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..:: CONTENTS ::..
   Volume IV, Issue I

..:: POETRY ::..

..:: PROSE ::..
..:: HORTON ::..

..:: ETC ::..
   Contributor's Notes

..:: ARCHIVES ::..
   Volume I, Issue I
   Volume I, Issue II
   Volume II, Issue I
   Volume II, Issue II
   Volume III, Issue I
   Volume III, Issue II


Helen of Troy
Paul Silverman


In her Greek English, Melina told the psychiatrists the attacks were like vertigo, but not the kind you feel standing on the edge of a roof. The first one came on the plane from Venizelos to Logan, where she sat on her hands because she felt the hands would assault her. She was traveling from the wharves of Athens to the wharves of Boston, flying to her aunt and uncle who had arranged transport and would give her work in the uncle's fish restaurant. In her fourteenth night in the kitchen on the pier she refused to walk out of the walk-in refrigerator, and shrieked so loudly the tables began to empty. Melina went straight to Applewood, in an ambulance. It was her first trip inland, anywhere, ever, and when morning came she was afraid to take long looks at the open fields between the cottages, they seemed so vast.

The day Taylor saw her sitting in the brief patch of sun was a milestone, her first venture outdoors in weeks. The cottage they put her in, North Brannock, had two floors and thirty four patients. On her floor, the first, was a Canadian nurse, Janet, who was a good twice her size, and this huge human being was the one she came to trust above all others. "You'll keep me from falling," Melina said. "Falling from what?" Janet asked, looking down at her, "you're already sitting on the floor." From her cross-legged position on the tile the girl threw her arms around Janet's thick calves and replied, "falling out of my self."

On break with the other nurses and attendants one day, Janet nicknamed the girl Helen of Troy, and it stuck. "Helen of Troy wants a Rice Krispies bar." "Well, of course she does. It's rice, and she's Greek." "Bring her some tea with it. Helen of Troy demands tea. It's for her hair, it's her beauty secret."

Taylor would sit in some mangy vehicle from the Applewood fleet, half-camouflaged by the ragged trees. He would think so ravenously about Melina's hair he would smoke three cigarettes and barely realize he had lit a single one.

Before the anti-psychotic drugs began to settle Melina down, her learning there were locked doors at every turn was actually a source of relief. It meant there was less unbounded space into which she could "fall." It also meant ever-present staff, men and women who would emerge out of nowhere with their heavy, glinting keyrings and somehow find the right key for every keyhole. And if she balked at the newly opened space they would take her by the arm and escort her across the threshold, walking with her until she felt safe. After several days, Janet found the most effective therapy wasn't to engage her patient in probing chatter about the past and her feelings, but to simply let her sit in silence on the floor of her room encircled by large, solid masses - her dresser, her bed, and, most imposing of all, Janet herself. From that fortified position Melina would endlessly knot and re-knot her hair, her fingers dancing and twisting this way and that. As a palliative, this worked even better than sitting on her hands, she said, because it gave the hands gainful employment and kept them from wreaking destruction on herself and others. On sunny days, Janet brought in dandelions and daisies plucked from the forgotten orchards and weed-ridden fields. Melina said she could feel the ghost of her mother, who on festive occasions had adorned certain rooms with leafy vines, making the house smell like magic. With her own hands, so meaty and crude compared to the thin, regal fingers of "Helen of Troy," Janet used the torn-up flowers to fashion rough garlands for the braided mane. "A crown for Helen," she announced at the nurse's station. "Can Paris be far behind?"


Taylor yearned for his own set of keys as deeply as Melina wanted none of it, wanted no access whatsoever to any part of the cottage. On her first night she'd begged for a straitjacket, but Janet crushed her with the news that they were no longer used. Melina described her entire angle on life, how she saw things since plunging through the cracked floor of her mind, as a long telescope turned completely around. No matter where she pointed her gaze, everything she longed for was smaller and more confining. Life in miniature. If it were possible she would sleep in a dresser drawer, and even more secure than that - in a boxed compartment within the drawer.

