Past Years’ Questions: Chapter 2

“When there’s a journey you follow a star..

When there’s an ocean you sail from afar..

..and for the broken heart there is the sky

..and for tomorrow are those who can fly”

-Enya, Only If

 

Question 2: Who runs the asylum?

When we were little, after a game and a stroll in the Founders’ Park we would drop by our favourite place: a building that never belonged to our town. On a sunny day, it was a majestic forbidden castle. On a gloomy day, it was a monster with a large hungry mouth and smooth, snow white fur. At night, it was a jaded half-moon encircled by gas-lit stars. The owner of this castle, monster and moon was an awkward young man. When he walked, he would tug his lab coat repeatedly, take a quick glance at something far away, or just squeeze his eyes shut. I wondered what had brought him these habits–still, that was a question in the past.

However, we dared not to enter the building. We knew that it was not a place fit for children. From a distance, the building was almost alive. It howled, it cried and it laughed. At night, the lights blinked softly in a steady rhythm, as if it was breathing. An illusion of sentience? Yes, we would approach the building close enough to trick Dr. Cumberland out of his wits, but not close enough to see what was inside.

“Hush!”

Years ago, Fritz would remind me to hide behind the fountains and lower down my voice. Fritz said, if we walked too close, the screams and laughter would get louder and it would gobble us with one swift swipe of an arm. The two arms clasped together that Fritz had imagined were actually intertwined steel forming an arc–the entrance gate with a sign that read “DEFECTIVE HEADMEAT INSTITUTE OF MAITLAND-BROWNE”.

Welcome to the Defective Headmeat Institute of Maitland-Browne: a lunatic asylum.

Colourful flowers dotted the greens of our sight in this strange garden. Never alien to us, but strange in its purpose of existence. It was beautiful, large, and meticulously tended after. It was not the only garden in Maitland-Browne, but the only one established to heal. To heal the most vulnerable individuals of our society, yes, this garden is part of their treatment.

At each corner of the garden, tall, straight gaslights lighted as if it was night-time already. To our left and right were two fountains of marble made, where cherubs hovered while pouring water from above.  In the middle of the garden laid a pebble-paved path that lead straight to the entrance of the medium-sized, striking building. On the path, a man was heading our way. He was tall and skinny, of late twenties, dressed in a long white coat. His yellowish-brown eyes were darted on us, one of them veiled by a monocle. He knew that we came here for a visit. We had known him since we were eight, because every time we pass by the asylum, we will naughtily pick some flowers from his garden, provoking the young, awkward doctor and he will chase us out. Today, he welcomed us with a warm smile.

“Good-day, Dr Cumberland,” I greeted.

“Good-day, children,” he replied, “We had not seen each other for quite a long time and look, you two are all grown up!”“Yes, of course!

“All children will grow, not shrink.” I quipped.

The doctor laughed and beamed a set of magnificent white teeth. “What brings you here, Alice?”

 “Ask him,” I pointed at Fritz, standing at my left, and shrugged. “He’s the one.”

“Oh! Is anything wrong?” Dr Cumberland asked in a concerned tone.

“I would like to consult you—I have a problem for you to solve.” Fritz spoke, his countenance overcast.

The doctor was silent, deep in thought. Only distant sounds of gushing water, brushing leaves and singing birds were heard. He rubbed his sharp chin and stared at us as we stared at him with anticipation.

“Let us talk about this inside, shall we?” After a long wait, the doctor wrung his hands together. “Come in,”

He led us into the asylum, past the rooms crowded with mental patients sorted according to category: delusional, self-destructive, dangerous… etc. The building to me was quite majestic, in contrary to its function. Everything about the asylum was impressive, especially its efficient ventilation system. Instead of being a prison-like institution, this asylum was almost a place of comfort, majestic and therapeutic. The funding from the public had contributed for a better place to cure their ‘special’ loved ones. From the beautiful garden around the asylum, it was prominent that this asylum relied on moral treatment: a more humane method of treatment without physical strains and coercion and instead focused more on mental healing and constant surveillance. This place had certainly awed many public officials.

We stopped before a room marked by the number ‘777’. The doctor opened the door with a smile and politely gestured us in. He slammed the sturdy door shut and seated himself by his antique mahogany desk.

