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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Chapter 3-3

This is the updated Chapter 3-3. 4-23-2019

Near Tarnow, Galicia. May 3rd, 1915.
They had set out late in the day, joining a road already clogged with men and vehicles falling back before the enemy onslaught. Their progress was slow, and the more frustrating for the fact that there were not enough places in the hospital vehicles for everyone to ride. By general consent, Doctor Sergeyev was given a place to lie down in one of the ambulances, the canvas curtains drawn to give him the better chance to sleep.

“He downed the rest of that bottle of vodka before laying down,” Sister Travkin said, as the three nurses walked along the grassy verge of the road to avoid the worst of the mud.

“If that’s what he needed to go straight to sleep, I’d say it’s just the medicine the situation calls for,” said Sister Gorka. “He hasn’t slept a wink since the wounded started to arrive yesterday morning. Thirty hours? The poor man needs his rest.”

“Oh, are you his defender now?” Sister Travkin asked. “This how we get a surgeon who drinks between operations, because there is always some warm hearted woman willing to defend him.”

“We all know that the hospital could be better run,” Natalie said. “More modern methods, better hygiene protocols, proper shifts and enough staff. And of course, no alcohol while on shift. But the fact is, the doctors who would run things that way have chosen to stay in their city houses and city hospitals. When it comes to the people who have chosen to work here, near the front lines, Doctor Sergeyev has given a great deal.”

Slow hour after hour they made their way out of the woods that surrounded the hunting lodge and among the fields of the small villages surrounding Tarnow. With Doctor Sergeyev asleep, and the rest of the divisional command too fractured to provide clear orders, it was fortune that carried them on the road they followed, but it was good fortune nonetheless. Tarnow itself was choked with men and horses and carts, and as the region’s one town of any size, marked clearly on all the enemy maps, it was already under heavy bombardment. They pursued an arcing path which led them north of the town, through outlying villages. Letowice, Biala, Brzoz√≥wka. By evening they were east of the town, and the artillery was nothing more than a rumble on the horizon several miles distant.

It was fully dark when they stopped, at something that could be called a village because there were a dozen peasant huts clustered near the road. The carts and ambulances were drawn up into a circle and the horses hobbled nearby. The orderlies laid out bedrolls on the ground, and the nurses and housekeeping sisters were preparing to lay out their own in the cramped privacy of the canvas covered ambulances when a regimental staff officer arrived and announced that one of the huts has been requisitioned for the women.

The three nurses and Mamushka exchanged glances.

“We really can be quite comfortable in the ambulances. They’re designed to hold several stretchers, so they can just as well be made up as several beds,” Natalie offered.

“Certainly not. The gentlemen of the regiment could not sleep well knowing that ladies were forced to sleep out of doors.”

“It promises to be a fine night,” Sister Travkin offered. “And including the housekeeping sisters there are fourteen of us.”

“Fourteen?” The officer’s young face betrayed shock for a moment. “But surely the housekeeping sisters…” He stopped before uttering the words, “are only servants”, but the meaning was clear enough.

“We all shared the same quarters at the field hospital,” Natalie said.

“Of course, of course. Well it will be no trouble at all. We shall provide two huts. Please. Do not think of sleeping outdoors.”

There was nothing to do but accept, though when they were led to the low structures with their walls of rough-hewn logs and their roofs of thatched straw, they wondered if this courtesy did not leave them worse off than they would have been under the clean canvas of the ambulances or in the open air.

The air in the hut was close and heavy with smoke. The huge brick and plaster stove which stood against one wall -- so large that in the winter the family bed was made up on top of it -- clearly did not draw well. The living area was a single room, the only other being a lean-to shed normally used for storage into which the peasant family had been pushed for the night by the officers requisitioning the hut.

“I’m so sorry. We did not mean to force you from your house,” Sister Gorka told the family, which consisted of two old women, the farmwife, and three small children.

“No. No. We are honored. Much better you ladies than army officers,” the farmwife assured them, her Polish a dialect which Natalie could understand only with difficulty.

The nurses laid out their blankets on the floor. The beaten earth of the hut’s floor was covered with a layer of straw, which crackled and gave off its smell of summers gone by.

