To read the novel in start-to-finish order, click the Volume Two link and consult the Table of Contents links at the bottom of the page.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Chapter 18

This is the first of three closing chapters. Here we leave Henri.

In the next chapter, hopefully up by the end of this weekend, we'll see Walter celebrating Christmas in the trenches.

And this brings the novel past 251k words. I hope you enjoy it.



Paris. December 9th, 1914. “And so, how is your war? Are you on leave or is this a business visit?”

Henri kissed his father on both cheeks, then sat down across the cafe table from him. “A business visit of sorts. A few of us front line officers from the regiment were ordered back to the depot to give our reactions to the new infantry tactics manual which the general staff is preparing.”

“And what does that mean to those of us who are not initiates in the military arts?”

This was the problem Henri had suffered from throughout the trip. Looking out the window of the cafe, he could see people hurrying along the gray streets, sheltering under umbrellas from the cold December rain that was falling. A British officer, walking down the street in his khaki uniform, was the only hint that everything was not as it ought to be. Looking at those familiar streets, it was difficult to recall the world of trenches and raiding parties, of artillery barrages and machine gun emplacements, as anything other than a fevered nightmare, a dangerous alternate world into which he was in danger of slipping back at any moment, but one fundamentally apart from the world of Paris.

Paris was the regimental depot, and it was less than three hours by train from the front lines, so it was reasonable enough for the officers to return to Paris to review and discuss the draft of the infantry manual. And yet, once in Paris, the instincts and practices they had honed to stay alive during their stints in the front line seemed a distant and foreign experience. How could they make men here understand what was required there? And yet it was only through this near impossibility that the military project could be accomplished.

“In the Transportation Ministry you have policies and procedure manuals, don’t you?”

“Of course. And memos and circulars and any amount of bird cage lining which appears in my basket at intervals.”

“And yet, for the manager of a train station in a small town, he has to read those circulars carefully before lining his dear parakeet’s cage with them, because only by keeping up with all that paperwork will he know how to do his job in the way that the Ministry is directing, yes? For you, in the offices here in Paris, perhaps it’s all a joke, because you have people at the next desk and at the cafe to talk to about how things should be done. But for someone far out in the provinces, that paperwork may be the only connection he has, and if he did not read it he would not run his station properly and everyone would suffer.”

Etienne dug one of his half-smoked cigar stubs out of a pocket and rolled it between his hands before lighting it. “Point carried. But we’re not speaking of a rural train station, where the station master needs to know the signals and the proper channels to inquire for lost luggage. Surely you’re not going to tell me that soldiers consult a departmental memo in order to determine the best way to plunge a bayonet into the enemy or charge into the cannon’s mouth?”

“No, but contrary to what the newspapers might tell you, we spend very little time plunging bayonets and charging into the mouth of cannons.”

“Yet how else shall we win the war?”

It was impossible to make a civilian understand what happened at the front line. In a sense, he had more in common with the men on the other side -- although they would be happy enough to kill him and bring their own war closer to its conclusion -- than he did with the men and women who sat here in their Paris cafes. And yet, for all the troubles in his family, or perhaps because of them, Henri had never kept secrets from his father. If he did not try to make him understand, he would be allowing the war to take that from him too.

“This war is something new, Father, not merely a war of kings or governments but of races. The German race is meticulous and obedient. The French race is creative and passionate. Throughout our army, an army of over a million men, there are officers and men who know how to win the war. But that plan is all in little pieces. Someone has learned how to design a trench so that when a shell falls in it, the shrapnel is contained and few men are injured. Someone else has found a way for aircraft and artillery and infantry to work together so that the curtain of fire stays just ahead of the attacking line. And yet someone else has learned just the right kind of raiding parties and tactics to break into the enemy lines and turn those little pin pricks in the German wall into gaping rifts.

“All these things are known by someone, but to defeat the gray machine we need to bring them all together, select all of the best ideas, and teach them to everyone so that the Germans are faced not just with the inventions of the company and the regiment opposite them, but all of the creative power of the whole French race. That is when we shall crush them and free our land. And the way to do it is for the army to function as a giant school room, one vast student with a million cells making up its body. That’s the purpose of revising the infantry tactics manual, and the reason they have called back officers from our regiment and many others is to study the ideas they have collected, to learn from them, and to add our own.”

Etienne shifted in his chair, knocked the ash from his cigar, and drew on it steadily until it was fully lit again. It was difficult for him to acknowledge to his son that he had been wrong in anything, no matter how slightly. “Ah, I suppose I see it. Still, I can’t imagine that such classroom study is the whole of it. They say it’s courage and the spirit of the attack that will save us. Whether that’s all patriotic rot I don’t know, but I do think it’s unlikely many men think about a written manual when they’re under fire.”

There was more to than than Henri liked to contemplate. This new manual would doubtless help officers in the next attempt to break the German lines, of which rumor was already abuzz, but only if they had the time to read it and the ability to turn that reading into training exercises. Yet with the constant cycle of duty guarding the four hundred and forty mile long fortress that the front had turned into, there was little time left to give new training to the citizens turned soldiers who cycled through three days in the front line trenches, three days in close reserve, and three days at rest a dozen miles behind the lines.

“You’re right, of course. Changes in command and unit level tactics are easier to implement. But when it comes to training the men, it will take time. We’ll attack again by early spring. Whether we will have learned enough by then…” He shrugged. “Still, I don’t have to go back till tomorrow. Tell me about something other than the war.”

***

The Paris convent of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was a large, shabby old house on a narrow street in the Montmartre, inconspicuous between a massive warehouse on the one side and a seedy former nightclub which had been boarded up when the artistic set abandoned the quarter for the Montparnasse. The last private owner, a lady of strong piety and stronger stubbornness, had held onto the house throughout all the neighborhood’s evolutions, disdaining every offer to buy it and knock it down, like the other houses that had once stood on either side of it, until in her will she left it to the religious order, on the condition that if it were ever sold the money would have to be given to a nearby orphanage instead.

The porter who answered Henri’s knock was an elderly nun, her skin sallow and papery against the snow white of the veil which framed her face.

“I would like to see Sister Emile,” he told her, and was answered with a grave curtsy.

“If you would come into the parlor, Captain.” Civilians might not fully understand military life, but the army must be all pervasive if an elderly nun could identify his rank from his collar tabs.

The parlor was furnished in the heavy formality of thirty years before, gilt wood and heavy upholstery, pieces which had been cherished by their owners even as the smoother lines and natural woods of the new century had left them behind, until they had been left to the convent in wills or given to the sisters by heirs who would never think of furnishing their own homes with such old fashioned styles. Near the center was a round table with several claw footed chairs tucked around it, and pulling one of these out Henri sat down.

“I will tell Sister Emile that you are here,” the porter told him.

As he waited he took out the little envelope over which he had spent so much time and thought. Before the German invasion had come between him and home, writing had been a matter of routine. It might take several days for letters to arrive, and they sometimes stopped briefly, then resumed with two or three letters delivered all at once, but there was always the reassurance that each letter was but one of many. “Little new to report, but of course I miss you,” had been a line he’d written more than once.

How much more difficult to attempt the first letter in three months, and the only letter for who knew how many more, what could very well be a last letter. How could a letter carry all the feelings of tenderness and longing, the things he wished he could confide to her, the times he saw something and filed it away with the thought, “I shall tell Philomene about that tonight,” only to stop himself a moment later?

It was impossible for the two sides of a sheet of paper to carry to Philomene and to the children everything that he wanted to tell them, so much so that several times he had thought of giving up the attempt. But Philomene would treasure a letter, however inadequate, just as he himself carried in his uniform jacket that small bundle of his favorite letters from her, along with the photograph of the children from last Easter. Pascal glowered at the camera, unhappy with how his hair had been combed down, and little Lucie Marie’s face was blurred where she had been turning to look at something in the photographer’s studio when the shutter clicked. Henri had not liked the photograph and suggested that instead of paying for more prints they wait for the next time they took the children to Monsieur Lemartre’s studio, but Philomene had insisted and now that little print would remain with him until he saw them again or until it lay with him in some trench or shell hole for enemy soldiers to find as they rifled through his pockets.

