Asylum, Part 3

Part 1

Part 2

Part 4

**** Sorry for any confusion, but last week’s section is actually Part 4 and not Part 3.  However, now that all four installments are complete, feel free to reread the story from beginning to end and let me know what you think.  Also, for this installation, instead of art I included some clips of the music that is or has been mentioned throughout the story.  Listen as you read to experience the emotion.*****

“Blue, more blue,” Stella muttered to herself. Up, down, up down, her paintbrush moved along the penciled outline on the canvas, keeping time with Bach’s Suite for Cello 1 in G Major. Out of all the suite songs, this one was her favorite. The back and forth of the notes, the rise and falls in both tempo and volume swept her along, transporting her into the perfect world for painting. Today, her world was filled with visions of faces, faces in shades of blues and dark violets. Each face would have a different expression, a different emotion – eventually. Right now though, she had to conquer these eyes.

The face Stella was working on belonged to a female, old enough to have felt pain, young enough to still have some hope left. The woman’s hair was loose and flowing, as if caught in the grasp of a breeze. The full lips were slightly parted making the girl look like she was breathing. They were dry and cracked in places. But the eyes. The eyes had to tell the story. Every dark lash had a part to play. Stella knew this woman. The woman on the canvas. Every facial line. Every tear. Every crack in the lip. She had the whole story in her head. Now she just had to tell it. If you thought about it, the face is such a small space to tell such a big story. But most of our lives are written on our face. And this face had such a story to tell. Or at least it would when it was finished.

In the background, the song ended, switching to Bach’s “Sarabande” in Suite 2. It was a darker piece, and in a way, it matched the blackened shade of indigo blue that Stella was using to outline the eyes. One stroke at a time.

Stepping back four steps Stella carefully eyed the face. The woman looked back at her from the left side of the canvas. Although she wasn’t centered, she certainly did demand attention. But would she still have a story to tell when the other faces were finished? Was her story strong enough? Stella couldn’t decide. However, before she could continue her evaluations her alarm went off, drowning out the Sarabande with Idina Menzel’s “Defying Gravity.”

“Oh well,” Stella muttered to herself as she turned off her computer’s alarm. “Although, maybe a green face would be a nice contrast to the purples and blues, but would it take the focus away from her?” Continuing to mutter to herself, she began clearing her station, placing her brushes in a jar of turpentine to soak and placing her paints in the mini fridge she kept in her studio. Although she had already been up and working for a few hours, now her day would truly begin.

“Hey, I’m here! I’m here!” Stella entered her office bearing gifts of grande coffees for her fellow colleagues. Grace and Myra greeted her with outstretched arms, obviously more excited to see the coffee than to see her.

“Girrrrrl,” Grace drawled. “I hope that coffee is HOT. I need a good pick-me-up right now.” Grabbing the coffee she took a sip then a full drink.

“Don’t worry. It’s hot, fresh, and Columbian. Just the way you like it.” Stella replied.

“Mmmmm….that’s just what I need.” She purred. “I tell you. This place doesn’t pay enough for me to work these long weekend hours. I didn’t get home from last night’s exhibit till one, and now I have to be at that auction at the old Macintosh estate by nine thirty. Anyone want to join me?”

“Sorry, we can’t this morning. Stella and I have the Gilberts coming in at ten, and you know how dramatic they can be if everything isn’t perfect.”

“The Gilberts? Ouch. Dramatic’s being kind. They’re not dramatic, their impossibly crazy.” At this Grace stopped short. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean …” Grace trailed off slapping her hand over her mouth in an attempt to backtrack.

“Hey, don’t worry about it.” Stella told her. “You don’t have to monitor every word you say. In fact, you’re right. The Gilberts ARE crazy.”

“Ok then. Well, I’m off, and I’ll catch you two later.” Grace picked up her stylish tote and quickly filled it with the essential camera, notepad, and ipad that made up her equipment.

“Bye,” Stella replied before turning to Myra. Together they walked to Stella’s office.

“Myra, were you able to go to the exhibit on Saturday?”

“Yes, and I have all information you wanted me to get. Names, prices, opinions, sales estimates. Don’t worry. I have you covered. You just focus on your big exhibit. I mean, how many new artists get a chance to debut their work at the Cheshire. You’re lucky that Grace was able to connect you. ”

“I know I’m lucky. Which is why I’m freaking out. At this rate, I don’t know if I’ll ever be finished.”

