the woman on the bed is all bone.  too weak to move herself, she fractures when she touches the bedframe even slightly. her mouth open. the deformity of her knees unbearable to behold. when the interns come at night, their white coats bright in the sleeping room, they kneel at her bedside, and her expression never changes. eyes always open, she never seems to sleep. the interns have brought buckets with them, filled with white paste. they cover her slowly like painters preparing a canvas—coating her, head to toe, until she is luminous. and I wonder if every bone in her body has broken and this cast is to hold her together. I begin checking myself for fractures, feeling the constriction of the cast as if it is covering me. cowering. limbs so stiff that they can no longer move. you arrive late, maître, checking your pocket watch, watching as the woman’s shallow breast, her neck, her face is covered, and she coughs. sputtering. spitting paste from her mouth. choking. when the interns are done, they crack the covering off her and carefully, next to the bed, place her twin—an exact duplicate—the sticklike legs, the hollow of every rib, the flattened nipples. removing it from the room under your ever-watchful eyes. as the woman in the bed, rolling feebly, breaks another bone—the fracture spreading purple across her skin—deserted by that pale other, who does not break so easily, moving still and ghastly through the halls and into your study, amidst your many mirrors. it is there when I enter again. it is there ever after. and the woman breaking in the bed becomes increasingly irrelevant—an emaciated antique amidst your carefully selected décor.
the first thing one notices about the hospital is its age—the large stone edifices spanning back to the sixteenth century—and its immensity. stretching along the bank of the seine. windows spread out like eyes across the expansive façade. from behind the walls, a domed roof pushes forth its central spire, enticing one to discover that which lies within. only later does one notice how sharp the spire looks, as if it could cut a body in two.
the hospital is surrounded by an immense stretch of wall, as imposing as it is enormous. a colossal expanse of shadowed stone. the walls emit a magnetic draw, evoking the iron-grey of lodestone, of hematite. their surface smooth and unscarred, impenetrable, without the slightest sign of fissure. the walls grow taller the longer one looks at them, reaching unreasonable heights, a trick of the eye perpetrated by stone. the length of granite so expansive that one feels winded walking alongside it—chest tight, constricted, as if crushed beneath the slate, as if the walls have tumbled down on top of one’s body, cracking ribs, collapsing lungs.
the entranceway appears unexpectedly, extravagantly—a gaping orifice breaching the stone—the arched gateway curving overhead to vertiginous heights. entering the great portal, one feels disoriented. dizzied by the sense of space, the ample scope of the arch, the massive colonnades bounding the opening. the portal magnifies anyone who passes beneath it. as many great men have done. the opening of walls, the possibility of entry, almost overwhelming.
passing beneath the arch, one catches a first glimpse of the bâtiments. the strong lines of frame and foundation. the squared and complementary geometry of buildings, walls, and windows—their precise corners, their rigid lines. the buildings form a massive, monolithic façade, mimicking the endless stretch of walls one has only just breached. the domed copula a sole rounded form swelling above the buildings’ strict angularity. the contrast discordant, hermaphroditic.
from the archway, one exits into a large courtyard, hedged by trees and blanketed by tended lawns. in the winter, the trees extend emaciated limbs, and the browned blades of grass stick up through the snow like splinters—the lawns alternating between manicured and unmanageable, depending on the season. the grounds are laid out geometrically in squares and triangles, filling the rectilinear framework of walls—a landscape plotted and planned. standing in the courtyard, one feels transported to an earlier century, so imposing is the ancient architecture, so enclosing are the walls.
the shadows of trees stretch across the courtyard in early morning and late afternoon, but the color of the trees is always muted. a green tinged with grey. the granite walls leaching color out of the gardens, suffusing everything with the deadened hue of stone. even on sunny days, the courtyard maintains an air of shadow—light extinguished by the thirsty slabs of slate and the umbrageous archway. one must move away from the entrance to avoid a feeling of engulfment, putting distance between oneself and the walls, proceeding instead toward the hospital and its outstretched wings.
three paths branch off toward the buildings, each leading to a separate entrance in the façade. to the left is the batîment mazarin. to the right, the batîment lassay. but it is the central entrance that captures both the eye and the imagination—its three arched doorways beckoning one to choose between them. the doorways are laughingly referred to as the fates; thus, superstitiously, one avoids this entrance, despite its attraction, unsure which is the door “one does not emerge from again”—which mythical sister waits to cut one’s cord. instead one bears to the left, approaching the façade from an angle.