It had been impossible to know what importance that photograph would have for him. If he had somehow known, there was no way to take a picture worthy of that weight of feeling. In the same way, it was asking too much to write a letter worth being the only letter or the last letter. He could only write a letter, and if Philomene received it then what came after would determine its significance and what it would mean to her.

“Forgive me for making you wait, Captain Fournier.” Sister Emile closed the door behind her.

Henri had not heard the quiet opening of the door as he sat amidst his thoughts, and now he hurriedly pushed back his chair and stood as the sister approached him.

“No apology necessary, Sister. I’m grateful for your help. Did your mother superior approve the plan?”

Sister Emile sat and he did likewise.

“She has, but with the provisions I suggested: Only a single sheet. Nothing which could be remotely considered of military significance nor anything so personal that you would not wish it to be seen by others. And though we will send you any reply, we cannot help you send letters often. There are many families who have been separated by the war, and the more often we ask our houses in Bern and Munich to help in forwarding letters to the invaded areas, the more likely that some authority, on either side, will notice and put a stop to it.”

“Of course, of course.” He pushed the envelope across to her. “Here it is. One sheet. Open the envelope if you need to.”

The sister took the envelope and looked at the address, then nodded and slipped it into a pocket somewhere in the folds of her habit. “It will take several weeks for the letter to reach our house in Chateau Ducloux, and several more for any reply to reach us, so you must not expect anything before the middle or end of January.”

“Thank you. And if something has happened to them?”

“You said that your wife knows the sisters of our house in Chateau Ducloux. If anything has happened to the family, I am sure that they will know of it, and they will write to us in response.”

Henri nodded. An artillery shell smashing into the house. Grandpere and Pascal dragged out into the street and shot with the other village men. German soldiers pulling Philomene away from the screaming children into a back room.

Sister Emile reached out a hand and placed it over his. “We are not God, Captain. We cannot know what happens far away, even to those we love, and if we imagine and worry endlessly, we do not help them but only exhaust our own hope.”

“But what else can I do?”

“Pray for them.”

“Isn’t that the same thing?”

“No. When you worry and imagine, you try to reach out your own will to see and help them. You attempt something you cannot do. When you pray, you commend them to God, who knows all things. And once you have put them in God’s hands, trust in Him to watch over your family and turn your own energies to what you can do here and now. Trust.”

Henri smiled and drew his hand back from her grasp. “That sounds impossible. Stop worrying? Stop thinking of my family?”

“No, don’t stop thinking. Think of them every day. But think of them in God’s hands, not yours. It seems hard, but really, it is only accepting reality. They’re beyond your reach except by prayer.”

“Well, I’ll try. You pray for them too, Sister. I expect God listens to you more than to me.”

She laughed. “Who knows.

Henri started to push back his chair, then stopped. “I almost forgot. Can I give this to you in token of my thanks for your help?”

He took another envelope out of his jacket pocket. This one was thick, because it was full of bank notes. Two hundred francs. Most men sent their pay home to support the family they had left behind. There was no way he could get money to his family, but at least this would help the sisters who might be able to get a message to them. And who could tell, it was possible that in Chateau Ducloux the sisters were helping to make sure that Philomene and the children had food on the table despite an absent father.

Sister Emile put the envelope away without opening it. “Thank you. We are, of course, happy to help. There is no fee. But any offering will help us in our work.”

***

Front Line Trench near Laucourt, December 13th, 1914. “Your move.”

Henri was not a strong chess player, though he’d played his share of games in the coffee shop or officer’s mess over the years, but he knew enough to understand that Lieutenant Rejol was in a much stronger position than he. He could take Rejol’s bishop. Indeed, he could do so with such ease that it seemed that there must be some reason not to do so. He stared at the board trying to see what the lieutenant must see, then decided to give himself to his fate and took the piece. Rejol smiled and moved to threaten Henri’s queen.

The chess set had been fashioned by one of the men in second section who in civilian life worked in a machine shop. The pieces were all made from brass cartridge casings, the pawns from pistol rounds and the larger pieces from rifle cartridges, each one carefully crimped, molded and cut into shape. The one side was polished bright, the other soaked in acid until they were a dark brown. Rejol had paid a tidy sum for the set, and the machinist had happily sent the money home to his wife. When the sum paid for the chess set got out, the other officers had ribbed Rejol over his profligacy.

“What can you expect from a priest?” Lieutenant Morel had asked. “He can’t spend it on women, or his god will be after him like a betrayed wife who sees everything.”

But since then Rejol had enjoyed his money’s worth and more by humiliating the other officers by turns.

Henri pulled his queen back from the bishop’s threat, and Rejol promptly rewarded him by taking the queen with his rook.

“Captain.” Sergeant Gobin, commander of the Third Section, which was standing watch out in the dark trenches, was coming down the steps into the dugout. “Tenth company has arrived. Captain Fabre should be here in a few minutes.”

Gobin pulled off his gloves and the big knitted balaclava which covered his head, then stood warming his hands over the oil heater.

“Good luck for me,” Henri said. “You’d better get the set packed up, Rejol.”

Henri pulled on his own great coat on and looped his scarf up to cover his ears as well as his neck.

At the top of the stairs there was stamping on the wooden threshold and hands pulled aside the heavy curtain which hung inside the door to prevent the dugout’s light from spilling into the trench when the door was opened and as well as keeping the cold drafts at bay. Captain Fabre and two of his section commanders came down the stairs, peeling off layers of muddy clothing as they did so.

“How’s the evening?” Henri asked.

“Just warm enough to still be muddy instead of frozen, but quiet enough.”

“Well then, if you’re ready to relieve us?”

They handed off the record book and the other military necessities. Night was the time for making trips in and out of the front line because enemy artillery observers could not see the movement of troops.

By two in the morning all was ready, and the twenty-second company set off. Two hundred and fifty men did not move through the dark quickly, nor did they move entirely silently. As the commander of the first section, Lieutenant Morel led off with the first squad of his section, while Henri stationed himself at the intersection of the front line trench and the much rougher gully which served as a communication trench, and let another squad set off every five minutes. This made departure an agonizing process which lasted an hour and a half, but it reduced the noise and spaced the men out. The Germans had the communication trench targeted and could smother it in shells any time they chose, but if the company followed precautions the enemy listening posts might not realize that a company size force was on the move, and if a stray shell should come arcing over, the men would not be so bunched together as to make a slaughter pen.

This was the maddening aspect of a landscape turned fortress. Field guns had an effective range of nearly five miles. The enemy guns were placed a mile or two behind their front line trenches, but since the German line was only few few hundred yards away from the French, men moving in and out of the front line were easy targets for artillery for two or three miles.

If they pulled back out of range of the German guns, they would leave several miles of territory open for the Germans to seize, and so they manned trenches under the eyes and guns of the enemy, and moved in and out like creatures of the night, pattering down the trenches like so many of the rats which were already moving in to share the underground fortresses with them.

At last Henri was able to set off with the last squad. The communication trench was not deep, and they moved bent over so that they would not present a silhouette against a sky dimly illuminated by the waning crescent moon.

The rainwater that had gathered in the bottom of the trench was near freezing, and in the darkness it was impossible to avoid the puddles. After the first quarter of an hour, Henri felt the water beginning to soak into his boots. The only relief from the feeling of wet socks was the gradually increasing numbness from the cold.

The communication trench stretched back just over a mile, past the point where it intersected with a second trench line, which would in its turn become the front if the first line were ever overrun by an attack. Then the trench became shallower and died away. Here was the second danger area. They were beyond the effective range of sharp shooters and of all but the most ineffective volley fire from machine guns. But they were still very much within the range of artillery. The sections fanned out slightly and moved quickly, still bent low. If their movement was spotted by observers up in one of the stationary balloons that floated above the enemy field gun battery like ghostly moons, shrapnel shells would come raining down. They would not need to be precise to find victims.

