Authors: Jennifer Vanderbes
In the Surgical Tent, all four operating tables were in use. Bernice, administering drop ether with clocklike precision, spoke without looking up: “Major Decker needs you both to work the line. Pre-op is swamped. And surgeries need to be on the tables before dark. We’re low on flashlight batteries. And locate Father MacDougal.”
As they left, Glenda whispered, “Our chaplain only administers last rites to bottles of bourbon.”
In their tent, Juliet quickly wrapped a blanket over her soiled shirt and Glenda spritzed her with perfume. “In this job, we’ve gotta look like sunshine and smell like roses.” Flicking open a compact, Glenda spoke to her own reflection. “It’s the only thing that makes the boys feel safe. Once they see the women going to seed, that’s when they know things are, well, going to seed. And what a smile from us can’t cure”—she snapped the mirror closed and grabbed a pack of cigarettes and a flask—“a little nip and puff’ll remedy quickly enough.”
Outside, men lay quietly on litters, their jackets pinned with the battalion surgeon’s brief prognoses. Glenda moved to one side of the line, and Juliet to the other, where she scanned each man for trembling hands, a sweating forehead, dilated pupils, blue lips; with a quick touch of their wrists, she checked their pulses.
“Sorry you have to wait out here,” she said awkwardly. Juliet had yet to master the motherly tones of the more experienced nurses.
Apologizing for bringing her out in the rain, the men asked nothing, not even how much longer they had to wait, perhaps
having learned that answers, on the few occasions they were given, were rarely encouraging. Their only request was that Juliet pull off their boots, which she did, releasing the fierce smell of wet wool.
One man, his boots shredded at the ankles, turned his eyes away in embarrassment and said, “I was stuck in a ditch for three days. Lost my platoon and couldn’t move. I ate up all the grass around me.”
Juliet slipped him a ration bar, saying, “Can’t promise this’ll taste much better.”
His soft, gravelly laugh gave Juliet a brief sense of triumph before she moved along. Unless he was on the verge of death, she couldn’t give him more than a minute’s attention, a rule Glenda seemed to know well, outpacing Juliet as she offered each man a quick sip from her flask.
“Nurse Dufresne, you found the action!”
The boy on the next litter stared expectantly at Juliet with bloodshot eyes, but she couldn’t place him. Dirt and exhaustion blurred every face, so that sometimes Juliet had the unsettled feeling that the same injured soldier was arriving every few minutes.
“Second Lieutenant Munson,” he offered. “Your old truck mate! Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten me!”
Juliet had traveled north from Naples in a truck of replacement GIs, forty new arrivals only a year or two older than she was. During the noisy, bawdy ride several rounds of “Der Führer” had been sung, and three separate poker games played. Only at the end of the ride, when Private Bledsoe whispered, “Damn the royal flush! We coulda been great,” did Juliet learn she’d been wagered in all three games, a revelation that sent her awkwardly hurrying from the truck.
“Munson—of course I remember,” lied Juliet. Most nurses, when they forgot a patient’s name, laid it on thick with endearments:
How we doin’ today, honey? Time for your pills, sweetheart?
But Juliet thought it disrespectful to speak that way to a soldier, and
didn’t want to sound like a cocktail waitress. “How are you feeling, Lieutenant Munson?” she asked, somewhat stiffly.
“A hell of a lot better than when five Jerries were firing at me.” He touched the gauze around his forehead, and one end came free, brushing his nose. His nose was broad and flat, and there was an earnestness to his face that she liked.
“Here, let me.”
“I’ve at least decided on my campaign platform: I’m going to propose legislation to have soldiers paid by the bullet. Whaddaya think? Would I get your vote?” Ah, she remembered now—the boy who planned to run as a write-in candidate for the Kansas senate. On the truck they had called him “the Senator.”
“Bullets they shoot or bullets shot at them?” Juliet asked, glancing at his tag—
gunshot wound to thigh—
and checking his field dressing. “Munson, you’ve practically got a lead doubloon in there, but these surgeons are miracle workers. You’ll be good as new in no time.”
His face tightened as he fought back a wave of pain. “Double pay for bullets that get shot at them,” he huffed, “and triple pay if they get hit.”
“A flawed incentive system.”
“And hard to accurately track.”
“Hup two, Juliet!” Glenda called before disappearing into the Receiving Tent.
