The next Natalie installment is done, complete with nursing exams, ice skating in the city square, a dying revolutionary and an embrace suddenly interrupted.
A breakneck pace is required to bring this volume in by the end of January. I'm hoping to finish and post the third and final installment of this chapter by Monday night or Tuesday.
Kiev, Russian Ukraine. December 7th, 1914. The second week of December marked the end of the Red Cross certification program at the Prince Mikhailov Hospital. Written examinations were on Monday. They had three hours to write treatment plans for a set of hypothetical cases.
As the clock marked the hour, Sister Levchenko placed a poster-sized printed sheet on the easel at the front of the room, on which was written the case with a small diagram. They took up pencils, and began to write. After fifteen minutes, Sister Levchenko rang a handbell. Pencils down. She placed another case on the easel. Natalie turned over a fresh sheet of paper, took up her pencil in cramped fingers, and began again.
After the cases they were given a thirty minute break during which the fourteen women taking the test nervously sipped tea in the other room and discussed the questions. Was that fifth case typhoid fever? How could it be when it didn’t mention swelling of the abdomen? Natalie soon took herself away to a corner of the room and tried to shut all sound from her mind. No discussion now could change the answers she had already written, and she wanted instead to recall everything she could of the many diagrams and names they had memorized over the last ten weeks.
Sister Levchenko stepped in and rang a bell, summoning them all to the second half of the written examinations. Now every fifteen minutes a large diagram was placed on the easel, labeled only with a set of numbers: the muscles of the body, the bones, the soft organs, surgical instruments, types of bandages. On their papers they wrote out the numbers and began to fill in the name of each. By the end, the last few terms were swirling and stooping in Natalie’s mind like vultures over the carcass of her knowledge. The sphenoid bone. The name was clear to her, but was it that part of the head or the stubbornly unlabeled bone in the wrist?
Time was up. She turned her papers in and walked away.
“Do you want to get a cup of tea? Perhaps some pastries?” asked Elena.
Natalie looked at her, drained. She wanted to share the feeling of struggle and accomplishment with someone, but there was nothing left in her, a vessel poured out and dry.
“I’m sorry. Not today.”
It was early to return, still not quite dinner time when she reached the Lutereks’ house. As if in confirmation of her mood, the December sun had already gone down and the streets were in dim twilight. Perhaps she could take a nap before dinner. Or just go to bed.
Sara bounded into the hall from the sitting room when she heard Natalie enter.
“Oh, what do you think? Borys is coming home!” She waved a piece of army stationery. “He’s finished artillery officer training and has two week’s leave before he reports to his unit. He’ll be here for Christmas!”
Natalie stood and stared at her. Borys was one of the kindest, most amusing men she knew, and yet she felt nothing at this news, nothing at her friend and former pupil’s excitement.
Sara was still talking, rhapsodizing about the times they would have over Christmas.
“I’m sure I’m very excited to see Borys again, but after the Red Cross examinations I have a headache. I need to lay down.”
As she went she heard Sara offering sympathy, but already Natalie was hurrying up the stairs. Still dressed, she collapsed onto the bed on which she had found it so difficult to sleep the night before and found that now sleep was mercifully easy.
Tuesday was a fallow day before the panel examinations, and there was nothing to be done. When she awoke, Natalie looked at the little stack of brown and green cloth-bound books on her table and knew that consulting them further during this one day would be no help in the type of examination she would face the next day. If the weather were warm, this would be the day to cast all things aside and ask Sara and Lena to go with her for a picnic in one of the parks, but snow had fallen during the night, and the mask of frost over her little window was lit brilliantly by a clear, cold day.
For a long time, longer than she could remember doing before except when sick, she lay under her pile of blankets watching the light shift subtly on that pattern of frost, as the sun rose higher in the sky. Then, of a sudden, everything became intolerable. She shivered into her clothes and was glad that she saw no one as she slipped down the stairs and out of the house.
The city was bustling. Soldiers were everywhere, yet these happy, smiling, talking, gawking men seemed of another order than those who lay in the rows of beds inside the hospital.
Instinct and the pressure of the moving crowds brought her towards the city center. A stand was selling hot potato pancakes, and she bought three, carrying them inside her muff for a while, where they gave off a delicious warmth. At intervals she would take one out, eat a few bites, and return the rest to her muff to continue warming her hands, until the last few bites were barely warm, but still savory of potato and onion.