Whether it was one of these aerial observers who spotted them in the dim light of the moon, or it was simply bad luck that four in the morning was chosen for a random display of force, Henri heard the distant boom of cannons. By habit he began counting. One, two three, four, five, six, seven seconds. Then there was the scream of a shell coming down and the flash and boom of high explosive detonating a few hundred meters away. He did the math automatically. The cannons were three and a half kilometers away. With the last squad he crouched in a shell hole. fifteen men crammed into a depression three meters across blown open by a 120mm shell. If one of these shells found them, it would hurl bits of broken bodies every which way, but from anything short of a direct hit the hole hid them from the flying debris which could tear off a head or rip a bleeding gash into a man’s body.

Henri was trying to hear the number of guns that were engaged in the barrage. Perhaps two batteries of four guns each. Then there was booming from the other side and the characteristic shriek of 75mm shells flying overhead towards the German lines. Their own batteries had opened up in counter battery fire.

For what seemed an age the infantrymen of twenty-second company cowered against the ground while the artillery on both sides strove back and forth over them. Sometimes the German shells raked over them. Sometimes the French and German batteries shelled each other, the shells screaming back and forth like avenging spirits on their vengeful missions.

At last the night fell quiet again. Henri’s blood pulsed in his ears, a metronome count of the seconds as he lay pressed against the ground in the new silence. A minute. Two. This was not a pause but an actual stop. They had to begin moving again. If it was bad caught in the open like this in darkness, it would be worse once the pre-dawn light made them more visible.

“Come on.”

He urged the squad he was with to their feet, and the men fanned out, moving across the pockmarked landscape towards the relief area. Soon they stumbled across another squad and got them moving as well. Another and another, the movement of one group of men stumbling across others and setting off a building wave of stumbling, scared, exhausted figures moving toward the relief of distance and safety.

It was a dazed but unwounded man from ninth squad, stumbling into the half-ruined farm that served as the reserve headquarters, who first made them aware that the barrage had found victims. Henri sent Lieutenant Morel out with a demi-section to look for casualties, and it was they who found the depression from which the one untouched man had been thrown clear when a shell buried itself amidst the squad and exploded.

Several of the wounded had moved away on their own, seeking help. Others lay where they had fallen. Two had crawled away only far enough to hide themselves among the underbrush and were not found until daylight. But the dead were too easily found. Six men, including Sergeant Gobin. In one unlucky shell burst, the company had suffered more casualties than in all of the last two months. This loss only seemed the more senseless when, while sappers were still digging the six new graves in the expanding field of little wooden crosses behind the reserve headquarters, a cemetery planted where the farm’s kitchen garden had been, orders arrived from the division: After their three days in the reserve line, the company make a day’s march to Montdidier, where they would be on rest and re-training until after the new year.

“How long has that been planned?” Lieutenant Morel demanded. “If they’d got those orders to us a day earlier, we could have gone with a dozen more men.”

Sergeant Carpentier, who had returned to command Fourth Section again after his wounding on the Marne, shrugged. “Or if they’d sent 10th Company first and left us in the line another day or two, perhaps they’d all be alive as well. Blind chance. None of it means anything.”

By sundown, the six low mounds with their wooden crosses were in place behind the farmhouse. Henri told the mess corporal to allow a double wine ration for the night.

“That may help a few men sleep, but it won’t give them any real peace,” Lieutenant Rejol told Henri.

He shrugged. “Do you find anything gives you real peace these days?”

“There should be a funeral.”

There were a few men in the company who went to mass whenever they were in a town or when Rejol found the opportunity to celebrate a field mass, but drawn primarily from among the Paris workers, the regiment was not a very religious one.

“Would the men respect that?” Henri asked. “I don’t think any of the men killed were among your mass goers.”

“Let me send the word around. I think you’ll be surprised. In extremity, a man remembers his God. And even for the hard bitten anti-clericals, I’m not their parish priest living off the tithe tax. I’ve been in the trenches with them. I’ve come to wonder if the Republic did the Church a favor with the draft. Perhaps if we shepherds lived in the sheep pen more often, the sheep would know our voice.”

It was indeed nearly the whole company which gathered early the next morning, among the wooden crosses behind the farmhouse, as Lieutenant Rejol draped a stole over the shoulders of his army great coat and began to say the mass for the dead.

The mass was short. Rejol stood before a table carried out from the farmhouse, and one of the men from First Section knelt at his side, offering the responses as the altar server. Some, like Henri, knelt and stood by turns, recalling the instructions in their missals at home. Most of the men, more unfamiliar with the rite, simply stood, their arms folded against the cold, shifting slowly from foot to foot. But from all there was a respectful silence. Facing them stood rank on rank of wooden crosses, including those marking the six men who the day before had stood watch and waited for their rations and joked with them. Each cross marked a man swallowed up by the earth, a man who had died to free the soil of France, or to protect the family and city he left behind, or simply because the Republic gave him no choice. How many more of them would go on, moving and talking above the ground, and how many would be planted in that soil?

Rejol closed his missal and turned to the men. “When you hear civilians talk, they speak of our sacrifice for France. On unknowing lips it seems an empty word: Sacrifice. It’s a word that paints nobility over suffering, and too often that paint is the paint of ignorance. So let us think about sacrifice.

“The Bible tells us about sacrifice. God asked Abraham for a sacrifice. He asked him to make a sacrifice of Isaac, his only son. Abraham took Isaac on a long march. Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice on his back, never knowing that he was to be the sacrifice. Isaac lay on the altar of sacrifice. His father raised the knife in his hand, but God sent an angel. God said, ‘It is enough. Do not kill your only begotten son.’

“You might think that it was because God loved Isaac that he saved him from the sacrifice. But there is another story. Long afterwards, Christ our Savior hung on the cross in agony, the hand of death was poised above him and he cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’

“God loved his son. But this time God sent no angel. The knife of sacrifice fell, and Christ died for us.

“Now we are on the altar of sacrifice. We are on the cross. We see our father, France, prepared to sacrifice us. We cry out, like Christ. But we must be prepared, if necessary, to sacrifice ourselves, like Christ. To sacrifice ourselves for France.

“We do not want to die. We know that sacrifice is used as an empty word, used by civilians to try to make the deaths they cause meaningful. What does it mean to be a sacrifice? It means staying in place calmly, bravely, so that the other men around us can live, even if the knife falls on us.”

Read the next installment.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Chapter 17-4

This closes out Natalie for Volume One, as we see her get a leg up on her new duties as a Red Cross nurse in a field hospital.

There are three more chapters to go, but they're all single installment chapters so just three more installments to put up: Henri, Walter and Philomene in that order.


Near Tarnow, Galicia. January 10th, 1915. The Tatar driver clucked to his two horses and the horse cart turned back onto the road, where frozen ruts caused the vehicle to bounce viciously. Natalie turned and craned her neck to see Anna. For a moment the other nurse looked after them, then with a last wave she turned and started towards the cluster of buildings and tents which marked the 7th Field Hospital’s second unit.

The wind bit, and Natalie pulled the blankets, still warm from covering both nurses for the last few hours, around her more tightly.

“How long until we reach the first unit?” she asked.

The driver shrugged, but after a moment he answered anyway, “Perhaps an hour if there’s no trouble.” His Russian was strongly accented but understandable.

“What sort of trouble?”

“Shelling. Broken axle. Drunken soldiers.”

If the previous week was any indication, the last of these might be the most likely to appear, though surely they could be little real danger while Natalie sat next to the large, sober Mohammedan with his coiled horsewhip resting across his knees.

When he had arrived at the medical depot that morning to drive Natalie and Anna out to the two field hospital units, Anna had demanded to know why someone had not come to get them sooner, her tone colored with the sense of outraged order which Natalie had become so familiar with over the previous week.

In reply the Tatar had offered his characteristic shrug. “Christmas. All the Christians have been drunk. Now the Austrians attack, so time to sober up maybe.”

It was a strange, drawn out, increasingly lonely Christmas which had dogged Natalie throughout her last days in Kiev and now into her first week in occupied Galicia, a Christmas muddled by the clash and mixture of East and West.

The Lutereks, as Poles and Roman Catholics, celebrated Christmas on December 25th of the Gregorian Calendar, a reform of the ancient Julian Calendar which the pope had introduced in the 16th century and all Western nations had adopted by the middle of the 18th. Not so Mother Russia, which still abided by the calendar introduced by Julius Caesar. Thus when the Lutereks went to the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Nicholas to celebrate mass on the night of Christmas Eve, and the doctor stayed home from the hospital the next day to spend the holiday together with Borys before he left to join his regiment, for their neighbors and the Orthodox Church Christmas was still thirteen days away.

