Authors: Jennifer Vanderbes
When Brilling noticed the uneasy stares of the other patients, he reholstered his pistol. “Men, five miles north of here, forty-three men in our company lie in the cold ground.” He twisted the ring on his finger. “I planted the crosses myself this morning. Forty-three. Men who died fighting for their country, and for you. This
”—the captain kicked Barnaby’s cot—“couldn’t even fire on the enemy. He fired on himself. But when he wakes up, mark my words: If he wants a bullet, we’ll give him a whole goddamned firing squad.”
He spat sharply on Barnaby’s head, and several patients, including the Senator, turned away.
“Captain, step back from that patient.” Mother Hen bore down on Brilling from across the tent, holding her clipboard like a shield.
He studied her lapels. “A silver star, Nurse?”
“Anzio,” said Mother Hen, and the word hung in the air above the patients, some who had been there, many who had lost friends there, and for a moment Brilling was silent. Anzio, Cassino, Salerno—the names conjured up smoky heaps of bone and earth. Brilling and Mother Hen stood face-to-face, and her proximity seemed to unsettle him.
“Then you know how criminal such actions are,” he said.
“War is the criminal. We’re all its victims. We treat everyone, even enemy soldiers, with mercy. Now come.”
The weakened men, limp in their beds, gazed at Mother Hen with dazzled gratitude. In the middle of nowhere, here was a woman who would protect them no matter what gory messes they made of themselves—she was their proxy mother. And while their love for the captain was evident in their faces, it was the love a child has for a stringent father, fearful and irregular.
Juliet heard the slap of tent flaps opening and turned to see Major Decker, followed by a tall, broad-shouldered man. The man carried a black leather bag and stepped awkwardly into the tent. He was unremarkable but for his height; his face was long and plain and pale, the face of a bank teller. He tapped his gold-rimmed glasses into place and offered Juliet his hand. “Dr. Henry Willard. What’s the situation?”
Juliet did not sense the doctor wanted personal impressions. “Captain Brilling came to see Private Barnaby,” she answered simply. “A conflict of sorts has ensued.”
Willard turned to Major Decker. “The attempted suicide, correct?”
As Dr. Willard crossed the ward, Juliet saw that he was not merely awkward in his gait—his right foot seemed to drag slightly against the ground. He approached Mother Hen and Captain Brilling, and the three stood at the far end of the tent beside Barnaby’s bed under the rapt gaze of the entire tent.
“Captain Henry Willard,” the doctor announced. “I’ll be looking after this patient now.”
“Dr. Willard, I know about your work at Monte Cassino.” Mother Hen reverentially pumped his hand. “You’ve done great things for our boys. I’m honored to have you with our hospital.”
“Ah, the fancy
doctor.” Brilling patted the doctor’s shoulder with slow, deliberate condescension. “Well, hypnotize, anesthetize,
take his cowardly pea brain apart and put it back together again. Still, this man will be court-martialed as soon as he’s fit.”
“Captain Brilling, I just traveled a hundred miles over some very unpleasant terrain to determine if my patient was
fit. The mind can bleed, just like the body.”
“Willard, you want to hold this kid and tell him it’s all okay and cradle him close to your psychiatric bosom? Excellent. Then come to a dugout in the deep of night and explain to the four soldiers there, they’re about to get their heads blasted off because their forward scout decided not to do his job. If we don’t stop this kind of idiocy, we will lose this war.”
“I couldn’t agree more. We merely have different strategies for ending what you call idiocy, and what we medical professionals call battle fatigue.” Dr. Willard knelt to open his black bag and then, with a stethoscope in hand, sidestepped in front of the captain. He hooked the rubber-tipped horseshoe into his ears and leaned close to Barnaby, pressing the disk on his chest.
“Alert me as soon as this man can stand trial,” Brilling instructed Mother Hen. “He’s not going to prance around this hospital like it’s some goddamned Hilton; he’s going to division stockade.”
“We’ll keep you fully apprised of Private Barnaby’s recovery, per regulation. Now”—taking Brilling’s elbow, Mother Hen eased him back across the tent—“wouldn’t you like to visit the rest of your men?”
Slowly, one by one, the patients mustered the courage to converse with their formidable leader:
“How are ya, Cap’n?”
“Heard we finally took the town.”
“I swear I’m gonna get right back up there soon as I’m fixed up.”
“Break me outta this cast and I’ll get back in the lines.”
Juliet noticed that as the captain made his way along the beds,
a few men stayed silent. The Senator lifted a magazine and began to read intently.
As Captain Brilling surveyed the men frozen in casts, the men squinting through head bandages, despair washed over his face. He drew his thick hands together as though in prayer—suddenly an entirely different man, Juliet thought, from the one who’d spat on Barnaby. This man looked heroic, and utterly tired.
“Men,” he said. “My brave men.”
By lunch that day, the Officers’ Mess buzzed with the tale of Mother Hen’s row with Captain Brilling.
“If I had to be in a hospital, I’d wanna be one of Mother Hen’s patients,” Glenda said to Juliet across the table. “She’d wrestle a bull to the ground before she’d let anyone touch one of her charges.”
“She really got a silver star at Anzio?” asked Juliet.
“Buried three of her own. Gals just like us. She stayed in the tent with her patients, the ones who couldn’t move, while bombs were dropping, and the tent got blasted.”
Juliet smiled. “Is that true in the way her hitting Captain Brilling with a clipboard is true?” Glenda had been happily embellishing the story with each retelling.
“Oh, sugar. It’s the
of the thing that matters. Sometimes a little embellishment gets the point across better. Ooh, look, that head doctor is coming. Quick. Give me the lowdown.”
“I didn’t notice.”
