Lee Holt, who we had never met before, arrived promptly at Fort Gorgast on the Friday afternoon. His first words to us are The Reader’s favourites when assembled in this particular order: ‘What can I do to help?’. Help Lee did, for which we would like to thank him. I would also like to thank him for being the first to come and hang out with me in my hut in the woods on Saturday morning. We talked publishing and compared the sizes of our hangovers and it was all very pleasant. What I don’t want to thank Lee for is bringing this particular story to read at the Open Mic. It has haunted me ever since; in the hope of somehow freeing myself from it by passing it on to you – kind of like a virus, I suppose, or a bad penny – I am publishing it here with Lee’s permission. It’s dark and disturbing, and you should read it at your own peril.
I’m the kind of person who researches the hell out of things, so when I decided to come to this event, I wanted to know everything I could about Fort Gorgast. I read up on its nineteenth-century construction, its obsolescence in military terms in the face of advancing technology, and its eventual occupation by the Red Army in the closing days of the Second World War. I was struck though by the lack of history right after the fort’s construction, so I kept digging. I live in Potsdam, where the Institute for Military Research is located, and I spent some time in the archives a couple of weeks ago. And I found some things that I hesitate to share with you.
The architects of the fort originally envisioned a structure with two floors: an above-ground level, which we can see now, and a basement level. The planners appear to have disagreed about whether to build a basement, and it’s not included in the final planning documents.
A few words about the basement’s design: it has long hallways, small windowless rooms with one door opening to the hallway, a battery of showers and toilets, and then some larger rooms that included, at least in the early drafts, spaces for storage, rooms for medical staff and two operating theaters.
Next I moved on to the actual invoices from surveyors, excavation firms, and a brick works. I compared the planning drawings with the actual architect’s orders to the contractors. Everything was in order until I noticed excavation invoices for hauling away tremendous amounts of soil. I did some simple math – how many cubic meters would be required to build the original plans, the ones with the basement, and it came out to approximately that amount. Other invoices didn’t match the original architect’s drawings – for water pumping services, for iron doors in different sizes from the rest of the project, for beds, small sinks, chains ordered from a firm that specialized in products for the prison industry. And then I saw the orders for medical equipment from the Charité in Berlin (it was founded in 1710), and that’s where things got interesting.
This basement floor – which, according to the official documentation, was never built – was to be equipped with items meant for the restraint of psychologically disturbed patients. But that’s where the trail ended, or so I thought.
The archivist I’d been working with, Dr. Thomas Lindemüller, was fascinated that no one had noticed these irregularities before, Prussian documentation being as thorough as it normally is. He set about sifting through the archives, and just this week DHL delivered a box to me full of photographs, psychiatric profiles and notes made by the doctors who worked with the patients who were, in fact, once incarcerated below the stone floors of Fort Gorgast.
The first photographs show the arrival of five railway cars in the Gorgast train station. Men in white lab coats wait next to horse-drawn carriages. The patients are being led out of the railway cars, down ramps. Some of them are in wheelchairs, and they are all wearing hospital gowns.
Then come the photographs from inside the basement. The rooms are stark, unadorned, each equipped with a bed and a sink. There’s one photo taken down the length of the hall and you can see the iron doors open against the walls. There are also a few photos of the operating theaters, furnished with white tiles from floor to ceiling, with large surgical lights and operating tables. There are also photos of iron chairs with metal rings for restraining a patient’s head.
The box also includes profiles of the patients, all 75 of them. There are photos of their faces, much like the passport photos you need to apply for a visa. They are all sepia-toned and have that discomfiting habit of making eyes look awfully bright. Some of the patients are terribly disfigured – harelips; teeth growing through lips; visages misshapen as if someone twisted a face around a screw; one protruding eye much larger than the other. Some of them are also wearing bandages over their foreheads, their tongues lolling, their eyes narrowed as if viewing the camera with suspicion. One older man seems to have had his nose burned off; a young girl with no hair also has no ears.
Each of the profiles also contains the doctor’s notes on prognosis and treatment. I only have ten minutes, so I’m going to read you some of the more interesting bits.
“Patient 53 is not responding to the surgery well. Excessive salivation and violent aggression. Yesterday he broke Patient 22’s hand with his mouth. Would have been worse if he still had teeth.”
“Patient 34 had to be subdued this morning. She claimed that a stranger had raped her in the night. Impossible; I had the keys throughout the late shift. This still does not explain the contusions and internal bleeding.”
“Patient 72 claims to hear whispers. All the more remarkable for his deafness.”
“Patient 22 treated today for self-mutilation. She has gouged out her own eyes. Laughs uncontrollably.”
There is also one physician’s notebook in the box. Apparently he and his staff were experimenting. Here are some excerpts:
“Light deprivation treatment resulting in interesting behavior among patients. Many of them have cut themselves with their bedsprings and use the blood to write messages on the walls. Even the illiterate ones. Others have drawn images that have terrified the staff. And all of this was done in utter darkness. Cannot explain.”
“Shock treatment promising, especially for those who have posed discipline problems. Patient 53 would not stop howling about a devil whipping her in her cell; she is now silent.”
“Grafting operation unsuccessful. Pig tissue apparently not compatible.”
“Restraints necessary for almost all patients now at all times. Many have developed an uncanny ability to climb the walls and have injured themselves in falls.”
“Visit from Charité special programs director today. He has brought specimens and requests that we introduce them into the wombs of our female patients. I have ordered extra-large speculums.”
“Patients deteriorating rapidly, despite proper nutrition. Many complain of nightly visitations. Staff is nervous. Patients describing a being with the head of a bull stalking the halls, moving through doors, goring them with his horns and then treating their wounds.”
“Dr. Müller discharged for misconduct and arrested today. See file for details.”
“Two nurses committed suicide, by hanging, after killing a third in the electric chair. Staff in disorder. Patients out of control.”
“Specimens growing. Have requested obstetrics unit from Charité. Women complain of terrible cramps. Restraint necessary.”
“Cross-patient grafting has low success rate, with surprising side-effects.”
“Staff requesting transfers. Stench is unbearable. Plumbing is clogged and staff cannot fix it. A severed hoof from a large animal found in one of the drains.”
The last documents I want to mention were in a sealed envelope. They include two photographs and instructions to a contractor.
The first photograph: A woman sits in the darkened hallway, a white sheet draped over her head and flowing to the floor. Behind her stands a man wearing a horned mask, one hand squarely upon the top of her head, the other with a bone saw that he is about to draw across her chest.
The second photograph: ten women are lined up in a storage room on hospital gurneys, restraints pulled tight. Their white gowns are spattered and dark from the waist down. Behind them on the wall there is a primitive mural of a minotaur, a stethoscope around his neck, gathering children to his knee, as if he is going to tell them a story.
The instructions to the contractor: Seal all entrances and exits with masonry. Disregard any noises from inside. Report any irregularities to the proper authorities.