For Natalie too it had been Christmas, but though as a little girl living in the convent school she had often imagined what it would be like to live in a real house with a family on Christmas, now she had slipped quietly up to her room as soon as she got back from Christmas Eve mass, determined to avoid causing any scene by discomforting Madame Luterek as she prepared to send her second son to war. Remembering the joyous shouts and scrambling from bed to bed in the convent school dormitory as the girls came back from Christmas mass and opened the ‘charity bundles’ containing candy, illustrated cards, and little toys piously assembled by the ladies who supported the convent -- the hugs and confidences and best wishes for the coming year scribbled in autograph albums on that night of the year during which the sisters’ tolerance was nearly limitless -- Natalie for the first time in many weeks took the miniature of her mother and her old wooden doll, Lalka, into bed under the pile of blankets which kept her warm in the upstairs bedroom.

In the days leading up to the holiday, she had been waiting for a letter, hoping that perhaps the spirit of the season and the letter she had sent to her father’s lawyer, telling him that she was leaving her work as a governess and joining a field hospital, would inspire her father to write to her himself. Even if it remained true that she could not see him again just one letter, a few sentences written with tenderness, would be a treasure. But no. The letter which had arrived in that morning’s post was a formal one written by a legal clerk, expressing approval for her service to the Motherland and providing a credit draft which she could take to a bank in Kiev to get money for the clothing and equipment she would need.

And so she had spent her first Christmas like many other days: a full shift worked at the hospital and then a meal with Elena at an inexpensive cafe. Remembering her Christmas Eve night, alone, huddled under the blankets with her tokens of family, she had been particularly reluctant to say goodnight to Elena, who had just accepted a certified nurse’s position at a new military hospital on the outskirts of the city, and when the waiter began to make it clear to them that customers with such a paltry bill must cease lingering over their empty plates, the two had gone back to Elena’s little flat to make tea and sit next to the gas heater with blankets around their shoulders.

It had been late when she returned to the Luterek’s, stealing up the stairs in hope of disturbing no one, but Sara had appeared on the landing and drawn her into the nursery for a last goodbye with the three young people, before Borys caught the morning train to the front.

A week later, Natalie had boarded her own train, and had found herself turning misty eyed from the window as she looked out and saw, standing next to Sara and Lena on the platform, Elena waving to her as well. So much had passed since she had arrived in this same train station from Warsaw nearly six months before, a woman with a father at last but still without his name. Often, as on that terrible night in the dacha when she had locked the door of her room and leaned against it shaking, she could have wished that she had never left the convent school in France. There, if she had been lonely and known nothing of her family, she had at least been safe and unafraid. And yet, three people had come to wave goodbye to her after six months, three people who would miss her. And then there was Borys, who in their awkward conversation Christmas night had promised to write to her and always think of her as part of the family.

No one, after all those years, had come to wave goodbye to her as she left France.

She had wanted to wave to them until the last moment and yet also to hide the tears so eager to run down her face. She had found friends, and she was leaving them.

There was a boom like a single thunderclap, and Natalie jumped under her blankets and looked at the driver to see if he was alarmed. His expression was impassive, specs of snow accumulating on his downturned mustache and the big round fur hat he wore.

Of course, they must be near the front. Field hospitals were located five to ten miles behind the lines, safe from direct attack but close enough that the ambulance trucks and wagons could bring wounded men back for treatment quickly. The army medical manual she had studied for her certification stated that they were to treat the lightly wounded and send them back to their units after at most a few days recovery in the field hospital. More serious cases they would give immediate care, cleaning wounds, making emergency surgeries, and then dispatch them to a regional hospital for recovery. Those likely to die within the first few days, they kept and made as comfortable as possible. The duty of the field hospital was to provide immediate treatment, not long term care.

Again she heard the splitting boom, and now she realized that in a lower register, obscured by the rattling and bouncing of the horse cart, there was an intermittent undertone of rumbling, like more distant summer thunder.

“Is that artillery?” she asked, trying to give her voice a tone of light curiosity.

The driver nodded. “They’ve been attacking off and on for a day now. The big ones, those are 120s. Not much left to clean up after those, they say.”

The land around them had the particular drabness of winter. The stubble in the fields was relieved by only the slightest dusting of snow from the flurries that were in the air. The pastures were a dull brown and in places cropped so short by hungry animals as to be little more than frozen mud. And in the swaths of forest between farms, trees reached skeletal branches towards the grey sky. The only relief in the landscape was the scattering of human marks upon it: cottages, haystacks, a church steeple in the distance. Was the land of the front the same as this? Were Austrian shells smashing into haystacks and garden sheds while Russian soldiers struggled to find shelter amid frozen pastures? Were the men living without shelter in this weather? Surely the hospital, at least, would be in some sort of building.

It was indeed. The first unit had set up its hospital in a nobleman’s hunting lodge, a square, two story structure of darkened wood with covered porches that wrapped all around both stories. Across a fenced yard from the lodge itself was a stable nearly as large as the lodge itself.

The road had been passing through woods for the last fifteen minutes before they reached the lodge. Around the two buildings there was a large clearing and filling it nearly to the tree line, scattered everywhere except the fenced yard between the two buildings, were tents, wagons, and piles of crates.

“Women’s quarters are in the stables,” the driver said, halting the horse cart in front of that building. He offered Natalie a hand as she descended, then hoisted her trunk onto his back and led the way into the long, low building.

Though the structure and its straw-covered dirt floor clearly showed the building’s original purpose, the stable was as clean as the efforts of a score of women trained in a medical sanitation could make it. The walls had been painted white. A pair of kerosene heaters blunted the chill of the air.

A woman in the grey wool dress and red cross armband of a housekeeping sister hurried up to them.

“Ildus, is that the new nursing sister’s trunk?” He nodded. “Very good. Take it to her room and put it down. Then check in with the ambulance dispatcher. We’re to expect a busy afternoon.”

She turned to Natalie and held out her hands in greeting.

“My name is Marya, but as I’m the head housekeeping sister and old enough to be everyone’s mother the sisters all call me Mamushka.” Her accent was identifiably less educated than those of the nurses Natalie had worked with in Kiev. Housekeeping sisters were often volunteers without any education. But there was both authority and kindness in her manner, and Natalie could at once see why she was called Mamushka.

She took the older woman’s hands and clasped them tightly. “I’m Sister Nowakówna. Natalie.”

“We’re glad to have you. The medical sisters have been very short handed. Several had to go home after the cholera in the fall and then Sister Litov left us with pneumonia. Let me show you your room.”

The ‘room’ was in fact a stall which had once housed one of the nobleman’s pure bred horses. A hanging blanket formed a door, which Mamushka drew back to show the surprisingly cozy living space. A brightly colored rug covered much of the floor. The wood plank walls had been freshly whitewashed. The cot stood against one wall and her trunk had been set against the opposite, where it could serve as either a table or a seat. A tiny round table of polished wood stood against the narrow back wall, a piece clearly taken from some fine sitting room, and on it was a candle in front of a little icon.

“I hope you like it. We did all we could to make it cozy. We’ve had this same place for almost two months now, which is a mercy when it comes to small comforts.”

“It’s wonderful. Thank you.”

Outside a bell began to clang loudly.

“That will be more ambulances arriving. You’d best get your working uniform on. The hospital is in the main house and they’ll be needing you.”

Mamushka hurried away. Natalie hung her coat and hat on one of the hooks and shivered as she changed into her uniform and veil. Surely it would be warmer in the hospital, and she would be too busy to feel the cold.

The air outside bit through the thick grey wool of her dress as she hurried across to the lodge. Two motorized ambulances had already pulled into the fenced yard, their tail pipes putting out clouds of steam and diesel smell as they idled. Orderlies in bloodstained aprons were unloading the stretchers from their canvas covered backs.

