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, July 8, 2017

Chapter 3-2

UPDATE: I've re-structured the original 3-2 installment into multiple installments, and am moving 3-3 into a later chapter. This is the new Chapter 3-2. April 22nd, 2019.

It's been a long, long time. Some of that is because life intervened in various ways. Baby is due any day now. We finished the school year and the kids began their summer activities. We went to a writing conference at Notre Dame. But also, this section came out far longer than usual. It weighs in at 16,296 words, which is about four times the usual length of a section. There's a lot that happens, though, and I hope you'll find it interesting. I'll only add: all the worst things that happen in these novels are based on real events I found in letters, newspapers, or diaries. My imagination can't rival the darkness of the war itself for sheer invention.

Near Tarnow, Galicia. May 1st, 1915. The sound of artillery began on Saturday, as Natalie was changing Lieutenant Bogdanov’s bandages. It rumbled intermittently like a fitful thunderstorm some miles distant.

“Heavy artillery,” said the young officer, offering a tight smile to disguise teeth clenched as she sluiced antiseptic solution over the entry and exit wounds in his upper arm.

It was not a bad wound, the sort of neat example which would be drawn on a diagram for lady medical volunteers. The bone had not been touched. No arteries had been severed. The officer had ridden to the field hospital on horseback looking so pleased with himself that Doctor Sergeyev had greeted him with, “This is no time for social calls, young man. You’ll have to visit our angels of the sick wards later.”

“No, no, doctor, I have a proper calling card,” Bodganov had replied, holding up his right arm with a white linen undershirt tied around it as a bandage.

Four days later and the wound was healing nicely. There were some shreds of tissue that had the grey color of death around the edges of the wound, but this was a normal effect of the harsh antiseptics necessary to prevent infection. There was neither sign nor smell of infection or decay.

“Are we attacking the Austrians?” asked Natalie. The well-born officers all considered themselves amateur strategists, and talking would distract him from the wound cleaning process. It was a given that pain killers not be wasted on something as minor as a bandage change, especially for an officer. Soldiers might succumb to emotion when in pain, but an officer was expected to be in control of his reactions.

Bogdanov laughed. “Not with heavy artillery, Sestritsa. We have perhaps two heavy guns for the whole division. No, what you’re hearing are the patriotic contributions of the firms of Skoda and Krupp.”

“Are they attacking us then?”

“Not by the sound of it. That’s just their gunners getting a little bit of exercise. If it were an actual attack, we’d know it.”

The lieutenant was right. The evening bombardment was only harassing fire as the artillery zeroed in its guns. At six o’clock the next morning, the guns opened up the real barrage, and they did indeed know it.

At first the hospital braced for a rush of wounded men, but none came. The field artillery rumbled on, a constant growl rather than the sound of separate explosions. At nine o’clock, as Natalie began to make her second round of the wards for the morning, a new deeper note was added to the cacophony. The heavy artillery had joined the field guns in the bombardment.

In the officers’ wound ward she found Lieutenant Bogdanov pulling on his tall leather boots in place of his hospital slippers.

“I’m going back to the front,” he said, in answer to her question. “I can get by well enough with this arm, and I can’t leave them alone in this attack.”

“But we’ve had no one come in wounded. Perhaps things aren’t very bad.”

“You’ve had no one come in because that barrage is so constant the men don’t want to leave their holes long enough to take their injured comrades to the rear. And did you hear that just now? Those are the heavy artillery coming in. Their infantry will be attacking soon, and I want to be there when they do.”

Natalie helped Bogdanov to gather this things. If the wounded of a major offensive were soon to be flooding in, there would be no room for someone as close to recovery as he. Outside, he made an awkward attempt at using his left arm to swing into the saddle but came up short. Then instead he gritted his teeth and did it with the right. Then Natalie handed him his bag, which he draped over the saddle in front of him.

“Leave the bandages on, since you won’t have the proper antiseptic for changing them,” she told him. “Keep it clean and dry, and don’t unwrap it for at least another week.”

The lieutenant dipped his head in a sort of bow. “Don’t worry, Sestritsa. If the Austrians don’t manage to get me, I’ll be careful enough that infection doesn’t do the job for them.”

