror, because when she woke up everything around her was gone. Simply gone. No more castle, family, no more pet dwarf dragon. Even her gorgeous lilac dress was replaced by a drab gray robe as she wandered through a fog, a thick fog that felt of no water or cold and hid nothing - only more fog.
As Loren spoke I sat very still. She was telling the story differently than the others she’d told me, and I was listenng as attentively as I could. The images she conjured up in my mind were more beautiful than any I’d heard anyone speak of before, but also more frightening.
In this fog the princess could not cry out for help or wrestle with the black demons that approached her every so often, swaying and gigantic. She could only try to stay on her feet and keep moving, try not to lose herself in the fog.
Then, without warning, the fog lifted and the princess was back in her castle, the dragon asleep on her bed, and everything as it should be (but for the swiftly changing weather). She tried to tell her parents, the king and queen, of what had happened the first time after the fog had descended, hoping they could help her get out of the mirror. It was to no avail. No matter how hard she tried to explain they did not understand her. The princess tried to talk to the castle sorcerer about it, and the same thing happened. She tried to talk to the alchemist, the ancient witch that lived in a grove deep in the woods, to her younger brother the prince, to her friend the princess that lived in a different castle. She finally realized that she could not speak of the fog without going mute.
And the fog kept coming, staying for a long time occasionally, then vanishing entirely for months on end, so that the princess thought the curse had gone away. But it would always come back as she grew older, and she started to fall into despair even when the fog was gone, knowing that soon it would return, that the silent beasts still waited, that she still had no voice.
One night, before her sixteenth birthday, she thought of a way out. A simple way. Once the idea came into her head she could not believe how it was that she hadn’t come up with it before. All she had to do to leave the broken mirror-world, leave it and the fog behind forever -
Here Loren went silent. I waited, assuming she was only trying to figure out what exactly the princess had come up with. The sun outside had gone down behind unseen mountains somewhere east of the hospital and the town, casting long shadows over the landscape. Abruptly she stood up and lowered the blinds, leaving only the dim light of the room, which seemed much smaller now that the window was hidden. She didn’t sit back down, leaning her forehead against the coolness of the metal window frame.
“What did the princess do next?” I asked, after giving her some time.
“The princess. How did she get out of the mirror-world?” I repeated, my voice catching a little bit, because of the brief flash of anger in Loren’s eyes. Was it anger? I wasn’t sure, and I can’t be sure now. It wasn’t there for long, though. She sighed and sat back down on the bed, her knees touching mine. “She got out,” Loren told me, “because - er - the… dragon. Yes. Her dragon gave her a magic jewel that let her leave the mirror. And then she lived happily ever after. Look,” she cut off my objection to the sudden nature of this ending, “I’m tired. How about you come back tomorrow and I’ll tell you another story, all right?”
I hugged her again. “That was a nice story,” I whispered against her, and this brought out a slow smile, warm like the yellow paint in the room.
“All right, San, go off to your room.”
I was tired, too, and slept an easy sleep when I made it back to my bed.
That was the last time I saw Loren. To be honest, I, with all the fickleness of a young, sick child, forgot about her. I was distracted by a new neighbor, a girl my age that wasn’t as ill as I was and had boundless energy for playing games in make-believe worlds that she conjured up in the hospital. They were bright, freeing worlds, which she graciously allowed me to enter and shape, so that I learned a new way of living in the hospital - not the backwater life but a fantasy life that was perfect for one like me with too much time on their hands.
After another year in the hospital I was released, and had to learn to live in the world at large again, getting to know my family all over again, how it was to live in a home that was all my own. My previous life in the hospital had the quality of a dream, or a mirage; as soon as I had left it my recollections blurred, contorted, and sank to the bottom of my memory. All the more so because all my next hospital visits, of which there were many, were to a different hospital - one that specialized in conditions like mine.
I don’t know what happened to Loren. I thought of her face once when I saw someone with colored hair, without thinking of her name or anything about her, and I suppose she was the reason that I eventually got a small tattoo of a violet dragon on my wrist. I don’t know why I should have remembered her now, either. Maybe it’s just because I understand her story better. Maybe it’s because I’ve started noticing people with the same intensity in their eyes, the same silenced cry for help. Maybe it’s because I fear a fog of my own. I guess it wasn’t the most delicate of metaphors she came up with; all I know is it never left the wells of my memory. That’s all these words are for, isn’t it? To make sure that even when I start forgetting, as I know I must, that I can remember her story again.