Taylor, on the other hand, envied Hank, because he had the precious power of access, and he bought Hank beers at the Winfield Barn - did everything he could to pry the keyring loose from his neck. The situation was a familiar one: even in grade school it was always Taylor, stuck on a lower rung of the ladder, whining for some privilege or possession of Hank's, and Hank reaching down and swatting him away. "Don't go too far," Hank warned him at the Winfield. "Next step is the shelter, the human dumpster. Even your mother won't take you - you need this job." What he meant was that Taylor had already bounced around the valley, far more than was wise. He'd been let go from the only places where employment existed at all - state and county institutions - prisons, reform schools, homes for the orphaned and disabled, and mental hospitals like Applewood. The valley was filled with such official receptacles, all of them occupying great tracts of the cheapest land in the state, all of them founded and built ages ago to catch the rain of falling bodies, the deluge of people driven mad or maimed by the mills.

Not being allowed keys was Taylor's cross to bear - not just once, but several times a day. He would stand outside the front door with his empty hand-truck, pressing his nose against the rectangle of shatterproof glass, banging for a nurse or an aide to notice him and open up. Then he would repeat the process when the cart was cargo-laden. He would stand inside the door like a mule in a stall, shifting his feet, itching for the stable keeper to let him out. Keys were for psychiatric personnel only: They wouldn't ease the rule, not ever. Not even on the day of the big change in North Brannock, the day Taylor executed the Facilities Director's rearrangement of the rec room.

That move was slated for the lunch hour. Precisely. Until that time Taylor was allowed to do nothing but occupy himself with the daily mandatories. First and foremost, this meant locating every basket or barrel on site and emptying all refuse, which included medical waste. Naturally, the job could never be as simple as in most businesses, where all that was required was extracting a garbage-stuffed plastic liner from the trash container, cinching it, stacking it on the hand-truck and hauling it away. At Applewood the very words "plastic bag" raised alarm. Plastic bags of any style or size were banned, and banned with such fervor you'd think they were as much of a suicide threat as handguns and loose pills. Nurses and aides confiscated them on sight, plucking them from the hands of visiting relatives innocently bringing in candy or magazines.

But making trash rounds gave Taylor much to sniff for and look forward to. Trash rounds were his passport into each and every patient room, and in the mornings the occupants were typically elsewhere - a third of them off receiving ECT in the clinic, the rest at group therapy sessions in the common rooms of North Brannock. He made a beeline for Melina's room and knelt to pick up the wastebasket. As he moved past the whitewashed iron headboard, the scent of her erupted from the bed clothes and possessed him. He fell on the bed and sank his face into the sheets. He opened an eye, saw a wisp of dark hair on the pillow and wildly imagined the full braided pelt grazing the skin of his chest, then unknotting and falling like a bower around his face, eclipsing everything else.


Exactly at noon, Janet and the subordinate on-duty nurse, Christine, led the first-floor patients of North Brannock into the dining area, a cavernous space adorned with homey touches here and there - someone's futile attempts to suggest an eat-in kitchen. As soon as the chairs at the long table were occupied and all the names checked off, Janet locked the dining area door for a solid hour, twice as long as usual. This was in accordance with her instructions from the Nursing Director, to whom the Facilities Director had gone for final approval of the new rec room plan. Although the plan had many elements, such as new shelving and wall cabinetry, what the Nursing Director honed in on were the big space-takers. "The elephants in the room," was how she put it when she briefed Janet, who in turn briefed Christine.

By far, the largest object in North Brannock was the piano that was never played.
Janet referred to it that way because, in the dozen years she had worked in the cottage, she hadn't heard the keyboard give up a single sound. In her view, the patients were so sunk in depression that notes couldn't be heard, or else could be heard so faintly they weren't worth playing. Christine had a very different theory - that depressed patients dreaded the piano being played because their disease exaggerated all stimuli. To them, the sweetest music would sound as shattering as the loudest thunder.

Taylor had no such hypotheses. He only knew he was supposed to move the piano to where the blue couch stood, and the blue couch to where the piano stood. In effect, he was altering the rec room so that east and west exchanged places.

"Big guy, can you give me a lift with this?" Taylor put a pleading glare in his eye but he already knew Hank's answer. Hank had struggled up the ladder and bypassed Taylor to become a psychiatric aide; he would do nothing in front of the nurses that smacked of janitorial, and no exceptions. To make matters worse, the head maintenance man had refused to assign Taylor a helper, not even for fifteen minutes, citing the endless budget cuts that had thinned the ranks to a skeleton crew. "Even the exterminator is hardly around here anymore," he said, and issued Taylor some paltry extra equipment - two flat dollies with wobbling casters - as the very best he could do.