He was not the only one leaving the hospital. Under Doctor Sergeyev’s orders, one group of the ambulance carts set off towards the rail line, bearing away all the patients that could be moved, clearing beds for what was to come. The remaining carts set off in the opposite direction, towards the front in search of wounded who needed to be brought in for treatment. Natalie and the other nurses prepared the operating theaters. The housekeeping sisters scrubbed the floors and walls with antiseptic solution. Doctor Sergeyev paced back and forth on the railed wooden porch which ran the width of the hunting lodge, his eyes always towards the west, waiting for the first sign of the surge of patients which this destruction must bring.

The battle came to the hospital before its victims did. The explosion of the shell sounded like a clap of thunder breaking right overhead, the floor shaking and the windows rattling at the same moment as the boom itself. Natalie saw the steel surgical implements dance on their tray with the vibration. One of the housekeeping sisters screamed, then invoked the saints angrily as she hurried to mop up the bucket of sanitizing solution she had accidentally knocked over.

A second shell exploded, setting the windows rattling and the glass jars and bottles on the shelves clinking.

“Are they trying to destroy the hospital? The monsters!” Sister Travkin was looking out the window at the smoke and dust rising from the newly formed crater near the road, a few hundred meters away.

Natalie ran a last eye over the surgical tools, then laid a sterile cloth over them lest the shelling cause any dust or plaster to sift down upon them.

There was a sound like a train rushing by as a shell passed overhead and then another jarring explosion as it hit to the east of them and on the other side of the road.

“I wonder if they even know the hospital is here. I think they are shelling the road,” said Sister Gorka.

They were indeed. These shells marked the time at which the enemy -- mixed regiments of German and Austrian soldiers under German command -- rushed from their trenches to attack the Russian lines. Following the timetable laid out in advance by the German planners, at the moment for attack the gunners shifted their bombardment back several miles and focused upon roads and train tracks. No Russian reinforcements must be allowed to move forward while the assault troops fell upon the front lines.

Shells do not discriminate in their victims. They were sent to prevent fresh troops from rushing forward, but they also fell upon the wounded soldiers and ambulances trying to get away from the lines. It was, thus, not until more than an hour after the ground assault began that the tide of wounded at last swept into the field hospital.

After the morning of waiting in tense readiness, there was now more work than could possibly done. The last moment when the nurses were together and quiet was when Sister Gorka called them to the window. The shelling and obstacles which had slowed the wounded in their escape had also forced them together. Rather than a scattered straggle of men coming down the road, there came a loose column. Some walked arm in arm supporting each other. Some struggled on alone. Some were carried astride horses or laying on carts. As they moved back down the road they formed a broken, ragged mirror image of the ordered columns which often marched up the road towards the front.

As the men reached the field hospital this loose formation began to scatter. They approached in twos and threes, some hurrying, some half carried.

“Sister Travkin, go out to the courtyard and sort the cases as they come in. Gorka and Nowak√≥wna, you’ll attend the operating theaters,” ordered Doctor Sergeyev. Triage required experience and the willingness to make decisions which might mean life or death. Sister Travkin’s seniority suited her for the duty, and if this meant that she and Doctor Sergeyev would not be given the opportunity for strife, so much the better.

Just a few moments anxious waiting, neatening the surgical implements where they stood on their stainless steel trays, and then two orderlies came in bearing their first case upon a stretcher. Natalie waved them to her operating table. The patient shuddered and moaned through clenched teeth as the orderlies slid him off the stretcher and onto the table.

“Careful. Careful,” Natalie said, but the two were already leaving and she herself was focused entirely on her new charge.

The soldier’s eyes were wide and darted frantically from side to side. “Is it bad, Sestritsa? Will I lose it, Sestritsa? What will become of me? There’s no future for a farmer without a leg.” The words tumbled forth as soon as he was alone with her, the thoughts which had gnawed at him through the long, jouncing, painful ambulance ride from the front let loose now that he found himself in the comforting presence of a woman.

“We’ll do everything that we can. You’ll be all right.” Even as she spoke practiced words of comfort her eyes and her attention were moving over him, taking in the medical details. A card was pinned to the muddy wool of his overcoat. “Left Leg. Wound. Fracture. Blood loss,” it listed in Sister Travkin’s neat hand.

She turned to the leg. The blood and fragments of bone were a familiar sight to her now. What horrified her nurse’s eye was not these but the mud and gravel so liberally mixed in with the shattered flesh. Cleaning the wound enough for Doctor Sergeyev to operate would take time. Why had Sister Travkin not thought of this? Surely there were wounds more urgently in need of help and quicker to clean.