the chimneys and spires give the hospital a guarded appearance, as if a bird landing on the rooftop would be skewered by some sharpened, unseen spike. the clouds hanging low enough to impale themselves. the closer one comes to the hospital, the more exposed one feels. the windows of the buildings dark-lidded, opaque. the multiple chimneys too narrow to be climbed.
it is not without a sense of relief that one breaches the façade, passing through a squared entryway into the cour de mazarin. one seeks the shelter of an interior, eager to penetrate the compound’s inner sanctum, to shield oneself from the outside. how comforting, then, that one’s first sight is that of a church built in the shape of a cross. unfortunately, its comfort is soon left behind; this courtyard is merely a pathway to the next, a place one longs for but cannot linger—one’s destination lying beyond that of the cross.
in the cour de st. claire, one enters the outskirts of the great anatomoclinical complex that is le sâlpetrière. here, one encounters history, potent and undeniable. at certain hours one can still smell the gunpowder, the saltpeter, after which the complex was named. the original arsenal long-since built over, built around—prisons, barracks, clerical quarters transformed into the body of the institution itself. l’hopîtal. l’asile. the cour de st. claire is a courtyard of lodgings, the former locale of les loges de folles—the cells in which the madwomen slept, chained to walls, faces half-devoured by rats. this is a courtyard of bloodshed, of massacres, of uprisings and attempted escapes. the history of a less enlightened age. nowadays, the patients serve as the only phantoms—paralytics, idiots, cancer victims haunting the grounds.
the oldest buildings in the cour de st. claire are constructed from brownish-yellow stone. in the rain, the bricks exude a fragrance—moist, intimate, with the slight acridity of sweat. during storms, the walls ooze a jaundiced, liver yellow. at dusk, they turn the fitful violet of a body deprived of breath. the buildings shifting arthritically in frigid winter evenings, fissures prominent, frosted a glazed and icy blue. to one’s left stands the batimênt de la force, the ancient prison whose austere buildings function now as domiciles. behind the prison’s angular and dappled walls, the incurables wait—wards of women, committed for life. to one’s right, the buildings house les reposantes, les grandes infirmes—elderly patients, mostly dissolute. the courtyard is one of internment, permanency; those housed here do not expect to leave. they wait only for a box. to be interred in the adjacent cemetery. or to be carved, neck to navel, on the autopsy table, parts preserved in jars of formaldehyde or rendered in plaster and placed on a museum shelf.
one departs this city dolorosa, proceeding at last into the division parisêt, the territory of science, medicine, some say miracles. passing between the two courtyards, one leaves behind the cour de st. claire’s pervasive, old-world misery and enters a city of progress. here, new buildings have been grafted onto old, kitchens transformed into classrooms and clinics. the grounds are home to endless expansion, innovation—buildings housing laboratories, photographic studios, electrostatic baths. one can almost feel the air hum here, the pathways between buildings spread out like synapses, the ground emitting a pulse and throb. here are the centers of knowledge, the domain of hysteroepilepsy, of catalepsy, of tetany. women stand scattered amidst the open colonnades, frozen in contorted positions, as if forming the columns of this great institution. one can almost imagine oneself inside a hall of statues at versailles. the airy pavilions lined with the most compelling works of art.
amidst the spectacular bodies, the buildings, one loses all sense of exterior, all awareness that outside these courtyards lies paris. one exists now in a different city, miles and decades distant from what one has known—an interior city, full of wonders, where all one must do is step inside.
the amphitheatre seats four hundred spectators, with standing room along the sides. the theatre is well equipped with the instruments of projection and instruction—diagrams, charts, and displays dominating the space around a somewhat modest stage. the auditorium has been designed for the dissemination and digestion of information, for the critically observant gaze—the circular sweep of seating providing a clarity of vision rarely encountered in even the most renowned theatres. the days are divided into performances, both public and private. programs printed out and distributed along the aisles, intermissions scheduled upon the hour. from the wings, stretchers emerge, bearing hypnotized and hysterical women, their bodies stricken and small, swallowed by the immensity of the amphitheatre. some women cannot remain standing, falling immediately to the floor. others are carried out in fixed poses—waxy likenesses of human forms. one patient sticks her tongue out at the tiers, another presses her hand to her breast, head turned to the side as if revolted by her own lasciviousness. patients are thrust one by one before the crowd, some screaming they have been swallowed whole, others tearing their clothes and biting their tongues bloody.