“What’s wrong? Is the new piece not cooperating?”

“Not so much right now. It’s her face. I can’t get it right. I think I’ve restarted her face at least four times.”

“Well, did you go see her this weekend?”

“Yes, but it didn’t help. There’s just something . . . missing. I see the face in my mind. And my hand paints the face, but it is either refusing, or unable, to capture that … that… that essence. Her essence.” Sitting down, Stella positioned a piece of paper in front of her and began to doodle.

“Well,” Myra began hesitantly, “have you, have you … decided which essence you’re trying to capture?”

“Yes. Maybe. I don’t know. I see her in my head. The way she was. But after this weekend, I keep seeing the other her. And, it’s like I don’t know who she is. Or I don’t know which her she really is. When I went to her this weekend, I just sat and looked at her face. And, it’s still her face. But it’s not her. So, with this piece, I’m painting her face, but I’m not painting her because I don’t know who she is anymore. And I can’t paint the old her because it just doesn’t feel right.”

“Honey, she’s your mother. You do know her. Whether or not she’s acting like herself right now, deep down, inside, she’s still the woman who drilled every famous and not-so-famous musical composer into your head. She’s still the woman who wrote you your own lullabies when you were little.”

“She broke her fingers. Did I tell you that?” Stella asked, her voice a mixture of desperation and exasperation. “She slammed the piano on her own hand so she wouldn’t have to play anymore. How is that the woman who wrote me my own lullabies?” Stella’s head dropped onto her arms as she whispered this last question.

“Sweety,” Myra got up and pulled the crying woman into her arms. “Sweety, when you saw your mother this weekend, what was going on in her head?”

“I don’t know. I never know anymore. That’s the problem. She’s left me behind. I can’t reach her.”

“Hush now. Think, carefully. When she sat still, what did her eyes tell you? Her body?”

“I don’t know. She was always swaying. And most of the time, her eyes were closed, like she was sleeping”

“What else was she doing?”

“Hmmm…” Stella paused a minute, trying to recall. “Her hands, I saw her hands moving under the bandage. Her toes were tapping. Like she was … listening?”

“To what? Were you talking? Was there music playing?”

“No. It was just me and her, in her room.” Stella snapped her head up, “Wait. It was like she was listening to the music in her head.”

“There you go. That’s the mom you know. Even now, like this, she still has her music. Just because she doesn’t play it, just because she doesn’t share it anymore, doesn’t mean she’s not listening to it. She may try to run away from it, but it’s always there. Music is your mother’s essence. Just like art is yours. Just like her lullabies are yours and hers.

“Now, what were you listening to when you were with her?”

Stella looked at her best friend. “Her. I was listening to her. Like she was that night. All weekend, I kept going back and forth. I would hear her like I did when I was a girl. Vivaldi, Mozart, her originals. And I would hear her that night.

“I watched her sleep. Saturday afternoon she took a nap. And I just sat there and brushed her hair back.”

Asylum, Part 4

Asylum, Part 1

Asylum, Part 2

I looked at her.  Stared long and hard.  When she was sleeping like this, it was so much easier to pretend that this was the woman I knew.  This was the lady who held me in her lap when I was a child and had scraped my knee.  This was the mother who held me when my first boyfriend broke my heart.  When she was sleeping, I could still imagine that she was a grand concert pianist and a magical, genius composer who filled Carnegie Hall with her melodies.  When she sleeps, words like “psychotic breakdown,” “schizophrenic,” and “paranoid” don’t exist.  Just her, just my mother.

I ran my hand through her hair, brushing back the loose strands of wavy, dark brown hair.  My fingers traced the contours of her face, memorizing every new line and wrinkle.  This was my mother, calm and even.  But then there were the hands.  The hands clutching at the blanket should have been my mother’s hands.  But these were swollen and bandaged.  Their length minimized due to the injury.   And it came back to me all over again that this was not my mother.

A voice in the hall calls patients in for dinner, reminding me even further that “no,” this is not my mother.  My mother has disappeared into the broken soul and shell of a women who only mildly resembles her.  This lady, the one whose face and arm I’m stroking only looks like her.  Truthfully, she is a stranger.  And I remember the night it happened, the night my mother broke down and transformed into her.