Natalie followed a pair of orderlies as they carried a stretcher up into the lodge. It was warm inside, especially after crossing the freezing yard. Indeed, it was almost stifling. Several big kerosene heaters were going full blast, and the smell of kerosene mixed with the smell of blood.

They had laid the stretchers in rows on the floor of the big main room. From the walls, ranks of antlers and other hunting trophies looked down on the carnage with memories of happier times when it was animals who were shot and carried here, not men.

A nurse was moving among the stretchers, briefly looking at each man and directing the orderlies where to put them. She paused as Natalie came in.

“You’re the new nurse?” The other woman was taller than Natalie and thin, her cheek bones standing out sharply and her eyes sunken, but the hair which could be seen slipping out from under her white veil was black with not a speck of grey.

“Yes. Sister Nowakówna.”

“Sister Travkin. We’re glad to have you. They’ll need your help preparing for surgery.”

She waved in the direction of the hall door and went back to her triage.

Natalie went down the hallway. She could hear screaming and the sounds of struggle ahead. The hallway ended with two open doors, one opening on what had been a dining room, the other on what had been a sitting room. Both were now operating theaters, and in the sitting room a surgeon was removing the leg of a man who had not been put under anesthesia. Though strapped to the table, the patient was bucking and struggling while two orderlies held him down. A nurse handed the doctor tools and irrigated the cut at intervals with antiseptic.

The surgeon put aside his scalpels and picked up a saw. There followed the sound which still always put Natalie’s teeth on edge, this time emphasized by the patient screaming around the rags one of the orderlies had forced into his mouth. At last, after a crescendo, the patient lost consciousness with a final spasm and the surgeon finished his cut in silence. After he had folded and sewed the flesh and skin over the new cut, he turned aside while the nurse dipped her hands in a basin of carbolic solution and began the bandaging.

Where was the aseptic nurse? Were they too short handed for basic precautions against infection? The doctor seemed see nothing wrong with this and left her to it, approaching Natalie instead.

“You’re the new nurse?”

“Yes, Doctor. Sister Nowakówna.”

“Good.” He dried his hands on his already bloody apron, then picked up a dark brown bottle -- the same type used for antiseptics but unlabeled -- and took a swig from it. “Get the second operating theater ready while Sister Usenko finishes that patient. I’ll start the next case as soon as you have it ready.”

Before there was any time for Natalie to reply he left, going down the hall to the main room where Sister Travkin was sorting the patients. Still, he had been clear in his orders, and she knew how to prepare an operating theater. It was strange after the ordered world of the Prince Mikhailov Hospital not to have someone show her how things were done at this new place. Still, it was precisely so that she could act independently that she had been trained.

Nothing had been done yet to prepare the other room. There was still blood on the table. The instruments were dirty. She look looked for the clean cloths. For the sterilizing solution. For the store of clean instruments while these were being sterilized. Nothing. There were only some towels that showed clear signs of having been used to clean up after the previous surgery, and a basin of antiseptic which people had clearly washed their hands in. She opened the cupboards in the sideboard, lifted the lid from every crate, but unless she was to use sterile bandages to clean up or break into the sealed bottles of antiseptic for wound irrigation, there was nothing. The supplies must be stored in some other room, and since she had been rushed into work without being grounded in where things were kept and how things were done here, she did not know.

Two orderlies were carrying the patient from the sitting room operating theater out on a stretcher. She would ask Sister Usenko. Natalie crossed the hallway and found the other nurse washing her hands in the basin of carbolic.

“I’m sorry, Sister. The doctor asked me to prepare the other operating theater, but I don’t know where you keep the clean cloths and sanitizing solution.

Sister Usenko sighed. “You’re just in from a city hospital, aren’t you?”

It sounded like an accusation, though there was no reason why the Prince Mikhailov Hospital should be looked down on, it was one of the best in the province.

“Yes. I just finished my certification.”

“Well we can’t always do things as it says in the textbooks. Part of field work is knowing what you can safely skip and what you can’t. Come, I’ll show you.”

Natalie followed her back into the dining room operating theater. Sister Usenko dipped the used towel in the basin of carbolic and wiped the operating table down with it until the table was visibly clean. Then she began to rinse the surgical instruments in the same basin and lay them back out on the table.

“The attack has been going on for thirty-six hours and we’ve had casualties steadily throughout that time. We’re much more respectful of standard procedures when we’re dealing with our usual trickle of casualties. But there’s never enough of anything except bandages. We must have enough bandages to wrap the whole army up like Egyptian mummies. It’s the one thing every patriotic noblewoman and ladies association sends. Right now it’s carbolic that we’re short of. And chloroform. Cleaning the wounds is the one thing that can’t be stinted at all, so we make do as best we can with the other sanitizing and save all the bottled carbolic for flushing out the wound before bandaging. There, that’s the lot of it. Let’s go pick out the next one.”

The doctor had reappeared in the doorway at that moment, bottle in hand.

“What’s this? Why is Sister Usenko doing your work for you?” he demanded.

“I was just--” Sister Usenko began to answer.

He cut her off. “I asked her. If she’s supposed to be our replacement nurse, I want to know if she can nurse or not.”

Old instincts from the convent school cause Natalie to give a sort of nod and half curtsey at the sound of the raised voice. “Sister Usenko was kindly showing me how things are done here.”

“One of the ways things are done here is two operating theaters at a time. That means nurses have to work, not stand around being angels of the sick room afraid to get their hands dirty. If you can’t clean an operating theater and prepare a patient, at least make yourself useful. Get that leg out of there,” he waved at the room across the hall, “and get the room ready to be used again. Usenko, get the next patient in here and be quick about it.”

He turned and left again, they could hear his footsteps echoing down the corridor. Sister Usenko gave Natalie a tight lipped smiled and followed after.

The leg was lying on the operating table in the sitting room, partly covered by the cut-away remains of the soldier’s uniform. She could see the ragged gash in the outside of the thigh, cutting right down to the bone which was crushed and splintered. The clean black and white lines of the diagrams they had studied during training came to mind, providing a rational distraction from the tortured meat on the table. There were major arteries running through the thigh. How had he survived to reach the field hospital without bleeding to death?

Out in the corridor two orderlies were carrying a new patient into the dining room operating theater. There was no time to stand and think. She had to clear this leg away and prepare the next patient before she caused another explosion of anger from the doctor.

The amputation had been just below the hip, and the man had been a large one. Nothing before this had caused her to think about the size of a leg, nor the difficulty of carrying one which was not attached to a person. She started to pick it up by the undamaged end, still wearing its calf-high leather boot, but it was impossible to get enough leverage. If she carried it crossways in her arms like a piece of firewood, she would not be able to get through the door. At last she hugged it to her chest with both arms and hefted it up.

Struggling under the weight and awkwardness of it she lurched out the door with her burden and down the hallway. A housekeeping sister was coming up the steps into the lodge carrying two steaming buckets of water and a mop tucked under one arm.

“Where do we dispose of the limbs?” Natalie asked her.

“There’s a pit over there.” The sister pointed: across the fenced yard and beyond the tents and parked ambulances.

Natalie nodded and tried to shift the leg into a more comfortable position, but there was no easy way to carry it. When she lifted it higher the hairy skin of the thigh touched her cheek. It was still warm, and something in that caused her to shudder so that it nearly slipped from her grasp.

Why had she come here, to this godforsaken place where the doctor drank between operations and things were not cleaned properly and there was not proper help? She had never had to carry an amputated limb back at the hospital in Kiev. A pit, the housekeeping sister had said. She’d never even had to think at the Prince Mikhailov Hospital about what happened to the limbs that were cut off. They were disposed of properly by the orderlies.

But while she was standing in the doorway of the field hospital with a leg in her arms was not the time to pause and contemplate the deficiencies of the posting. How to get down? She turned and edged down the stairs sideways, holding her burden tight against her and feeling for each step with her foot. At last she gained the ground and started across the fenced yard, but it was the rutted, frozen mud of the yard that at last betrayed her. She put a foot on ice, it slipped, she twisted, and it was only as she was falling that she overcame the instinct to hold onto what she was carrying and managed to put a hand out to catch herself. Her hip hit the ground painfully, but by dropping the leg she at least managed to avoid hitting her head.

