After devoting itself to the care of young victims of a tuberculosis epidemic after the Second World War, Berck gradually shifted its focus away from children. Nowadays it tends to concentrate more on the sufferings of the aged, on the most inevitable breakdown of body and mind; but geriatrics is only one part of the picture I must paint to give an accurate idea of the hospital’s denizens. In one section are a score of comatose patients, patients at death’s door, plunged into endless night. They never leave their rooms. Yet everyone knows they are there, and they weigh strangely on our collective awareness, almost like a guilty con-science. In another wing, next door to the colony of elderly and enfeebled, is a cluster of morbidly obese patients whose substantial dimensions the doctors hope to whittle down.

Elsewhere, a battalion of cripples forms the bulk of the inmates. Survivors of sport, of the highway, and of every possible and imaginable kind of domestic accident, these patients remain at Berck for as long as it takes to get their shattered limbsworking again. I call them “tourists.”

And to complete the picture, a niche must be found for us, broken-winged birds, voiceless parrots, ravens of doom, who have made our nest in a dead-end corridor of the neurology department. Of course, we spoil the view. I am all too conscious of the slight uneasiness we cause as, rigid and mute, we make our way through agroup of more fortunate patients.

The best place to observe this phenomenon is the rehabilitation room, where all patients undergoing physical therapy are congregated. Garish and noisy, a hubbub of splints, artificial limbs, and harnesses of varying complexity, it is an authentic Court of Miracles . Here we see a young man with an earring who suffered multiple fractures in a motorbike accident; a grandmother in a fluorescent nightgown learn-ing to walk after a fall from a stepladder; and a vagrant whose foot was somehow amputated by a subway train.

Lined up like a row of onions, this human throng waves arms and legs under minimal supervision, while I lie tethered to an inclined board that is slowly raised to a vertical position. Every morning I spend half an hour suspended this way, frozen to attention in a posture that must evoke the appearance of the Commendatore’s statue in the second act of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Below, people laugh, joke, call out. I would like to be part of all this hilarity, but as soon as I direct my one eye toward them, the young man, the grandmother, and the homeless man turn away, feeling the sudden need to study the ceiling smoke detector. The “tourists” must be very worried about fire!.

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