the hospital houses a small museum—consisting of a single, cluttered room. a red-and-gold striped carpet divides the space lengthwise, providing a pathway for overwhelmed patrons, who, gazing at the cranks and screws of electrical equipment, may grow disoriented. artifacts crowd the narrow room—plaster casts propped like statues against dark walnut wood, medical instruments mounted to walls. near the center of the room, a wax figure of a woman stretches supine, a row of chairs situated behind her head. skeletons hang in tall glass cabinets, skulls tilted sideways to rest on scapulas, as if even the bones are exhausted. everywhere one turns, there is a person who is not a person. a casting or a copper bust. a flat, discolored drawing. near the entrance to the museum, the skeleton of a deformed child is strung—visitors reaching out to touch it in curiosity and despair.
the cancer ward serves as conduit to much of the hospital—its corridors teeming with invalids. women wander the halls, tumors obscuring their faces, stomachs swollen from grotesque conceptions, immaculate, cellular. the wing a maternity ward in which death is birthed. the women gaunt-faced, splendid. stony madonnas. death incurable.
off a dead-end corridor with rough and splintered floors, lies a rudimentary laboratory that used to be a kitchen. rows of counters remain bolted to the walls; lamps are spread at intervals to illuminate the black marble surfaces, spotlighting an array of scopes, meters, and ocular equipment. the laboratory shelves contain a profusion of jars in which viscous liquids surround nearly unidentifiable organs—their fleshy walls a range of dulled reds, jaundiced yellows, and crepuscular greens. the curled bodies of fetuses suspended in formaldehyde. severed hands pressed behind glass. in some spots, liquid has leaked from the jars, forming rust on the metal shelving, leaching into the walls, leaving ulcers that lacerate wood.
in the salle d’hydrotherapie, women soak in electrostatic baths, bodies moist and humid, vulvas weeping. interns collect the secretions—scraping and exsiccating uterine walls, extracting fluid from sexes dank as caves. basins fill with the brackish runoff. tears and urine. milky flowings. bloody sweats. condensation running in rivulets down tiled walls. women lie with their knees draped over the rims of tubs, heads barely above water level, sexes blooming like a field of fetid roses, plucked. les fleurs du mal, les flueurs blanches. the room is lined with steel receptacles. tubs in which women have simmered for months, bodies softening until the membranous parts, like parchment, have dissolved, detached—exiting the body through the bladder, excreted through the pores of the flesh. the women’s bodies exuding, effluvial. like sirens submerged. each tub an ocean. each body aquatic. at night, the interns use a system of weights and pulleys to winch each woman out of the water. dredging the defluent bodies from their immersions, exhuming them for brief inspections. the interns test the suppleness of the women’s skin, prying back the peeling layers. their hands part the women’s thighs, searching for something solid, some internal substance that will not deliquesce. the women suspended above the water, ponderous and dripping. sirens surfacing to air. the scientists, like sailors, nestled between their knees—bowed before, amidst, below that wet shrine. the interns lower the women back into the water and apply the electricity, watching the lithe bodies wriggle and flop, careful not to touch the water lest they themselves be shocked.
the audience is hushed in the amphitheatre d’autopsie. cadavers watching with glazed eyes as cuts are made, tumors excised, lesions of the brain exposed. the bodies lie on cold steel tables, fluids drained into troughs below. congealed blood. bile. the contents of the bladder. nothing remains concealed here. bodies are turned inside out. skin stripped like clothes discarded, peeled back to reveal distended musculatures, breasts bared to the bone. in the frigid air, breaths coalesce into vapors, tiny clouds that dissipate quickly, though few are released to trouble the air. on a table, a sequence of vertebrae helix into a tortuous spine, each bone boiled and gleaming, viscera and marrow removed. nearby, a brain rests on a scale, the crenulated lobes crowned by a massive, fibrous clot. cerebral fluid filling the scale’s bowl like a glistening, crystalline lake.