The cold of the last two weeks, more appropriate to January than early December, had allowed the city to pour the skating rink in St. Michael’s Square early. Booths and stands surrounded it selling food, drink, and all manner of things which a soldier visiting the big city for the first time might want to buy, for himself, for his relatives back at home, or for the girl he met here.
Natalie stood for a long time watching the people skating on the ice. Most of them were couples, young faces with bright smiles, swirling on the ice, slipping, falling, laughing, holding each other close. An officer, his long coat closely tailored, was skating arm in arm with a young woman in a bright blue coat edged with fur. The woman nearly slipped, then they laughed and held each other close.
How long had it been since she herself had found refuge in a welcome touch? Almost daily she gave comfort to her patients: shifting them in their beds, holding a hand, rubbing whale oil into a foot left swollen and without feeling by days of standing in waterlogged trenches. But giving was not the same as receiving. There had been Konrad and Doctor Natov, both attempting to force an unwanted closeness, a closeness that took rather than giving, a closeness that offered no comfort or safety.
Not since that one day in Warsaw with her father had she enjoyed that shelter, and even then it had come only after those terrible words, “But I myself will never see you again.”
The wind blew straight at her, cold and crisp across the square, making her squint her eyes against the cold. Surely that was what caused the tears.
The panel consisted of three Red Cross nurses and three doctors. Sister Levchenko was one of them, as was another senior nurse from the Prince Mikhailov Hospital, while the third was a visitor from the central Red Cross committee in St. Petersburg, whom Natalie had seen touring the wards the week before.
She was relieved that Doctor Natov was not among the doctors, all drawn from the hospital staff, sitting in judgement over her, but when one of the three men sorted through a stack of cards, selected one, and asked her the first question, it seemed one designed to put her off her ease: “While you are working in a forward aid station, a soldier comes to you with a high fever and an inflamed rash with pustules around his genital area. What would be your initial diagnosis and what steps would you take for the general health of the unit?”
The doctor smiled as he moved the card to the back of the stack and leaned back in his chair to watch her answer. Natalie felt heat rising in her face, but she kept her voice calm, “The symptoms described suggest venereal disease. The patient does not need to be isolated for fear of contagion, but the infection should if possible be reported to the officers of his unit so that they may determine the source responsible and take steps to protect the other men. As a matter of morale, such men should be placed in a ward separate from men suffering from honorable afflictions whenever possible.”
The nurse from St. Petersburg cast a glance at the doctor which seemed almost of triumph, then turned to Natalie and asked the next question. “Your section is offered a country house in which to set up a set second line hospital. What amenities are necessary to make the house suitable, and to provide proper sanitation?”
The pass list was posted in the nurses’ sitting room on Friday. There were eleven names, out of the fourteen who had taken the tests. Natalie’s was among them.
“To us,” Elena said that evening, raising a dish of cherry ice generously drizzled with chocolate. She had insisted that they go to an restaurant in celebration of their passing the examinations, though as prices continued to climb such an expedition was out of the reach of Natalie’s modest allowance and Elena had to pay for the both of them.
At first the changes were not great. The commissioning ceremony when they would receive their Red Cross medals was still several weeks away. They were now eligible to apply for a position as a certified nurse, at a full nurse’s pay, but there were only two such positions open at the hospital.
In the meantime, their names appeared on the certified nurse’s schedule rather than the one for the voluntary aides, and they received a small stipend in acknowledgement of their status. Several notices of openings for certified Red Cross nurses were posted next to the schedules in the nurse’s sitting room: two new hospitals opening in Kiev, a hospital train requiring staff, and nurses needed to work in the field hospitals at the front.
As the most junior nurses at the hospital, their duties were little different from what they had been as aides. Natalie first tasted her new responsibilities to the full on the following Sunday, when a surprised looking maid tapped her on the shoulder as she was eating dinner with the Luterek family.
“Excuse me, Miss. There is a telephone call from the hospital, but they say it is for you.”
It was because Doctor Luterek received calls at times from the hospital that the instrument had been purchased and installed to much fanfare. This was the first time that Natalie had received a call on it. She went to the place in the doctor’s study where it hung on the wall, all polished wood and gleaming brass. Carefully she picked up the cone and held it to her ear as she had seen the doctor do.
“Miss Natalie Nowakówna?” asked the operator’s voice, echoing tinnily in the earpiece.
“There is a call for you from the Price Mikhailov Hospital. May I put it through?”