“Sugar, you oughtta be dishonorably discharged from the nursing sisterhood! Haven’t you heard of
? All the other white coats in this hospital are hitched.
“Well, he’s very tall.”
Glenda impatiently drummed her fingernails on the table.
“They say he’s been running a battle-fatigue hospital near the coast with the Eighth Army,” Juliet offered. “And Mother Hen mentioned his work at Monte Cassino. I think he’s here to study neuropsychotic patients and get them back into battle.”
“Bingo,” she whispered, wiggling her fingers as she peered over Juliet’s shoulder. “No ring.” Glenda did nothing so obvious as powdering her nose or fixing her hair, but as Dr. Willard approached, Glenda’s eyebrows arched with delighted astonishment. “Why, it’s the famous Dr.Willard.” She smiled coyly.
“Good afternoon, ladies.” Dr. Willard paused uncertainly beside their table, stiffly holding his tray.
“Well, Doctor, don’t stand there like a sniper target,” said Glenda, sliding over on the bench. “Join us!”
“I’m not intruding?”
“Not at all. We’re all done discussing lingerie and menstrual cycles. I’m joking! Please, we’d love your company.” She extended her hand, palm down, as though he should kiss it. “I’m Glenda La Bouvier. But just call me Glenda Texas. Or the Yellow Rose. There are two other Glendas here, and the one thing I cannot tolerate is being confused with someone else.” Juliet had noticed that Glenda was always announcing a different “one thing” she couldn’t tolerate.
Dr. Willard nodded hello to Juliet as he settled opposite her, then gazed blankly at the steaming contents of his mess kit.
“Spice it up,” whispered Glenda, pulling a small red bottle from her pocket. “
Around here, this stuff is more valuable than single malt.”
“Ingenious.” He studiously tapped out three drops, and Juliet detected wisps of gray crowning his hair. How old was he? His sheer height created the impression of authority, which she associated with adulthood. But there was a smoothness to his face that made him seem younger than the other doctors in the hospital.
“You’re Private Barnaby’s nurse?”
He had fixed his stare on Juliet. “I’m Juliet Dufresne,” she said, realizing immediately that it was not the question he had asked.
“Well, I’m eager to get hold of Private Barnaby’s medical records. From his first admission.”
“I could look for them this afternoon,” Juliet offered, realizing this might confirm when, exactly, Barnaby had been in Sergeant McKnight’s unit.
“How long was he here?”
“Two crazy weeks!” Glenda chirped. “A lot of patients you forget, but not Christopher Barnaby. There was something different about him, something gentle. He was sweet, polite, smart, clean. He’d make his own bed for the nurses, and you
forget that. But he was frightened, frightened more than you usually see. He didn’t want to talk to the other patients, didn’t even want to look at them. He kept to himself. His neighbor had a banjo and everyone would sing, but Barnaby wouldn’t even hum. . . .” Dr. Willard pulled out a notebook, and at the realization that he was documenting what she said, Glenda became even more loquacious, detailing the meals Barnaby had eaten, the magazines he had read, and how she had nursed him with unparalleled skill and tenderness.
When Dr. Willard finally closed his notebook, Juliet asked, “So, Barnaby’s condition . . . is it caused by some event, some trigger, or are certain people predisposed to it? And how soon will he come out of it?”
“That’s precisely the nail I’m trying to hit on the head. Battle fatigue has been around for ages but wasn’t really studied until the last war. Those trenches at Verdun and the Somme rendered thousands mute, sometimes paralyzed. But war neurosis goes back centuries. Herodotus wrote about Epictetus, who in the midst of the Battle of Marathon went blind though he wasn’t struck or injured.”
“Psychosomatic illnesses,” Juliet offered.
Dr. Willard smiled with surprise. “Indeed.”
Glenda yawned, her fingertips patting her outstretched mouth. “It sounds like you’ll be staying for a while, then? Examining the men and whatnot?”
“I’ll be here as long as it takes. The army wants the field hospitals better equipped to diagnose and treat battle fatigue. Of course, now I’m interested in Private Barnaby. He’s the first known attempted battlefield suicide in this campaign. We had two suicides last year in North Africa. But those men succeeded. If we can figure out what drives a man to that kind of an act, we might be able to prevent these breakages in the mind. Self-preservation is man’s strongest instinct, so when that cracks, you want to take a good long look.”
“Well, Eisenhower says this whole mess’ll be done by Christmas,” said Glenda. “If it goes beyond that, I think
“We can always hope for a swift end, but I am temperamentally inclined to prepare for the worst,” said Willard, spooning the last bit of food into his mouth. “If you’ll excuse me.”
They watched him carry his tray to the far side of the tent and plunge his mess kit into the steaming barrel of soapy water. Glenda rolled her eyes. “Herodotus? Epiwhatever? Have you ever met such a Sergeant Boring!”
“You seemed quite interested,” said Juliet, surprised by the accusation in her voice.
“That’s how I behave with all men, sugar. Frankly, I thought
seemed interested. ‘I’ll get you those records, Doctor, just as soon as I slip into something more comfortable. . . .’ ”
Juliet nervously looked away. “His work is interesting. And Barnaby
“Sugar, he’s a head doctor. Never, and I mean
trust a man who can understand what
After lunch Juliet returned to the recovery ward, where Barnaby lay quietly gurgling in his sleep. His arms, covered with a fine layer of chestnut hair, were crossed at his chest—a coffin pose. Had someone placed them that way or had he done it in his sleep? Juliet looked around, but none of the nearby patients seemed to be paying him any attention. His head had been shaved and his face was practically mummified except for his mouth and his one good eye. Since the surgery, though, his eye hadn’t opened; he seemed to be in some sort of coma.