Hospital Island (Wild Thing)


By Mark Anthony Jarman

During the day I worry about Eve’s pale skin in Italy’s powerful sun. My cousin doesn’t worry, no, she thrives on sun and heat in scanty summer outfits. Others limp back to their rooms exhausted from our exalted tasks in the world of art and redfaced from our master the sun, but she seems unfazed, Eve thrives.

Knife Party coverAs the sun fades behind walls I quietly play my new chromatic harmonica, silver flashing as pink Roman stone turns dark, and I gaze at her form, a thief hiding in my eye. On my rooftop terrace Eve says, “You know you have to get over her. Dwelling on it is not going to magically change things.” Eve enjoys lecturing me about my lost Natasha, my girl from the north country. Eve has brought beautiful tart berries from the street market to our rooftop, she passes me a cold lemon drink and reads an André Gide aphorism from her endless heap of used paperbacks: To be utterly happy, you must refrain from comparing this moment with other moments in the past.

Yes, but how to not compare? How to stop the built-in comparison machinery in your head?

“Well sir, that’s another problem,” says Eve.

Archimedes worked out problems in the sand. They killed Archimedes in 212 BC as he was drawing his circles in the sand, his colony invaded.

Wait, Archimedes said reasonably as crazed Romans attacked him with swords, wait until I finish my math problem, my circles in the sand.

We must all deal with our problems, the zestless bottled water, the border wars over armrests in dark cinemas, the lost yellowcake uranium, we must forgive the recalcitrant lawn mower.

But did the Roman soldiers wait for Archimedes to solve his crisis of the lawn mower? No. They put Archimedes to the sword, soldiers invaded the colony, invaded his body. I suppose that is a sort of solution to a problem. Or the problem is swiftly made a lot less relevant.

I am aware of my need to get past this niggling crippling memory, to put to the sword this rash abandonment by Natasha. Don’t be a stick in the mud, they say, get out more. LBJ said to me once on his ranch in Texas, “Son, don’t let dead cats stand on your porch.”

I do thank you, sage advice, got it, I hear where you’re coming from, I must stop.

But then I realize — I am getting out! I’m out skiing the snowy Alps and walking dusty excavations in Pompeii (the fine grit of Pompeii’s ruins ruining Father Silas’s camera), I’m out for wild-boar sausage in Naples and good craic in Dubrovnik and dear dirty Dublin (though I loathe the techno maelstrom of Temple Bar) and I stroll sandy strands on Dingle Bay and cheer on pig races in West Cork, I’m drinking wheat beer under the street in Manchester (tiny stellar jukebox hung on the wall), sangria in Madrid, mariachi music in Mexico, I’m up in planes and I’m jumping out of planes, I’m violating Mayan airspace, I’m moving like an illegal crack-block through the high-stepping June Taylor Dancers, I even snowboarded sand dunes just outside Dubai and man oh man the sand hurts way more than snow when you wipe. No dead cowboy can accuse me of letting dead cats stand on my porch.

Yet my moves and trips don’t seem to count in my own head, my jittery journeys on the Adriatic or Irish Sea don’t seem authentic. I am cowed, I am more awed by any stranger’s matrix of travel, real trips with tidy storylines and clear beginnings and madrigal endings and pettifoggers and riot-police Plexiglas and fine hotels in latitudes of lassitude. Why do my own journeys not impress me, why do I have no faith in my blurry couch-surfing pilgrimages to see graves and relatives and breweries and the haughty swans of Sligo. Why do I have no faith in my own life?

The knifing in Napoli may have given me some gruesome perspective. This perspective changes moment to moment, but right now I think I’m weirdly better about Natasha.

It is good to at least once be in a relationship with this kind of depth and fervour, to know it, but not to the point of leaping from a bridge. After Natasha abandoned me in a hotel I hit a point where I understood why people leap from bridges, I was on the bridge and fully understood the attraction, but I did not leap from the bridge. I am resilient, I will bounce back, I will be the Superball driven into the pavement and bouncing clear over the roof of my childhood home.