She told herself it was the same as lying down in a grassy field, but in the dim light and close atmosphere of the hut, every little sound brought thoughts of fleas, mice, or other pests.

It was foolish to be frightened of a home which was doubtless little different from that in which her mother’s family had lived. Yet even knowing that she came of peasant stock, this was a world away from the convent of her girlhood, or the Luterek’s home Kiev. Even the field hospital, where the women’s quarters had been a converted stable, had offered a wooden floor covered by rugs scavenged from the hunting lodge.

Yet for all the alien surroundings, she had walked her share of miles that day and slept little enough the night before. Soon she drifted off to sleep, and thus rested until the half light of pre-dawn, when the first of the German heavy artillery shells screamed into the village.

The mission of the field hospital was to provide medical care just behind the front lines. A man might reach their operating table within two hours of being wounded. They were well used to dealing with the immediate effects of battle. And yet battle itself, and the habits for survival that came with it, had not visited the hospital before. They were now encamped with a regiment of soldiers, not set back from the front in a clearly marked medical station. And while the soldiers had, out of habit formed by six months service on the front lines, dug slit trenches or fox holes in case they came under artillery bombardment, no one had thought to tell the hospital staff to do the same.

The first explosion ripped natalie from an exhausted, dreamless sleep. For an instant her surroundings were unfamiliar. Dim light filtering through doors and windows illuminated the smoke-grimed interior of the hut. The strangeness was like waking to another dream. Then she recalled the night before and the peasant women whose hut they were sleeping in.

A second shell exploded. The loudness was beyond anything she had heard before and instantly set her ears ringing. A third explosion went off. She could feel in through the ground on which she lay and though the very air which reverberated right down into her chest.

She had never been trained in what to do under artillery bombardment, but there were deep human instincts which provided the answer. Just as a rabbit knows to seek its hole and a fox to retreat to its den, she knew with desperate urgency that she must seek some kind of cover. At first she grabbed what ineffective protection she had and pulled her woolen blanket over her head, her body working against the floor as if to dig into the sheltering ground by sheer desperation.

As the explosions continued to shake the ground below her and the air above, some remaining scrap of reason told her that the security offered by the blanket was an illusion. She pulled back the blanket enough to look around. She saw Mamushka crouched under the heavy wooden table, whether through presence of mind or simple because that was where she had found room to lay down. She crawled over to the other woman and joined her in the table’s shelter. There was little room, and she crowded against Mamushka, taking comfort in the warmth of another body, secure against hers. With each shell’s impact, she could feel Mamushka’s body convulse, and she knew that she likewise must be trembling with the shock of each explosion. She could see dust and debris sifting down from the thatched roof with each shell burst, and the smell of smoke began to scorch at her nostrils.

The noise and concussion of the explosions had dulled Natalie’s senses enough that reasoned thought became possible again, and now a new fear gripped her. If the sounds themselves were terrifying, the fact that she could hear a shell explode outside the house meant that it had already missed them. If a shell were to hit the house itself, she would be crushed or burned or torn apart before the sound even came to her. Now even the silence between the explosions could be no relief. Death and maiming would come out of the silence, with no warning. The sounds, so brutally battering at all her senses, were taunting reminder: Not this time. But perhaps the next will be for you.

But her time never came.

At last the bombardment ceased. The silence stretched on and on. Both women were tensed in anticipation for the next explosion, but none came. At last, after what seemed a very long time, they crawled out from under the table and began to look around. This house was undamaged, but from the shouts they could hear from outside it was clear that not all had been so fortunate. The only clear words were, “Stretchers! Stretchers!”

Natalie crawled out from under the table. Sister Gorka was huddled against the solidity of the brick oven, her blanket pulled over her head. Sister Travkin was sitting, hugging her knees to her chest, her shoulders shaking. From the lean-to where the peasants on whom they had been quartered had spend the night, she could hear quiet sobbing. She must help the wounded outside. She pulled herself to her feet. One step and her legs gave way, muscles trembling. Putting out her hands she caught herself on all fours, gasping out fear and tension on the straw that covered the floor.

“Any wounded here?”