Looking around in frustration she saw that Doctor Sergeyev had already begun to work on the patient in the other operating theater, assisted by Sister Gorka. There was time, then. She gave the soldier an injection of morphine, noting the dosage on the card beneath Sister Travkin’s writing, and then began the process of cutting away the shredded uniform and washing both dirt and blood away from the wound with antiseptic solution.

All other distractions receded as she cleaned the wound, picking out fragments of stone, uniform, and bone with careful forceps. Sister Travkin’s choice to send this man for immediate treatment had been perceptive or fortuitous. Somehow the shell fragment which had shattered bone and laid flesh open had missed the femoral artery by the smallest of margins. With the wound clean she could see it pulsing beneath a thin sheen of tissue. Some small misstep, the breaking of this thin arterial wall never meant to be exposed to the outside world, and the man who was still telling her through his morphine haze about the difficulties facing a disabled peasant would bleed away his life here on the table within minutes.

At last the patient was ready, and Doctor Sergeyev began to work, setting bone, cutting away torn flesh and then stitching closed over the wound what skin remained. Afterwards Natalie wrapped the leg in bandages and splinted it.

Orderlies carried the patient away. A housekeeping sister appeared and scrubbed down the operating table. Then another patient arrived, this one with half his jaw torn away by a piece of shrapnel.

The hours passed uncounted. Patients came and went in an endless cycle. The light in the windows changed and dimmed, but the stream of broken bodies was constant.

Sister Travkin appeared in the operating theater, her apron stained with blood and grime, a mark dried to reddish brown on her forehead where she’d used a bloodied hand to wipe sweat away.

Doctor Sergeyev had just finished suturing a wound. He dipped his hands in the basin of antiseptic, dried them, then reached for his brown medicine bottle and took a swig which he rolled around his mouth as if washing away an unpleasant taste before swallowing.

“Are you finished with triage? No more wounded coming in for now, Sister?”

Travkin shook her head. “They’re still coming. This one,” she nodded to the operating table, “was the thirty-eighth you’ve taken to operate. I have over a hundred sorted and labeled outside. Those are the stretcher cases. I just told those who can walk to move on to the rail line.”

There was silence for a moment. The day gone in operations and still there were twice as many more again needing help. Doctor Sergeyev put his bottle away.

“I came to ask for morphine,” Sister Travkin said. “Some of the cases clearly can’t be treated till tomorrow, and I want to give them some relief.”

Doctor Sergeyev gave permission. Time, personnel, space, even beds -- there were a great many things they were short of, but there was plenty of morphine.

Mamushka stepped forward. “There are more of us housekeeping sisters. I can send a couple of the more experienced ones to help clean wounds and apply bandages to the less severe cases. Then perhaps they could be sent straight on to the trains, or they’d be in a better condition to wait for operation.”

The doctor turned to Sister Travkin as the senior nurse. Cleaning and bandaging was nurse’s work. In normal times the boundary between housekeeping and nursing sisters’ work was strictly observed.

Sister Travkin nodded. “Send them out. I’ll supervise them.” She took her morphine supplies and left.

Natalie and Sister Gorka returned to their own work. The orderlies carried away the patients who had been operated on and brought in new ones. Through the night the cycle continued.

Some time in the small hours of the morning Doctor Sergeyev told Natalie to go to bed.

“But you are still working.” For the last several patients she had felt her fingers becoming clumsy, her vision fogged. She barely knew what words of automatic comfort she offered now as she worked. But how could she leave while so many needed help and while the others still struggled on to provide it.

The doctor shook his head. “I can’t go from one surgery to another any more. Sister Gorka will carry on and I can take a brief rest while she prepares each patient. When you’ve had a few hours rest, you can come back and she’ll sleep.

Natalie was on the point of arguing but exhaustion stilled her tongue. Perhaps it was as well. She organized her operating station one last time, putting everything in its place. Then while the housekeeping sister was still wiping down the operating table with cloths soaked in antiseptic solution, Natalie went out into the cool night air.

From the porch she could see Sister Travkin’s work, the many patients lying in neat rows across the courtyard, each man labeled with a card listing his condition and priority. The moon, a fat but waning gibbous, hung high in the dark sky, the stars around it gradually becoming visible as her eyes adjusted to the light. There were flashes on the horizon to the west, and as she watched them the rumble of far away artillery which had become an accustomed background to the day made itself present once again. There on the front lines more casualties were being created, men who over the following hours would make their way back to the field hospital and pass through their too few hands before being sent on to the rail line and the hospital trains which carried men to general hospitals in far away cities across Russia.