There was a click and the quality of the sound seemed to change slightly, but now she heard the voice of the dispatch nurse in the earpiece instead. “Sister Nowakówna? We have just learned that there is a hospital train arriving in the station at ten o’clock tonight. Can you be at the hospital at that time to help process the wounded as they are brought in from the station?”
Doctor Luterek’s call arrived a few minutes later, and so they were both driven to the hospital in the doctor’s car through the darkened city streets. The voluntary aides were scurrying hither and thither in the wards, making up beds, sterilizing, washing, readying, but now Natalie was among those directing them.
When the ambulances began to arrive from the train station, each one bringing six wounded men on stretchers, Natalie and two other nurses read the tags pinned to the men’s clothing, unwrapped and examined their wounds, and determined which ones went straight to the operating theater where the doctors and senior nurses were performing one surgery after another, which light cases should be re-bandaged and sent straight to the wards, and which to send to the severe cases ward where those too badly wounded to merit immediate attention waited to see if the morning would find them alive and the doctor’s at leisure to treat them.
The procession came steadily all through the night. It was nearing four in the morning when they unloaded the last ambulances and sent the last patients to wherever they would spend their first night. The aides were scrubbing down the operating theater. Natalie took the quiet moment to walk through the severe cases ward.
Many of the men here were unconscious. Their bandages were unchanged since their arrival. This hospital train seemed to have brought more than the usual number of such hopeless cases. Perhaps the field hospitals were overwhelmed or falling back, and had been unable to keep those who needed only a few days care and comfort before the end.
The voice had a rasping, bubbly quality to it. She knew even before she approached him that it must be a chest wound. The man’s chest was indeed swathed in bandages soaked in blood. He coughed. Fluid in the lungs. Blood. Infection. He might have had a good chance of living if he had received proper care immediately in the field hospital, if his lungs had been kept properly drained and his wound had been bound tight enough to begin to heal. But now, with a chest full of fluid and a wound unhealed and exposed to infection by the air hissing through the bandages, it was surprising that he had lasted even so long.
“Sestritsa. Where is this?”
“Kiev. The Prince Mikhailov Hospital.”
“Is this...” He licked lips and his gaze darted from side to side. “Is this the morgue? Is everyone in this room dead?”
“No. No, certainly not. This is the severe cases ward. Many of the men are unconscious, but none of them are dead.” Yet, she added silently. The soldier’s morbid guess was not as far from the truth as she would have liked him to think.
He subsided back into his pillow, his eyelids lowered but not closed. Natalie was about to move on when he spoke again.
“Would you stay with me for a while, Sestritsa?”
Her duties were done for the moment, and she had passed the point of tiredness. A few hours before she had felt as if, should she sit down for the briefest time, exhaustion would take hold and she would be unable to get up again. But now she had pushed beyond tiredness and knew the energy would carry her on until the sun rose in a few hours.
“Of course.” She approached the side of the bed and took his hand.
Yes, whatever field hospital he had passed through must have been hard pressed. The man’s hair was long and dirty. Much of his uniform tunic had been cut away in order to bandage the chest wound, but what remained was grubby and stained. That he had been sent on in this condition made clear either than the field hospital had been in utter crisis, or that it had lost all discipline and sense of order. Tomorrow she would see that his hair was cut and he was washed. If he was alive.
She realized that he had been talking while these thoughts were working through her mind. Perhaps she had not entirely moved beyond tiredness.
“I was a student, you see, Sestritsa. If the novelists told my story, it would begin: ‘Ivan Cyrilich was a student at the university of M, the son of a petty official in the province of K.’ I hoped for the silver medal, that I would be the celebrated professor Ivan Cyrilich…”
His voice did indeed suggest education, though from his appearance she would have assumed that like so many soldiers he was of peasant background.
“I had not thrown the bomb.” He was still talking. It must be agony to talk with that unhealed wound and the fluid in his lungs giving every word a wheezing quality. But he seemed to have a compulsion to tell his story to another person while there was still time that overruled any pain or chance of healing. “I was not a member of the conspiracy. But they suspected that I knew enough. I was expelled. Can you imagine what that is, Sestritsa, in a country such as ours? Expelled from my place, where could I go? I am not a peasant. I am not a worker. I could not enter another university or the civil service. I tried to go to the factories, but the foreman could see that I was not a true proletarian. ‘Who is this tall, ragged fellow?’ he would think. ‘An agitator, that is who. An angry-eyed man with soft hands and hard ideas. We need none of your kind here!’ I found myself cast down to the very lowest point. Living where I could, working when I could, stealing when I could. Feeling my ideas break apart under the crush of poverty. Until the war. Then any man with two hands and two legs could serve the Little Father and be given a greatcoat and a rifle and bread and hot soup every day. But I am still the revolutionary!” His voice rose nearly to a shout, and the bandage on his chest wheezed.
