It is unusually quiet in the Ward tonight. Today. Whenever it is. Makar finds it difficult to keep track. He knows that Trofim can see a window from his bed, though.
“Trofim,” Makar calls. “Trofim! What time of day is it?”
He has to call several more times before Trofim’s wheezy, windy voice responds: “purple.” A moment later: “grey.”
“‘Grey’ is not a time, Trofim! What time is it?” He shouts several more times, but Trofim does not respond. Makar’s neck itches, and he very much wishes to scratch it; he tugs and worries at the straps that hold him onto his musty, dirty cot but they will not budge. He suspects that the orderlies tighten them whenever he sleeps.
“Calm yourself, Makar. You’re only wasting your energy.” Dmitri, from the next row over. Trofim’s wits are addled by hunger and poor health, this is true—and Makar even suspects his own mind at times—but Dmitri is deeply disturbed. The frontovik’s demeaner is always so calm, but the things he speaks of… only madness can explain them. Headless horsemen in the courtyard, elves and sprites among the tombstones, the monastery’s ghost returning in the night. Balderdash!
“Tell us again about the nighttime visitors, Dmitri!” shouts another resident. Gleb, maybe. Laughter follows—and if some of it borders on hysterics, what of it?
Dmitri is silent for a time, but then responds, “You would not laugh if you could see their red eyes, or their papery skin.”
“But we do, every time they come to visit us! Isn’t that right?” More laughter.
“They make us forget!” Dmitri shouts, an uncharacteristic moment of passion from him; it only draws more derision. Makar has usually joined in by now, but tonight—or today—he finds himself unable to mock the poor soldier.
“Yes, of course. Just like they make us forget the ghosts and goblins that stalk our courtyard!” Laugh laugh laugh. Dmitri has gone silent, fuming in the darkness.
Makar wants to tell him that they need their laughter, however thin and petty. All of them do. They starve, they are restrained, and it is always dark. There is no joy here. Nothing to keep them going but their vicious laughs. He wants badly to scratch at his neck. An orderly must have drawn blood there.