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Veronika Decides to Die: A Novel of Redemption, Page 3

Paulo Coelho

  "Did you say to the night nurse that we couldn't see into your soul?" asked the younger man.

  Veronika couldn't remember. She was having difficulty knowing who she was and what she was doing there.

  "You have been kept in an artificially induced sleep with tranquilizers, and that might affect your memory a bit, but please try to answer all our questions."

  And the doctors began an absurd questionnaire, wanting to know the names of the principal Ljubljana newspapers, the name of the poet whose statue was in the main square (ah, that she would never forget, every Slovene has the image of Preseren engraved on his or her soul), the color of her mother's hair, the names of her colleagues at work, the titles of the most popular books at the library.

  To begin with Veronika considered not replying--her memory was still confused--but as the questionnaire continued, she began reconstructing what she'd forgotten. At one point she remembered that she was now in a mental hospital, and that the mad were not obliged to be coherent; but for her own good, and to keep the doctors by her side, at least so she can find out something more about her state, she began making a mental effort to respond. As she recited the names and facts, she was recovering not only her memory but also her personality, her desires, her way of seeing life. The idea of suicide, which that morning seemed to be buried beneath several layers of sedatives, resurfaced.

  "Fine," said the older man at the end of the questionnaire.

  "How much longer must I stay here?"

  The younger man lowered his eyes, and she felt as if everything were hanging in the air, as if, once that question was answered, a new chapter of her life would be written, and no one would be able to change it.

  "You can tell her," said the older man. "A lot of other patients have already heard the rumors, and she'll find out in the end anyway; it's impossible to keep secrets around here."

  "Well, you decided your own fate," sighed the young man, weighing each word. "So you had better know the consequence of your actions. During the coma brought on by the pills you took, your heart was irreversibly damaged. There was a necrosis of the ventricle--"

  "Put it in layman's terms," said the older man. "Get straight to the point."

  "Your heart was irreversibly damaged, and soon it will stop beating altogether."

  "What does that mean?" she asked, frightened.

  "If your heart stops beating, that means only one thing, death. I don't know what your religious beliefs are, but--"

  "When will my heart stop beating?" asked Veronika, interrupting him.

  "Within five days, a week at most."

  Veronika realized that behind his professional appearance and behavior, behind the concerned manner, the young man was taking immense pleasure in what he was saying, as if she deserved the punishment and would serve as an example to all the others.

  During her life Veronika had noticed that a lot of people she knew would talk about the horrors in other people's lives as if they were genuinely trying to help them, but the truth was that they took pleasure in the suffering of others, because that made them believe they were happy and that life had been generous with them. She hated that kind of person, and she wasn't going to give the young man an opportunity to take advantage of her state in order to mask his own frustrations.

  She kept her eyes fixed on his and, smiling, said: "So I succeeded, then."

  "Yes," came the reply. But any pleasure he had taken in giving her the tragic news had vanished.

  During the night, however, she began to feel afraid. It was one thing to die quickly after taking some pills; it was quite another to wait five days or a week for death to come, when she had already been through so much.

  SHE HAD always spent her life waiting for something: for her father to come back from work, for the letter from a lover that never arrived, for her end-of-year exams, for the train, the bus, the phone call, the holiday, the end of the holidays. Now she was going to have to wait for death, which had made an appointment with her.

  This could only happen to me. Normally, people die on precisely the day they least expect.

  She had to get out of there and get some more pills. If she couldn't, and the only solution was to jump from a high building in Ljubljana, that's what she'd do. She had tried to save her parents any unnecessary suffering, but now she had no option.

  She looked around her. All the beds were occupied by sleeping people, some of whom were snoring loudly. There were bars on the windows. At the end of the ward there was a small bright light that filled the place with strange shadows and meant that the ward could be kept under constant vigilance. Near the light a woman was reading a book.

  These nurses must be very cultivated, they spend their whole lives reading.

  Veronika's bed was the farthest from the door; between her and the woman there were nearly twenty other beds. She got up with difficulty because, if she was to believe what the doctor had said, she hadn't walked for nearly three weeks. The nurse looked up and saw the girl approaching, dragging her IV drip with her.

  "I want to go to the toilet," she whispered, afraid of waking the madwomen.

  The woman gestured vaguely toward the door. Veronika's mind was working fast, looking everywhere for an escape route, a crack, a way out. It has to be quick, while they think I'm still too frail, incapable of acting.

  She peered about her. The toilet was a cubicle with no door. If she wanted to get out of there, she would have to grab the nurse and overpower her in order to get the key, but she was too weak for that.

  "Is this a prison?" she asked the nurse, who had stopped reading and was now watching her every movement.

  "No, it's a mental hospital."

  "But I'm not crazy."

  The woman laughed.

  "That's what they all say."

  "All right then, I am crazy, but what does that mean?"

  The woman told Veronika not to stay too long on her feet, and sent her back to her bed.

  "What does it mean to be crazy?" insisted Veronika.

  "Ask the doctor tomorrow. But go to sleep now, otherwise I'll have to give you a sedative, whether you want it or not."