As from a distant time, memories bubbled forth of the rushes at the Prince Mikhailov Hospital in Kiev when a hospital train arrived. How they had scoffed, there in the well ordered wards, at the work of the field hospitals which had left men in soiled uniforms with bandages roughly applied to wounds that were already turning gangrenous. Now she knew all too well the desperation which had led to such work. Perhaps in a hospital in Lvov, Warsaw or Kiev shift nurses would shake their heads at the men Sister Travkin and the housekeeping sisters would label, bandage, and send walking on to the rail line. They would rebandage the men and see them through their surgeries, and when they were done with their shifts -- perhaps a double or triple shift, but still a shift with an end -- they would leave the hospital and talk about their long day over cup of tea and plate of pastries before taking a tram back to some small flat with its soft bed.

Natalie made her way to the converted stable which served as the women’s sleeping quarters. She scrubbed her hands in a water basin, using the harsh brown soap they purchased from the peasants. But even as she rubbed the skin nearly raw the smell of blood still seemed to exhale from every pore when she dried them

Or perhaps it was her uniform she smelled. Looking down she could see the dark stains not only on her apron but on her dark wool nurse’s dress. In her bedroom stall she stripped down to her shift. That at least was unstained, even if the smell of blood and antiseptic still seemed to hang everywhere around her. Tomorrow she could wear her second uniform while this would go in to be boiled in the laundry tubs by the housekeeping sisters.

It seemed mere moments filled with fitful dreams before she awoke to one of the housekeeping sisters shaking her.

“Sister Nowak√≥wna. You’re needed.”

Her body felt leaden as she sat up.

“Here, I brought you some tea.”

“Thank you.” She held the warm cup in her hands and could smell it, strong and sugary. “Is it morning?”

“Just before dawn. Mamushka said she’s sorry you’ve had only four hours but she wants to send Sister Gorka to get some sleep.”

“Are there still more patients coming in?”

“Yes. They just told the orderlies to clear out of their quarters to make more ward space.”

“I’ll be there as soon as I’m dressed.”

The housekeeping sister dropped a slight curtsy and left. Had she been a servant before the war? In this time and place the movement seemed to utterly incongruous.

In the pre-dawn light Natalie found the stable yard and grounds turned into an outdoor receiving ward, with rows of men laid out on the ground with their greatcoats or wool army blankets spread out beneath them. Pairs of housekeeping sisters were moving among them offering sips of water to those who were thirsty.

Sister Travkin was sitting on the stairs leading up to the lodge. Her stained uniform and bloodshot eyes made it clear she had not yet slept.

“Can’t you go get a few hours rest?” Natalie asked.

The other nurse shook her head. “Every little while another group of wounded comes down the road. If they can stay on their feet, I can too. In between, I get to rest my feet a little. Sister Gorka needs rest more than I. They’ve been doing one operation after another. Doctor Sergeyev at least gets to rest during preparation and clean up.”

For a moment they were silent together at the foot of the stairs. Then two soldiers appeared coming down the road, supporting a third between them. Sister Travkin roused herself from where she sat, and Natalie went up into the hospital. She found Sister Gorka preparing a man with a stomach wound for operation. The other nurse’s expression was one of dull exhaustion.

“I can take over,” Natalie said.

Sister Gorka nodded, set aside scissors and forceps, and wiped hands that she could finally allow to tremble on a damp cloth.

“You’ve done well,” said Natalie. “Get some rest.” She put a hand for a moment on Sister Gorka’s shoulder. It was a slight touch, but all that the formality of the operating theater allowed. That formality was a dam. If they allowed themselves the chance to feel, to cry, to comfort, there would be not stopping the flood let loose.

Sister Gorka gave slight nod, teeth biting against lip. “Thank you.”

Natalie too knew the numbness of at last stepping away from the operating table, the tiredness which became absolute only when necessity was no longer there to stave it off. Lying alone in the dark of early morning, in the scant moments before sleep came, she had felt as if she had been drained to the last drop of her humanity. If only there were some comforter to hold her close to give her warmth. But they were the ones who must give out comfort and assurance. There was no one to help them.

Taking up the scissors from the instrument tray where Sister Gorka had laid them down, Natalie resumed the work the other nurse had left off, cutting the mud and blood soaked uniform away from the patient’s wounded stomach.