“Please be seated, children.” He said calmly. Drawing a long breath, he asked, “What’s the matter, Fritz?”

“Wonder what’s wrong with me! There’s something strange about me I can’t explain. Am I insane?”

“Patience, my dear child. Now, provide me a clear view of your problem. What is it? When did it start? For how long had this problem bothered you? Tell me everything, don’t be shy. Who knows that I can help you?”

“The problem is I keep seeing things. I don’t know how long had I been in this state. The visions—” Fritz shook his head, “they won’t simply go away. They will dance and dance before my eyes. I’m scared, yet it felt so real…”

I’m scared, yet it felt so real…

I’d been there before, hadn’t I?

“People around me dismissed this as a sign of insanity. Were they right after all? Were they right all along?” Fritz continued.

The doctor was silent and deep in thought again, his time staring into Fritz’s eyes like gazing through open windows. The faint laughter and screams from the inmates echoed in the small, fairly-lit room. His unblinking gaze was probing inside Fritz’s eyes, diving down into his mind, and scrutinising whatever was inside. Fritz felt very uncomfortable but he sat still, taking each breath with care.

Suddenly, the doctor’s eyes twitched. He started to pant heavily and collapsed himself upon the desk. His shaking hands clenched his head as violent spasms gushed through his body. In agonising pain, he groaned aloud and clenched his head tighter. We were seized by shock and terror by the sight.

“Quick, Alice, the needle!” Dr Cumberland shouted, his voice cracking. “The needle in the purple box on the shelf!”

I was in great panic that my eyes fluttered wildly everywhere for the purple box. My sight was no longer focused, but I tried hard to calm myself for the doctor’s sake.

Keep finding, Alice.

My heart made a commotion in my ribcage. I frantically scanned through medicine bottles and dilapidated books, but I still couldn’t find it. It was not under the books, under the bottles, or kept in other containers on the shelf. Instead, dust flew everywhere, and these little bits gave me a sneezing fit. My clumsy hands caused books and bottles to crash down the floor. The doctor’s condition and my rationality worsened. What should I do now?

The doctor’s condition and my rationality worsened. What should I do now?

Keep finding, Alice! (That was all my mind could say.)

Thank goodness! By some fortunate streak of fate, I saw a long, thin purple box lying amidst sheets of old paperwork. I immediately grabbed the box and opened it to hand the content to the poor doctor. He snatched the syringe and spiked it on his left arm, fully relishing the moment when the injection was administered. His exhausted form slumped against his chair, his black hair tousled, his pale face glistening, his jaded unfocusing eyes encircled by an ominous shade. I was at ease when I saw a smile forming slowly across his lips.

“Well, Alice, thank you.” He said, almost whispering between heavy breathing. “Thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome, Dr Cumberland.” In a sudden urge, I was compelled to ask this question: “What was the needle for?”

“Ah, a dose of apathy.” His tired face turned to me, “I shall relate more of that to you later.”

“I’m glad that you’re alright.” Fritz’s words were accompanied by an imminent feeling of relief, which was proven temporary.

To our horror, the scene began again.

Not again!

Dr Cumberland was silent and deep in thought, his eyes travelling up and down, aiming at Fritz once more. The analytical look at the doctor’s face confirmed my fears that he was scrutinising Fritz again. Fritz just swallowed bitterly and anticipated—

Here comes the awkward moment: The doctor’s monocle glinted in the dull room. He raised his right hand in the air and staked the needle on the desk with a loud thump. We gave out a quick yelp, being badly startled (Fritz was the one startled the worst, his pale face became paler than ever).

He bit his lip and opened his mouth slightly, uttering something like “That boy? He couldn’t be…?”: a faint question, which we responded with an ‘eh?’. Our fear had subsided for apparently, Dr Cumberland had regained his calm composure. He closed his eyes, leaned back on his chair and folded his arms across his chest. “Unintelligible talking is very unintelligent of me. An academic shouldn’t babble! And babbles have nothing in significance, so they’re not supposed to be seriously regarded.” he let out a short, haunting cackle rivalled only by the lunatic laughter of the inmates.

Oh, for goodness’ sake—don’t say that even psychiatrists have a hidden strange side.