medical consults are conducted in the study, seldom in the wards, and the patients, not the doctors, come calling—shuffling through the corridors, born on stretchers through the halls. two spiral staircases bookend the entryway to the study. twisting, sinuous, they lead to the upper galleries, where an ever growing collection of texts is kept, gilt spines glowing faintly on the shelves like offerings on an altar. the windows leaded with stained glass. in the august waiting room, a row of carved wooden chairs sits in front of an enormous grandfather clock. the clock is flanked by two statues, both women, standing on short pedestals, bearing candelabras in their arms. the folds of their tunics are carefully chiseled. one woman holds her skirt up at the thigh, revealing a long pale leg. next to her, the pendulum swings insistently, as if intent on stroking her bare thigh with its cold brass body, vacillating between the brazen nymph and the more modest sculpture on the opposite side, whose dress falls in thick pleats to her feet, and whose face bears a resemblance to the madonna.
when the candelabras are lit, the room takes on a caustic glow. the burnished brass and copper of the clock, the enameled plates hung on the wall, the low-slung chandelier—all cast a burning hue throughout the room. amidst this interior, the patients are dwarfed, seated in the high-backed chairs, their faces lit by flame. and the candlebearing women seem to move closer then, the clock striking the hour—startling in the somber room.
the inner sanctum of the study is painted black—the walls, the floors, many of the furnishings. the even darkness obliterating all sense of depth and dimension. the room might stretch on indefinitely or end a few inches behind the massive oak table. it is impossible to tell. the room lit by only a single window. in one corner, a wardrobe of stained wood scents the room slightly of cedar. in the center, the long oak table doubles as a desk. it is here that patients are presented, that attacks develop in darkness. pale bodies spectral against the limitless black.
in the photographic service, negative plates soak in baths of silver nitrate, light-sensitive silver halides forming on the surface of the glass, ready for exposure. developed plates fill nearby vats of liquid, images affixed with potassium cyanide, doused in the lethal concoction. the vats resemble miniature, clustered reflecting ponds. women’s faces gaze up from the depths like dozens of drowned ophelias. expressions fixed, unblinking. consigned to watery graves.
the walls of the atelier vitré are constructed of glass, the studio flooded with light from every angle. sheets and screens are used to direct or dim the light prior to exposure, the billowing cloths giving the room the air of a harem or bedouin’s tent, a mirage in the middle of a desert. toward the rear of the room, a doorway draped in heavy, brocaded cloth conceals the entrance to the darkroom, a low-lit corridor taking several circuitous turns before opening abruptly into blackness. the curved passageway serves a dual purpose—guarding images from exposure, while discouraging patients from wandering inside. a necessary precaution, as the hysteroepileptic ward directly adjoins the studio and the photographic service, straining the balance between access and occlusion, the visible and the veiled. the darkroom hidden behind the studio glass like a pupil obscured by a lens, a glass monocle framing and annexing vision.
in the ophthalmic laboratory, eyeballs ooze vitreous and aqueous humors. optical nerves floating in clear glass jars like frayed medusas. one eye remains affixed to a slide—retina, cornea, lens, ruptured and pinned. eyeballs fill the dissection trays, shedding one or another of their tunics—fibrous, vascular, nervous. others, drained of fluid, pucker inward like rotting fruit, some plucked, others peeled—sclera scraped away, ciliary muscles torn. the orbs do not maintain their luster. removed from the sockets, irises dull and corneas glaze, light ceases its refraction.
across the hall, sculptures pose before this blinded, cycloptic audience. plaster castings propped up in the atelier de moulage, mimicking the absent bodies of living models. it is rumored that corpses are carried into the sculpture studio at night, held up and positioned like animate bodies. but entering the atelier, one finds only plaster, hollowed and crumbling. marbled eyes. replicas of organs. forged limbs. a number of long wooden boxes contain full-length plaster molds—the shapes of bodies impressed in negative space within them. the molds appear plundered, like coffins robbed of corpses—the atelier a thieves’ den filled with pilfered antiquities, severed limbs. a plaster wrist, its underside subtly threaded with veins. a truncated torso, ribs exposed like a slab of meat. in a corner of the room, an emaciated woman stretches out as if sleeping, pale and brittle, so perfectly rendered that no one can tell if she is flesh or plaster. no one dares touch her. afraid, in either case, that her body will crumble to dust at the slightest caress.
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NINA SHOPE’s book, Hangings: Three Novellas, was published by Starcherone Books in August 2005. Her fiction has appeared in Sleeping Fish, Salt Hill, Fourteen Hills, 3rd Bed, Open City, and on sidebrow.net. She is currently at work on a novel.