“Quiet,” Natalie ordered. She pressed her hands against the bandaged wound. This sort of exertion would tear open what healing had already occurred, adding more fluid to his chest and making recovery even less likely.
He gasped with the pressure against the wound, turned pale, and his eyes rolled back in his head, eyelids fluttering as he fainted for a moment. Then with a hand that was surprisingly strong, despite the wound and his loss of blood, he pushed her hands away.
“This war, these officers, all this death over so many Polish and Russian acres. It will do what our bombs could not. I am not the only revolutionary. Each time an officer kicks a soldie. Each time a man is whipped. Each time we retreat again over the same fields and villages. There are more of us. One day we’ll turn. One day!”
This last shout caused several of the patients on nearby beds to stir, but at last he subsided. He reached out and took her hand again, and this time his grip was soft. After a little while he began to talk again, but now it was of his childhood, his two older sisters, his mother.
Gradually his voice became quieter, the pauses longer, the horrific wheezing coughs more frequent. Natalie stayed with him until he died, as the pre-dawn light began to glow in the windows.
It was nearly eight in the morning when Natalie at last left the hospital. The winter sun was edging above the horizon, and people crowded on the street cars as they made their way to work. At the Luterek house, Natalie let herself in with her key. All would be quiet. Doctor Luterek too would have been up late, and on days when he was not hurrying to the hospital, the house rose late. Was he back yet?
There were a pair of suitcases in the entry that Natalie nearly tripped over as she went to hang her things. She stood looking at them for a moment. They seemed familiar, but the context was not immediately clear. Then a step sounded.
Borys, trim in his officer’s uniform though his rumpled hair betrayed the overnight train on which he had sat up all night, entered from the dining room.
“What’s happening, Natalie? I managed to find a maid in the kitchen, but no one else is awake.”
She shook her head, which seemed suddenly foggy with the night’s work. “A hospital train came in last night. I’ve been up all night. Doctor Luterek was up most of the night as well, if he isn’t there still.”
“And here I was feeling sorry for myself because there were no seats left on the train and I had spend the night sitting on a fold down in the corridor of the rail car. You must be exhausted.”
She was, and unaccountably her eyes were fogged. She blinked fiercely and looked away from him. Why did tears threaten now when she had been calm all night? But somehow the experiences of the last few hours were now too much to hold in.
“I worked triage, sorting out which men were beyond help while the experienced nurses worked in the surgery helping to save lives. After that I stayed with one of the hopeless cases. He held my hand and told me all about himself. He died as the sun was beginning to come up.”
Blinking did no good. Tears were rolling down her face. She scrubbed them away with the palm of her hand.
She should go upstairs. It was exhaustion which had her talking and crying here in front of Borys. If only she could sleep.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know how tired I was.”
“No. There’s nothing to be sorry for. You are a hero, no less so than Konrad.”
He stepped close, and his arms were around her. It was not a hungry or passionate embrace. She found herself sniffling shamelessly, and he pressed her head against the shoulder of his army coat and patted her back gently.
“It’s all right. Don’t cry. You’re such a brave woman. I only hope that I can be as brave when my time comes.”
For several minutes they stood thus. Neither heard Madame Luterek coming down the stairs or approaching them until she gave a scream which startled them apart.
“You! You whore! Not my other son. Get out! Get out!”
She would have struck Natalie, but startled from her collapse by this sudden onset Natalie stepped away from Borys just in time. He grabbed his mother’s upraised hand, and then it was Madame Luterek who was sobbing on her son’s shoulder, pounding him with her fists and kissing him and crying all at the same time.
Natalie fled upstairs and, locking herself in her room, lay down on the bed, where she found herself too tired and empty to shed fresh tears into her pillow. As she drifted into sleep, however, the words of the dying soldier came back to trouble her mind with endless repetition. “I was expelled. Can you imagine what that is in a country such as ours? Expelled from my place, where could I go?”
Read the next installment.