What they called the blue couch was, in reality, two pieces - a long blue sofa and matching love seat, pushed against each other to provide a single wall of seating for six or seven patients. Moving it entailed moving countless satellite objects as well - side tables and floor lamps, Scrabble and Monopoly sets, stacks of ancient, unread magazines dotted with rodent droppings, jigsaw puzzles, Chinese checkers and dominoes. The couch was a heavy, cumbersome piece, but once the two flat dollies were in play, Taylor made decent progress.

The piano, on the other hand, might have been a mountain for the way it resisted him. The Nursing Director was right - the job took up the whole hour. When Taylor finally finished, he wiped as much sweat off his face as he could and rapped the dining area door for Janet, but she was occupied with one of the older patients, taking vitals. Through the thick glass rectangle, Taylor watched Melina at the long table, sipping her tea. Suddenly Melina put down the cup and stared up at him. The look told him she knew he had been doing something more momentous than collecting trash. A message was written on both their faces. The same words - he could feel them in his skin.


"Maybe it's Feng Shui," said Janet, the morning they heard it. "Maybe we finally got it right." The chords rising from the piano were stiff and hoarse, as though the sharps and flats were wheezing dust from their undersides every time they were struck. But they formed a melody nonetheless, a song that wasn't American and wasn't classical either. "It sounds Mediterranean," Christine said, and the two nurses dubbed it "The Ballad of Helen of Troy." There was Melina on the piano stool, nothing around her body but space and high ceilings, her posture confident and her fingers traipsing over the keyboard as nimbly as when she fixed her hair in the tight shelter of her room. She had gone and sat there abruptly, without announcing her intention or asking permission, three days after the instrument had been moved. As for other patients, the impact of the rearrangement on them was alarming, even devastating, and some of them never adjusted. When they had filed out from lunch, several of them stepped into the rec room and became openly hostile or frozen with gloom. "How could they do this?" an older, professorial man said, addressing the piano itself. His moan was cosmic and hapless, the cry of a philosopher whose world had been seized by a totalitarian state and turned upside down.

At the afternoon staff meeting, Janet, Christine and the psychiatrist in charge of North Brannock reviewed Melina's sudden behavior change. The psychiatrist, a Pakistani whose M.O was endlessly tinkering with patients' meds, believed it was nothing out of the ordinary. "We've just hit the right receptors," he said, "a matter of chemistry, plain and simple. Two days ago I changed her cocktail. Please don't tell me this all occurred because a maintenance man moved a couch."

"Not the couch," said Janet, " the piano…" She could have continued the debate, but chose not to. More important was getting the psychiatrist's approval of advancing Melina to Level 4, meaning she could be let out to walk the grounds without staff accompaniment. Just helping her with her hair, Janet could tell the girl was ready - and eager too. Instead of huddling on the floor Melina now sat at the window, gazing out at the valley, impatient with Janet if her hands made a clumsy move and blocked the view.

Christine was playing politics too. She got the psychiatrist to okay Melina's participation, as a performer, at the annual Applewood Picnic. This event was strictly for certain patients, the ones staff felt might benefit from social interaction on a grander scale than daily life in the cottages. All the North Brannock residents qualified. It was held each summer under the trees that fronted the old psychopharmacological research facility, a building that once held high hopes for inventing breakthroughs but now held undisturbed spiders and mouse-chewed texts.

On this same afternoon, Taylor completed his trash rounds with another visit to Melina's unoccupied room. He had saved it for last, and it paid off. On top of the wadded Kleenex, used teabags and other bits and pieces of flotsam was a perfectly folded sheet of paper. It had one word scrawled on it - Talyor.

He stared at the letters for several moments, blood pounding. Then he unfolded the paper and found a childish pencil sketch of leafy vines.


Then came the bright, searing day they would talk about for years, the source of endless memos and recriminations about standards; as well as the loss of accreditation and precious state funding.