“There’s something about your mind that I failed to comprehend, Fritz. My knowledge is too shallow to decode you! A case like yours is rare—very, very rare.” The doctor said, fully and definitively composed. “Rejoice! Know that you’re not the only one.”

“I’m not the only one suffering from this condition, doctor?” Fritz was intrigued and life began to flow back into him once more.

“Don’t use the word ‘suffering’, dear child.” Dr Cumberland reprimanded. “It’s a gift—an exceptional ability only a few are known to possess.”

“Does seeing things sounds like a gift to you, Dr Cumberland?”

“You won’t understand that now, Fritz. You will, sooner or later. This is a special case of ‘seeing things’ that ordinary people will look upon with much prejudice. They don’t know who you are. They never did.”

“Why should I trust you?” Sketches of red surfaced on Fritz’s cheeks.

“Trust me—I’ve been there.” The doctor nodded with a confirmation.

“Y—you’ve been there?”

“Yes, dear Fritz. I’ve been there.” He placed both of his hands on the table and grinned a little.

“B—but how?”

“What, do you think, inspired me to be a psychiatrist: To care for the forgotten, to heal the troubled mind, to fix what’s broken?”

None of us had any answer for the question.

“The truth is, I was—“he touched the drab wall against him, “the inmate of room 777.”

“What?” Fritz and I shrieked in unison.

“You don’t believe me? I was the youngest inmate of The Defective Headmeat Institute of Maitland-Browne! What is the number displayed on the door?”

“777.” Fritz stammered out.

“Well then, welcome to my childhood playground!” the doctor said, his eyes clearly glistered.

“There must be a reason for your admission, Dr Cumberland. How old were you at that time?” Fritz asked.

The doctor cleared his throat and told us a story of his life: “I was born as a normal Arthur Cumberland at a small house near the Fairlove River across the Maitland-Browne/Highfort border. There was nothing wrong with my life, but this one day when I wandered too far from my parents’ sight during a picnic, 26 years ago. I was nowhere to be found. My parents had forsaken all hopes until my uncle Harold found me abandoned on his doorstep. I couldn’t remember anything about what had happened after the day I wandered away—but I knew something had happened. Since the day I was found, I would cry inconsolably, devoid of any reason every time I was in a crowded place. They thought that it was normal for a little boy like me to have this type of fear—but as I grew older, and learned how to speak, the problem worsened.

“I started to hear things. I heard noises—noises in my head. They sounded sometimes like my father, my mother or my sisters, and sometimes like voices of random people. People I never knew or met before. The voices compete against each other for my attention like a pack of hungry wolves fighting against each other for a carcase. They will howl in my brain, tearing and mauling my mind asunder in their feral competition. I was no longer human, becoming more like the winner’s ultimate prize.

“The pain of battle consumed me. When it raged, I could do nothing else but to cry alone. I will cry, cradling and clenching my aching head. My temperature rose sharply, yet it compared none to the pain. Mother, father, help me! The pain… When will it end? I sought help from my parents, but instead, they turned me over to the church to cure me. Nothing much happened, but I can still remember Father Otto’s solemn face and nothing else. Disenchanted with the outcome, my parents forcefully admitted me to The Defective Headmeat Institute of Maitland-Browne. Ergo, at the age of 11, little Arthur Cumberland was institutionalised.

“Room number 777 became my second home and the world became my prison. I was so small, I was so scared. I want to go home, yet the voices and the doctors tortured me mentally and physically. Here in the institution the voices became louder and louder. Laughter, sighs, screams and cries all merged into one disturbing choir, sweeping through my brain like a devastating tidal wave of the ocean.  I had lost myself in these voices; alien voices conquered me completely, leaving only a little space for myself. I closed my eyes each night, wishing for a release. But I was never set free. Some nights I would lie awake and wonder: Why did I have to endure all this? What had gone wrong? Why am I different from the other children?”

Fritz bowed his head in comprehension.

“I wish someone would come to halt my machinery and mend my mind.