We were all backstage, like usual.  I was at the side of the stage, watching everyone running back and forth, feeding off of the excitement and drama.  My mother was back in her dressing room with her manager and assistant.  In anticipation I peeked around the curtain, trying to see how many people had arrived, thirty minutes before opening curtain.  It shouldn’t have phased me anymore, not after all of these years, but I still got a current of excitement each time I saw a packed hall.  They loved her.  How could they not?  She was electrifying each time she stepped out on stage in one of her brilliant, signature,  gem-hued gowns, her dark hair wildly loose and flowing.  And she loved them.  But, she did not play for them.  She played for the music.  She always told me that she played for the music she loved, and that was why the audience loved her so much.  The entire audience could burst into flames during the middle of her concert, and she wouldn’t even notice.  It was part of her charm.

My mother had always existed in her own dream world.  She saw the world outside as she wanted it to be, filled with magic and fire and faeries and saints.  The funny thing was, when she played, everyone else could see the world that way too.  It was the only time they could see into her world.  She was hypnotic, magnetic.  Her vibrant, dreamy personality.  Her look, with long wavy hair flying here and there, snaking its way around her ears and shoulders.  And her hands, always moving, directing, playing.  They could never stay still.  I loved her fingers.  They were long and lean.  And her nails were always painted some floral color, making it look like wild-flowers grew on the ends of each finger.   This was my mother.

But that night, that night was different.  Instead of sitting in her dressing room, preparing and meditating, she was pacing the hall.  She kept talking to herself, mumbling something about “them and they.”  Her manager and assistant had tried to talk to her, but she had brushed them off.

They came to get me.  “Go to her.” They told me.  “Get her to settle down.  See what’s wrong.”  That’s my role.  That had always been my role.  I was her connection to the world, the chains that kept her feet on the ground.  Everyone knew it.  That’s why I was always around.  But I didn’t mind.  I kept her feet on the ground; she kept my head in the clouds.  It worked for us.

“Mom,” I said as I tried to catch her arm.  “Are you okay?  Can I get you anything?”

“No, no.  It’s all wrong. It’s all wrong.”  Her face scared me.  Her eyes weren’t the dreamer’s eyes I had grown up with.  Instead, they held terror, pure terror. And her terror frightened me.  I could feel it rolling off her, a tangible substance reaching out for me.  Something wasn’t right.  I grabbed both arms, trying to get her to look at me, but she wouldn’t, or couldn’t.

“What’s wrong?  What happened?  Did someone hurt you.”  I demanded answers as I looked down the hall, trying to see who could have affected her like this.  But the hall was empty except for the occasional stage hands running back and forth.  I had known them for years, and they loved my mother.  I looked at her face and arms, trying to detect any marks from an assault.  “Mom, talk to me.  Tell me what happened.  Who scared you?”

“Everything, everything is wrong.  They’re trying to take it away from me. They’re trying to kill me.”  Abruptly, she looked at me, shoved my hands off of her, and resumed her pacing.  I got in step with her, trying to make sense of what she said.

“Who is they, mom?  What do they want?”

“Me.  The music.  They.  The ones out there.”  I looked along the lines of her outstretched arm, trying to see who she saw.  Once again, no one was there.  No one was down the hall now, not even the stage hands.

“It’s almost time.  Is she ready?”  After a few more laps, one of the previous stage hands  came running back to us, breathlessly wording the question that always preceded every show.  Usually, at the end of this question, my mom would stand up fiercely tall, push back her gown, and glide out of the door and onto the stage.

Tonight, she walked towards the stage, but it wasn’t her.  Her back was bent, her head down.  Broken.  That’s the only word that came to me, but I didn’t know why.  Not then.  I followed her, taking my place in the wing.  After being announced, she walked out on stage amid the roar of cheers.  She sat down.  Lifted her hands.  Began to play.  And as soon as she began, I knew something was wrong.

The song.  It wasn’t right.  The notes were right, of course.  Technically she was perfect.  And then it hit me.  That’s what was wrong.  My mom is not a perfectly technical person.  She plays emotion and life.  She doesn’t play notes.  Tonight, she played notes.  Mohini’s Enchantment was barely recognizable as notes.  She got to the end, and then it was over.  Or rather, the song wasn’t over, but she was.  Her fingers, long and lean.  Her pianist’s fingers stumbled.  Then they stopped.  She stood up abruptly, kicking back the piano bench.  Turning, she faced the audience, her shoulders straightening, her face raising.  She stared them down.  I was paralyzed.  Everyone was paralyzed.