For a moment she sucked a knuckle from which she had barked the skin and allowed herself a full serving of self pity, but then the cold of the ground began to bite at her. She struggled to her feet.

“That’s a heavy load, sister. Let me help you.”

It was Ildus the Tatar driver who had brought her from Tarnow. He stooped and picked up the thigh end of the leg. Natalie took it by the foot, and was surprised at how easy it was to carry it between the two of them. They hauled it past the line of tents and the parked ambulance wagons and found the pit: a trench fifteen feet long and five deep, in which other amputated limbs lay jumbled and twisted at obscene angles like a stewpot of the damned. She started to heave the leg in, but Ildus tugged the other way, throwing off her balance.

“Wait, sister! Don’t toss it yet. That’s a good boot.”

She dropped the leg, and he turned it over, braced his foot against the inside of the knee, and pulled the boot off, exposing the foot in its dirty leg wrappings.

“There, see? Lots of wear left in that boot. It’s impossible to get them off once the leg is frozen hard.”

He reached down and rolled the leg over the edge into the pit.

Natalie looked down at it in horrified fascination. “Is there anything else we need to do? Or do we just leave it?”

“Not this time of year. The cold is a blessing, you see? If it were hot, we’d need to shovel lime. And even so it would smell something awful. Cold is much better.”

Back in the hospital she wiped things down as Sister Usenko had shown her, had the next patient brought in, and began to clean and prepare his wound for surgery. Doctor Sergeyev continued to be short with her and to swill from his bottle between each surgery. At last the other doctor, who had been sleeping after doing surgeries all night and through the morning, came back down, and Doctor Sergeyev ascended with careful and deliberate steps, his brown bottle tucked in the crook of his arm, to take his own turn at rest.

It was fully dark when the stream of ambulances ceased. The attack was over.

When they had settled all the patients in their proper places -- officers in the upstairs rooms of the hospital and common soldiers in the tents which surrounded the fenced yard -- the sisters and orderlies went to clean up and gather in the dining tent.

Natalie changed her dress and apron. There was dried blood, brown against the grey wool of her dress, where the amputated leg had rested on her shoulder.

The others were eating. She was hungry, and it was cold standing in her shift and wool stockings, staring dumbly at the bloodstains on her dress. But all of it was suddenly too much, too hopeless, too foreign, too hostile and squalid. She let the soiled clothing fall in a pile on the rug and crawled onto the cot, wrapping herself in the thick blankets laid out for her. It was warm here, and she didn’t have to see anyone, and why, why had she left the only people who cared about her and come to this terrible place?

She had been crying, soundlessly, into her pillow for some minutes when there was a breath of air and a soft step, then a gentle hand that rubbed her back.

“There, there. It’s all right. It won’t always be like this, little one,” said Mamushka. Her soothing tones showed her peasant origins much more clearly than her businesslike talk when they had first met. “Today was a hard day, but God willing tomorrow is another one and won’t be so hard.”

“It’s as if all my training is useless here. I’m no use.”

“That’s the darkness talking. It will look better in the morning. How many could have plunged in as you did today, with Doctor Sergeyev in one of his black moods, and not a word of complaint?”

“I’ll have to learn everything again.” Already the sharp taste of despair was receding, but Mamushka’s comforting felt so good that Natalie wished it would continue. And there was a strange, unfamiliar relief to being able to lay out all her problems and fears, however unreasonably. Perhaps this was almost like having a mother.

“Well, there’s time for that,” said Mamushka. “The war isn’t going anywhere.”


Read the next installment.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Chapter 17-3

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.

“Your name?”

“Natalie.”

“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.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Chapter 17-2

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.

“Yes?”

“There is a call for you from the Price Mikhailov Hospital. May I put it through?”

“Yes.”

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.

“Sestritsa!”

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.

“Natalie?”

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.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Chapter 17-1

It took a week to turn this installment out. My goal is to write two more installments, finishing this chapter, by Monday night next week (which conveniently is a holiday for me.) If I can do that, it's still possible to finish Volume One in January. If not... It's likely to spill into February.

Today's installment returns to Natalie, who is studying to become a Red Cross nurse in Russian Ukraine, despite difficulties both with one of the doctors instructing her and Madame Luterek.

After this chapter, there will be three shorter, one installment chapters to wrap up the volume. Those will take us to the end of 1914. However, keep in mind that this is Volume One of a trilogy. I have the next two volumes planned out, and be assured that there is a clear end. This will not turn into one of those "trilogies" with five and counting volumes. But we have a ways to go. When I close this volume, as preview I'll put up the teaser summary for Volume Two.


Kiev, Russian Ukraine. November 19th, 1914. “Sestritsa, a drink of water.”

The soldier’s face was red and flushed against the white of the pillow case. Natalie pulled back the cuff of her wool dress and pressed the inside of her wrist to his forehead. Hot. Infection was setting in.

“Sestritsa, please!” His voice was hoarse, little more than a whisper.

“I’m sorry.” She took his hand and felt him squeeze back tightly. “It’s still another day until you can have water. I know it feels terrible, but the drip they give you every morning will keep you hydrated.”

This last clearly meant nothing to him. He shook his head and licked already chapped and bleeding lips.

“Water. Please, Sestritsa.”

She felt his forehead again. Yes, very hot. The long ropes of intestine which Doctor Natov had so carefully clamped and stitched at each perforation must still have become infected, and if this soldier was like the others who took infection after such an operation he would likely die within a few days. And yet the instructions were strict: no food or water to be taken for seventy-two hours after the operation to give the intestine time to heal.

The bottles of saline solution would keep his body from dehydrating; it was the lack of something to wet his mouth that was causing his misery. Natalie fetched a few squares of gauze from the bandaging supplies, dipped them in water, and gently wrung them out.

“Here.” She put the little wad of dampened gauze into the soldier’s mouth. “Suck on this. It will help you feel better.”

She sat and held his hand. His mouth and throat were working, drawing what little moisture there was from the gauze.

“I know it’s hard, but try not to lick your lips. It only dries them out more.”

The soldier nodded, continuing to chew and suck on the gauze.

What harm would there be in giving him water if the fever was already setting in? He would feel better now and he would be dead in a few days anyway. But no, she must not allow herself to think that way.

Gradually the soldier subsided and his eyes began to close.

“Let me have it back, soldier. You don’t want to choke on it.”

He turned his head and let the wad of gauze fall from his mouth, then settled back into the pillow. Natalie picked the gauze up and took it to the waste bin, then continued her progress down the line of beds in the enlisted men’s ward. Some needed to use a bedpan. Some needed a drink of water. Some needed to be shifted on their beds to relieve cramps and prevent bedsores. Each man needed some little task for his health or comfort. And all the time she was glancing at the clock, waiting for two-thirty when the time she hoped for and dreaded must come.

The day was divided into sections in the enlisted men’s ward where the Red Cross program was under way. In the morning the nurses-in-training went about their ward duties: cleaning, comforting, feeding, giving medicine, washing, changing dressings. Then, in the afternoon, came the practicum in two-hour shifts. Hers came at two-thirty every afternoon. Under the eyes of Doctor Natov and Sister Levchenko, she had to take her turn practicing the tasks of a fully trained nursing sister. After those two harrowing hours, her final hours of ward work flew by, and she would take a quiet meal with Elena at some cafe or tea shop before attending classroom lectures from eight to ten. Fourteen hours in a day, five days a week, and studying in between.

A hospital train had arrived the night before. The most difficult cases had already been dealt with, but those that remained were deemed ideal for the training of new nurses. When she reported to the surgical room, a meek housekeeping sister was carrying away the bloodied linens from the operating table, and a new soldier was being carried in by two orderlies.

“Sister Nowakówna, are you ready?” the doctor asked.

Natalie nodded.

“All right, process the patient appropriately and explain your actions as you go along. We are here to assist you as needed.”

The soldier’s left leg was a mass of bandages soaked in blood. On his army greatcoat was pinned a tag which she read aloud: “Shrapnel wound to the left leg, including compound fracture.”

She began to unwrap the bandages around his leg. The first part was easy: blood, smell, pus. It was as she got deeper, to the layers of bandage partly stuck to the leg from the several day long journey on the hospital train, that the patient began to moan and struggle.

