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  • by Janet St. John

Art & Soul Short #12

Corridor in the Asylum Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, Zundert 1853–1890 Auvers-sur-Oise)

September 1889. Oil color and essence over black chalk on pink laid ("Ingres") paper

25 5/8 x 19 5/16in. (65.1 x 49.1cm). Bequest of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, 1948

Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access.

Day 86

They let us outside to lift our spirits, make us hope such a thing as freedom really exists. It was the start of spring. There were flowers and bulbs to convince visitors this place was safe. That loved ones weren’t locked up, tied down, slapped, sworn at, ridiculed, beaten. We were just in hospital, recovering, healing, as if my brain’s burning residue, that pounding wound could ever leave raw state, scab over, seal up, or blend back into the whole to work again as useful, reliable machine.

Daffodils sprouted green bodies, popped yellow heads open, insides looking like puckered lips or baby birds’ mouths raised for mother’s food. I feel that way. Hungry. The food they slop on our plates is scraps off someone better’s, someone richer’s plate. Those sane ones, those useful to the world. But how sane is anyone? How sane the newborn wailing whose mother has bled to death on birth bed after delivering the child’s body into the body of the world? The child knows, senses the missing mother’s arms.

Our outside time was limited. Ten minutes. Though there were no clocks in our communal rooms or locked chambers, I saw one on the reception desk as they ushered us out and in. I suppose they think knowing the time will harm us. As if I cannot count days. Cracking plaster, rough split tile, concrete floors, and dreary old paint tell the age of this building. I heard it was a hospital. I have dreamed patients screaming through surgery, not fully anesthetized. That is how I feel, daily, awake when I should be sleeping, in pain when I should be numbed, screaming inside when I cannot let my voice out. Tormented by the cavern of these halls, a woman I have never seen will not leave her room. I have heard her crying day and night when I passed through the corridor for a meal or to wash or when I am allowed my paints and brushes, when they say I am no longer a danger to myself.

When I paint I do not hear the muttering, stifled sobbing, screaming inside. The world turns still and silent when I only see details, when I map images in my mind, recreate them on canvas. But when I gaze at the final picture, the world returns with its whirling dance spin, drum banging, dissonant music of a fast-paced reckless machine.

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