A sergeant was standing in the doorway of the hut, peering into the dim interior. His tone was oddly calm after the cataclysm they had just gone through. Natalie had seen experienced front line soldiers turn away at seeing her unwrap and clean the wound of a comrade they had brought into the field hospital. Just as she had become able to look at all kinds of wounds without her stomach turning, perhaps some who had been on the front lines for a time had learned to go back to their activities calmly as soon as the shells stopped falling.

“No. We are all well,” she told him, getting slowly back to her feet.

“Good.” He stepped further into the hut and looked around. “You must be the nurses from the field hospital. We have wounded, if you can help. The headquarters was hit.”

If she had no experience as a soldier under fire she had much as a nurse faced with casualties. “We’ll be there immediately.”

The regimental staff had taken a larger hut, slightly set apart from the others in the village, as their headquarters. This clearly had been the target of the artillery barrage. It was reduced to a smoking ruin. Most of its occupants had managed to reach shelter in a slit trench dug outside, but even among these there were shrapnel wounds and several who were otherwise untouched were bleeding from split eardrums.

They began the familiar work of sorting the wounded into triage groups. One of the field hospital orderlies appeared as Natalie was directing soldiers to lay out the bodies -- living and dead -- they were pulling from the wreckage of the hut itself.

“Open some of the crates on our carts,” she told him. “We need bandages, antiseptic powder, and water. Get Doctor Sergeyev. He’s needed.”

The orderly shook his head. “The doctor needs you, Sister. The hut he was sleeping in was hit.”

She left Sister Travkin in charge of the headquarters casualties and followed the orderly to the hut which the surgeon had shared with a group of junior officers. A single shell had come in high, hitting the ridge pole and exploding. A section of that ridge pole now pinned Doctor Sergeyev’s left arm and shoulder against the ground. One of the officers was pinned by the leg. Several others had shrapnel wounds. The hut’s inhabitants -- a young peasant man, two small children, and his heavily pregnant wife -- were picking through the ruins for what of their possessions could be saved.

Doctor Sergeyev bit back a scream as soldiers levered the heavy beam off him.

The arm was an ugly sight. Blood soaked the white linen undershirt in which the doctor had been sleeping. She could see the upper arm was fractured in at least one place, the shoulder dislocated, the collarbone broken. Even if there had been another doctor to set the bones, it would be months before Doctor Sergeyev was able to use it for the fine work of surgery again.

“It would be my arm,” he said, attempting something like a smile. “And this officer here gets his leg crushed. I could have operated with a splinted leg all day long, but he won’t be riding a horse any time soon, and I won’t be doing surgery. No. It’ll be back to Moscow and my wife.”

“Your wife?” Had Sister Usenko known that he was married? Surely she wouldn’t have had anything to do with him if she had. Would she?

“My wife. You don’t think I’d be out here if it weren’t for my loving Countess at home, do you? Never marry for money. That’s my advice to you. Now would you look in my coat pocket over there and see if my bottle survived? I could use a drink.”

Natalie fetched the bottle and left Doctor Sergeyev dosing himself. He would need something to dull the pain on the jouncing ambulance ride to the next train station, where they could send him and the other wounded off.

Back by the headquarters hut Sister Travkin had finished organizing the wounded. The colonel had escaped untouched, but more than half the regiment’s staff officers were killed or wounded.

“Where’s your doctor?” he demanded.

“Wounded. A broken shoulder and left arm. I’ve just seen to him.”

The officer gave an angry swish of his walking stick but bit back any exclamation in the presence of the nurses, the curled tips of his mustache quivering with the effort. “Well. There it is, I suppose.” The tip of his tongue darted out, captured the curled end of his mustache, and pulled it in where he nibbled at it thoughtfully for a moment. Then, seeing Natalie’s eyes on him, he turned away and smoothed it back into place. “There’s no telling how long it is until the medical corps sends us a new surgeon in all this madness. The whole southern front is falling back. Will you ladies consent to remain with the regiment and continue operating the hospital in whatever limited fashion you can without a doctor until that time?”

Natalie looked over to Sister Travkin and Sister Gorka. A nod. A shrug.