“Orderly, please hold the patient still,” she directed, forcing her voice to the calm, cool tone which she had learned from Sister Levchenko, a professional voice. The thick-armed orderly gripped the patient’s ankle and thigh and bore his weight down from the other side of the table, keeping the limb still while staying clear of Natalie’s way.

“There’s clearly dirt, gravel and powder residue in the wound,” Natalie said, and the doctor nodded. “Signs of inflammation and discharge. I will begin by irrigating the wound with carbolic solution and removing debris.”

The soldier screamed and the orderly bore down on him, holding the leg still, although Natalie could see the muscle tissue twitch and tremble as she picked and scraped with her tools and then washed antiseptic over the wound.

A month ago her vision might have dimmed or her stomach risen from the smell and appearance of the wound. She would have found it impossible to move when every action provoked screams and shudders from her patient. After she had rushed over to retch in the waste bucket during an operation on a gangrenous foot, Doctor Natov had seemed to take pleasure in saying, “Sister Nowakówna, would you come take a look at this?” whenever some particularly noxious wound was uncovered. But gradually, a familiarity had come, born of the knowledge that without this treatment, the men would die. If she helped a man by shifting him in his bed or getting him a glass of water, she also did so by cleaning his wound and scrubbing or cutting away dirt and putrefaction. Her hands were steady.

“There is clearly infection in some of the flesh, and the exposed end of the bone shows discoloration and discharge from the marrow. The tag was marked by the mobile ambulance three days ago. Given the time the open fracture has gone untreated and the signs of infection in the wound, I would ask the surgeon’s opinion on how to proceed.”

“Why, thank you, sister.” Doctor Natov stepped over and put a hand on her shoulder, giving it a squeeze. “The surgeon will give his opinion.”

His hand lingered on her shoulder for a moment. Natalie wished him to move away, but willed herself to hold still rather than calling attention to it by shrugging off his hand.

Then the interest of the wound took over and he leaned close to the patient instead. “Hand me the bone probe, would you, sister?” He shifted the two halves of the bone slightly, examining the ends. Grateful of the change in attention, she handed him the instrument and he probed at the exposed bone marrow. “All together, the wound is surprisingly healthy. I think that we could remove the infected areas, trim and shape the ends of bone which have been exposed, and quite possibly save the leg. Yes. Sister, prepare a chloroform mask and sedate the patient. I would like to operate immediately now that the wound has been cleaned and exposed.”

Natalie placed a fresh piece of gauze into the mask, measured the chloroform solution to soak it with, and felt her own shoulders relax as well as the soldier’s breathing became more regular and his muscles gradually unclenched.

***

“I was so relieved when I could apply the chloroform and stand back to watch Doctor Natov work,” Natalie told Elena over tea and sandwiches that evening. “I’ve become used to working on wounds and infections and such things in a way I never could have imagined before coming here; but it is the responsibility that leaves me wanting to go away by myself and not speak to anyone afterwards. Giving the orderly his instructions, deciding what to do next, knowing what I should deal with myself without asking the doctor’s opinion. There’s so much that depends on every little thing. That’s what I find hardest.”

Elena laughed. “You must lack my natural imperiousness. ‘A difficult woman,’ that’s what my sister-in-law says of me. But there, I’m sure you’re the nicer for it.”

“But you’re very nice. I’ve seen you taking care of the soldiers. You’re always so kind.”

“Ah, but that’s different. I want to take care of them, so I do it. But you -- you poor, good girl -- you’re taking orders from them. I can see how it hurts you to ever deny them anything.”

“I feel sorry for them. I want to help.”

“With the patients it’s harmless enough, though occasionally what they want isn’t good for them. But I note what you haven’t mentioned: Did Doctor Natov touch you again?”

Natalie folded her arms and looked down at the table. Elena’s angry protectiveness since Natalie had told her of the doctor’s liberties could be as much burden as comfort. “He put his hand on my shoulder for a moment.”

“If you tell him to stop, he will,” Elena said. “When you get that scared rabbit look and say nothing, he’ll think you’re bashfully accepting.”

Easy enough for Elena to say when she was ten years older than the doctor and had never been bothered by him. And when telling people what to do and not to do came naturally to her. Whence came Elena’s confidence that Natalie could tell the doctor to leave her alone and yet still expect to be able to pass the nursing certification in which he taught?

“How can I tell him to stop when he’s in charge?”

“Like every gentleman he’s responsible to propriety. You just have to remind him of it. You mustn’t allow everyone to order you about. Even me. I’m here telling you to do something you find difficult and you’re nodding away and looking guilty just as if you were still a student in that convent under the orders of the sisters. They trained you too well. You’re alway so obedient.”

Natalie laughed. “I wasn’t always so obedient.”

“Oh, tell me about your youthful naughtiness. I’d like to see this Natalie.”

Natalie had made the objection on general principles, not with some particular infraction she was eager to take credit for in mind, and the first things of which she thought, such as lying when asked if she’d taken her bath on Saturday night because it was so cold in the girl’s dormitory that she didn’t want to take off her clothes and run across the stone floor to the metal tub, did not do her any great credit.

“Can’t think of anything?” Elena laughed. “There, what did I say.”

“I can! How about this: One of the older girls told me that it was possible to climb up beyond the choir loft in the chapel, over a gate and further up the spiral stairs, until you got up over the ceiling, under the old Gothic arches. So one night I convinced two other girls to come with me, and we stole a lantern from the groundskeeper’s shed, and climbed up and walked along above the ceiling, scaring each other with ghost stories in the dim light.”

“Do you mean to say that the great crime of your career involved going to a chapel? Ah, child, you’ll never convince me of your wickedness that way.”

“Then watch this. I am taking the last of the tea and the last sandwich.”

Elena grabbed for the sandwich, but Natalie had already reached for it as she spoke and snatched it away to consume with a triumphant bite.

“Now, I see it,” agreed Elena. “You’ve very wicked. All right. As we’ve both now proved our depravity, let us quiz each other for our penance. You will start first, since you have gluttonously stolen the last sandwich, and your task will be: name all the bones in the foot.”

Natalie half closed her eyes and tried to envision the chart which hung in the nursing classroom. “Carcaneus, Talus, Tarsal bones…”

***

The street cars ran less frequently after ten o’clock, and so it was nearly eleven when she returned to the Luterek house. Natalie moved quietly down the entry hall. The house would be asleep by now. She could make herself a cup of tea in the kitchen and then take it up to her room. She had passed today’s review on bones, but on Friday there would be a review on symptoms of infectious diseases.

“Natalie?” Sara had stepped out into the hall, a knit shawl wrapped around her shoulders against the falling evening temperatures which even the house’s modern steam system could not wholly stave off.

“Yes. You’re up late. Is something wrong?”

“A letter from Borys came today and we’re enjoying it again over hot chocolate in the sitting room. Come join us.”

The letters Borys wrote describing his training tended to be both interesting and amusing, and given the rigors of the Red Cross training program, Natalie had not been able to spend much time with the girls of late. But when Sara said ‘we’, did that include Madame Luterek? Though Borys seemed to regard Natalie, with a sort of reverence, as the widow of his older brother, Madame Luterek was easily upset by activities which suggested anything short of complete indifference between her son and Natalie. Still, it was late, and there was a good chance that Madame Luterek had already gone to bed.

Natalie accepted and followed Sara into the sitting room. The room was dim. A single electric lamp was still lit, casting a pool of buttery glow around the loveseat closest to the fireplace. On that seat the girls had constructed an inviting nest out of a pair of afghans, with the pot of hot chocolate sitting on a little table before them.

“I’m so glad,” Lena said. “Come, get in where it’s warm.” She lifted an edge of the banket invitingly and indicated the space next to her on the loveseat. “We hardly see you these days.”

Natalie settled under the blanket, next to Lena, and Sara squeezed in on the other side. There was a moment’s jostling as the three of them packed themselves in tightly, tucked feet up underneath them, and spread the blankets again, but then it began to be cozy despite the encroaching cold of the November evening.