The doctor continued, “This is how my questions were answered: A new inmate was received one day. She was a beautiful young lady with shoulder-length dark curls and wide hazel eyes. Her name was Zita, if I hadn’t mistaken—a Hungarian immigrant. She was normal at the surface, but she was an enigma on the inside. Numerous techniques that were known during that time did not work on her. She was a monster, they say. She was uncontrollable, with her fits and all, that no psychiatrist can stand her. So she was left alone, lying on the cold floor, dressed in white and her feet bare, in the room next to mine. Occasionally, I will take walks out of my room—well, nobody cared anyway—and stop by Zita’s. She was found in the same condition every day, and my heart broke at the sight of her. She might be hard to manage, but she’s a human too. She had a life, like anybody else, and wanted it back. I approached her. She didn’t spoke a word, but I heard a song, sung in a sorrowful voice in my mind, distinguished from the multitude of other noises droning alongside it. The song tells of a life shattered by an unfortunate event. It was her song: Zita’s song. I couldn’t believe what had I heard. So, all these times, the noises that had plagued me were not just noises. There were silent screams of people. The cries of one’s heart as it smiled—the agonies of one’s heart when it laughed.

“The sorrowful song led me into her heart, deep down into her core, a place where nobody ever ventured in. From the song, I realised that I was her last hope, and the only one to save her: But how? I was only thirteen and the lady twenty-six! Using her song to guide me, I’d found the fault in the machinery. Most importantly, I’d found a way to fix her. Guess what, it worked!” the doctor brandished the needle in his hand like a wand. “I soon became a marvel of psychiatry in the institution. A patient that successfully healed the toughest patient it ever had. The psychiatrists soon sought my help to cure others… I had cured many ever since. The dark memories vanished like a nightmare, and instead in their place triumph and pride blossomed. I wasn’t insane. I was chosen.

“Years later, a man of high status visited the institution. I wonder: why was he here? A man like him shouldn’t be here! He spoke something to the psychiatrists and then they pointed at me. He was taken aback. I could see the shock in his face. He strode towards me and shook both of my hands. The man was Zita’s father—I can’t tell you his full name, so let’s just call him Ferenc.

What a pity that a talent is laid to waste here, I remember Ferenc said. I don’t know how, but what I only know is that he had sponsored my studies to England in medical science. It may sound absurd because by then I was only sixteen! There, I studied with one mission: to save others like me, and to prevent them from suffering these pains. I worked on the ‘moral treatment’ theories of William Tuke and Philippe Pinel and peppered them with my own discoveries, experience, and ‘expertise’. My ground-breaking discovery took London by storm. Asylum revolutionary, the Cumbersome Cumberland—they called me. Given the talent of empathy I possessed, I aced the course quite well for I could dive into the patient’s mind and salvage as many information as I can. Blessed be the power of empathy!” the doctor raised his hands in the air.

“I feel happy for you, doctor.” Oh, God, I was totally awestruck!

“But, Alice, that’s not all! The best part of my times in London is that I had found something that had changed my life forever!”

“A lover?” I remarked.

The doctor laughed. “No, Alice! It’s a cure that maximised my talent and made it more controllable and efficient! A friend of mine assisted me to create a drug to block out unnecessary ‘noises’. It wasn’t made of bromides, that’s for sure. The final version had helped me to regain my lost sanity. Silence, at last! I finally understand what silence feels like. A bittersweet taste. There’s a beauty in silence that other people take for granted. I was very grateful to him but I had never seen him again…” he looked at the needle in his hand. “This is what’s left of him—I mean—my memories of him.

 “The peculiarity they called ‘insanity’ had in fact raised me to unimaginable heights. Without the excess empathy, the ability to hear 

these unheard voices, I would never be as successful as I am now. I had sworn to myself that I would use this talent to heal others. That’s why I chose this place—this is where it all started.

“I am glad to see you, Fritz, because you remind me of the reason why am I here. The truth is: we are held together by an invisible string.”

“What do you mean?” the addressed was confused.

“These matters are beyond my knowledge. I have contacts that can assist you in your problem. Here’s a list.” Dr Cumberland handed Fritz a piece of paper. “I had analysed these patterns of characters, and this is what I get. There are four addresses here. These four people had encountered the same problem as you did. I’m sure that they too, have a story to share.”

“I will try, doctor.” Fritz nodded.

“Excellent. Remember—visit them according to order!”

“Yes, doctor!” we said, simultaneously.