By chance or temperament she had become their spokesman. “Of course, sir.”

“Good, then. Right.” The colonel looked around, spotted a young lieutenant, and waved him over. “These ladies and their field hospital will be attached to the regimental staff until further notice. See that they have anything they need, and send a request to the medical corps for a new surgeon to take command.” With a nod of dismissal the colonel turned away and on to his next concern. “Sergeant! Have you found any trace of the peasants from that headquarters house? No? I tell you, they must have betrayed us to the Austrians. These Poles aren’t to be trusted. How could the enemy have targeted us so precisely if they didn’t have news from the village?”

The colonel’s mind was firmly on other topics. Natalie turned to the lieutenant.

“We’ll need transport for all the wounded. Some we can take in our ambulances, but they’re also carrying all the hospital’s equipment.”

The lieutenant nodded, looking quickly around as if he expected to see the needed carts standing nearby somewhere. “How many will you need?”

Natalie looked around the area where Sister Gorka and Sister Travkin were still working on the triage cases. This one would be able to walk. That one would likely die within hours. That one over there would need to be transported. With a practiced eye she made a talley. “Four carts.”

“Four carts,” he repeated back. “I’ll speak to the supply officers, but it’s not as if any of the carts are empty.”

She shrugged. “Yet we have to move the wounded. You can’t abandon them.” As soon as she said the words she recalled the men they had in fact abandoned when they evacuated the hospital -- the men who had cried out or had plucked at her skirts as she passed, knowing they were being left behind. She pushed the memory away. There was nothing she could do for those patients, but for these it was essential that they get carts. “We’ll only need the carts as far as the next time we cross the rail lines,” she offered. “If you have to leave cargo behind temporarily, you could come back for it after getting the wounded on a train.”

In the end a compromise was found. The baggage train contained a huge number of hay wagons, carrying the fodder necessary to keep the horses for the officers, cavalry, and the wagons themselves fed during the march. The wounded were laid out on top of hay bales or grain sacks, and by noon the regimental column was ready to resume motion.

The road was already jammed with slowly moving carts and men -- supply officers shouting and waving as they attempted to bring some order to the chaos -- when Natalie hurried back to the peasant hut were she and the other nurses had spent the night.

She had wanted only to make sure that the housekeeping sisters had collected all their things, and hoped as well to thank the peasant women who had been their unwilling hosts for the night. She found the peasant women arguing loudly with a group of soldiers who were using pitchforks to pull down the thatched roof of the hut. Seeing Natalie the peasant women rushed to her, talking over each other in their strange dialect of Polish.

Once she had untangled their anxious questions, Natalie turned to the soldiers. “They don’t understand. Why are you destroying their house?”

Several shrugs. “Orders, Sestritsa,” one of them said at last.

Natalie saw an officer passing by and approached him. “What are these men doing? They say they have orders to pull the house down.”

“Oh no, they’re just pulling down the outer wet layers of straw,” the officer assured her. “Then they will burn it. Much quicker. We won’t delay the regiment by pulling down all the houses.”

“But why? These people gave us shelter for the night.”

“Orders from the Colonel. Someone in the village went across the lines and brought down artillery fire on the headquarters. These are Galician Poles, not Russian subjects. They can’t be trusted and we can’t be leaving stores and shelter for the Austrians. So all houses and supplies that can’t be carried away are to be burned, and the peasants are to be relocated further into Russia. No men or material for the Russians.”

“But Lieutenant, if you let your men burn these women’s house, they will have nothing.”

The officer shrugged. “What can I do, Sestritsa? If we leave their farm intact, the Austrians will take everything instead. Better we get it over with now and protect Russia.”

Natalie turned to pass on the explanation to the peasant women. One of the older ones began to cry. The farmwife nodded quietly, went into the hut which until now had been her home, brought out Natalie’s bag, and gave it to her. “Thank you, Miss. I’m sure you did all you could for us.”