  Veronika obeyed. On her way back she heard someone whispering from one of the beds:

  "Don't you know what it means to be crazy?"

  For a moment she considered ignoring the voice: She didn't want to make friends, to develop a social circle, to create allies for a great mass revolt. She had only one fixed idea: death. If she really couldn't escape, she would find some way to kill herself right there, as soon as possible.

  But the woman asked her the same question she had asked the nurse.

  "Don't you know what it means to be crazy?"

  "Who are you?"

  "My name is Zedka. Go to your bed. Then, when the nurse thinks you're asleep, crawl back over here."

  Veronika returned to her bed and waited for the nurse to resume her reading. What did it mean to be crazy? She hadn't the slightest idea, because the word was used in a completely anarchic way. People would say, for example, that certain sportsmen were crazy because they wanted to break records, or that artists were crazy because they led such strange, insecure lives, different from the lives of normal people. Then there were the thinly clad people walking the streets of Ljubljana in winter, whom Veronika had often seen pushing supermarket trolleys full of plastic bags and rags and proclaiming the end of the world.

  She didn't feel sleepy. According to the doctor, she had slept for almost a week, too long for someone who was used to living without great emotions but with rigid timetables for rest.

  What did it mean to be crazy? Perhaps she should ask one of the lunatics.

  Veronika crouched down, pulled the needle out of her arm and went over to Zedka's bed, trying to ignore her churning stomach. She didn't know if the feeling of nausea came from her weakened heart or the effort she was making to move.

  "I don't know what it means to be crazy," whispered Veronika. "But I'm not. I'm just a failed suicide.

  "Anyone who lives in her own world is crazy. Like schizophrenics, psychopaths, maniacs. I mean people who are different from others."

  "Like you?"

  "On the other hand," Zedka continued, pretending not to have heard the remark, "you have Einstein, saying that there was no time or space, just a combination of the two. Or Columbus, insisting that on the other side of the world lay not an abyss but a continent. Or Edmund Hillary, convinced that a man could reach the top of Everest. Or the Beatles, who created an entirely different sort of music and dressed like people from another time. Those people--and thousands of others--all lived in their own world."

  This madwoman talks a lot of sense, thought Veronika, remembering stories her mother used to tell her about saints who swore they had spoken to Jesus or the Virgin Mary. Did they live in a world apart?

  "I once saw a woman wearing a low-cut dress; she had a glazed look in her eyes, and she was walking the streets of Ljubljana when it was five degrees below zero. I thought she must be drunk, and I went to help her, but she refused my offer to lend her my jacket. Perhaps in her world it was summer and her body was warmed by the desire of the person waiting for her. Even if that person only existed in her delirium, she had the right to live and die as she wanted, don't you think?"

  Veronika didn't know what to say, but the madwoman's words made sense to her. Who knows; perhaps she was the woman who had been seen half-naked walking the streets of Ljubljana?

  "I'm going to tell you a story," said Zedka. "A powerful wizard, who wanted to destroy an entire kingdom, placed a magic potion in the well from which all the inhabitants drank. Whoever drank that water would go mad.

  "The following morning, the whole population drank from the well and they all went mad, apart from the king and his family, who had a well set aside for them alone, which the magician had not managed to poison. The king was worried and tried to control the population by issuing a series of edicts governing security and public health. The policemen and the inspectors, however, had also drunk the poisoned water, and they thought the king's decisions were absurd and resolved to take no notice of them.

  "When the inhabitants of the kingdom heard these decrees, they became convinced that the king had gone mad and was now giving nonsensical orders. They marched on the castle and called for his abdication.

  "In despair the king prepared to step down from the throne, but the queen stopped him, saying: 'Let us go and drink from the communal well. Then we will be the same as them.'

  "And that was what they did: The king and the queen drank the water of madness and immediately began talking nonsense. Their subjects repented at once; now that the king was displaying such wisdom, why not allow him to continue ruling the country?

  "The country continued to live in peace, although its inhabitants behaved very differently from those of its neighbors. And the king was able to govern until the end of his days."

  Veronika laughed.

  "You don't seem crazy at all," she said.

  "But I am, although I'm undergoing treatment since my problem is that I lack a particular chemical. While I hope that the chemical gets rid of my chronic depression, I want to continue being crazy, living my life the way I dream it, and not the way other people want it to be. Do you know what exists out there, beyond the walls of Villete?"

  "People who have all drunk from the same well."

  "Exactly," said Zedka. "They think they're normal, because they all do the same thing. Well, I'm going to pretend that I have drunk from the same well as them."

  "I already did that, and that's precisely my problem. I've never been depressed, never felt great joy or sadness, at least none that lasted. I have the same problems as everyone else."

  For a while Zedka said nothing; then: "They told us you're going to die."

  Veronika hesitated for a moment. Could she trust this woman? She needed to take the risk.

  "Yes, within about five or six days. I keep wondering if there's a way of dying sooner. If you, or someone else, could get me some more pills, I'm sure my heart wouldn't survive this time. You must understand how awful it is to have to wait for death; you must help me."