Among the professional staff, blame fell hardest on Christine, for leaving her keys in a place where Taylor could steal them. And worse, for not reporting it immediately. When the Nursing Director ordered Christine's dismissal, Janet not only accepted the verdict but heartily approved. She had always considered Christine a lightweight, literally and figuratively. Too many years in amateur ballet, too given to flighty theories, too susceptible to distractions like the Applewood Picnic, a therapeutic non-essential if ever there was one. "Event-planning isn't in her job description," Janet said. "She's a clinician - can't she get it? That picnic was all she thought about for days, and the Greek girl playing the piano…"


"She was doing so well as a Level 4," Janet told Hank. "Long walks in the fields, all by herself. I watched her march right to the edge of Greeley Pasture that day, the day of the picnic, again and again…" 

"You weren't the only one watching. Didn't you ever see the black truck? Well, you couldn't. Not from your angle."

Exactly how many trips Melina made with the raincoat might never be pinned down, but it was clear she made several. Each with a wave of permission from Christine, Melina's reward for dazzling the picnic guests with her music. Each time she started out with the raincoat folded and flat. Each time she went to the same place at the edge of Greeley's Pasture, where it meets the scrubby woods. Each time she was seen kneeling down for a time, then standing up with the raincoat swollen like a sack, clutching it with both arms. Then she reversed course and returned as swiftly as she could to North Brannock, sometimes breaking into a run.

And only Taylor knew why. Only he knew the feeling from the inside out, from the heart of the one true witness, because that witness was himself. He never revealed this to a soul, not as the officials were banishing him, not as Hank was drumming his face to a pulp. The story was his alone - to tell when he saw fit, or to never tell at all. The fervor of Melina's fantasy, how she planned every detail, even the time to enter her room on the day of the Applewood picnic. How eagerly she begged him to steal the nurse's keys. The glint in her eyes as she spoke of the bower she would create - the wondrous colors of the vines she had found and how she would drape them everywhere. Iridescent vines, bursting with glossy green and deep burgundy. In her Greek English it all became something mythical, a time beyond time. And for days she drew and re-drew those things, the child's sketches of leaves. She pressed them to her lips and planted the snips of paper under the collar of Taylor's shirts and in the openings between the shirtfront buttons, so they touched his chest.

On the day of the picnic he made his entrance as unobtrusive as possible, parking the black truck a good distance from North Brannock, in the lot behind the administration building. It took several tries with Christine's ring of keys until his shaking hands found the right one. As he pushed his way through the doorway he expected to hear an alarm go off, or hear a nurse or an aide bellowing his name. But, miraculously, there was only silence and emptiness, except for the jangling of his keys, and it stayed that way as he passed the unoccupied nurses' station and turned down the hallway that led to Melina's room.

In the short time Taylor spent standing at the threshold, he glimpsed the meticulous hanging garden she had created. It ran from floor to ceiling, shiny leaves strung over lamps, cabinets, sills and the window tops. But at that point the vines struck him mainly as a background scheme - tangles of decoration. His eyes skimmed them in a blur and narrowed on Melina. She sat on the bed in a white gown, ghostly quiet, her back to him. The perfect braid between her shoulders seemed longer than ever, tumbling so far it rested on the sheets, the last strands of it pointing right at him.

As he rushed to touch it, she turned her head. And in place of the wondrous hair she gave him lips, eyes and cheeks - a swollen, screaming mass of features that only a monster would call a face. He jumped back, and only then, recoiling from the slitted eyes and blistered skin, did he look all around the room and see that the gleaming leaves she had strung everywhere, the Grecian arbor she had promised him - it was all poison ivy.


Next morning, a kangaroo court of accusers from every level of the hierarchy descended on Taylor. He held his hand over an imaginary stack of bibles and swore he never harmed a hair on Melina's head - a claim that was technically true, since all he'd done the entire time he'd spent in her room was caress and kiss her mane, the only part of her that wasn't raging with toxin.

As for Melina, the moment he left her bed she turned from the window to the wall and became mute as stone. Nothing they did could spark a response, not even when they told her Taylor faced prison for the way he'd violated her. With a heavy black marker they changed her status on the chart at the nurses' station, sending her all the way back to Level 1. Locked down and supervised. For months she didn't venture a glance at anything outside the windows of North Brannock, not even a patch of sky or a blade of grass. But Janet was her sun and moon. On the worst day of the rash, Janet stayed overtime and tended to every last inch of tortured skin, squeezing stripes of jellied anesthetic over the sores and rubbing gentle circles with her thick, latex-smooth fingers. She smiled beatifically and told the others she was anointing Helen of Troy.


//   Advance   //