The calm sadness in her eyes was enough to bring a fog before Natalie’s own vision for a moment. She blinked hard. For this other woman, this was not the tragedy of a moment. A lifetime was entwined with this little village at which they had stopped by chance. A marriage. A family. Whatever lay ahead for this family, it was a life utterly severed from what had come before. In a few days, perhaps a week or two, she and the other nurses would set up a new field hospital in a new location. They would treat their patients as they had before. A new surgeon would come, replacing Doctor Sergeyev whose life was also changed today. But when would this family which had shared their roof with her regain anything like the life they had had before?

“Thank you,” she said, as she accepted the bag. She took what coins she had and offered them to her host, but the farmwife waved them away. There was nothing that she could do. She rejoined the field hospital and their ambulances, now full with wounded including Doctor Sergeyev. Soon the supply officer overseeing the departures granted them a space and waved them onto the road. The nurses walked alongside as the horse drawn carts and ambulances lurched unto the dusty and rutted road. From behind them, columns of smoke began to rise, black against the sky. The village was burning.


Two days later, the regiment’s path crossed the rail line. There was no proper hospital train and even after several hours of working the telegraph the station master was able to provide no news of one. But there was a train heading for Warsaw, and that was at least the right direction. They laid the wounded officers, including Doctor Sergeyev, across the seats of the first class compartments, and for the soldiers they laid wool blankets on the floor of two boxcars.

With the wounded safely on their way to Warsaw, the field hospital’s ambulances were once again empty, aside from equipment and the staff taking turns riding in the shade of the canvas covered vehicles rather than walking in the churned up dust of the marching regiment. With the military patients gone, however, another health crisis, less easily solved, was growing. Each day the number of peasant refugees moving along with the regiment increased and so did hunger and disease among them.

It was not fear of the enemy that drove them on, at least, not if the enemy was the Habsburg Empire. Little though these farmers had considered the doings of empires in their lives, they had spent their days under Austrian rule until the outbreak of war. What drove them deeper and deeper into Russian Poland was the standing order now in effect to destroy all shelter, food, and fodder as the army fell back. If it was impossible as of yet to stop the German and Austrian advance, the Russian army could at least force the enemy to carry all their supplies with them by denying them the value of the land.

However sound the military logic of this policy, it led to cruel scenes every time it was enforced. The peasants’ feelings toward the two warring empires might be ambivalent, but their huts, animals, and fields were all they had. In one village a boy barely in his teens rushed a pair of soldiers who were rounding up his family’s chickens. He succeeded in stabbing one of the soldier’s with a pitchfork before shots rang out. Now the soldier lay, sweating and moaning in one of the horse drawn ambulances. The wound itself had not been severe, but the pitchfork tines, fouled with dirt and manure, perforating the intestines had created the perfect conditions for infection. Under its bandages his stomach was now red and swollen, the three puncture wounds half healed and oozing puss. Each day she changed the bandages, Natalie became more sure that he would not survive.

His young assailant had never reached the hospital. The bullet that had struck the boy had left him thrashing on the ground like a wounded animal. A soldier had put a rifle to his head to finish him off, but a lieutenant had waved him away.

“He attacked one of our men. He’s a traitor. He has to hang.”

That was where the hospital staff saw him: a blood-soaked body gently swaying from a tree branch nearby as they worked to bandage up the wounded soldier.

While there were few incidents of such open violence, the resentment of the refugees was clear, and it was returned with disdain by the officers in particular.

“There is not enough food for the civilians,” Natalie told Lieutenant Popov, the officer whom the colonel had assigned to supervise the field hospital until a new doctor arrived to take formal charge. “Couldn’t the mobile kitchens provide them with bread? We’ve driven them from their own sources of food.”

Lieutenant Popov shrugged. “They have their carts and their animals that clog up the roads. They’re peasants: they always have food hidden away somewhere even as they claim they’re starving.”

“I’m a nurse, sir. They cannot fake the symptoms of starvation, and I tell you that the people who come to me for help are starving. There’s a pregnant woman who can barely walk because what little food she gets is needed for the baby she carries. Her husband pushes her in a hand cart. There are children with dull eyes and sunken cheeks. There are--”

“Please!” Lieutenant Popov waved the examples. “I am sure there are hard cases. Even among their own people, there is greed. They don’t share with each other. Yesterday I caught two of the bakers amusing themselves by throwing scraps of bread to the refugee children. Do you know why they found it so amusing? Because as soon as a piece fell among them the stronger ones would beat and kick at the weaker until they succeeded in taking all the food for themselves. If you wonder why the children and pregnant women are hungry, look to the strong ones.”