Then, she spoke.  Her words, soft, yet audible due to the concert hall’s acoustics.  “No more.” She said.  “No more.  It’s mine.  It will always be mine.  I won’t let you have it.”  With that, she walked off the stage, and once again, she left people captivated in her wake.  Only this time, they were filled with shock, not awe.

That was the first episode, but it wasn’t the last.  And as I look at her sleeping.  As I look at the form of my mother, of this new woman, this stranger who is working so hard to erase my mother, my mind goes back and forth between images.  I still see me at my mother’s lap, learning music and art.  Being transported into her world.  But then the scene changes, and I see the stranger.  I see my mother in my lap, broken and defeated, tears rolling down her face, her dark hair swallowing her whole and her precious fingers cut off at the stems, never to bloom again.

Asylum, Part 2

For part 1: 


I’m not dead.  At least they told me I wasn’t dead.  They had to give me a sedative because I was screaming so loudly.  I tried to tell them about the girl, but I couldn’t.  I was too tired.  That would be my secret.  Well, mine and the girl’s.  I looked for her today when I went out to the common area.  I saw her, watching the tv.  She was quiet now.  I wanted to go to her and tell her that I saw what had happened.  But, instead, I just watched her.

Her skin is so pale.  I feel cold just looking at it.  My hair stood up as I shivered.  So cold.  Her hair was silent today though.  She exacted her revenge by subduing it into a ponytail.  It makes her look different.  Fresh.  Girl-ish.  Again she rocked back and forth, but this time, her body found its rhythm in the melodies drifting from the tv.   Her fingers, long and thin, moved down, left, right, up.  Down, left, right, up.  1-2-3 and 4. 1-2-3 and 4.  The rhythm of the music.  Keeping time.  Her fingers fascinated me.  The tips on each finger, the nails, were painted today.  A dark violet-blue, like a wild flower.

Down, left, right, up.  I can hear the music coming from her fingers, in the hum of the AC.  It was Mohini Enchantment.   My fingers joined hers.  Only she directed while I played.  My fingers knew every note, every key on the keyboard.  The song begins soft and then crescendos, and I could hear it unraveling perfectly toward the climax.  The song is a butterfly breaking free of its cocoon.  Slowly, slowly the wings spread.  The song ends.

A nurse, a different one this time, came over to me, her green scrubs a welcome relief from all of the white surrounding me.  She asked me if I would like to go into the recreation room.  She told me it was where they keep all of the musical instruments.  She said the others would like to hear me play.

I looked at her, but I couldn’t tell if working in this place had messed with her mind that much, or if she was just stupid.  “No.” I tell her, my voice oddly low and husky.  “No, I can’t play.  I don’t know how to play anymore.”

The look she gave me implied that skepticism.  It angered me.  I knew what she wanted.  But I wasn’t going to let her have it.  Everyone always wants me to play.  Play, play, play.  They want my music.  But  my music is mine.  I created it, and I can kill it.  Nobody will ever have it again.  My hands, the hands that had just been gliding up and down the keys clenched, and I held them to my chest.  My body started shaking as I tried to hold it in.  Don’t give in.  Don’t give in.  My mind was still foggy except for the music playing.  Mohini had turned into Vivaldi’s Winter as my body responded in agitation which was trying to catch up to my mind.  My feet stood me up and began to pace.  “I don’t play.  I can’t play.  I don’t play.  I can’t play.”  I tried to get her to understand.  I tried to get my fingers, which were fighting their imprisonment, to understand.  “I can’t play.”

The nurse continued to watch me, to tell me that it doesn’t matter if I could play or not, I could still the use the piano.  She kept talking. Talking. Talking.  So, I told her okay.  I followed her into the room.  And I saw it.  I walked right over to the piano.  I ran my hands over the smooth ivory keys, the dusty wood.  And then, I did it.  I lifted the lid and slammed it.  Hard.  The strings’ vibrations reverberated throughout the room.  But I didn’t say a word.

The doctor says my right hand is broken, or at least fractured.  All of the fingers and a few of the knuckles are broken.  When he was finished, I looked at the nurse who brought me to him, the one who tried so hard to get me to play.  “Now,” I said, “Now, I can’t even use it.”