  Before Zedka could reply, the nurse appeared with an injection.

  "I can give you the injection myself," she said, "or, depending on how you feel about it, I can ask the guards outside to help me."

  "Don't waste your energy," said Zedka to Veronika. "Save your strength, if you want to get what you asked me for."

  Veronika got up, went back to her bed, and allowed the nurse to do her work.

  It was her first normal day in the mental hospital. She left the ward, had some breakfast in the large refectory where men and women were eating together. She noticed how different it was from the way these places were usually depicted in films--hysterical scenes, shouting, people making demented gestures--everything seemed wrapped in an aura of oppressive silence; it seemed that no one wanted to share their inner world with strangers.

  AFTER BREAKFAST (which wasn't bad at all; no one could blame Villete's terrible reputation on the meals) they all went out to take the sun. In fact there wasn't any sun--the temperature was below zero, and the garden was covered with snow.

  "I'm not here to preserve my life, but to lose it," said Veronika to one of the nurses.

  "You must still go out and take the sun."

  "You're the ones who are crazy; there isn't any sun."

  "But there is light, and that helps to calm the patients. Unfortunately our winter lasts a long time; if it didn't, we'd have a lot less work."

  It was useless arguing; she went out and walked a little, looking around her and surreptitiously seeking some way of escaping. The wall was high, as required by the builders of the old type of barracks, but the watchtowers for the sentries were empty. The garden was surrounded by military-looking buildings, which now housed the male and female wards, the administrative offices, and the employees' rooms. After a first, rapid inspection, she noticed that the only place that was really guarded was the main gate, where everyone who entered and left had their papers checked by two guards.

  Everything seemed to be falling into place in her mind again. In order to exercise her memory, she began trying to remember small things, like the place where she used to leave the key to her room, the record she'd just bought, the last book she was asked for at the library.

  "I'm Zedka," said a woman, approaching.

  The previous night Veronika hadn't been able to see her face as fully; she had crouched down beside the bed all the time they were talking. Zedka must have been about thirty-five and seemed absolutely normal.

  "I hope the injection didn't bother you too much. After a while the body gets habituated, and the sedatives lose their effect."

  "I'm fine."

  "About our conversation last night, do you remember what you asked me?"

  "Of course I do."

  Zedka took her by the arm, and they began to walk along together, among the many leafless trees in the courtyard. Beyond the walls you could see the mountains disappearing into the clouds.

  "It's cold, but a lovely morning all the same," said Zedka. "Oddly enough I never used to suffer from depression on cold, gray, cloudy days like this. I felt as if nature was in harmony with me, that it reflected my soul. On the other hand, when the sun appeared, the children would come out to play in the streets, and everyone was happy that it was such a lovely day, and then I would feel terrible, as if that display of exuberance in which I could not participate was somehow unfair."

  Delicately Veronika detached herself from the woman. She didn't like physical contact.

  "You didn't finish what you were saying. You were saying something about what I asked you last night."

  "There's a group of people here, men and women who could have left, who could be back home, but who don't want to leave. There are many reasons for this: Villete isn't as bad as people say, although it's far from being a five-star hotel. Here inside, everyone can say what
they like, do what they want, without being criticized. After all, they're in a mental hospital. Then, when there are government inspections, these men and women behave like dangerous maniacs, because some are here at the state's expense. The doctors know this, but there must be some order from the owners that allows the situation to continue, because there are more vacancies than there are patients."

  "Could they get hold of some pills for me?"

  "Try to contact them; they call their group the Fraternity."

  Zedka pointed to a woman with white hair, who was talking animatedly with some younger women.

  "Her name is Mari, she belongs to the Fraternity. Ask her."

  Veronika started walking toward Mari, but Zedka stopped her: "No, not now, she's having fun. She's not going to stop something that gives her pleasure just to be nice to a complete stranger. If she should react badly, you'll never have another chance to approach her. The 'insane' always believe in first impressions."

  Veronika laughed at the way Zedka said the word "insane," but she was worried too, because everything here seemed so normal, so nice. After so many years of going straight from work to a bar, from that bar to the bed of some lover, from his bed to her room, from her room to her mother's house, she was now experiencing something she had never dreamed of: a mental hospital, insanity, an insane asylum, where people were not ashamed to say that they were crazy, where no one stopped doing something they were enjoying just to be nice to others.

  She began to doubt that Zedka was serious, or if it wasn't just a way by which mental patients could pretend that the world they lived in was better than that of others. But what did it matter? She was experiencing something interesting, different, totally unexpected. Imagine a place where people pretend to be crazy in order to do exactly what they want.

  At that precise moment Veronika's heart turned over. She suddenly remembered what the doctor had said, and she felt frightened.

  "I want to walk alone a little," she said to Zedka. She was, after all, "crazy" too, and she no longer had to worry about pleasing anyone.

  The woman moved off, and Veronika stood looking at the mountains beyond the walls of Villete. A faint desire to live seemed about to surface, but Veronika determinedly pushed it away.