When the fabric of his tunic was pulled back, and she had sopped up the pooled, dark blood with sterile pads of gauze, she could at least see the wound. Pale fat, red flesh, yellow organ tissue, dark blood. The dirt and fragments were gone. The wound was ready for the doctor.

Before she could call to Doctor Sergeyev she felt an unexpected hand on hers. Looking down the patient’s eyes were on her, his hand gripping her with unexpected strength.

“Will I be all right, Sestritsa?”

The look which met hers pleaded for truth, but it also asked for comfort. Which should she offer? The prospects of a man with a stomach wound were not good.

“Please. I have a wife and daughter. Will I be all right? Will I see them again?”

She placed a hand on his. “We will do everything we can.” Still the eyes seemed to ask the question. “You must be strong. Ask God to help you.” A nod, and whether it was the reassurance or the morphine dose which Sister Gorka’s neat handwriting listed on the patient card pinned to his tunic, his eyes unfocused and his grip loosened.

She waited while Doctor Sergeyev put the chloroform mask over the patient’s face. A brief shudder, a tensing of the muscles, and he breathed more slowly. She moved the soldier’s hand, now a limp piece of flesh, off of hers and set to work, handing the doctor the probe with which he began to prod and search the wound.

So many cases had passed across their operating tables over the last day. It was impossible to feel for all of them. In the exhaustion of the work these man became a leg case, a stomach case, a head case. A bone to set and a skin to stitch. Yet each of these cases was in fact a man possessed of fears and hopes, of family and friends, of a home somewhere across this empire which they both in their different ways served though it was a thing so large, so diffuse, that it was as much an idea as a place. All these hopes and fears and loves which must be somehow sewn back into something like a whole body and sent out to whatever far corner of the world they had come from.

All morning they worked and into the afternoon. Sister Gorka returned from a few hours rest and took over the triage work outside the hospital from Sister Travkin. Doctor Sergeyev refused any offer of rest and continued at the surgery, laying his head down on the spare operating table while Natalie prepared the next patient for him.

As evening approached, the tide of soldiers coming down the road from the direction of the front became heavier, but few of them turned in to the field hospital. At first they came in ones and twos, then clumps of men, some with their packs and rifles, some with nothing but the clothes they wore. Carts rumbled by and officers on horses. Whole companies of soldiers came down the road, not marching as they had in days passed, but shuffling, ambling crowds.

“Do you think we are retreating?” Sister Gorka had been making the rounds, giving water and changing bandages.

Doctor Sergeyev joined her at the window, drying antiseptic solution from his hands after his last surgery. “Perhaps some of the spent units are being pulled from the line and replaced with fresh units.”

“I haven’t seen any units going the other way.”

The doctor shrugged. “This road is choked as it is. The staff must be using other roads to send in fresh troops.”

“If the enemy breaks through, how will we take all the patients to safety?”

“We’d have the ambulances evacuate the patients to the rail line to catch the next hospital train. We’ve been here so long, I’m sure if there’s any risk of a breakthrough they’ll be able to give us plenty of warning.”

When the warning came, however, it was last minute and accidental. A regimental staff captain rode into the hospital yard, looked around in obvious dismay, then demanded of Sister Travkin, who was again taking triage duty, “What are you doing here? The order for all support units to fall back was sent four hours ago.” When Sister Travkin stared mutely at him for a moment, the full meaning of his words not yet penetrating the physical and emotional exhaustion of the last two days, he swung off his horse. “Do you understand me? Surely you don’t intend to give yourselves up to the Germans? Are you alone? Is there other staff here?”

He clattered up the hospital stairs even as Sister Travkin called after him, “We’ve received no orders.”

Natalie heard the sound of riding boots echoing towards them, and instinctively her head turned towards the sound.

“Hold that rib up,” Doctor Sergeyev barked.

She fixed her attention on the wounded man on the operating table and pulled upwards with all her strength on the forceps with which she gripped one of his broken ribs.

“Yes, that’s right. Now don’t move.” The doctor reached his own forceps into the wound cavity which the elevated rib exposed and gripped the piece of shrapnel embedded there.

“You need to leave immediately. All of you.”

“Wait.” Doctor Sergeyev did not look up. He pulled the jagged piece of metal carefully out, trying to avoid cutting the wound channel wider as he did so. For a moment Natalie could see the rising and falling of the lung. Then the wound channel filled with blood. “Gauze pad and apply pressure,” the doctor ordered. “Gently. Don’t re-compress the rib.”