“You’re very special, Fritz. If only you know.” The doctor sighed. “Even I can’t venture into your mind, because every time I tried, a wave of a thousand voices will try to drown me. That’s strange. There’s something about your mind that I can’t decode. Perhaps, Roderick Teller will help you.”

“Humans make noises–bad noises. The quiet ones make the loudest noises. That’s strange…”

I didn’t pay attention to Dr. Cumberland’s rants. My eyes scanned the address list and found the name ‘Roderick Teller’ at the bottom, the fourth address.

Who is he?

“Don’t be sad, Fritz. I’m sure that one day, you’ll be proud of your talent as much as I do.” The doctor reassured Fritz.

The boy lowered his gaze and wiped the tears off his face.

“Now go and find your destiny!” Dr Cumberland gave him a pat on his back. “After you had met these four individuals, return here and I shall elucidate this matter for you to understand.”

“Will it be rude if we leave now?” I asked.

“Oh, Alice! One more thing:” The doctor turned to me, “Take good care of your friend. He is a rare prodigy, you know!”

“Ha—ha” I laughed mockingly.

“That’s a very inappropriate response, Alice.”

I blushed. “I’m sorry, doctor,”

“All right. You two should go home now before it’s too dark. It’s five o’clock already. My, my, time flies!”

“It’s a pleasure having a conversation with you, doctor!” Fritz and I both thanked him.

“Me too. Till we meet again!”

Dr Cumberland escorted us out of the room, past the other rooms, past the bewildered patients, past the garden to the front gate before we bade adieu to each other. Fritz gave the doctor a tight hug before we go. For the first time in our adolescent life, I saw Fritz’s warm smile. I was glad that I had taken the right decision by accompanying him for a small talk with the doctor. But, something plagued my mind. How can a thing like this happen? It sounded too absurd to be true. Excessive empathy? Whatever! As long as a panacea for Fritz can be procured. Then his spirits could be lifted again. There’s always a rainbow even after the harshest rain. I wanted him to embrace that—embrace life the way it is.

Suddenly, a strange feeling crept into me. A strange feeling of fear. I feel like pairs of eyes were stabbing through us from afar. Was I imagining things? Oh, maybe we had spent too much time in a lunatic asylum that—eh—it couldn’t be!

“Alice,” he was looking at the address list, “when should I start my search?”

“Well, I’m always busy… What about next week?”

“Alice, you’ll accompany me?”

“Of, course, Fritz!” I gave him a friendly box on his left shoulder. “Who said I won’t?”

The boy winced a little and gently stroked his left shoulder. “Thank you, Alice.”

“Remember this.” I clasped my hands on his shoulders. “Come rain or shine, I’ll always be your friend.” I gripped them tighter. “Don’t you ever forget!”

“A—Aa—Aaa…” Fritz winced again. “D—do you mind…”

I quickly removed my hands and saw red blotches staining his white shirt on the left shoulder in a straight vertical line. “I’m sorry!”

“There’s no need for you to apologize, Alice. Just a little cut—a little accident!”

“Does it hurt?”

“No. Not at all.” He said in a mocking tone. “Does this hurt?” he flicked his index finger to my forehead.

“How dare you, Fritz? Tired of living already?”

Fritz laughed aloud upon hearing my response. Annoyed, I asked him, “What are you laughing at?”

“What are you laughing at?” he mocked my response with great enthusiasm and slapped his thigh.

I felt steam rising through my body like a locomotive. “You impish boy!” I couldn’t stand these taunting anymore, so I chose the cruellest option available: I boxed him again. I expected him to cry out in pain or something, but instead he laughed out louder. My rage afterwards died away and I joined him in his laughter.

“Oh, how I missed the joy of childhood. Those yesteryears of fun and laughter… The feeling had almost died.” He huffed and puffed out those words.

“We hadn’t laughed like this for a fairly long time. I’m sorry for being too busy,” I directed my eyes at the bleeding left shoulder. “And sorry for that, too.”

I paused for a second.

“Well then, Fritz, how about a short, casual stroll in compensation?”

A/N: This is getting old… But his presence was highly intended.

Hope you enjoy this rant-filled chapter.

Monotonously yours,

Lay Landsteiner

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