Nonetheless when she wrote up the list of food needed for the hospital’s patients that night, Natalie included four extra rations. Mamushka looked at the slip of paper, met Natalie’s eyes, and took the list to the mobile kitchen without a word. The head of the housekeeping sisters was not always comfortable in her reading or writing ability, but names and numbers were well within her power. She had known of Natalie’s deception, and if she had not agreed, she had at least consented.

The regiment stayed the night in another small Galician village. The field hospital was given the wooden church in which to set up for the night. As soon as she entered the building, Natalie could see that the priest must already have evacuated it. There were no candles, no brass or gold-plated candlesticks gleamed. The door of the tabernacle stood empty in the intricately carved wooden altar.

It did not bother the Russian staff. This Polish church was bare of icons and with its westernized statues offered no familiarity to them. But Natalie saw Sister Gorka stop herself as she began to genuflect.

They laid patients out where they could, and Natalie oversaw the changing of bandages on the pitchforked soldier and several others with wounds. Food arrived from the mobile kitchen, and Natalie set aside the extra she had ordered -- two loaves of heavy, brown army ration bread and a tin from which the label had fallen off, but which doubtless contained one of the meat or fish pastes which were staples of ‘iron rations’. Once she had seen to all the patients, she wrapped these items in a hospital sheet which was beginning to fray through near the foot, and took them with her out into the night.

The peasant refugees had formed an encampment a short distance from the regiment’s own. She could see the light of campfires and hear distant shouting and singing. Someone must have found a store of vodka. The sounds of men with drink were instantly recognizable. Drink was one of the few escapes the refugees had from the march. The peasants were as avid in their search for liquor as the soldiers, and because they had themselves once been farmers eager to conceal supplies from passing soldiers, they were considerably more skilled in finding their quarry.

But however understandable their need, the way in which the men looked at her when the bottle had been passed around a few times always made Natalie feel unsafe. She was glad to find the family she was looking for camped much closer than the fire around which the refugees were gathered.

The husband, Vitek, scrambled to his feet as she approached. He pulled his cap from his head and stood working it in his hands. His wife, Eva, lay on a blanket on the ground and did not rise, but while her husband looked down at the ground and did not meet Natalie’s gave, Eva’s tired, dark-rimmed eyes met hers. Her pregnant belly was huge. Surely the baby must come soon. With the rigors of the march and lack of food, her body would soon be consumed by the small life inside her if she did not give birth to it first. Another child, perhaps four years old, all thin arms and legs and big, dark eyes looked up at Natalie from under a grubby kerchief.

“I brought you some food,” Natalie said, unwrapping her bundle and handing it to Vitek. She could see the little girl’s eyes following the food as it was put into her father’s hands.

“Thank you.” The peasant man was still looking down at the ground. “It’s not for me, you understand, Sister. I can wait until we reach a village where there is food for us. But Eva and the little girl…” His voice trailed off. He was turning the bread over in his hands, feeling it, weighing it. Then he shook his head, dismissing the thoughts that momentary revery had offered, and tore off a chunk of bread which he handed to the little girl.

“It’s for all of you,” Natalie said. “You need your strength too. There will be more miles to walk tomorrow.”

She had first noticed the family a week before, because Vitek pushed his pregnant wife and their daughter in a hand cart. Surely he could not do such work all day long without food.

“I’m not a beggar,” he told her, meeting her eyes at last. “I’ve worked my own fields. Now they leave us nothing.” The last word came with bitter emphasis.

She had heard bitterness and anger from patients in the hospital, but seldom so strong as this. Here was another kind of war casualty, not caused by guns and shells.

“I’ll try to bring more tomorrow,” she promised, and Vitek nodded, his eyes respectfully directed towards the ground again.

“Thank you, Sister.”

He used the formal term, not the diminutive Sestritsa which so many of the patients used.