Asylum, Part 1

I see their faces.  All about me.  Their eyes look back, staring at me.  What do they see?  Do they see in me what I see in them?  Surely not!  I’m not like them.  I can’t be like them.  I have to get out of here.

Asylums. Where safety comes first.

When they brought me here, they told me I’d be safe.  That I’d be with others like myself.  But I can’t be like them.  No.  They’re – they’re insane.  I’m not crazy.  I know I’m not crazy.  Ok, sure, I occasionally sing the song.  “I am slowly going crazy 1-2-3-4-5-6 switch.  Crazy going slowly am I 6-5-4-3-2-1 switch.”  Repeat now.  It’s actually a fun little song.  It gets my mind racing. “1-2-3-4-5-6- switch.”  But, singing that song doesn’t make me crazy.  They told me I could take it easy here.  That I could get some rest.  Rest my mind they said.   They told me that I was safe now.  But, how could I be safe with their eyes on me.  Their insane eyes.  Looking at me.  Watching me.  Safe?  Here?

I’m watching one girl.  She’s sitting by herself next to the white wall.  With her white dress on, she almost blends in.  Blend.  Bland.  The two words are so close together in spelling.  But they’re different.  One’s a cause.  The other the effect.  Blend. Bland. Blend. Bland. Bland. Bland. Blend. Bland. Bland. Blend. Together. Different.

This girl.  This girl in the white dress melting into the wall, sinking back.  Fading away.  Almost.  Her hair won’t let her.  The dress, the wall, her chapped, pale lips.  They wash out her skin, erasing it.  Like bones left in the desert sand.  Eroding away.  But her hair saves her.  It won’t let the wall swallow her.

I’ve never seen hair alive.  But hers is.  I know it is because it winks at me.  She sways forward then backward, forward then backward, blend, then bland. Forward.  Backward. Like a confused pendulum caged inside a clock, trying to escape. Forward. Backward.  Blend then bland.

Her hair though.  Not black, not brown.  Just dark…and infinite.  It wraps itself about her shoulders.  Tendrils, snaking around her ears, her neck, her breasts.  Some strands, the winking ones, fly free.  Medusa would be jealous.

Medusa, the Greek Gorgon who went from guardian to killer.

Looking at her hair, I think it might kill her.  Strangle her during the night as it snakes its way around and around and around her neck.  Blend. Bland. Backwards. Forwards.  Or maybe, maybe it will choke her, suffocate her, drown her.  Its thick waves refusing to budge from her pale, chapped lips.  Snaking its way into her mouth, down her throat.  I see the hair moving around, up, through, in, out, only now its wink is a threat, warning me not to tell on it.

The confused pendulum goes faster and faster.  I want to cry out for someone to help her, to save her as the hair makes its way into her mouth.  I hear her moaning and stand up.  “STOP.”  I start to cry out.  But the hair.  It’s getting bigger, rising.  The winking turns into a menacing stare as the cobra arches its neck.  I put a hand over my mouth and bolt down the hall to the white room assigned to me.  I go into the far left corner, next to the bed, and crouch down to hide myself from the cobra’s eyes.

How can I be safe here?  The cobra. It will kill me in my sleep.  Kill me like it’s killing that girl.

I’m not hidden for long.  A woman in a white coat, a nurse I think, comes over to me and puts her arms around me.

“Hush now.” She whispers.  “There’s no need to cry.”  Maybe she’s not a nurse.  Maybe she’s crazy too because I’m not the one crying.  It’s the girl who is crying.  The one with the hair and the cobra who is trying to kill her.  I want to tell her this, but I remember the stare.

“Shhhhh.” She continues whispering to me.  “You’re safe here.  You’ll be just fine in the morning.”  But I know the truth.  I’ll be dead in the morning.  The cobra will find me.  All that hair.  Savage.

I can hear the girl’s moans all the way in my room.  But then I feel a pinch from the nurse.  She’s attacking me.  I try to call for help, but I can’t remember how to speak.  Or, rather my lips refuse to move.  My tongue is heavy.  I reach to touch my tongue, and I see my fingers, struggling to free themselves from the invisible weight of the crazy woman.  She did something to me.  She poisoned me.  Big, blue, purple fingers.  Heavy.  So heavy.  I let them fall, and try to stand, but my swollen feet won’t move.  Two big blocks of blue ice.

And I know.  I know.  The girl. The nurse.  They killed me.