It’s a bit of a surprise, but Rome’s rouge walls and running water spigots seem familiar and pleasing after Naples’s grey hulks and volcanic dust and volcanic drugs and jackal bedlam and mountains of aromatic refuse and a knife steering its formal way through the air of a kitchen party and a man lying like meat in the hall.

I knew that Rome had a pleasant complexion, but until I left and came back I didn’t know that I’d taken it in my head this way, that I was returning to a place that seems an old friend, an open city that seems warm and broad and green — so oddly comforting to be held in Rome’s glowing walls again.

As I walk Rome it seems almost a home, as if I know it well and have spent some bright worthy part of my life here, which may not be true, but is a fine feeling since I seem to have lost my sense of home and I don’t know if I’ll have it back.

In Rome we live inside the beautiful sun; in Rome we live where the ambulances start. The ambulances park on the street below and race away to help the unfortunates, a pleasing musical quality to their sirens, almost mariachi. Where we live in Rome is not far from the river, a nineteenth-century district that Benito Mussolini expanded while feeling expansive, before things went bad in the twentieth century and they hung Benito and his mistress Claretta by the heels in Milan, the way the mob cornered Cola di Rienzo with all their sharp knives on the high steps, on the monumental steps leading up to the gods envious of our blades and opinions.

So many blades and invasions — I can’t keep track — so much meat and so many martyrs and monsters and gargoyles and gods and I study Eve’s face transfixed listening to a woman’s high lovely voice singing music of such formality and grief, And thou true God gave thy only son. And Croatian daughters on hands and knees scrubbing halls to earn pennies.

Il Signore sia con voi. The Lord be with you.

E con il tuo spirito. And with your spirit.

These Italian church refrains still familiar from childhood Sundays, bells pealing and Sunday memories turning over like those venerable Pontiac Laurentians with straight-six engines that run forever. In Regina the new country hanged Riel by the neck and stole his modest church bell, took it east to Ontario.

Eve hovers near another varnished painting, cracked faces and black shadows, the stone church cool and quiet, mysterious as a suicide on a bridge, and all that sunshine just outside — just a dark chapel bent under endless stone light.

Studying the Immortals makes me feel so very mortal, staring up at shadowy paintings and marble faces speaking of sorrow, staring at the work of murderous turbulent geniuses, at tapestries and crazily amazing ceilings, frescoes in colours like faint laughter from within planets, and angels and saints flying up into the sun, flying from sin and guilt, and collections of gilt Byzantine icons, gorgeous metallic paintings of the Madonna in starry blue robes with a tiny child and sober aquiline faces, faces bent into long cubist angles.

These devout Byzantine faces make me want to jump up and tear across an ancient map to know Istanbul’s eastern empires and all the Virgin Mary’s collection of custard-yellow halos and cobalt gowns.


Pliny the Elder tore around the ancient papyrus maps. I have an image of Pliny when he was much younger, as if I am there on the deck of his wooden boat, part of his crew and Pliny my captain cutting the waves in a speedy Arab felucca, firkinslashed down and sharp sails snapping and swinging around my sunburnt face.

I hang my white shirts in the sun near a lazaretto, the hospital island named after the beggar Lazarus, the island where they sent plague victims on open barges to the sea and I wonder, how does Eve’s skin feel and smell, and what is it to cradle her limbs on a high Irish hill and feel her shirt, feel her shadow move over me like a cloud on gold grass.

Mr. Tom Hanks has been zero help in my campaign to be Pope, I must now consider Tom Hanks an adversary. Memo: no more causes. Unlike me, Tom has the money to run a real campaign. And he is well liked. He may well be the next Pope instead of me, Tom waving from the balcony. Tell me, is luck a thing you manufacture, like a set of tires?

In my hotel room late at night I can’t stop listening to Cat Power’s troubled cover of “Moonshiner,” listen over and over to her lament, if drinking do not kill me. Her voice, ghostly slow, seems to accrue more distant meaning and weight than the song’s plain words should ever be able to convey. It’s a spooky puzzle and I keep trying to figure it out, at two a.m. the matter seems of utmost importance.

