O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.
~ Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, “No worst, there is none.”
The man behind the curtain was singing again. He’d been singing when they’d brought him in early that morning. It wasn’t even truly singing—more like humming. The song was stirringly familiar, yet somehow Eastman could not name it. The man was out of tune…Out of tune. Shell shock seemed to affect them all differently; he was out of tune. It was beginning to disturb Eastman. The only thing in his possession was silence—and the man was robbing him of even this.
Eastman wondered what the man looked like. He’d not seen a soul since he’d arrived, except for the doctors and nurses in the ward. He hadn’t even seen his own face. But from the set expressions of the doctors, and the occasional quiet look that the newer nurses slipped when they thought he wasn’t paying attention, he knew it must be awful. He’d been hit in the throat by a piece of shrapnel. At least he thought so: that was where the pain seemed to clutch at him and choke him in the night.
Eastman had been at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh since April, and the narcissus blooms were fading outside his clouded window. The boys at the Front called Craiglockhart “The Bin.” He knew why: it’s where the broken things went. He’d laughed about it with the rest of them then, smiled the tight smile you make when you have to, and suggested their commanding officer be sent to Craiglockhart. He knew it was a psychiatric hospital—that was part of the joke. That was the joke. Of course he’d spent the last few months trying to discover why they’d sent him there, and he’d come to the only possible conclusion: faulty documentation. And the unraveling hours he had spent walking through the back alleyways of his mind, asking himself why he was really here—well, these could be dispelled. They were his own mind’s faulty documentation. He’d told the nurses. They’d smiled. Of course they’d smiled. How many dozens of times a day they must hear, “There’s been a mistake. I need to get back to my boys. There’s been a terrible—a terrible…”
The man behind the curtain stopped singing. Eastman opened his eyes in surprise. The sudden silence of the room seemed to look down at him and question him: How broken? Mistake. How old? Twenty-two. How many limbs? Four. How broken? Mistake. Patient residence? Lost. Spouse? None. Patient status? Mistake.
Eastman had been trying to identify the song that the man behind the curtain had been singing for the past few hours. Of course, he was very badly out of tune. And the words were lost or substituted. It was just a melody—a tune out of tune. They were only separated by the white curtain that hung between their halves of the room. His was the first music that Eastman had heard in months; the nurses wouldn’t let him listen to the phonograph. Of course the other fellows couldn’t—too much for them. But he wouldn’t have minded. But this stuff from behind the curtain—it was enough to drive a perfectly sound mind distracted.
Now Eastman held his breath. The room’s hush pressed itself down upon him like a muzzle. He felt himself torn between two worlds of sound, hesitating. The silence demanded whether or not he was going to break the rules. These were not the rules set by the hospital, but those set by himself. He had told himself that he would not make any friends in “The Bin.” This had been easy because for the first few months he was there, the room next to him had been unoccupied. But now the temptation to speak to someone—someone who wasn’t paid to smile at him—someone who might not smile at him at all—was too much.
“Don’t stop on my account, old man.”
Nothing from behind the curtain. Maybe the man was asleep. Or dead. Eastman waited.
“Oh, I didn’t,” responded a friendly voice from the other side. “I just figured we’d all had enough.”
Eastman felt his heart’s pace quickening. “What’s that tune, anyway? You’re butchering it, whatever it is.”
The man laughed. “Ave Maria. Schubert. I guess I’m tone deaf. Or you are.”
Eastman considered this. It had been a long time since he’d heard music. Maybe he’d forgotten. Of course he could be tone deaf. He could be—but he didn’t think so.
Struck with a sudden and gnawing urge, he whispered, “Would you do me a favor? Would you pull the curtain back and look at me? It’s closer on your side. They won’t give me a mirror, and I think the nurse did a slapdash job of a shave. Terrible service.” Eastman tried to keep his voice even and relaxed to mask his own anxiety.
The room was silent for a moment.
“Right-o,” came the friendly voice again. A strong hand reached beyond from the other side of the curtain and drew back their divider. It seemed to Eastman that there must be an open window on the other side of the room—one far brighter than his. A soft, warm light spilled through the opened curtain on a breath of something sweet and fresh. Eastman didn’t look at the man’s face yet—he couldn’t bear to see what was sure to be a look of disgust ripple across his eyes and quickly settle itself into something like pity.
“You look just fine to me, Narcissus,” laughed the man.
Eastman looked up quickly and caught at once the gaze of white, sightless eyes. The man’s bandage had evidently slipped off, or been taken off, leaving naked the useless remnants of poisoned beauty.