Natalie obeyed. She could feel the blood welling up through her fingers. She added another gauze pad and continued to press it against the wound.

“You must get out immediately or you’ll be overrun. Evacuation orders were sent hours ago.”

Again Natalie felt blood welling up, slick between her fingers. “Doctor, he’s hemorrhaging.”

“More gauze. Press hard, never mind the rib.”

She added another thick wad of gauze and leaned in with all her weight to try to stem the bleeding. The patient was still unconscious from the chloroform. His breathing was slow. Was it slowing further? His chest sank. A long moment. It rose again.

Back in the hospital in Kiev there would have been a nurse assigned to monitor the patient’s blood pressure during an operation like this. She would have called out the two numbers at intervals, allowing all those working on the patient to hear if the Systolic pressure -- the higher number which represented the level when the heart was compressing and pushing blood through the body’s arteries -- began to fall down to the meet the Diastolic pressure, a sure sign that that heart was failing.

Here there were not enough staff to devote someone to tracking blood pressure, nor was there any adrenaline injection available for the doctor to try to restart the heart if it gave out. In Kiev she had even once seen a procedure demonstrated by a visiting doctor from St. Petersburg, where he saved a hemorrhaging patient by transferring blood from one of the orderlies directly into the patient through a set of needles and tubes. Doctor Luterek and the other surgeons had been much impressed, and her army nursing identity card had a neatly hand letter notation at the bottom corner “Donor Blood Type III”, but there were no such procedures here, and the entire staff would be bled white if they attempted to help a fraction of their cases that way. They could only wait, knowing that the patient’s blood was flowing out and unsure if they could stem the hemorrhage in time.

“Doctor!” The officer was standing next to the operating table, shouting.

“I am trying to save a patient, sir!” Doctor Sergeyev said without looking up. “Have the goodness to wait.”

“I am trying to save all of you from becoming German prisoners,” the officer replied. “Do you understand me, sir? You must leave now.”

Natalie’s attention was now on the officer. His uniform was the formal dress style favored by the staff, his riding boots were polished leather. But all of these were grimed with dust and spattered with mud.

“Is it as bad as that?” she asked.

“Goddamn it all!” Doctor Sergeyev was shaking the patient by the shoulders. He put his ear to the soldier’s chest. For a moment all were silent. Natalie did not feel fresh blood soaking through, but neither did she see the patient’s chest rise or fall. She reached out to check his pulse. Nothing.

The three of them looked at each other.

“I hope you’re satisfied with your interruption, sir,” said Doctor Sergeyev, turning away and reaching for his medicine bottle full of spirits.

“I’m here only to assure your safety,” the officer replied, with obvious affront. “If your aim is rather to give yourself up to the advancing enemy…” He left the accusation hanging in the air.

Doctor Sergeyev, leaning against the equipment table, let out a long sigh. “No. You’re right of course. If the army is falling back we must do the same. How quickly can you get us carts and support? My staff is reduced and we’ve spent the last two days overwhelmed. We’ll need far more than just the nurses and orderlies to get all the men loaded properly and evacuated to the rail lines. And then there’s the equipment to pack up.”

The officer shook his head. “You don’t understand. There is no time. There are no carts. There is no help. You must take what you can in a quarter of an hour, in the transportation you already have, and fall back as quickly as you can. I’m only just behind the front line. Very soon, the fighting regiments will be withdrawing along the road. And then soon enough it will come the enemy.”

“But the patients?” asked Natalie.

“There’s nothing to be done for the patients. We’ll have to leave them behind and trust ot the Germans providing them with care.””

“Our equipment,” said Doctor Sergeyev.

“Gather all that you can, but you must hurry. There is no time.”

It was at that moment that Sister Gorka, who had been seeing to the needs of the patients who had already been through surgery, bustled around the corner and into the operating theater. “You’re all very grave. Has something happened?”

“The patient died,” said Natalie, and then she added the words which still seemed wholly unbelievable. “We have to fall back, and there’s no time to load all the patients onto carts and ambulances. We must gather what we can and retreat within fifteen minutes.”

With these words she broke free of the shock which had seemed so paralyzing. Taking up a carton which had held bandages sent by some ladies’ aid society far away, she began to dump surgical tools into it. No matter, at this moment, what was sterile and what was not. They must have tools wherever they set up the hospital again.

