I was sitting here thinking that I might not actually be posting tonight, when I realized that what I really needed to make my story rhythm work was a hard stop between what you see here and the final Natalie scenes. So I am posting, but there will still be one more installment of Chapter 17 to go up in the next day or two.
This makes finishing by the end of the month a little harder, but it's not yet impossible. It's going to be a low sleep and high caffeine couple weeks to see how this goes.
Kiev, Russian Ukraine. December 16th, 1914. “You have received the Red Cross certification?”
Natalie took the certificate from her bag and laid it on the desk. “Yes. I passed the certification exam at the Prince Mikhailov Hospital last week. I’m to formally receive the Red Cross medal on Sunday at the cathedral.”
The greying man in the uniform of the army medical service gave the certificate a cursory glance, but it was Natalie that he was primarily looking at through the round lenses of his wire rimmed spectacles.
“You’re very young, Sister Nowakówna. We are looking primarily for experienced nurses.” In his tone the word ‘experienced’ became an accusation.
“Even before beginning certification, I was working full time as a voluntary aide. I’ve been serving in the hospital since August.”
“And that is admirable, young woman, but it is only four months.”
There was no reply to this. It was indeed four months, but they were months during which all that came before seemed to have receded into a distant past. Could she really have gone through all this and still be inexperienced?
The medical officer shifted in his chair and began another tack. “I wonder if you understand how primitive the conditions at a field hospital can be? This is not a city hospital. Staff are housed in whatever accommodation is available. Sometimes tents.”
“I’m not accustomed to luxury, sir. I am an orphan, brought up in a convent school. And I am prepared to face adversity in order to serve Russia and help care for our wounded soldiers.”
The medical officer gave a sniff and pushed the certificate back towards her.
It was clear that he was dismissing her, but she had to find a way to change his mind. In these last two days the notice that the field hospital units required nurses had changed from an idea, a daunting, distant idea, into a need.
“Doctor Luterek at the Prince Mikhailov Hospital will vouch for me, sir. So will Sister Levchenko. She is the matron in charge of my ward and of the training program.”
He blew out his cheeks and pulled the certificate back towards him again, giving it a second look. “Are you prepared to leave immediately?”
“Yes. Tomorrow if need be.” If she did not have to spend even another week trapped between the protective concern of Borys and the angry accusations of his mother, she would the happier for it.
The officer’s fingers flicked the certificate back towards her. “No, not tomorrow. These things take time, Sister. I must check your references at the Prince Mikhailov Hospital. And if I offer you a position, you will need to assemble your kit. You do realize,” he peered over his glasses at her, “that although you will receive a nurse’s pay from the army you are responsible for acquiring your own kit. The cost is not inconsequential.”
Natalie nodded with more confidence than she felt. “Yes, I understand. Provide me with a list and I will purchase everything that’s needed.” How much would she need? There was the money from the Luterek’s pay, but what that be enough? She must write to her father’s lawyers. That was the clear solution. She would send a telegraph as soon as she left. They would provide the money. Surely they must.
“If you are offered a position, you will receive a list,” the officer told her. He rose and led the way to the door. “Good day, Sister Nowakówna. You will hear from us if you are selected.”
The new Red Cross nurses received their medals at a ceremony in St. Volodymyr's Cathedral on Sunday afternoon.
The Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Nicholas, where Natalie had gone to mass at times with the Luterek’s housekeeper, Mrs. Sowka, would not have looked out of place in Warsaw or indeed in France. Its intricate Gothic towers and solemn stone archwork spoke the same sacred language which Natalie was familiar with from the convent school and little bent Abbe Geroux who whispered the liturgy like a divine secret every morning in the convent’s chapel while the girls said their rosaries in the pews. But St. Nicholas was an imported creature, completed only five years before in accommodation to the Poles and other Westerners which empire brought into the historic seat of Mother Russia’s Orthodoxy. St. Volodymyr too was new built; the massive building with its facade of yellow bricked arches surmounted by gold and blue domes had been finished only thirty years before, and the frescoes and mosaics inside less than twenty. But its neo-Byzantine style was a tribute in stone to the missionaries who had traveled up the Dnieper from the Black Sea a thousand years before to convert the Rus to the Christianity of Constantinople. This was the seat in Kiev of Russia’s state church, and that church would bless the nurses who tended the soldiers wounded in the service of the Tsar.
The ceremony would commission newly certified nurses from other hospitals in or near Kiev in addition to the eleven from the Prince Mikhailov Hospital. The long double line of women -- old, young, and middle-aged -- all wearing the nursing uniform of grey wool dress and white apron, with their heads covered by white nurse’s veils, was led up the center of the cathedral by a bearded deacon in heavy gold vestments, who swung a censer which poured forth a thick smoke of incense.