Juliet slipped two cigarettes into the Senator’s jacket and tapped his shoulder. “Quadruple pay if you get shot and have to lie on the ground waiting for a surgeon.”
Just then, an ambulance careened past them, kicking up wet earth. The door flung open and a medic frantically signaled Juliet over. “Eight months I’m here,” the medic huffed, “and I’ve never seen such a goddamned pointless mess.” A long, warped moan came from a bundled figure.
“Grab that end of the stretcher. Elmer took shrapnel in the shoulder yesterday and can barely steer the wagon right now.”
Juliet lifted one side of the litter, holding her breath to keep her arms from slackening. The medic’s shirtsleeves, rolled to the elbow, were crusted with blood; in the cuff of one curled a shiny piece of intestine.
“Still got hellfire in him,” the medic said as the patient, like an engine jolted by electricity, suddenly shook. Elbows and knees struggled to break free from the blood-soaked blankets. “Even tried to jump from the ambulance.”
The Receiving Tent was pandemonium. It had the sweltering, urgent swirl of a train station; nurses and ward men, rushing with clattering trays, barking instructions, moved among the wounded. Staring vacantly at the ceiling, the men moaned and whimpered as they awaited their turns. Here and there a team of doctors encircled a litter on a sawhorse, ducking and dodging the elaborate web of intravenous and Wangensteen tubing. They quickly incised and retracted and bandaged, discarding instruments into buckets with a noisy clang before they swarmed the next litter. The air, a soupy mix of ether and sulfur, made Juliet cough. This drew the attention of Chief Nurse Henfield, who waded through the sea of patients to inspect the new admission.
Mother Hen pulled back the blanket; “Heavens to fucking Betsy.”
The man’s face glistened with blood. One eye dangled an inch below its socket, resting on his cheekbone. The other eye darted about wildly. To the side of the chin gaped a crimson hole, punctuated by the bright white specks of molars. Not a single bandage covered his wounds. Though the man’s mouth seemed incapable of moving, he emitted a terrible groan. Juliet was trying hard not to register any horror on her face.
“Battalion surgeon wouldn’t touch him,” said the medic.
“Not even sulfonamide?” asked Mother Hen. “Why on earth not?”
As Mother Hen examined his medical tag, a sad shock of recognition crossed her face. “Oh, it’s Private Barnaby.”
“Captain Henfield . . .” Juliet offered uncertainly, “our blood supply is extremely low.”
is not a medical term.”
“Less than six pints,” said Juliet.
“Well, don’t piss them away on this yellow belly,” huffed the medic. “You’re looking at an Article 85.” Article 85 referred to desertion.
Juliet watched Mother Hen narrow her eyes, as if trying to locate, on the ruined landscape of the patient’s face, some familiar feature.
“Reckless, stupid, idiotic fool,” she muttered. Mother Hen was the oldest of the nurses. A maze of wrinkles spread from her outer eyes, and a thick band of freckles, interlaced with sunspots, darkened her cheeks. She looked bronzed, marbled, and brilliantly shrewd. Nothing hen-like or motherly in her manner that Juliet could detect.
“We’ll administer six thousand cc’s plasma, Nurse Dufresne, one thousand cc’s five percent glucose in saline, penicillin, and thirty milligrams morphine; then get him out of those clothes and dress the wound.”
Mother Hen left for the supplies, and Juliet began carefully repeating the dosages to herself.
“Got any straps or cords?” asked the medic.
“We’ve barely got gauze left.”
The medic unbuckled his belt and yanked it loose from his pants. “Here. Strap him down best you can. And keep knives away until the sedatives kick in. I’ve got to mop up the hill.”
Just then, the medic noticed the flesh in his cuff, and with his thumb and forefinger flicked it to the ground.
Juliet crouched beside the patient; “Okay, stay nice and calm for me,” she
whispered. His face was so thick with blood, it seemed like a lunar landscape on which the only sign of life was the startlingly white eye staring up at her. The other eye, drenched with blood, dangled as if it might come loose. Amazing he was still alive. But that was the first thing Juliet had learned in nursing school—appearances deceived. While invisible infections, fevers, and blood clots could be fatal, men maimed or burned beyond recognition all too frequently lived to see the ruin of their bodies.