Sara poured Natalie a cup of hot chocolate, and Lena turned back to the first page of the letter and began to read aloud. In Borys’s telling, the process of learning both the geometry which allowed a canon to shell a target on the other side of a hill and the signal codes which allowed spotters to direct the canon’s fire became a series of mishaps enacted by bungling students and overbearing instructors. Scattered through the text were illustrations, some diagrams explaining the geometry of artillery fire, others stick figures acting out the incidents described.

It was as Lena was embarking on a second reading of the letter’s highlights that the door opened and Madame Luterek came in wrapped in a thick quilted dressing gown. She seated herself in a chair opposite them and waited, but Lena’s dramatic reading had fallen silent.

“Well, girls,” Madame Luterek said after the silence had drawn on for several moments. “I see that you had the same instinct as I: to come down and read the letter again before going to sleep.”

“Yes,” said Sara, and Lena got out from the blankets and carried the sheets of writing paper over to her mother.

Madame Luterek tapped the papers into alignment and folded them neatly. “And you, Mademoiselle Nowakówna. You’re up very late.”

“I’m only just back from the hospital, Madame.” Natalie wished desperately that she had refused Sara’s request and hurried directly up to her bed. She had enjoyed her time of closeness with the girls, and also hearing of Borys’s exploits, but to incur in return the anger of Madame Luterek was not a worthwhile exchange. “The girls kindly invited me to have a cup of hot chocolate and listen to the letter.”

“Yes.” Madame Luterek let the word hang in the air for a moment as she looked Natalie slowly up and down. “You certainly seem to be making yourself one of the family.”

“Mother,” said Sara. “Natalie isn’t imposing herself. I asked her to come listen. I know that she cares about Borys too and would like to hear from him.”

Natalie winced as this last, and was not surprised to see the arch smile which it brought to Madame Luterek’s face. “Oh, I am sure that she does. Good night, Mademoiselle Nowakówna. It is time that my girls and I had a little family time together.”

***

If the Luterek house was not always a welcoming place, Natalie did not lack for distractions. Friday marked the culmination of the week: the last practicum session, the last classroom lecture, the last assessment. During the weekend she would have only ward work and study, but today there was little time for musing, comfortable or otherwise.

The initial cases from the hospital train had all been dealt with, and a new train had not yet arrived, but there were complications now from the last two days’ work. The stomach wound case that Natalie had helped the day before was now allowed to drink water, but the infection had set in strongly and he sweated and trembled with fever. Others, who for the first day or two had lain moaning in the semi-stupor of pain after having wounds cleaned and dead tissue cut away, were now rallying and full of fresh demands.

Sister, could you help me sit up? Sister, I’m sorry, a bed pan? Sister, could you help me write a letter home to tell them what’s happened to me? Sister, is there any more food? It’s wonderful to be hungry again.

When these requests had been met, there were linens to change, sponge baths to be given, and bedpans and instruments to sanitize. There was a universality to many of these tasks: women’s work. The folding, cleaning, changing could have taken place in the dormitories at school. Yet when folding linens and making beds at the convent, she could never have imagined these tasks transposed into room after room of battered and broken soldiery.

The morning hours sped by. Then the practicum arrived and she was changing dressings and cleaning wounds under the eyes of Doctor Natov and Sister Levchenko.

The wound she had unwrapped was not healing properly. There were not yet any advanced signs of corruption, but the edges of the flesh were turning a greyish color. She hurried around the surgical table to the tray where instruments were laid out, selecting a retractor and an irrigation bag full of antiseptic. She would pull back the torn edges of the wound and examine them more clearly, then cleanse the wound and seek Doctor Natov’s opinion of whether it should simply be re-wrapped or dying tissue should be removed.

Sister Levchenko cut through Natalie’s internal discourse. “Remember that you are taking the part of the certified nurse. Tell the orderly or aide to fetch things for you so that you need not leave the patient.”

Natalie nodded. She was right of course, but bustling to the table on which things were laid out was so habitual after months as an aid that it was hard to think to ask. “Please hold this bag up and use the tube to irrigate the wound,” she told the young aide, who had stood mutely by, a pained expression on her face after hearing someone corrected.

Yes, with the blood and fluids washed away by antiseptic solution and the retractor to pull back the tattered edges of flesh, she could clearly see that some of the tissue was dying. The question was, should it be removed immediately to prevent it from offering a breeding ground for bacteria, or would it better be left in place while the wound healed itself. She asked Doctor Natov’s opinion, indicating the area with her retractor.

She felt his hand on her shoulder and his body against hers as he leaned in close to see. If Elena was right, this was the moment in which she should speak. Her hesitation felt like a long and painful pause, though it was in fact a time so short that someone not agonizing what to say would not have noticed its passage at all.

“You’ll see more clearly if you step to the side here, Doctor,” she said at last. “If you crowd me like that, I may jostle the patient.”

Instantly she felt Doctor Natov take his hand off her shoulder and move away from her, so quickly indeed that she wondered if to the others in the room he would appear to have jumped back. Motionless, she waited to see if this sudden movement presaged an angry outburst, but the doctor quietly moved to the other side of the patient, leaned forward, and inspected the wound.

“The torn tissue is definitely dying, but I don’t think there are signs of deeper infection. Removing the tissue now will result in renewed inflammation, and it may be difficult to know how much to remove. Keep the wound covered. Irrigate it daily with antiseptic when changing the dressings. Notify me as the first sign of actual gangrene. But unless I am much mistaken I believe that the dying tissue will shrivel away while the rest of the wound heals quite well.”

He turned away from the patient and went to wash his hands in the basin of carbolic solution. “Apply a new dressing and take him back to the ward. I’d like to look at that severe case of trench foot next. Have him brought in. I’ll be back in a few minutes to see how he’s progressing.”

The rest of the practicum passed without incident. Doctor Natov seemed to give her a careful berth but otherwise showed no signs of discomposure.

It was at the end of the day, as Natalie was waiting for Elena in the sitting room, sipping a cup of viciously strong tea drawn from the samovar which had been going all afternoon, that Sister Levchenko entered. She paused when she saw Natalie, as if unsure whether or not to speak, then poured herself a cup of tea as well and sat down next to the younger woman.

“You did well with Doctor Natov today,” Sister Levchenko said after a moment.

Natalie tried to read the older woman’s face, framed by her white nurse’s veil, but it was as calm and expressionless as ever.

“My concern about you, from the beginning, has been whether you have sufficient command to be a nurse. You care deeply about the patients, of course, as we all do. You’re conscientious and hard-working. But in a hospital such as this a certified nurse also carries a responsibility of command. You have to direct the orderlies and aides, and your relationship with the doctors will set the tone for how they and the orderlies treat all the women in the hospital. It’s no place for pretty young things who will meekly accept any familiarity which the doctors try to indulge in. But you handled that very well today. Very tactfully and very professionally. The rest will come. You’ve been fetching things yourself for months now; it will take time to remember that others are here to help you. But I take your conduct this afternoon as a very positive sign, and I hope it is an indicator of things to come.”

Sister Levchenko sipped her tea and fixed Natalie with a steady gaze.

Replies strove with one another. The praise was so unexpected and so welcome, but the standard that she laid out so daunting. Could she do it? Would Sister Levchenko draw close and provide her with advice and encouragement? Did it violate the very tenets of calm and professionalism which the older nurse had outlined to want that kind of nurturing?

There she was, finishing her tea. Natalie must say something before the other nurse was prepared to go.

“Thank you. I’m glad you think I did the right thing.”

Sister Levchenko inclined her head slightly in acknowledgement. She finished her cup of tea.

“I was afraid,” Natalie went on. “That I should not say anything while I was still under evaluation. What if Doctor Natov recommends against my certification? What if he doesn’t like me?”

“Oh, he likes you well enough.” Sister Levchenko gave her something very like a kind of half smile. “And now he respects you a bit more as well. When I was your age, there were doctors in the hospital who would try to push me into a closet and get a good feel, but he’s not that sort, He just likes a pretty face around. He’ll still see that, but he’ll remember that you’re a nurse too.” She pushed back her chair and carried her cup and saucer to the sink. “You’ve begun well, Nowakówna. Continue likewise and things will go well enough with you.”


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