“Too bad, old man,” was all Eastman could think to say. At the same moment he felt a shudder of relief fall across his chest. The hand drew the curtain back in place, leaving Eastman strangely cold and alone.
The man returned to his singing—the same song—and Eastman recognized it now. He’d heard it first that night he’d gone with his mother to the symphony the day before his deployment. The soprano who’d sung it had enchanted him. She had worn a plain dress of black velvet, adorned by a single lustrous pearl at her throat and a white rose that she held in her hand as she sang. She’d not been young, or lovely, or even particularly powerful. But he’d felt that her voice was the saddest, most beautiful thing he’d ever heard. Her music had haunted him all the way home, followed him through his dreams, and lain heavily upon his breast in the unquiet hours before daybreak. He’d almost thought he had heard it on the battlefield as well—in the crying of a shell—the moment before he’d been hit.
As Eastman lay listening, the music from behind the curtain seemed to become clearer, softer, and full of light. The man’s voice grew small, and only the song itself took flight into a solitary, luminous melody. Eastman was back at the symphony, sitting next to his mother, spellbound by the soprano. But this time she was weeping. Her tears wetted the rose she held, melting into her music and making it more sorrowful, a voice of immortal tenderness. Eastman could feel the anguish of her every breath pulsing through his own body. Her tears were his tears, her sorrow, his sorrow. She seemed to hold all the joy of beauty and all the mourning of it in her song. Her eyes were the gray clouds of a storm, hung across the turbid tides of dangerous seas. She could not be consoled.
Eastman could only watch and weep for her. He could not give her comfort. Her tears covered his face—the face he knew was hideous. They stung his ravaged cheeks as they fell, washing away his last hopes of a mistake. But the music was too bright, too full, to allow anything to distract him from its movement. It seemed to have no end and no beginning—nothing but enduring, exquisite fragility.
It was dark when Eastman awoke. His first thought was that the music was gone. His second thought was that the nurse had forgotten to light his lamp that evening. He rang the bell, and shortly one of the newer nurses hurried in, apologizing. He waved an impatient hand and asked her to light the lamp on the other side of the curtain as well. The nurse gazed at him quietly, as they always did, and frowned slightly. “Are you afraid of the dark, sir?”
Eastman bit his lip. He hated being treated like a child. “No, it’s for my friend on the other side. I’m sure he’d like some light, too.”
The nurse’s frown deepened. She looked intently into his eyes and said in a voice intended to be soothing, “That bed is empty, dear. It’s kept empty in case of an emergency. It’s been empty since you arrived.”
Eastman felt as though something cold and cruel were holding him by the throat. His heart beat so quickly that he feared his chest would burst.
“But you heard it—you heard the music? You must have heard it. Someone must have heard it. Oh please—please—please say you heard it! It was heaven…it was grace. Please tell me you heard it.”
The nurse was younger than he’d thought at first. No older than himself. She had turned very white, and in her dark eyes he saw reflected his own fear.
“I heard no music,” she whispered. A bell rang softly from a neighboring room.
“I—I heard no music,” she repeated, turning toward the door as if to leave. Eastman held her hand firmly with his own.
“I tell you,” she insisted, “I heard nothing.” The same impatient bell tinkled. It was finished.
“Good God,” she whispered, “we are far away from heaven here.” She drew her hand away from his and finished her work hurriedly without looking at him.
He was alone again. And he knew not whether he was mad, or whether the world itself had suddenly been lifted from its foundations and cast into the sea. Eastman saw himself rise from his bed and follow the nurse as she closed his door. He saw himself walk softly behind her through dark hallways, awaiting the night terrors of blind men. Interminable doors stretched before him, behind each one of which burned demons, beholding in cold triumph their gasping victims. Behind each door, men with devil’s faces—men who had once been fair—sobbed in lonely agonies over their shattered youth.
It was the battlefield again: the troubled breathing of strangers lying near but somehow far away. The restless, unrefreshing sleep. The waiting for an unseen foe in the gray confusion of unending twilight.
And as he drifted through these vestiges of forsaken sanity, where evil abided so manifestly, it did not seem mad to Eastman to hope that angels might also visit that place. It did not seem mad to hope that they might hover near the lost—the wanderers through the garden of Gethsemane.
Margaret Beasley lives in rural Virginia, and is Western Rite Orthodox. When she is not studying for her associate’s degree, she enjoys reading WWI poetry, going for walks, and cooking. She was moved to write this story as a commemoration of her favorite WWI poets: Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, who were both patients at the hospital in which “Gethsemane” is set.
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Artwork: “Christ in Gethsemane” by Heinrich Hofmann, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.