Juliet glanced at his tag, where one word had been written:
“Private Barnaby, I’m a nurse. When I strap you down, it’s for your own good.” Juliet hadn’t yet dealt with a shock patient, but she’d watched other nurses and knew that the trick was to lower his head, raise his legs, and above all else make sure he knew he was off the battlefield. “If you let me push up your sleeve, I’ll give you something for the pain.” With an alcohol swab, she cleared a white track on his arm. “That pinch is just a needle. In a minute, you’re gonna feel like dancing.”
Mother Hen returned, rigging the plasma bag and intravenous tubes. “Nurse Dufresne, strip him down now. We need him in the Surgical Tent before lights out.”
Juliet cut slowly through his pants with dull scissors, revealing two knobby legs streaked with bruises. She peeled off his jacket and shirt and found, pressed to his chest, two blood-spattered envelopes, thick with papers; she shoved them in her apron before tossing his clothing into a pile at her side. Somewhere beyond this tent sat pails of blood-soaked shirts and pants, of shrapnel and bullets extracted from bodies, of hands and feet and arms and legs. Hospital debris—if the army had any sense, thought Juliet, they’d pack it onto Thunderbolts and dump it over Germany.
Private Barnaby lay naked now, except for a silver Saint Christopher medal at his neck, which she unclasped, and his ID tags. He was surprisingly thin, the arc of each rib visible through his skin.
“Of all the goddamned messes.” The hospital’s commanding officer, Major Bill Decker, had appeared beside her, gnawing the stub of an unlit cigar. “Pistol in the mouth. One hell of a messy way to desert.”
Self-inflicted? Juliet was surprised. She looked down at the naked boy, the pulpy wreck of his face. Men opted for such gory suicides. A bullet in the brain, a plunge from a bridge—always an act of violence. Women, on the other hand, took handfuls of sleeping pills and pretended it was bedtime. She couldn’t fathom either.
Juliet grabbed the stretcher, assuming the major would take the other side, but he tucked his cigar in his shirt pocket, delicately, as though it were an heirloom or pet hamster, before lifting the stretcher with dramatic apathy.
“Oh, let’s stroll,” he sang. “Let’s wander. Let’s talk about Nietzsche and Heidegger and Bergson. Let’s discuss BIG IDEAS, the nature of time, the possibility of life after death. . . .”
This was the first time Major Decker had spoken to her; he generally kept to himself, except when the hospital was swamped, when he would appear haphazardly at patients’ bedsides with cups of water or in the Sterilizing Tent, scrubbing down scalpels. It was said he once drove an unattended ambulance to the front, returning with eleven wounded men. His expression was dark and pensive and mildly hateful. Hateful of the war, hateful of humanity—a look Juliet had begun to notice in those who had for too long tended to the dying.
“I think we should bring him to the Surgical Tent,” Juliet said softly. “With all due respect, Major.”
“The respect is due death. He
death. It’s a rarity in this place, and we should oblige.”
Mother Hen’s wizened face popped through the tent flaps with a simple, scolding “
” For two years she had been helping Major Decker run the hospital; together they presided over a staff of 150—litter bearers, surgical assistants, ward men,
doctors, nurses, drivers—conducting themselves in a stern and efficient manner; but when engaging with each other, they seemed like eccentric grandparents.
” he replied.
She pointed toward the Surgical Tent. “
Major Decker rolled his eyes, a gesture Juliet had not thought commanding officers capable of. “We’ll fix him up,” he whispered to Juliet, “and then General Clark will use this kid for target practice. But there’s no crossing Madge. Let it be done!
In the Surgical Tent, after Juliet helped set down the patient, Mother Hen instructed, “Take a rest, Nurse Dufresne.” She tapped her watch. “One hour. And not a second past. We’ve a bitch of a night ahead.”
Back in her dark, airless tent, Juliet peeled off her damp shirt and wiped down her chest. After all those broken bones and seeping wounds, her body seemed precariously fragile. There were bones inside of her, she reminded herself, and on those bones lay strips of muscle, tangled with veins and arteries. Skin and ligaments held it all together, the entirety of the mass of flesh she called
. But no bone of hers looked much different from someone else’s bone; her femur would roughly mirror the femur of any soldier on the operating table; none of the flesh she’d seen in the hospitals—the torn muscles, the exposed stomachs, the broken ribs—had anything to do with the people it belonged to. The same delicate pieces made up everyone, and if the wrong pieces or too many pieces broke, the whole person ceased to exist. Juliet had witnessed this daily for months, and yet the strangeness of it never subsided.