Eve downloads music on her laptop; she is a student of Italian opera, but she also likes drone blues and alt-country. Her strange authority.

Eve says she can’t stop thinking of the art we’ve seen, like so much chocolate, too many treasures for one spot. We whisper to each other in the gallery: how was it all collected here in one spot, how many robbed and murdered in its superb suspect provenance?

Eve says, “The big thieves hang the little thieves.”

The groaning galleries and museums are too much to take in at once, we stagger as if eating too much, it’s staggering. But that rich swag is why we are here.

Our sheets and shirts spread on the bright terrace as we taste apples from Afghanistan and dates from the Euphrates and sip sharp juice from blood oranges. It’s so lovely to eat outside with a view of this fabled city. Mangoes and blood oranges, mangoes her new favourite and Eve waves a tiny knife to demonstrate how to peel the lovely skin.

She smiles widely. “Remember we saw that huge fish jump in the Tiber? What timing, just as we walked up. Two or three feet, and fat!”


She seems bright today. Is sleep coming easier at night? Will we ever be reconciled with the knife at the party, will the mind forget the body twitching in the hall and the dead man’s poor daughter weeping? All those body parts worked as a perfect machine until the introduction of the knife into the sensitive wires under the surface. We escaped to the silent train and the town’s closed shutters.

“What is Italian for blood oranges? I should know,” Eve says.

Later she remembers and emails an answer: Arancia sanguigna. Ci vediamo presto! xxx


See you soon. In Gaspé the laundry lines so noisy flapping in the winds off the sea, but in Rome her sheets are silent in sun and heat, no noise or fanfare as moisture exits the cotton, cloth dry in moments.

“Are you peckish? I have some smoked salmon and honeydew apples. We’ll have a bite and then go wander.”

When wandering I enjoy happy accidents, enjoy my mind’s momentary lapses and I forget where I am. I wandered through Piazza Cavour the other afternoon and found a huge bruised palace fronted by groves of shaggy palm trees, tropical palm trees and erotic statues on stone plinths, this otherworldly palace decorated like a Cuban wedding cake — such long stripes of ornate balcony and porticos and fluttering doves and steroid blossoms pushed toward me from every meaty tree in the piazza. I stand in Rome and walk someone else’s fever dream of Latin America. What a dream, what a bewitching chimera city, where they beat the shit out of the patron saint of lovers, beat him with clubs and separated him from his head.

In this concussed city Eve cooks a beautiful omelette of market eggs and goat cheese, in my tiny kitchen she chops spinach and green onion and layers a thin membrane of smoked salmon within the eggs. She wields a sharp knife. Does my cousin wish to kill me, leave me twitching in the hall? No, she slices her creation so neatly, half for her mouth and half for mine, and on the terrace her tender omelette melts on our tongue, the best I have ever tasted.

Later we will walk fountain to fountain, drift palace to palace, painting to painting, but first we eat and drink at our small table on my sunny terrace. Tomorrow we will travel to Cannaregio to dangle our legs in a canal, sit at a canal drinking beautiful chalices of frosty white beer and eating tiny cicchetti from the bartender with the shaven skull at Birreria Zanon. I travel so large a world, but my favourite is the tiny world we create when two people are kind to each other.

Excerpt from “Hospital Island” was originally published in Knife Party at the Hotel Europa copyright © 2015 by Mark Anthony Jarman. Reprinted by permission of Goose Lane Editions


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Mark Anthony Jarman

Mark Anthony Jarman is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and has won the Gold National Magazine Award in nonfiction, the Maclean-Hunter Endowment Award (twice), and the Jack Hodgins Fiction Prize. His novel Salvage King Ya! Is on’s 50 Essential Canadian Books. He has published in The Walrus, Canadian Geographic, The Barcelona Review, Vrig Nederland, and The Globe and Mail. He teaches at the University of New Brunswick and is fiction editor of The Fiddlehead.