While being careful to keep in step with the solemn pace of the other sisters, Natalie peered from side to side at the paintings which adorned the pillars, domes, and walls: dim images of saints against glittering gold leaf backgrounds. Where she would have expected to see the altar rail, there was instead a wall, decorated with images of saints, blocking the view of the altar. But looking down on where the altar must be, from the dome above, was a painting of the Mother and Child. Rather than the serene woman in pale blue robes that she was used to, this Madonna was swathed all in black with only the olive skin of her face showing. Her dark eyes looked down on the assembled people. The child, however, was wrapped in white cloth, and threw his arms wide as if in greeting. Or was it in warning? Perhaps the Christ child saw what war would bring to them all and threw out his arms to say, ‘Turn back!’ while the sad-eyed Virgin looked down on them and knew that they would not.
Natalie looked up at them as the nurses knelt on the step facing the iconostasis. The priest, in vestments even more elaborate than the deacon’s, emerged from the door in the iconostasis, and together the two men’s deep voices chanted blessing prayers in Old Slavonic. The words were unintelligible, despite Natalie’s knowledge of Russian and Polish, but the sounds were haunting and utterly different from the organ-accompanied Latin which was familiar to her.
At last the chants were done, and one of the senior matrons brought forward a tray piled with the Red Cross medals. The priest blessed them, making the sign of the cross above them, three times three. Then the priest and deacon began to move down the line of kneeling nurses, stopping before each one. Speaking now in Russian, the priest asked each new sister her name. From some the answer was a murmur to quiet to hear, from others a clear, feminine voice could be heard in contrast to the deep masculine voices which had filled the church. “Vera.” “Nadezhda.” “Karina.” “Elena.” In response to each name the priest intoned a brief prayer. Then he pinned the red cross medal on the white cloth of her apron and held out to her the large crucifix he carried. The nurse kissed the crucifix, and the priest moved on to repeat the process.
Then he was standing in front of her.
“To you, Natalie, child of God, servant of the Most High, is given this sign of faith, of hope, of charity….” The words were in Russian yet after the first moment they seemed to run together and as the priest made the sign of the cross over her three times, it was on the sad eyes of the Virgin, which she could see over the priest’s shoulder, that Natalie’s attention was fixed, and that image brought forward in her mind an association which both warmed and terrified with its solemnity: “Let it be done to me according to your word.”
With a practiced motion the priest reached out and pinned the medal to her apron. Then he held out his crucifix and Natalie leaned forward to press her lips to the cool smoothness of its red enamel and gold surface.
As she left the dim confines of the cathedral, blinking into the afternoon sunlight of another clear, cold day, and faced the din of streetcars, automobiles and horse carts outside, a conviction remained. Whether it was what the sisters in her convent school would have called a vocation, made clear among the icons glittering with gold leaf, the solemn chanting and the pungent scent of incense, or whether the chance to clear her mind of all the fear and doubt of the last few days had simply allowed her the opportunity to make a decision, what was clear was that she was meant to be a nurse. This was not merely a way to escape the periodic outbursts of Madame Luterek or to make a living. Despite all that was sometimes weak or hesitant in herself, this was something in which she had begun to find an inner strength and an ability to give something which many needed and not all had.
She looked down at the splash of red, the Red Cross medal pinned to her white uniform apron, and felt sure that it was a sign of the one small way in which she had been promised a chance to belong, to fill a place in which she was needed by others.
While this conviction was still fresh in her mind Natalie knocked on the door of the doctor’s study as soon as she got back to the Luterek house. Taking an advantage of a rare afternoon to himself, Doctor Luterek had taken out his glass fronted cases of butterflies and, having set up a magnifying glass stand, was sketching in his notebook the pattern on his newest specimen’s wings.
When he saw that it was Natalie who had entered his sanctum, rather than one of his children, he set aside his pencils and folded his hands as he might have in his consulting room. “What can I do for you, Mademoiselle Nowakówna?”
Natalie told him about her application to the field hospitals. “I gave you as a reference, sir. But if you will forgive me, I do not think that the medical officer is likely to actually contact you. He seemed to think that I was too young and inexperienced. I wanted to ask if you would call on him and recommend me to him yourself.”
The doctor pursed his lips and steepled his fingers, as if preparing to give a patient some particularly bad diagnosis. Did he mean to do this, or had the gestures of his profession become so ingrained that they came naturally in times of difficulty?
“Of course they’re right to tell you that work in a front line field hospital is dangerous and exhausting. I hope, that it is not the behavior of my family which has driven you to seek such an escape.”
Perhaps a few days ago his fears might have been mostly true. And even now, the memory of Madame Luterek shouting, ‘You whore! Get out! Get out!’ provided a powerful reason to fulfill her ambitions sooner rather than later. But she could at least now answer honestly, “No. I think this is how I can best serve Russia, and I want to serve.”
The doctor nodded slowly. “Though perhaps our difficulties here mean that you leave with less regret than some.” He sighed, a deep exhalation which had become characteristic with him these last few months. “Still, if it’s what you want, I will certainly do all that I can for you. And I hope that in return you will always think of this as a home you can come back to.”
They both knew that she would not, but Natalie took the sentiment as the expression of goodwill which the doctor intended.
At the hospital the next day, Natalie pulled aside Sister Levchenko and made the same request.
These pleas through channels seemed to have their effect, and in the middle of the following week Natalie received a letter with orders to report to the 7th Field Surgical Hospital, attached to the Russian Third Army, in two weeks time.
Read the next installment.