How old was this man who treated her with the deference of social inferiority? How old was Eva, whose sunken, dark-rimmed eyes had met hers with wordless gratitude? Was that woman, already the mother of one child and struggling to bring another into a world turned to chaos by invasion, any older than she? Yet what was she? A year ago, she had been nothing more than the ‘old girl’ at the convent school, responsible for overseeing the young ones and helping with lessons. In a year, her nurse’s training and uniform had turned her into an authority, to soldiers who had borne arms in battle and to this small family which had married, raised children, farmed, and then been driven from their home by the very army she was enlisted to heal.

It was strange to think that her mother had come from a village not much different from theirs. In the world of the village, doubtless they were the more respectable: a married young couple, a farmer and a farmwife. And what had her mother been? An unmarried girl with a bastard child, rejected by her family. But because her father was the count, even though he was unwilling to see her again much less give her his name, she had the education, the clothes, the occupation which caused them to treat her with such respect. She was like these people, and yet a gulf yawned between them, as uncrossable as that between her and her titled father. Both distinctions were absolute, even though unearned.

She had been walking back towards the church turned hospital, paying only enough attention to her surroundings to avoid the patches of underbrush and fallen branches which punctuated the carpet of pine needles between the trees. Now a woman’s scream set her heart pounding in her ears and focused panicked attention on the surrounding shadows between the trees.

A girl, perhaps fifteen, ran out from the shadows. Her long, full skirt and blouse -- a dull cream color set off with edges embroidered in bright colors -- marked her as one of the peasant refugees, but her head was uncovered, revealing a long golden braid. She came up short before Natalie, breathing hard.

“Help me, Sister.”

“How? What is wrong?”

There was a sound of heavy movement in the underbrush. “Come back, bitch.” The voice was deep and ponderous, as if each word had taken work to form. A man, also in peasant clothes, middle aged, heavy, appeared from among the trees. In one hand he gripped a red woman’s headscarf.

Seeing Natalie in her nurse’s uniform, veil, and Red Cross armband, he stopped so suddenly that he lost his footing among the pine needles and staggered, then regained his balance and stood facing her.

He was a head taller than Natalie, with thick arms and huge hands in which the woman’s headscarf looked a foreign object. Her first instinct was to turn and run. What could she do against a man, and one to all appearances thoroughly drunk? Why had the girl appealed to her? Simply because she was there, the way a drowning person grabs at anyone else in the water and pulls them under? No, it must be the same authority of her nurse’s uniform which had caused Vitek to address her formally. In that sense it was no different than the trust which wounded soldiers put in her ability to treat their wounds. And in the moment that all those thoughts passed through her terrified mind, she knew that she must try to help.

“What is all this disorder?” she asked. Despite her effort to project command she could hear a high pitch and tremor in her voice. She took a slow breath. “Must I summon one of the officers?

“She…” The man hesitated, searching for words that would make his case before this unexpected authority. “She ran away.” He finished, looking down at his boots at he spoke.

“Is that her headscarf?” asked Natalie. A nod. “Return it to her.”

He held it out to the girl, who snatched it and retreated behind Natalie.

For a moment they all stood looking at each other. How could she end the encounter? “May I go, Sister?” the man asked.

“Yes. Go.” A phrase which one of the nuns in the convent school had habitually used when resolving cases of discipline suddenly recurred to her. “The matter is closed,” she said.

The peasant man turned and moved off into the forest, pushing through the underbrush with the sound of a large animal. Natalie turned to the girl, who was trying the headscarf tightly over her head, hiding her hair from view again.

“Thank you, Sister. Thank you.” The girl took Natalie’s hands and kissed them, in a gesture that startled Natalie so much that she snatched her hands away before she had time to think whether this would seem rude.

“You’re welcome. Do you have family to go to?”

“Yes, Sister.”

“Can you go back to them?”

The girl nodded. “Thank you.” She bobbed something like a curtsey and ran off.

Natalie turned to walk back to the hospital and staggered. She found her legs shaking and jelly-like. She leaned against a tree and took slow breaths. At least her fear had not betrayed her until the confrontation was over. And yet, with the shaking fear was an unfamiliar uphoria. She had authority. She had faced down a drunken man nearly twice her size, and he had respectfully done as she told him.