Nurses, housekeeping sister, orderlies, and drivers all moved into feverish activity, loading supplies and equipment on the field hospital’s carts and horse drawn ambulances. Equipment, linens, supplies, and personal belongings were assembled.

Patients soon noticed the activity, particularly those -- most of them more lightly injured -- who were laid out on blankets in the open air of the courtyard.

“Where are you going, Sestritsa? What about us? Don’t leave us, Sestritsa!”

Several times she felt a hand plucking at her skirts as she walked past the wounded. She would not lie to them, and so she would not speak. She twitched her skirts away without looking. There was no room for patients as they tried to carry away all that they could of the hospital, nor would they have the facilities to care for patients while on the road.

She could brush past these entreaties with something like a good conscience as she oversaw the loading of the medicines and supplies. These were essential if they were to continue to provide their saving care to other soldiers. Guilt stabbed more deeply as she made one more, hurried trip, this time to the women’s quarters to collect her few possessions. All these men were being left behind, yet she must take her little suitcase of personal possessions?

It was not as simple as that, of course. She could leave her few treasured things behind -- the wooden doll which had been her companion when she left the Polish estate for the school in France, the little framed photograph of her infant self in her dead mother’s arms, the pearls her father the count had given her at their one meeting -- but it would not change the fact that the patients must be left behind. That was a decision beyond her power to change. This was no Tolstoy novel, and she was no Countess Rostova able to save the lives of deserving Russian soldiers by leaving behind her possessions.

The allusion came naturally to mind, and with it the afternoons spent in old Sister Maria-Grigori’s room in the convent school, learning Russian and Polish by reading the old nun’s novels. How fanciful had seemed Tolstoy’s world of battles and retreats and refugees: The Rostovs escaping Moscow, Princess Maria rescued from the French and the rebelling peasants by Nikolai, and at last the great French retreat from Moscow through the wastes of winter.

In some sense it was another world: Fifty years since the novel had been written and a hundred since the French invasion of Russia.

Yet had she not in many ways stepped into the pages of that novel she had read under Sister Maria-Grigori’s tutelage? Here she was, the natural daughter of a count, caught up in a great war that surged across the map of Europe: France, Austria, Prussia, and the Russian empire itself. All the elements sprung to life from the novel’s pages. Somehow, when she had read about such things, they had not seemed so unpredictable and without plan. There were no forces of history here, only chaos, guilt and fear.

The women’s quarters -- the wooden structure built as a stable for thoroughbreds and even that morning still so cozy for the purpose to which they had converted it -- were now in disarray. Some things were taken, others left, and in the process much had been strewn about. As Natalie entered she found Sister Gorka struggling out with her own trunks, not just the usual clothing and personal items but her camera, tripod, and film packed away.

Natalie’s own little area was exactly as she had left it that morning. It was a matter of moments to put all of her possessions back into her suitcase. The cot, the little table, the carpet, the washstand -- some items provided by the medical corps and others scavenged from the house -- these would stay behind for whatever use might come next to this structure. Surely the nobleman who had built the stable for his horses could not have imagined it would someday house nurses. She in turn did not know what use it would be put to next.

As she carried her one piece of luggage out to the line of carts, the first of which were already beginning to roll out of the yard, piled high with the hospital’s equipment, her eyes were drawn to the landmarks of what had been her world for the past four months. The little forest of crosses under which lay too many men whom she had helped to care for and comfort in their last days; the buildings which had housed sisters, orderlies, and patients; the lodge itself which had served nobly over the last half year as a house of healing.

She handed her suitcase to a Tatar driver, who stowed it among the pile of luggage on his cart. There were shouts and orders and soon the bearded man in his long coat and fur hat clucked to the horses and guided the cart out into the road, among the flow of vehicles and retreating soldiers.

Natalie stood looking back at the hospital. There waited hundreds of men, broken and fearful, waiting to see what would come to them next. There were the cots and operating tables there had been no time or space to load, where they had struggled to mend the wounds of war before life ebbed away. There was so much to leave behind at less than an hour’s notice.

She turned to join the stream of hospital staff walking down the road in the wake of the carts and ambulances that carried their possessions. As she did so, she nearly collided with Doctor Sergeyev, who had likewise been looking back at the hunting lodge which for half a year had served as a hospital. There were tears in his eyes which he dashed away with the back of his hand.

“I would never have thought it when I came to this place,” he said. “But some of the best hours of my life have been here. And some of the worst.”

No comments:

Post a Comment